Winter mornings in Chiang Mai usually start off quite cool, often with clouds straddling Doi Suthep mountain right next to the old city. As the day warms up and the morning fog gradually disappears; the gleaming golden stupa of the Wat Phra That temple comes into view as a few golden spots glimmering halfway up the mountain.
The first thing most new visitors to Chiang Mai do is going up Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep) and visit the Buddhist temple complex. It takes about half an hour to travel up there and Doi Suthep is an obvious goal for a day tour.
If you want to do a Doi Suthep tour you can just take a taxi or songthaew up there for the afternoon; there is no need to rent a scooter. If you want to go further, to Mae Rim and the Queen Sirikit Botanical garden the best option is to rent a scooter or motorcycle and go by yourself.
Start by going up north on the 107 highway for about 20 minutes; turn left on the 1095 and follow the signs to Samoeng. You are now driving on the famous twisty Samoeng Loop.
Motorcycle rides - the Busy and the Easy ones.
The highways around Chiang Mai are busy and quite dangerous; many drivers go at speeds of 80 to 100 km/hour and sometimes much faster. Moreover, the highways have many U-turn places; sometimes every mile or so - with drivers waiting to make a turn and watching the traffic coming at high speed at them. A motorcycle or scooter is easily overlooked so you have to watch the crossings and U-turn spots very carefully.
- The busy road to Pai.
- The Samoeng Loop - some road are better than others.
- Scooter and motorcycle rentals in Chiang Mai.
- Police Checkpoints and IDP drivers license.
Chiang Mai motorcycle routes to national parks.
1] The busy road to Pai.
Many young backpackers travel by scooter on their first long motorbike trip to Pai; which may not be the best choice if you are an inexperienced driver. The road to Pai (nr. 1095) is a 130 km long drive; it is very twisty with it's 762 turns and is a quite daunting mountain road for beginners - and even for experienced motorbike riders it is not a routine ride. There are few viewpoints and there is a lot of traffic; for example, the many minibuses travelling to Pai which usually drive at high speed. In short: it is not safe and not for beginners!
The Samoeng loop on the other hand is a much better road which has much less traffic and many interesting things to see: there are for example great viewpoints, elephant parks, and a famous large botanical garden. And there are fewer potholes.
And keep in mind that the road to Pai is famous for all the wrong reasons. Twisty, potholed, and it is classified as one of the most dangerous roads in Thailand. Thailand, the country which is nr. 2 on the list of countries with most traffic accidents per inhabitant. A few years ago (2016) the road was widened in some places so you can now easily overtake that slow driver; who is trying fruitlessly to go uphill on an underpowered scooter with his girlfriend on the back. But the superelevation (road banking) of the curves is still not right on most curves. So the cornering needs to be done with foresight and care - and experience. Unfortunately, experience is what you get - just after you need it.
The superelevation (road banking) of a curve.
2] The Samoeng Loop - some road are better than others.
The Samoeng loop is one of the most magnificent drives in Thailand; 100 kilometers of nearly perfect winding mountain road. And for the most part it does not have too much traffic. The Samoeng loop has what drivers call "Perfect Curves". The superelevation (positive camber or road banking) of the curves is just right, the road is smooth, the scenery is great; all you have to do is let the bike lean into that perfect curve and open up the throttle. No worries; just power out of it.
The Samoeng loop map, including Mae Rim.
The route is around Doi Suthep National Park
Touristenkarte/karte vom Samoeng route, Samoeng route map
Why not start your route in the morning and from Chiang Mai head north on the busy highway nr. 107? The Dara Pirom Palace Museum in Mae Rim is worth visiting, the museum is an old historic house which was home to the famous Lanna princess Dara Rasami, who was one of the consorts of Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam. And you can have a cappuccino or cake in one of the coffee shops, like the artsy Wawee Coffee shop.
These hip coffee shops cater to wealthy tourists who are enjoying the posh hotels in Mae Rim and the Mae Sa valley.
There is a tribal village in Mae Rim which is set up for tourists, since not all tribes live together in one little village. One of the tribes on show is the Longneck women tribe; these Longneck women originally live in a remote area in Burma, so its really a Human zoo and a bit of a tourist trap. Better to avoid it unless you want to take an awkward photo of yourself sitting next to a real tribal woman. "Look mom, I'm sitting next to a Long neck woman, do you see her neck?" Awkward.
In the Mae Sa valley there are a few elephant parks; once past these the road gets much quieter as it continues west towards Samoeng; you can drive through the beautiful valleys and mountains on a scenic twisty road dotted with villages, temples and forest.
Further on is the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden (QSBG) which is a famous mountainside arboretum and garden. Within the park area are gardens, glasshouses, and trails through the rainforest. The large glasshouse complex on top of the mountain is a conservatory for a wide collection of tropical plants, cacti and orchids. Since 2017 there is also a treetop walkway through the rainforest.
The Botanical Garden is very large and situated on a very steep mountainside, so you may want to enter by car of motorcycle; though walking up is also possible. There is a tram service/open air bus service that runs within the garden.
Entry fee prices for QSBG are: Adult: 100 baht; child: 50 baht; Adults with a Thai ID card: 40 baht, car (additional) 100 baht.
The Samoeng Forest viewpoint on the road to Samoeng village.
After the Samoeng Forest viewpoint you come to a T-crossing where you turn right for a 5 to 10-minute drive with just a few hairpins through the strawberry fields of the Samoeng valley; and stop at the small village of Samoeng. Here there is not much to see, but you can have a lunch break in Supanee's restaurant.
After lunch return to the T-crossing; keep on going straight and follow many twisty turns on the nr. 1269 road back to Chiang Mai. There are a few amazing downhill stretches here which are even better than the first half of the loop. And the best thing: there is very little traffic here. The full "Samoeng loop" around Doi Suthep is about 100 kilometers and takes about 3 hours on a motorcycle or scooter. The roads are in good order, the traffic is light and thus it is easy by scooter. Or motorcycle.
Other motorcycle tour possibilities.
- The Mae Tha fault loop, between 110km and 160km. Through Mae Takhrai National Park on different sections of the Mae Tha fault. (cmpark.htm National Parks)
- The Elephant Valley loop, 150km. Drive north to Mae Taeng river valley and have a look at the many elephant camps and parks there. A bit up north is Chiang Dao, the 3rd highest mountain in Thailand. (elephant parks)
- While you're up north visit the Sticky waterfall and Wat Ban Den (Wat Ban Den)
- The famous Mae Hong Son loop, 600km. From Chiang Mai to Pai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang and back should take at least 4 days.
- And many more trips and loops are possible; to hot springs, ancient elephant trails, ancient cities (Wiang Kum Kam, Wiang Tha Kan) and botanic gardens.
Remote route through the villages around Chiang Mai.
3] Scooter and motorcycle rentals in Chiang Mai.
A motorcycle ride can be done with a scooter, for example a Honda Click 125cc or a Honda Wave 125 cc. If you prefer a zippier dirt bike like a Honda CRF250 (Enduro or dirt bike) is also possible. And you can also rent a larger bike like a Phantom, a Honda CB500F, a Kawasaki Ninja 650 or Kawasaki Versys 650.
Most motorbike and scooter rental places in Chiang Mai are close to Thapae gate like Mr. Mechanic motorcycle Rental, C&P Big Bike (moved to 21-23 Lamphun Road, Wat gate Mueang in 2018; on the east side of the river), Pop Motorcycle/Car rent (Kotchasarn Road), Dang Bike Hire (Kotchasarn Road), Ratchamanka road). At the largest POP store, the Pop Motorcycle main store on Kotchasarn Road, on the eastern moat there are dozens of big bikes on display. Pop Motorcycle has fast big road bikes like Kawasaki Versys 650 at 1800 THB and Kawasaki Ninja 650 for about the same price.
Pop has several motorbike locations throughout the city (besides the large Pop Motorcycle there is also Pop Rider and several small Pop Motorbike shops) but they are one of the most expensive and they get rather bad reviews for the service. Walk around a bit away from Tha Phae gate to find a cheaper rental office; a Kawasaki Versys or Honda CRF250 can be rented cheaper if you visit some other bike stores not far from Thapae gate. I can recommend M25 Motorbike rental on Ratchamanka road, not far from Tony's Big Bikes.
Pop Motorcycle main store, Kotchasarn Road Chiang Mai.
Bike shops like to keep your passport as safeguard; but most motorcycle rental shops also accept a deposit of 2000 to 3000 baht for a scooter and 5000 baht for a motorcycle. An international driver's license is also a requirement but is not checked when renting a bike.
The longer you rent a bike, the cheaper the daily rate can be ... negotiate! A 250CC trail bike like the Honda CRF-250L costs 700 to 800 baht per day, but for 5 days or more 600 and for 10 days 500 baht per day. The newer 2017 Honda CRF250 Rally is more expensive. Especially outside the high season a determined haggle can bring rental fees down.
Comparison of motorcycle rental shops - 2018
Data: websites of rental shops. (* Mr.Mechanic is with insurance)
||C&P Big Bike
|Honda CRF 250L
|Honda CRF250 Rally (2017)
|Kawasaki 650 Versys
|Suzuki V-Strom 650cc
There are lots of scooter rental places in Chiang Mai all over town. Most are small shops, for example on Moonmuang Road, the street along the moat north of Taphae Gate there are quite a few. The Honda Click, Honda Scoopy and Yamaha Fino are common scooters for rent; the cost can vary widely but most are in the range of 150 – 250 baht a day. The more powerful 125CC scooters will be over 200 baht a day. A scooter rental shop with good ratings is Cat Motors on Manee Nopparat Road (the road just north of the moat). Bamboo Bike Rentals has also good ratings; it is located on Chaiyapoom Road (on the eastern moat road, opposite Somphet market) and has the cheapest scooters starting at around 120 to 150 baht a day, but they are not the newest or best scooters.
You can buy additional insurance when you rent a scooter. In Thailand all motor vehicles and scooters have by default third party insurance (damage caused to OTHER vehicles in case of an accident). The damage to your own bike can be covered by this additional insurance which is around 100 baht a day. Mr.Mechanic has this insurance included in the rental price, but it has an own risk component (Excess). The ‘excess’ is the amount of money you will have to pay the rental company if your hired motor vehicle gets damaged.
Scooter rental is very easy and scooters and motorbikes can be rented at almost every corner; helmets however are a problem. Motorcycle helmets are usually free with a motorcycle rental; however most of them are low quality helmets and may not fit very well. Many drivers in Thailand wear horribly bad helmets which are almost useless. Take your time to find a good one. Wearing a helmet is compulsory and carries a fine of 500 baht. (*)
The regular police check in Chiang Mai. Notice the old blue "Half helmet".
Open face 3/4 helmets (left) are better than these Half helmets.
4] Police Checkpoints and IDP drivers license.
Since 2017 the Thai police have set up daily checkpoints in Chiang Mai where all foreigners' licenses are checked. Motorcycle and scooter drivers need to show an International Driving Permit which should include a motorcycle license. They will also fine you if you don't wear a helmet.
In many European countries one does not need a motorcycle license for mopeds: small bikes of 50CC. This is not the case in Thailand where scooters are more powerful. Most scooters for rent in Thailand are 100 to 125CC and can easily do 80 to 90 km/hour (50-60 miles/hour). Therefore all scooter drivers need a valid Motorcycle license and an International Driving Permit.
An International Driving Permit or International Drivers License is required for motorcycle driving in Thailand but this is not checked when you are renting a bike. The International Driving Permit (IDP) is NOT a license to drive, only a translation of your countries license. At the Thai police checkpoints the police will ask for your IDP which should show the motorcycle endorsement if you drive a scooter. If you don't have a motorbike license then your international permit won't cover scooter driving. The fine for not having an International Drivers License is 500 Baht.
Many scooter drivers who are stopped at Police checkpoints complain of extortion. They seem to believe that since they are valued foreign tourists they don't have to obey any road rules and can get away with anything.
However, International driving permits (IDPs) are just like your home license. If you have a motorcycle endorsement on your home license, you will have a motorcycle endorsement on your IDP. In a European license that is the A1 or A2 category; in the USA a motorcycle license is class M. If you do not have that endorsement, then you are not legally permitted to drive a motorcycle or a scooter, so the police can give you a fine.
If you were at home and did not have a motorcycle license and the police wrote you a ticket, would that be extortion? If you do not have a motorcycle license at home, you shouldn't be driving a motorcycle in Thailand, period.
Many scooter drivers are under the impression that they can do whatever they want because they are on holiday. They get annoyed at police checkpoints and fines; however the police are simply enforcing the law.
One positive point: your fine will give you an exemption for new fines for three days, after that you'll get a new 500 baht fine.
Travel insurance companies have in the fine print that you must have a motorcycle license in the event of a claim for accident damages or medical costs. You are not covered for any medical cost if you rent a scooter without a proper license.
+MORE on the Licence requirements for car rental companies.
Licence requirements for car rental companies.
Here are the licence requirements for the major car rental companies:
Avis rent a car:
Renter must hold Driving License or International Driving License at least one year.
Budget rent a car:
All drivers must hold a current, non-probationary license. The license may either be Thai, or from a renter's country of residence (with an English translation) or an international drivers permit.
Hertz car rental:
Must hold a valid Thai driving license / International Driving Licence or a driving license from a renter’s country of residence (with an English translation).
National car rental:
All renters must produce a valid Driving license, Passport and/or Identification Card with their name when pick up the car. An International Driving Licence or a Notarised Translation of driving license is required where the driver’s licence is not in English.
Sixt car rental:
All renters and drivers must present a valid driving license and a valid passport upon collection of their Sixt car rental in Thailand.
Licence requirements for Motorcycle rent
A passport is asked for by all rental companies; but not an International Driving Permit (IDP). However, at ALL the Thai police checkpoints the police will ask for your International Driving Permit.
Most travel insurance companies have in the fine print that you must have an International Driving Permit in the event of a claim for accident damages or medical costs. You are not covered
for any medical cost if you rent a scooter without a proper motorcycle license.
Leave your big backpack home when you go to Pai..
Links on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage
Any comments or improvements? Please mail me at : bytelife AT gmail.com
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