Motorcycle Touring in Northern Thailand

by Glenn Black

Motorcycle Rental Thailand has excellent sealed roads throughout most of the country, including Northern Thailand. These make it one of the best nations in SE Asia for the biker. Unlike neighboring Laos or Cambodia, the road system is extensive and conditions are good. Northern Thailand's network of small feeder road and trails that circulate through small hill tribe villages throughout the north make for some excellent off-road biking as well. Many of these routes are described on, the site for amateur or serious riders. These routes include day, overnight or trips of several days or longer are described as well as locations in Chiang Mai for renting motorcycles.

Many types of motorcycles are available for renting in Chiang Mai. These range from small, 100 cc Honda Dreams to dirt bikes to large sized road bikes. Honda Dreams are available for 120 baht a day and are adequate for trips up to Doi Suthep or for around the immediate area of Chiang Mai. For more ambitious trips off-road, larger dirt bikes are more desirable. This size is also advantageous, as most are equipped with a luggage carrier - very useful for carrying backpacks. The most commonly available model is a Honda 250 XR or XLR. These are usually available in one of Chiang Mai's many bike shops for 500 to 700 baht a day.

Rules of the Road - Thai Drivers vs Motorcycles

  • Thais drive on the left .. most of the time.
  • The largest vehicle has the right of way, and don't even think about challenging elephants and water buffaloes.
  • Expect truck drivers to toss lighted cigarettes out the window in such a manner they will end up inside your shirt.
  • A vehicle following you no closer than 10 cm is not considered to be tailgating.
  • If you think you see a swarm of tiny butterflies, think again .. they're flying ants.
  • Expect slow vehicles to enter the roadway immediately in front of you, especially if there are oncoming buses.
  • If a driver approaching from the opposite direction flashes his headlights it may mean
  • police ahead, watch your speed or
  • don't pass that car, you fool, I'm coming too fast! or
  • I have screwed up big time by trying to pass this vehicle so please give me some room by heading for the shoulder ... and even the rice paddy ain't a bad idea.
  • Expect buses, especially orange ones, to overtake on curves, hills and as you are approaching from the opposite direction.
  • If you see an oncoming bus, expect another bus to overtake it; especially if the road has no shoulders.
  • If you are overtaking a vehicle, expect another driver to decide to overtake you at the same time.
  • Keep as careful a watch behind as in front of you.
  • If you have an accident, you will most likely be blamed.

For more ambitious types wishing to utilize the sealed road system for trips of several days or more (and do not expect to be off road), several models of road bikes are available. The more common of these is the Honda CB-400, four-cylinder road machine. These are middleweight road machines that have excellent power, performance and handling for longer trips. They require an experienced driver of middleweight road machines. Prices usually start from 700 baht a day. Larger bikes of 750 to 1000 cc are available.

For off-road driving, the route system can be accessed from side roads near the top of Doi Suthep, the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. Near the top, local trails to Hmong Villages lead off of the main sealed road. These sort of roads may be found near most of the parks in the mountains of the north. Your curiosity need only be limited by the amount of time you may wish to invest, or the size and type of off road bike you rent. For this sort of travel a dirt bike is a more desirable option. Usually, for periods of a week or more at a time, bike shop renters will negotiate for cheaper rates.

A variety of overnight trips to Northern Thailand's more interesting locals are route 107 North from Chiang Mai to Doi Chiang Dau and on to Fang with an overnight in either place. Tatorn, not far past Fang (has picturesque guest houses near the river). The next day continue north on the only road towards Mae Chan, however, take the obvious left-hand turn up to scenic switchbacks along the route to Mae Salong, settled by survivors of Chiang Kai Chek's 2nd Kuomintang Army. After Mae Salong, continue north along the Burmese border to Mai Sai, Thailand's northernmost city on the Burmese border.

Day trips are possible to the Golden Triangle from Mae Sai. A short cross-country trip east of Mae Sai will take you to Chiang Saen on the Mekong river. Near Chiang Saen is the river port open for Chinese Trade. Further East from Chiang Saen is a scenic route along the Mekong hills to Chiang Khong, the legal departure point for travelers going to Ban Huey Xai, Laos, across the Mekong river.

From Chiang Khong, a variety of itineraries are available; a two hour trip to Chiang Rai or continued travel South through Nan National Park for a full day trip to the city of Nan. From Nan, a number of routes towards Chiang Mai may be selected; due west through national forest to Phayao or via main roads to Chiang Mai via Phrae and Lamphang. Similar and no less interesting loops are accessible to the northwest of Chiang Mai (e.g. Chiang Mai, Huai Som, Pai, Mae Hong Som, Mae Sarieng and back to Chiang Mai - about a 3 day trip).

There are good guest houses at all of the above mentioned locations. Get a good map that has route numbers marked and go for it.

Motorcycle Rentals in Chiang Mai
CS Motorcycle 127/2 Moon Muang Road, Chiang Mai. Tel 053 219 160 Honda dreams and dirt bikes.

Goodwill Motorcycle 26/1 Soi 2 Chang Moi Road, Chiang Mai. Tel/Fax 053 251 186 Dirt bikes, Honda Dreams and sometimes bigger bikes.

Jaguar Motorcycle 131 Moon Muang Road, Chiang Mai. Tel 053 214 694. Honda MTX 125 and Honda 250 Baja.

Tony's Big Bikes 17 Ratchamankha Rd. Chiang Mai