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Motorcycle Trips   

Last update: Nov 14, 2021

Motorcycle Trips.

Winter mornings in Chiang Mai start off quite cool; sometimes with clouds straddling Doi Suthep mountain which is just west of 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.

Panorama of Doi Suthep mountain
Panorama of Doi Suthep mountain covered in clouds.

 

The busy road to Pai.

Many young backpackers travel by scooter on their first 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 its 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!

Chiang Mai motorcycle rides to national parks
Chiang Mai motorcycle routes to national parks.

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 botanical garden (QSBG; see below). And there are fewer potholes as well.

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. A few years ago (2016) the road was widened in some places so you can now easily overtake that slow driver; who is trying to go uphill on an underpowered scooter with his girlfriend on the back.

But the proper superelevation (road banking) of the curves is still missing on most curves - the road curves have almost no camber. On some of the hairpins in the last section there is even "adverse camber", so the cornering needs to be done with foresight and care - and experience. Unfortunately, experience is what you get - just after you need it.

Leave your big backpack home when you go to Pai.
A curve with positive camber (superelevation).

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.

samoeng loop map
The Samoeng loop map, including Mae Rim.
The route is around Doi Suthep mountain.
karte vom Samoeng Schleife, Samoeng route map

Why not start your route in the morning and from Chiang Mai head north on the busy highway 107. The Dara Pirom Palace Museum in Mae Rim is worth visiting, the museum is a large historic wooden mansion which was home to the famous Lanna princess Dara Rasmi (or Rasami), who was one of the consorts of Chulalongkorn, King Rama V of Siam. Entry fee is 20 baht.

Mae Rim is a small village on the highway 107, and has a few posh hotels and resorts. Follow the "Samoeng" sign and turn westward on road nr. 1096 through Mae Rim, and very soon you are in the beautiful Mae Sa valley.

There is a tribal village on the 1096 road called Baan Tong Luang. It is set up for tourists, since hill tribes do not live together in one village. This village has no less than 7 hill tribes: Akha, Karen, Lahu, Lisu, Padaung, Hmong and Kayaw tribal people. These hill tribes do not live near a large modern town like Chiang Mai; they are called hill tribes for a reason, and their villages and original way of life in the hills and mountains have mostly vanished, though you can often spot tribal people in markets.

Obviously, these hill tribes never live together, so it is a bit of a tourist trap. One of the tribes is the Padaung or Longneck women tribe; these Longneck women are refugees who originally lived in a remote area in Burma near Loikaw. Nevertheless, if you want to see all tribes in one fell swoop then this is an opportunity. Entry fee is 500 baht.

There are two Royal Projects on the Samoeng loop, these are non-profit organizations; founded by King Bhumibol. Just in Chiang Mai province, there are 27 development centres. The goals of the Royal Project Foundation are: to help hill tribes achieve a better life, to prevent the destruction of natural resources, to stop opium growing, and to increase the amount of alternative agriculture. Some of these projects, like the one on the side of Doi Mon Cham mountain (also: Mon Jam), have become tourist attractions. Here one can do touristy things like kart riding, ziplining, or admiring the views over the vegetable and strawberry fields.

During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, hundreds of thousands of the 2,8 million foreign workers in Thailand — of which those from Myanmar make up the largest share, returned to their home countries after losing their jobs. Many of the Padaung Longneck women, who made a living in Chiang Mai by selling traditional clothes and handicrafts, and were posing for photos, have returned to Myanmar.

Samoeng signboard
A surprising elephant crossing on Samoeng loop.
In Chiang Mai elephants have always right-of-way.

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. This is the largest and best botanic garden in Thailand, set against a mountainside in a large forest. More here: QSBG Garden.

Soon you go up into the mountain, and this northern side of the mountain is always cold. You did put on enough warm clothing for the ride?

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.

Samoeng signboard
The Samoeng Forest viewpoint on the road to Samoeng village.

After lunch return to the T-crossing; keep on going straight and follow the 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.

Samoeng signboard
Artistic cottage park on Samoeng loop.

And if you keep your eyes on the left side, after the long downhill stretch there is some kind of bungalow park, with a lot of very small artistic holiday cottages, which is worth a visit. It is called Phu Jaya Clay House, and seems to cater mostly to Thai tourists. There are no signs, so it is easy to miss. The room rate for the very small cottages is well over 200 euros, and perhaps that is why there seem to be few visitors here. Worth a look around anyway. Just a bit further, around the corner, is the very nice Royal Rose Garden, which sells roses and coffee.

There are more resorts and coffee shops on the way back, like the Belle Villa Resort Chiangmai, and the large The Doi Resort and Restaurant, which is right on the roadside and has good cappuccino, nice cakes, and a wonderful view.

 

 

The Mae Hong Son loop.

The legendary Mae Hong Son loop starts from Chiang Mai on a very twisty road to Pai, then to Mae Hong Son, down to Mae Sariang and back to Chiang Mai. It should take at least 4 days to do the 600+ km. If you stay in Mae Hong Son town, the Doi San Fah viewpoint is just half an hour away. It is a small and steep road up, and maybe one of the twistiest roads in the north.

There is a 200 baht fee for the Namtok Mae Surin National Park, but if you ask nicely, you can probably just pass and visit the viewpoint. After all, 200 baht for a very short visit is a bit steep, isn't it? If you want to visit longer, and do the walking trail, you have to pay up.

viewpoint
Doi San Fah viewpoint.

This road is so twisty because it is an old elephant trail, and it was the first direct road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Because it was too steep for cars, the Japanese created a new road through Pai to Mae Hong Son during world war 2. The current road nr. 1095 to Pai follows the Japanese road. WARNING: better not try this with a scooter. The last part up the mountain is twisty and very steep, and once up there a u-turn is impossible, so you are committed to drive all the way up to the viewpoint.

 

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)
  • 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.

 

motortours around Chiang Mai.
Remote route through the villages around Chiang Mai.

 

Motorcycle rentals in Chiang Mai.

Most people rent a scooter from one of Chiang Mai's plentiful scooter shops, for example a Honda Click or a Honda Wave. Plenty of larger bikes are available like a Honda Phantom, a Honda CB500F, a Kawasaki Ninja 650 or Kawasaki Versys. And the Honda CRF250 rally is suitable for mountains roads and dirt roads.

Most motorbike and scooter rental places in Chiang Mai are close to Thapae gate, for example Mr. Mechanic motorcycle Rental, Pop Motorcycle/Car rent (Kotchasarn Road), and Dang Bike Hire (Kotchasarn Road). Mr.Mechanic motorcycle has a few shops around town.

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. 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.

Walk around a bit away from Tha Phae gate to find a cheaper rental office; whit a bit of shopping around, a motorcycle like the Kawasaki Versys or Honda CRF250 can be rented cheaper. I can recommend M25 Motorbike rental on Ratchamanka road, though they don't have many bikes, being a small shop.

C&P Big Bike is a bit out of the way on the east side of the river, but gets very good reviews.

Tony's Big Bikes (TBB) shop is now Toons Bike rental, and they have similar rates as Pop Motorcycles. Tony's Big Bikes, which only organises tours, has moved to a location south of the old town.

 Pop Motorcycle  main store.
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 is 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 rents for 800 baht per day, but for 5 days or more 700 baht per day. The newer 2017 Honda CRF250 Rally is more expensive. Outside the high season a determined haggle can bring rental fees down; during high season this won't work.

Comparison of motorcycle rental shops - 2020

Motorcyle MrMechanic POP Car rent C&P Big Bike M25 Chiang Rai
Big Bike
Honda CRF 250L THB 1.000 THB 800 THB 800 THB 800 THB 800
Honda CRF250 Rally THB 1.000 THB 1.100 THB 1.000
Honda CB500x THB 1.300 THB 1.200 THB 1.300 THB 1.200 THB 1.500
Kawasaki 650 Versys THB 1.400   - THB 1.800 THB 1.700
Suzuki V-Strom 650cc THB 1.600 THB 1.700 THB 1.800
Data: websites of rental shops.

Scooter rentals.

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 Ratchamanka Road ( just south of Wat Phra Sing). 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.

Additional insurance

In Thailand all motor vehicles and scooters have by default third party insurance of a maximum of 80.000 Thai baht. This Compulsory Third Party Insurance (CTPL) is already in place when you rent a motorbike. The Thai name is Por Bor insurance; it covers limited personal injury of up to 80,000 baht. Any material damage is not covered by the Por Bor insurance.

You can also buy additional insurance when you rent a scooter. The material damage is then covered by this insurance, which is around 100-250 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.

Motorcycle helmets

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; but 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.

daily police checkpoint Chiang Mai.
One of the daily police checkpoints in Chiang Mai.
Notice the old blue "Half helmet".
Open face 3/4 helmets (left) are better than these Half helmets.

 


Police Checkpoints and IDP driver's license.

Since 2017 the Thai police have set up daily checkpoints in Chiang Mai, where driver is licenses are checked. All foreign motorcycle and scooter drivers need to show an International Driving Permit which should include a motorcycle endorsement - just a car drivers licence is not adequate. 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. The only scooters for rent in Thailand are 100 to 125CC and can easily do 80 to 90 km/hour (50+ miles/hour). There are no 50CC scooters in Thailand at all. Therefore, all scooter drivers need a valid Motorcycle license and an International Driving Permit.

For Thailand you will need to show an IDP of the 1949 Convention.

International Driving Permit

An International Driving Permit or International Drivers License is required for motorcycle driving in Thailand, but this is often not checked when you are renting a bike. The International Driving Permit (IDP) can be obtained in your home country; for example, at the AAA office (American Automobile Association, USA), at the post office in the UK, or at the Automobile Association of your home country. You have to get one before you leave on holiday.

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!

In Chiang Mai, the fine for not having an International Drivers License is 500 Baht. The maximum fine for not having an IDP in Thailand is 1000 Baht; the usual fine is 500 Baht.

IDP.
IDP - International Driving Permit of the 1949 Convention.

Issued by the Dutch Automobile Association (ANWB).

 

 

Fines: "Police extortion!"

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.

If you were at home and the police wrote you a ticket because you did not have a motorcycle license, 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.

International Driving Permits (IDPs) are essentially just a translation of your driver is license. If you have a motorcycle endorsement on your drivers 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.

The times when a tourist could drive whatever they liked in Thailand are well in the past. And that may be a good thing, for road safety in general and for your health in particular. One positive point: your fine will give you an exemption for new fines for three days. If you can show your ticket you won't get another fine.


Travel insurance companies have in the fine print that you must have a motorcycle license and 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 license.

Leave your big backpack home when you go to Pai.
Leave your big backpack home when you go to Pai.
Or leave your backpack at your hotel in Chiang Mai.

 


An accident on the twisty road to Pai.

In december 2019 I did a quick return trip to Pai and Mae Hong Son on a Honda CRF off-road bike. Somewhere on the twisty part of the road to Pai, I noticed 3 young people standing by the side of the road, their scooters stopped. They looked forlorn. Something had happened, so I stopped and walked back towards them.

Two young men and a young woman were standing there; two scooters were parked, and one scooter was laying on its side in the ditch. Hello, I said to the woman, "Did you go off the road here?" She was just standing there; covered in many small cuts all over here arms and legs.

"Yes", she replied. "You're OK? You want me to put on some bandages?"
"Yes please."

It was clear what had happened. The road to Pai is busy, and most Thai drivers go quite fast around the tight bends, at 60 to 70 km/hours. She had little experience on mountain roads, and had driven more slowly, and neatly steered into the corners. Many corners have some small stones or sand, and she had hit some gravel and slid off the road.

A typical beginner's mistake: the small round gravel stones will inevitably make you slide into the ditch. It is better to stay in the middle of the road; if you can drive fast enough to keep up with the other traffic. Wearing shorts is also no good, long jeans and a good jacket will protect you much better.

The woman seemed to be just a few years over 20. All of her limbs were covered in small cuts, cause by the sharp gravel stones. The cuts weren't very deep, but it didn't look good. I got my band-aids from my motorbike and started plastering the cuts one by one.

"You should go to the hospital in Pai, and get treated."
"Yes."

She was still in shock, trembling all over her body.
"You're shaking all over. Why don't you sit down?"
She refused.

"Will I need stitches? "
"No, I don't think so. They are all superficial wounds. You'll be OK"
I could see that she didn't believe me. She was still in total shock. But the cuts were not deep and none of them very bloody. A few of the cuts were so long that I didn't have large enough band-aids to cover them.

Luckily, a short time later a pickup truck stopped with two Thai men inside. The two young scooter drivers walked up to the truck and asked for a ride to Pai hospital. The Thai men looked at the girl, and the scooter in the ditch, and nodded. With a few hands, we lifted the scooter in the truck and tied it down. The girl got into the cabin, and they set off towards Pai.

That was that. I said goodbye to the two young men, who thanked me, and then went off on the last, very twisty stretch, of the mountain road to Pai. Never saw any of them again.

 

Road Safety statistics.

Chiang Mai News reports on road safety 2018:

        In Chiang Mai province from January to November 2018 there have been 13.051 accidents resulting in 246 deaths and 14.465 injuries. Of these, 25 deaths were foreigners and 1.100 of the injured were foreigners. Ten percent of the people that die on Chiang Mai’s roads are foreigners.

The statistics also reveal that the overwhelming majority of deaths and injury were on motorcycles. Most deaths were young people, 16 to 25 year olds. So it is best to drive safe, get your International Driving Permit and try not to end up in hospital. It could spoil your holiday somewhat.

Thailand is on the fifth highest spot on the list of countries by traffic-related death rate, after four African countries.

Thailand traffic deaths.
Thailand: traffic deaths per 100.000 inhabitants (chart).

Source on wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org

One of the reasons for the many accidents is that highways have a U-turn possibility every mile or so; with drivers waiting to make a turn and watching the traffic coming at high speed at them. Another reason is that there are speed limits, but no speed traps or cameras. The speed limit in towns is 60 km/hour, outside built-up areas 90 km/hour, and on highways 120 km/hour (since 2020), but many people drive as fast as they like. Some drivers go at speeds of 120 to 140 km/hour, passing slow traffic and very slow bikes and scooters.

Fortunately, most drivers slow down when passing markets or busy places. But even on a highway outside of town, there can be pedestrians crossing the road, people pushing carts or scooters going the wrong way on the verge. Anything is possible and everything should be expected.


A one-sided mishap on the 107 highway. Mind the curb!

 


Links on Wikipedia and Wikivoyage

 


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