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Common Tread

Seeing Thailand on a seven-horsepower sidecar hamburger kitchen

Jun 07, 2019

A couple of years ago we went to Thailand for the first time, and like so many people we were fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells of the culture. But what caught our attention more than anything was the plethora of two-wheeled machines that thrum the air-cooled heartbeat of the country. We vowed to come back and take a crack at experiencing a motorcycle in a way that we almost never see in our western world — as a tool, not a toy.

This spring, as the dry season in Thailand was coming to a close, we finally got our chance.

This story is based on the latest episode of Throttle Out, now available at MotorTrend On Demand. You can find Ari and Zack on social media at @arihenning211 and @zackcourts.

This was the plan: go to Chiang Mai, get our hands on a sidecar, and give the whole business-on-wheels thing a go. With the help of a local mechanic, we were able to source a Honda Wave 125 with almost 100,000 kilometers on the odometer and a steel sidecar (plus a waterproof canopy) bolted to the side. This setup, including the eye-watering odometer reading, is commonplace around Chiang Mai, as are the fully functioning businesses built off of them. We had seen everything from fresh crepes to plumbing services sold from a motorcycle, but with our limited skills and outsized patriotism we decided to go with a sidecar hamburger stand. We figured hungry tourists would gladly fork over some Thai baht for a little taste of home — especially after backpacking through piles of pad thai for weeks on end.

leaving the city
Ari seems to think that gritting his teeth and twisting up his face will give the Sloppy Joe more horsepower. Zack waits calmly for the inevitable moment when he’ll have to jump out and push. Photo by Spenser Robert.

After outfitting the hack with coolers, a generator, and an electric grill, we pointed our vessel (which we immediately dubbed the Sloppy Joe-Lopy) north to the mountain hotspot of Pai, about 80 miles away. Of course, getting out of the city wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Any foreigner will tell you that Thai traffic can be intimidating, and we already had plenty to worry about, considering our rig was loaded well beyond a reasonable capacity. The weight of the cargo and riders, plus the sidecar itself, had almost completely compressed the scooter’s fork. How that affected the chassis dynamic wasn’t totally clear, but in general we can say the result was… bad. Anywhere above five mph and the whole thing wobbled and shook toward a full tank-slapper, and just like most three-wheeled vehicles it had an air of instability, even when parked. Thankfully Thai people are courteous and patient, and even on the highway leaving Chiang Mai drivers overtaking us gave a wide berth and a friendly smile.

photo with a friendly soldier
Everyone is friendly in Thailand. Even the military! This guy flagged us to the shoulder at a roadblock, but only because he wanted to chat us up and get a pic. Photo by Spenser Robert.

While we managed to get out of the urban sprawl unscathed, we soon had a steeper, twistier problem. With an estimated seven horsepower and a gross weight somewhere near 700 pounds, our pace was sluggish to the point of not moving at all. It didn’t take long until the seven horsepower required the help of two humanpower to maintain forward momentum. More than once we found ourselves outside the rig, pushing the sidecar up the increasingly steep inclines — all while laughing and cursing the absurdity of the situation.

pushing the sidecar
You want a leg workout? Try traveling around northern Thailand on an overloaded, underpowered sidecar. Our calves and quads were burning for most of the trip. Photo by Spenser Robert.

We slowly learned from the signs and T-shirts for sale that the road to Pai, with its drastic elevation changes and 762 curves, is the Thai equivalent of Tennessee’s Tail of the Dragon or California’s Mulholland Highway. On a proper motorcycle — any bike that could lean, actually — the road would have been joyous, but in the Sloppy Joe-Lopy it was hard work.

northern Thailand hills
Northern Thailand has miles and miles of beautifully paved, incredibly twisty roads. We did our best to enjoy the curves and the scenery, but next time we roll around Thailand we’ll definitely do it on two wheels, not three. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Downshifting for hills required a deft left foot and right wrist or else the whole rig would pitch forward on its flaccid suspension and swerve maniacally — an especially precarious scenario when you’re whitelining it to stay out of the way of tour buses and farm trucks. It also took loads of body English to get the thing to turn properly through corners, though it at least seemed a little less prone to wobble when cornering. Whoever was in the cart was responsible for dangling his torso as far outside the car as he could on left turns and leaning over the pilot’s shoulder as much as possible in rights. Without the shifting ballast, the rig would simply plow the front tire and run wide. Luckily, Zack has years of vintage sidecar racing under his belt, and after a full day of riding we started to find a groove.

We arrived in Pai before sunset, physically tired and mentally exhausted from the effort of squeezing every last drop of speed out of the sidecar. While we’d lost a bag or two of Lay's (imported from the USA!), we still had most of our supplies intact and managed to find a premium spot in the Pai night market for the grand opening of our bike-based burger bistro. Wedged between a strawberry vendor and a gyoza stand, we turned on the grill and waited for the profits to start rolling in.

mobile hamburger stand
The dog hung out most of the night, probably waiting for the auditions for our mascot. We’re coming for you, McDonald’s. Photo by Spenser Robert.

But, of course, they didn’t. For the first hour all we got was one rejection after another. “Already ate,” was a common response. “Sorry, I’m a vegetarian,” was another. There was also the very legitimate question from one gentleman who asked, “Are you guys legally allowed to do this?” But still, no burger sales. That is, until we started handing out samples. And then the floodgates opened.

hamburger in Thailand
It’s not every day you can get an American-made cheeseburger in Thailand, and this fellow took the chance. Photo by Spenser Robert.

All of a sudden we were dishing out burgers as quickly as Zack could shovel them off the studio-sized electric griddle. A lot of our clientele were Aussies, Europeans, and Americans looking for relief from Thailand’s spicy local cuisine but the most satisfying sales were to the locals who kindly and adventurously tried our cooking. Before we knew it, our patties were running low and our pockets were full of baht. Our endeavor to use a motorcycle (of sorts) as a business platform was a success. And this is arguably when we let the feeling of accomplishment get the better of us.

Shouldn't a mobile hamburger stand be mobile?

If we had left the sidecar parked in town and kept the grill going we would have been on Easy Street, but the desire to keep exploring couldn’t be suppressed. After all, how often do you get to tour a foreign country in something as unwieldy as a scooter sidecar with your lifelong friend and riding partner? Plus, what’s the point of having a mobile hamburger stand if it sticks in one place? So, the next day we piled into the rig and angled to the south towards the Mae Chaem district, taking what appeared on the map to be a shortcut that transected the paved routes traveled by tour buses and other traffic.

dirt road riding
Deep silt is slippery stuff, and 50-plus psi in the sidecar’s tires didn’t help matters. The front tire spent a lot of time pointed in the wrong direction, despite our best efforts to pin the wheel down with body English. Photo by Lyttleton Carter.

It wasn’t long until the two-lane road we were trundling along narrowed to one lane and then turned to dirt. With 50 or so psi in the Sloppy Joe-Lopy’s skinny tires, traction was exceptionally poor, and we quickly learned that a new set of maneuvers was necessary for navigating the powdery dust and dry gravel of rural Thailand. If there was any hope of shedding speed on silty descents, the passenger had to dangle off the back to help load the rear tire and give it grip. On climbs, the monkey had to balance adding weight to the back end with quickly lunging forward to pin the front wheel down or the tire would simply skate and swerve left, often towards a ditch or a cliff. Pushing was a different story on dirt, as well, and we learned that forward motion required a bizarre and totally unintuitive combination of pushing, downward force, and pulling to keep the Sloppy Joe safely on course.

dirt road riding
Wrangling the sidecar took a lot of teamwork and a fair bit of gymnastics. We made it work, but there’s no way to put it subtle—the Sloppy Joe-Lopy handled like absolute trash. Photo by Lyttleton Carter.

Progress was slow, but the scenery was amazing. We were well off the beaten path now, traveling kilometers at a time without seeing evidence of civilization. And what villages we did encounter were little more than a few houses on stilts erected alongside the road, always with a few scooter carcasses nearby, should spare parts be needed. There was the occasional farmer plowing his tiered hillside plots behind a lumbering buffalo and the rare encounter with another motorized vehicle — more often than not a two-wheeler — kicking up a huge plume of dust on its way to the next village or the big city.

dirt road riding
Fully loaded and lumbering up yet another hill, we wring the Sloppy Joe-Lopy out for everything it’s worth. Despite having nearly 100,000 kilometers on the odometer, the rig never missed a beat. Photo by Spenser Robert.

By the time we made it to the next major town, it was well after dark. We’d hoped to set up shop and rack up some more burger sales, but the townspeople were already in bed. Our shortcut had actually added hours to the trip since we spent so much time floundering in the dirt, and now we were left without customers and no option for our own dinner except to fire up the grill. Eating our product wasn’t good for our bottom line, but at least we wouldn’t go to bed hungry.

Did these kids think we needed a shower? Nope, they’re just celebrating Songkran, or Thai new year. It takes the form of nationwide water fight, and we got our first taste of it while still well out in the countryside. Photo by Spenser Robert.

The temperature of the water thrown around during Songkran ranges from warm to nearly frozen, and it’s always a surprise. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Once we made it to the city, we purchased water guns to return fire in the Songkran celebrations. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Back to the big city

The next day was to be our last, so we pointed the rig back in the direction of Chiang Mai. As deep as we were in the mountains though, navigating was tricky, and at one point we made a wrong turn that sent us down an incline so steep we could barely keep the rig in check. At the bottom of the descent we crossed a rickety bridge that led to a cluster of huts. The sound of the Joe-Lopy’s labored breathing brought the locals out of their homes and we were met with looks of utter surprise and confusion. As always, the countenances quickly softened into the familiar, warm smile for which Thailand is famous. We might not have known any Thai beyond “thank you,” but the language of kindness is universally understood. We gathered that we weren’t on the road to Chiang Mai, and so we turned around and pushed the sidecar back up the hill.

When we finally made it back to Chiang Mai, we attempted to sell our burgers one final time. We set up at the city’s night market and got about our now-familiar routine, but the appetite for American-style burgers was gone. Perhaps the competition was just too stiff in the big city. To our left and right were nearly identical sidecar food outfits, and the scene was repeated all the way down the block. Except while the other vendors’ noodle dishes and potato fritters were selling by the handful, our remaining patties were withering on the grill. Clearly our success in Pai was beginner’s luck, but the overall experiment felt like a real win.

scooter sidecar wheelie
You can take the idiots away from horsepower, but even modern medicine doesn’t have a cure for this level of wheelie addiction. Photo by Lyttleton Carter.

While we only ended up making a few bucks (and spent far more than we earned), we were amazed at the wealth of experiences we had in such a short period of time. Getting gas from 55-gallon drums with hand pumps; rattling down roads so bumpy we thought we would go deaf from the clatter; taking our shoes off and gently pushing open the hand-carved wooden doors of a temple; learning to cook pad thai from a friendly local who didn’t speak English. The Sloppy Joe-Lopy’s engine detonated horribly when it got too hot, but we stopped worrying about it for the same reason we didn’t need to worry when the sidecar tire blew out on the third day — it seems every village in Thailand has a temple, a well, and a scooter garage of some sort.

burning season
We were in Thailand at the end of burning season, when the chaff from crops is set alight to make room for next year’s crop. It makes for bad air quality and even more stifling heat, especially pushing a sidecar. Photo by Spenser Robert.

We’ve all been tagged on Facebook by a random family member who shares a video of a motorcycle or scooter in India or Southeast Asia carrying a family, or a farm, or both. It’s a spectacle to us Westerners who mostly enjoy motorcycles as a pastime or a hobby and in truth, our hamburger-stand approach to experiencing this aspect of motorcycling was mostly a spectacle itself. But in many parts of the world, this type of activity is just a facet of life. The sheer number of scooters in Thailand is more than a coincidence, it’s the lifeblood of the land.

fixing flat tire
Considering how well the Honda Wave was running, Ari was worried he wasn’t going to get to do any wrenching on this trip. A flat tire provided an opportunity to unfurl the tool roll. Photo by Spenser Robert.

Everyone in Thailand rides. From little boys barely tall enough to touch the ground to grandmas buying the day’s groceries, two-wheelers are universally used and undeniably vital. And in Thailand, anyway, they’re all remarkably homogeneous. Honda’s horizontal, air-cooled, two-valve single and its knockoffs dominate the roads. The platform’s reliability has never been questioned, but we have even more respect for its durability after punishing the Sloppy Joe for days. Even with the metric equivalent of 60,000 miles on the odometer, it never missed a beat.

What the Sloppy Joe-Lopy’s future holds we can’t say. The thing we can say for certain is that our appreciation for bikes like it changed on this journey. As silly or toy-like as the universal, 125 cc machines may appear, it seems the load of a cheeseburger kitchen is nothing compared to the proverbial weight that these machines carry every day. Taking off from Chiang Mai airport, we gazed over the buzzing city with a new perspective — like looking at a watch face laid into the land, only now we have seen all of the tiny gears that make it tick.