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Common Tread

A motorcycle vacation abroad is easier and cheaper than you think

Apr 12, 2017

The Golden Triangle overlaps three countries in Southeast Asia. It is a mountainous landscape on the lawless borders between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. It’s home to some of the most beautiful, and deadly, terrain in the world.

Poverty, money trafficking, lack of government, and fields of opium poppy have made the area the center of the world’s drug trafficking. Only Afghanistan makes more heroin. Rural farmers in Laos and Myanmar produce more than 25 percent of the world’s opium — that’s nearly 76 tons of heroin a year.

Yet on the Thai side of the triangle you’re more likely to find a band of baristas than tribal drug barons. The area is a booming, well developed tourist destination, with flawless roads and stunning mountain passes. And despite being literally in the center of a massive drug ring, if you’ve wanted to ride in Asia, this is where you should start.

riding in Thailand
Early morning touring of Mae Hong Son. Photo by Scott Waters.

“I would love to do that someday”

“Someday” is the enemy of fun. It’s a special villain when it comes to international travel — there is so much to plan, so many worries to address, and so much money to be spent. It’s really easy to push a trip like this off into the future in hopes of finding a better time.

Here’s the thing though: It’s never a good time to travel.

There are only two times you can travel: bad times and impossible times. Do you want to ride internationally? Do you want to travel? Do you want to experience a new place, a new landscape, a new food, a new culture, and see it in that unique, specific way only you can do? Is right now an impossible time in your life to do that?

No? Well, then guess what — it’s as good a time as it is going to get. Take a week off and buy your ticket. Jump in. There are few better motivators than a non-refundable plane ticket. My round-trip ticket from Chicago was $425. I’ve spent more than that on pointless bolt-on junk for my bike.

Dhara Devi
Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai. The grounds celebrate Lanna architecture, a unique traditional style of building that is found only in Northern Thailand.  Photo by Chris Force.

When to travel to Thailand and what to budget

Northern Thailand has the best roads and is driest between November and May. You’re likely to get the cheapest flight if you can fly March or after, and depart mid-week. If your focus is on riding (which I think it should be), leave the stop in Bangkok for another trip and make Chiang Mai your home base.

Americans do not need a visa to travel Thailand. You will not need an international driving license, however they’re only $20 via AAA, and might help you with an insurance claim if you need to make one.

I spent five nights there and my average hotel cost under $30 a night. Most meals cost a few U.S. dollars each, and a bike rental might cost you $250. It’s completely possible to do this trip for around $1,000.

riding near Ban Rak Thai in Thailand
The small border town of Ban Rak Thai. About 800 villagers live here and speak a heavily accented version of Chinese. The long winding road in and out of the town was some of the best riding of the trip. Photo by Scott Waters.

Is riding a motorcycle in Thailand safe?

If you are a responsible rider (and not involved with a drug cartel), then my answer is, “Yes, it’s safe to ride in Thailand.”

Others have different opinions. The nerds over at the University of Michigan have a “transportation research institute.” They hate fun.

They decided to look at 193 countries and compare road crashes with other leading causes of death. Out of 100,000 of those fatalities in the United States, 14 of them are from road crashes. In Thailand, it’s 44, making it home to the second-highest road crash fatality rate in the world (just behind Namibia). So, if a worrywart pal of yours says Thailand is extremely dangerous to ride in, well, he’s not wrong.

"Thailand has beautiful roads," Ratana Winther, the country director for the U.S.-based Asia Injury Prevention Foundation told the BBC. "And people tend to go very fast. So the number one killer is speed."

Perhaps number two is alcohol, which is involved in as much as 80 percent of road accidents there, mainly at night.

The thing is, we have fast roads, nighttime, and booze at home, too. Beautiful twisty roads, amazing mountain views, little traffic, and a total lack of enforcement for speeding — decide for yourself if that sounds like heaven or hell.

My math said heaven. I wore my gear, rode at my speed, rode sober, rode during the day, and rode every blind corner expecting a truck to be barreling down the wrong side of the road. For me, it was an acceptable amount of risk for the reward of riding in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Motorcycle ride in Thailand
Exploring a small village in Mae Hong Son. Photo by Scott Waters.

What to ride, what to expect

I imagined rocky and patchy roads, similar to my experiences riding in Indonesia and Vietnam, so I chose a Suzuki V-Strom 650. It is all-day comfortable, easy to ride, super reliable and would handle any sloppy roads I would have to trek. But those sloppy roads never appeared, and I found myself wishing for something sporty — a word even a Suzuki marketing team would be loathe to throw at the Weestrom.

motorcycle ride in Thailand
Riding on the outskirts of Pai. Photo by Scott Waters.
I rented from the fellas at Tony’s Big Bikes, and after chatting with them for a while on my return, they suggested next time I ride a Honda CB500F. It’s what most of the shop owners ride. I now see why. It rents for $42 per day (which includes full insurance) and would have been way more fun in the flawless mountain roads. If you plan to stay on the pavement, there’s no need for an “adventure” bike with a big front tire. The roads are as reliable as they are at home.

The riding style is easy to get used to in Thailand. You ride on the left. You get out of the way of anything bigger than you. You keep an eye out for cars and trucks in turns — they’re notorious for taking them wide. And you ride cautiously-ish. Breathe. That’s it.

Wat Chom Chang
Wat Chom Chang in Mae Sariang. Photo by Chris Force.

Where to ride in Thailand

The best roads are in the north, so the tourist-friendly town of Chiang Mai makes a perfect home base. The town has several bike rental options and is littered with great restaurants and a particular mix of dirtbag hippies and Muay Thai fighters.

From Chiang Mai head north in any direction and you’ll find awesome roads. I would suggest not planning too much. There aren’t a ton of roads, and getting lost led me to two of the best passes of my trip. The roads leading into Chiang Mai and Pai can have a bit of traffic. Otherwise, it’s easy to find long curvy stretches with wide, well marked roads, small scenic villages, wooden buildings, gold temples, and quirky roadside shops.

The trip is an absolute blast. You’ll enjoy your ride no matter where you go — but only if you go.

I should mention there is also this thing people do where they ride motorcycles in “the dirt.” I’ve only seen photos of said experience, so I can comment only as a passing observer. The guys at Tony’s run a six-day tour that is nearly completely off-road, with river crossings and visits to remote villages. The tours run about $190 per day and that includes your bike rental, basic insurance, a chase truck with mechanic and lodging.

Sounds fun to me, but the timing is terrible. Anyone want to go?