Exploring Northern Thailand on a Scooter
Bangkok is a fun and exciting place to live, but getting out of every so often is a necessity. Like any big city, it has its problems, none more so than the traffic. It’s horrendous. 18 hours of every day, vehicles of all shape, size and age fight their way through the profusion of road hoggers, and the daily commute can really get to you. Unless you have a motorbike, that is. They ease the frustration of it all, but still…
I had a couple of weeks off work, and my newly acquired Honda PCX 150 was beseeching me to take it for a long run in the open, so I did. I took her all the way up to the very north of Thailand to get away from the hecticness of the capital.
My first leg was to Ayutthaya, which is only about 85km from the city. A nice easy ride to break me in. Or so I thought. The traffic in Bangkok was awful, of course, and took about an hour to get out of. Once I got away from the crawl of Bangkok, it quietened down and my short jaunt was expedited. It took about 2 hours of riding before I arrived at my hotel, and I’ll be honest: I was exhausted! Was I really up for a long slog up north? I thought to myself.
After a quick nap, I headed out into Ayutthaya to while the rest of the day away. Ayutthaya is a charming little city. It was the second capital city of the old Siam Kingdom from 1350 to 1767 and at the time was one of the richest cities in the East. Nowadays, the ancient centre still homes some alluring temples and ruins juxtaposed with coffee shops and other modern things. It makes for a nice break, even if you only want a day from Bangkok.
Riding Through the Flat Meadows
The next morning, I was up early for a long drive. After feeling so tired the day before, I wasn’t sure how far I’d get, so I just looked at my map and with the sun rising behind me, I headed north. After a few km, the scene changed completely and so did my enthusiasm. With hardly a person in sight, my ardour was a complete volte-face from yesterday. With ubiquitous shimmering rice fields humming by me and the peace only broken by the fizzle of the farmers’ dated ploughing machines, the riding became a breeze.
I kept riding, meandering my way through some harmonious stretches of asphalt and some exquisite backdrops. Before I knew it, I had been on the road six hours, so I headed for the nearest town. I ended up in a place called Phitsanulok. It’s not the most exciting of towns, although the temple there is popular among day-tripping Buddhists. Other than that, it’s just an inconspicuous town in the middle of northern Thailand, with not much to do.
However, Phitsanulok will always have a place in my heart as the place with the most comfortable bed ever. The bed was just so inviting and easeful that I had to do what every other visitor to Phitsanulok should do: have an early night.
Up in the Hills
After a solid 10 hours in utopia, I had to break my newly formed bond with the bed and head off to my next destination, so I headed west to Sukhothai. It’s only a short ride over, but it’s around here that I came across the first hills on my journey. Central Thailand is completely flat and to be honest with you, even with the nice back-road setting, the flatness of it all was getting a tad boring.
I got to Sukhothai before lunch, checked into my hotel and headed out to explore. Sukhothai is a beautiful place. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was the original capital of the Thai Empire in the 13th century. The old city is best experienced on a bicycle. You can hire them there and just loll around soaking up the local colour, with the ruins resplendent in the partnering lakes and the acres of gardens all making for an impressive mise en scène.
After a day’s rest, I was ready for another ride, so I made the short 3-hour hop over to Mae Sot. It’s here that I encountered my first mountains in Thailand. Mae Sot is a Thai/Burmese border town and there is absolutely nothing of any interest there. However, it is one of the places to start the famous Mae Hong Son Loop from and so I found a nice hotel to pamper myself before riding the famous loop the following day.
Christmas in Remote Thailand
I woke early as I didn’t want to have to rush any of the loop. It was actually Christmas Day and I was really excited for the ride. Christmas Day is special for many people, and it was one reason why I wasn’t sure whether to go on this trip at all. I have many amazing memories of past Christmases and I didn’t really want to be alone on this one. Obviously, I decided to go anyway, and after setting off that Christmas morning, any feeling of nostalgic loneliness quickly evaporated.
I’d heard how beautiful the Mae Hong Son loop was and so I had longed to ride it. Luckily, I saved it for Christmas Day and the day is now remembered as fondly as my Christmases of past. My only target was to enjoy the ride and find a town to stay in when I got tired. The loop runs up along the Thai/Burmese border and apart from the odd checkpoint and village, there is not a soul in sight.
Some of the villages on the loop are strikingly pristine. I stopped at a couple for refreshments and it was inconceivable to think I was in the same country as Bangkok. The people there were so cut off from the rest of society, it was actually refreshing to see. They don’t care about what’s on in the news, or whoever the leader of the country is. They live as remote and simple as you can get.
In one village I saw a gathering in a square. I say square, but it was just a bit of land betwixt the quintessential straw huts that were everywhere else. No shops, no tarmac, just people living simply and doing their thing. These people aren’t Thai or Burmese, they’re them and that’s all they care about. Their contentedness and happiness was obvious and it was refreshing to see how humanity could still live so sophisticatedly primitive.
It was a perfect Christmas, and that day was my longest ride. Ten hours riding and stopping to soak up so many unforgettable sights and experiences was simply a spine-tingling and effortless experience. And the best thing was that I wasn’t even tired. In fact, if it wasn’t for the setting sun, I could easily have carried on. I finally stopped in Mae Hong Son town and decided to celebrate my new Christmas Day memories with a nice meal and a few beers.
Back to 21st-Century Civilisation
The next day was the short ride over to Pai to meet my girlfriend, who was joining me for the last few days. Pai is a compelling little town, and I recommend it to anyone visiting Thailand. Its tranquillity mixed with some great bars and cafes make for an unforgettable experience. I can’t actually believe, after coming to Thailand for 20 years, it was the first time I’d ever been there. Anyway, I stopped there for a few days to catch up with my girlfriend and do some hiking and drinking.
After leaving Pai, we headed further up north and stayed a couple of nights in the Doi Ang Khang district. It’s in the Daen Lao Mountain Range that straddles both sides of the Thai-Burmese border and at 1,928 metres is one of the highest points in Thailand. It hosts some elegant tea plantations where you can wander around, soaking up the ethereal landscape while filling your lungs with the freshest of air.
Like everywhere else in Thailand, the sun shines gloriously, but because of the elevation, it’s more temperate and there was a chill in the air. The chill was gratefully welcome, most of the time, but when I was trying to ride, my hands got so cold. All the local bikers have oven gloves actually stuck on to the handlebars so they can quickly slip their hands into the warmers and get on and off their bikes slickly. I forgot to pack my oven gloves, so I opted to buy some gloves for the couple of days up that high.
We left Doi Ang Khang the day before New Year’s Eve, and it’s on those declines where I finally understood why scooters were city bikes and not touring bikes. With two of us now on the bike, and with some long and very steep descents, my brakes decided to give way. A few times! There were wardens all the way down the steep mountains pulling people over and checking their brakes, but it was still a worry. We had to stop for a few extended breaks to allow the brakes to cool down. It made for a long and slow descent, but we made it, and once we were back down the steeps, it was a quick and flat jolt to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second biggest city and it’s a great place. There are many delicious restaurants there, and the temples are as nice as you’ll see anywhere in the country. Like all popular places now, it’s a bit touristy, but we had a great time, and letting off a Chinese lantern with craft beer in hand was a perfect way to start the New Year and end my 1,800km ride.
The following afternoon, I loaded my bike on the train for the overnight “express” to Bangkok. The journey back was pleasant, if a little uncomfortable at night, but I was loaded with many amazing memories: Ayutthaya, Sukkothai, Mae Hong Son Loop, Pai, Chiang Mai, breath-taking vistas, and while squeezed into my bunk, laying on that rickety overnight train to Bangkok, my most endearing memory: that famous bed in Phitsanulok.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Tommy Limpitlaw