Is Motorcycling Dangerous in Thailand?
This is a question that preys on the minds of people who might otherwise jump at the chance of touring the country by motorbike. For the unprepared, it can be nearly as dangerous as riding water buffalo. However, if you do things correctly, then it needn't be.
The first thing to ask yourself is 'am I capable of riding the bike that the shop has?'. If you don't ride a motorcycle in everyday life then it is advisable to stick to mopeds and not big bikes. Pattaya, a popular city in the eastern part of Thailand, has a fatality on the roads every day, due mainly to the fact that the riders aren't used to powerful machines.
The second thing to find out is if the shop has a good reputation for quality bikes or not. The best way to do this is to ask the locals and people who have already hired a bike from them. This isn't necessarily completely reliable or unbiased advice, so you should always check the bike over thoroughly yourself. Below is a list of parts that are always well worth checking before hiring or purchasing a bike, as the shop will have you over a barrel if something goes wrong with the machine, such as a seizure or a crash. A 250 trials bike will set you back 90,000 Baht (£1,400)1 or more and a 750 bike will cost you much, much more.
Tyres - Check the condition, pressure and most importantly whether they're the correct size.
Engine - Check the oil level everyday as a matter of paramount importance, the condition of the spark plugs and the colour of the exhaust end can for evidence of oil usage.
Brakes - Pads and shoes must be in good condition with at least 2mm of material on them. If they're at all dodgy get them changed, and if the shop owner tries to fob you off or fleece you with ridiculous prices, tell them to change them or you are going to another shop; they should reluctantly oblige and change them. If they don't, go to another shop because if they're going to argue about brakes, then the rest of the bike will be questionable too. The other thing is to check the level and condition of the hydraulic fluid in the reservoirs - they must be correct levels and the fluid shouldn't be black!
Exhaust - If it has got a hole in it, it will not only be loud and get on your nerves after 30 miles but also increase your fuel consumption and reduce the bike's performance.
Handlebars/Forks - Check for trueness and alignment; the bikes for hire in Thailand get dropped on a regular basis.
A Final Note - Make sure that you take a photo or two of the bike before you set off so that any damage that the bike has sustained before you got it is recorded. This prevents the inevitable arguments as to the condition of the bike when you give it back. Remember the shop owner usually holds your passport!
The only other things to remember are that helmets are compulsory and have been since 1997, and an international driving license is required but seldom asked for until the police are involved. It's deeply important to remember that on a Thai road the larger the vehicle, the more right of way it has!
Roads in Thailand vary from motorways, such as Highway One from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, to dirt paths. The supposed best way to ride, as explained to one Researcher by 'German' Joe from Goodwill Motorcycles at Chiang Mai, is to ride along familiar or safer routes at 75% of your normal concentration and motorcycling ability, thereby leaving the remaining 25% in reserve to be called upon at a moment's notice to cope with the unforseen hazards that you might encounter. Such hazards include going round corners on mountainous jungle roads to find that the road has simply slipped down the mountain or to come face to face with a herd of cattle having an afternoon siesta in the road.
Lastly, insurance is little better than a joke in Thailand and what usually happens is the police mediate an amicable payment - amicable to the locals, that is.
Great Rides out in Thailand
Chiang Mai to Mai Hong Son
One Researcher said of this ride:
The best motorcycle ride of my life was in North Thailand, and I've been riding bikes for 23 years!
This ride takes you along the road between Chiang Mai and Mai Hong Son. After leaving Chiang Mai head north, and about 15 miles you come to a small town where the road opens up to three lanes both ways. At the traffic lights turn left towards Mai Hong Son, which is signposted, and you've got one of the twistiest roads in Thailand in front of you. The Thais call it the 'Road of a Thousand Curves' but it feels that there are a couple more than that!
The road surface is 'variable' to put it mildly, and trucks and buses often come round the corners on the wrong side of the road, so remember the advice about concentration or it is quite possible that you could have an accident, and there aren't any hospitals worth mentioning out here in the jungle.
Halfway along there's a small town called Pai where the less fit or more laid back might want to stop off for a night. If you do, try to get accommodation at Chez Swan. It's 250 Baht (£4) a night for an apartment and Guy, the French owner of these lodgings and the rafting shop down the road, is a reliable source of help should you need any.
When you get to Mai Hong Son you will be surprised by the number of Thais from Bangkok who come here for their holidays; not many farangs (Europeans/tourists) here though! Accommodation is plentiful and most of it is good, just avoid the big place by the lake. A good place to eat is Lucky's just off the main drag through town.
Phitsanalok to Chiang Khan
From Phitsanalok, head east along Highway 12; turn left after approximately 30 miles towards Loei on Highway 230 and you'll be treated to some of the most beautiful twisting tarmac that Thailand has to offer. Ride through Loei and carry on to Chiang Khan where it's nice to stay and explore the national parks around the area, as you can ride your bike through them.
Chiang Khan is on the Mekhong river and the best place to stay here is the Tongkong guest house run by Ben and Paitoon which boasts excellent food and clean rooms.
Important Things to Bear in Mind and Further Information
The speed limit in Thailand is 90kph but the police rarely enforce it - just remember that if they do stop you, it's usually cheaper to sort it out at the roadside rather than down the station, where you'll invariably be held for a few hours to sort out the paperwork, and the fine will be bigger too.
Drink-driving happens with great frequency in Thailand, as drinking beer is a favourite pastime of both visitors and locals alike. It is obviously inadvisable, as most of the Thai hospitals are of poor quality, and while falling off one's bike drunk may not hurt at the time, it most certainly will the next day.
If you are going to visit Chiang Mai, the best bike shop in the city is Goodwill Motorcycles, which is run by 'German' Joe and 'Pommy' Tom.
To find out more about motorbiking holidays and excursions in Thailand, try the Golden Triangle Rider website.