Handy notes from a noob's discovery ride into Thailand
DEC 2011 | 4 regular joes and one scruffy jane from Singapore, getting by in the 9-to-5 trenches with the same brutal bosses as anyone else.
No fancy gear, no classy uniforms and no bullshit - just a shared, unreasonable hunger for journeys in the saddle...
and maybe some fried tarantulas?
December 2011; we were a bunch of barely-minted greenhorns, fairly new to large bikes and still figuring out the business end of a tyre lever. Only myself and Wegg had ever ridden across the border onto Thai soil before, but the air nearing Christmas has a way of smelling like adventure!
It was a mixed bag of bikes - a Yamaha TDM900, Suzuki Vstrom 650, Kawasaki Versys 650, Honda Fireblade 929 and a rented D-Tracker - that chased down the Northern horizons, and we were amazingly fortunate to slip in through a brief window of time when the flood waters lay low.
We took the highways, low-ways and no-ways. For 7000km, and over 20 days, we lived out of our motorcycle panniers, tracing a winding, varied road across the face of Thailand, crossing briefly into Myanmar.
In the spirit of countless travellers before us, who so open-heartedly shared their maps, stories and resources, here's a rundown of practicalities we gleaned along the merry way. But first, one tricky border crossing:
Northern Thailand gets real chilly at year's end. Head buffs help to keep the icicles out of your nostrils, and double up as pretty good suppertime entertainment.
We each spent SGD 1,200 over three weeks, on food, petrol, lodging and some shopping.
Guest houses in Thailand are cheap, and get even cheaper if you aren't picky. A night in each town cost us 600 - 700 Baht in total for two rooms or one big room, except in pricier Hat Yai, Cha Am, Krabi, Mae Sai and Phayao, where we forked out 1000 Baht to house four.
You'll find Benzene 95 in big PTT petrol stations at every 50 - 100km on major roads. Fuel costs just slightly above the octane equivalent in Singapore.
We kept our frugal bellies out of restaurants and stuck to street hawkers, which were often ridiculously cheap AND bloody delicious - 20 Baht for a bowl of beef noodles! Just don't put too much thought into how the food's being prepared or what sort of living creature the protein used to be. We ate frequently and well, testing the stretch limits of our riding gear.
A full-body Thai massage will set you back about 250 Baht for an hour, and that's fair tax to sore muscles after a punishing day on the road. We indulged almost every other night!
2,500 Baht from each of our pockets went right into bungee jumping and go-karting at Chiang Mai's extreme sports park - a roaring treat you shouldn't miss.
The road may be long, but there's always times to stop and smell the roses - or raid a playground.
Maps, because nothing truly works like old-school ink-on-paper, and because GPS always tries to lead you into the clusterfuckery that is Bangkok city. Pick up updated, detailed maps of Thailand from major petrol stops along the highway.
"Turn left where?? I dont see a road, you crafty GPS bastard"
"Recalculating?? Recalculate your mother's face"
Luckily we've got a stash of atlases to fall back on.
Black tape and cable ties. These hold a variety of sins together - my boot straps, Joshua's improvised gear shifter after a bridge-crossing disaster, Victor's saddlebag after a villager's kupchai t-boned him... and the Fireblade lost a couple of fairing screws that weren't taped over before we left!
Cornering at 120kmh right into a Cow Cake is nasty, even with the most grippy of tyres. When Pirelli or Dunlop made their rubbers "all-terrain", they definitely did not count on the indigenous shit-skid-factor. So watch for those cows, because there's nothing less glorious for an intrepid adventurer than explaining about dung from a hospital bed.
In true cowboy style, we simply rolled into town and knocked on doors! Found some real gems, and all of them offer safe parking and free wifi.
Hat Yai / Winstar Hotel
Park your bikes behind the lobby, and slip the security guard 50 Baht to watch them all night.
Nakon Sawan / Shanya Guesthouse
Resort-style decor at budget-inn prices, plus free use of their water hose on your grubby bikes. Keep mosquito repellent on hand at all times, though.
Chiang Mai / Lanna Discovery Guesthouse
Park on the slope to the entrance. There are other backpackers here to trade stories with, and the landlady will teach you a handy Thai phrase or two if you'd only ask!
Chiang Mai / Rider's Corner
Even if you don't stay the night, pop by for a beer and steak! An inspirational meeting place for bikers from all around the world, and a great place to pick up updated maps of off-the-grid adventure routes. Say hullo to Philip Gibbons for us!
Pai / Pai Klangdoi Resort
After the numbingly cold rollercoaster turns of Mae Hong Son, there's nothing, nothing like warming your toes at a campfire. I swear, these parts will have you wishing for heated throttle grips. Prepare a set of thermals; temperatures drop to 4 deg c at night in December.
Doi Ang Kang / Your own tent
A local told us, "You haven't really experienced Doi Ang Kang until you camp out there for a night." Truer words have never been said. If you haven't brought your own, rent a tent from the mountain's military base, endure the bone-grinding cold (locally-brewed strawberry wine helps, but you've got to make friends to get this!), and be rewarded by a sweepingly poetic sunset and sunrise. Hot showers can be bought at a nearby public toilet for 50 Baht, but expect no other amenities.
Chiang Rai / The North Hotel
Charming and cosy enough for its small price tag, and within walking distance to the supremely awesome night market. The main entertainment stage is shared by transvestite dancers and bizarre gyrating children.
Roll into any of the inns facing the lake; prices are competitive and you can park your bike right on the doorsteps, unmolested.
Krabi / Pak Up Hostel
A designer hostel in main Krabi town that's within walking distance to many little eateries and bars. Much cheaper than staying at Aonang Bay, although that's where the action lies. The bay is a good 20min scenic ride away from main Krabi town. The other backpackers had a good chuckle at the sight of us riding back in neon beach shorts and full riding boots!