To be fortunate enough to visit Thailand, -to eat in Thailand, and most importantly to ride in Thailand- is a deep dive into a rich and multi-textured culture that’s assured to leave your pallet, mind, and heart ablaze.
Northern Thailand is largely overlooked by tourists in favor of the south, which is blessed with the kind of tropical, picturesque beaches often used as screensavers. And, while it’s a shame that the southern archipelago draws the vast majority of the tank top-sporting and backpack carrying crowd, it means there are plenty of untapped opportunities up north.
That’s where our tour begins. Chiang Mai, the glowing capital of the north, surrounded by the crumbling monasteries and ancient walls is the Old City center, a mixture of a laid-back vibe with a cracking night market, bustling ladyboy shows, amazing street food, and fish pedicurists. This city is built on a very old culture of flavors and colors ranging beyond the familiar spectrum and is a haven for peaceful contemplation in dozens of temples and shrines, from gilded palaces to secret grottoes. Basically, a place like this makes every person a poet.
Six months ago, when I signed up for Thailand Moto Tours, I thought I knew what to expect, but nothing prepared me for the sensory overload I experienced the minute I stepped off the plane. My guides, Brandon, Brian, and I load up in a Songthaew, a covered pickup truck/share taxi ride, and headed to the hotel. This would be one of the two hotels I would stay in for my duration of the tour, the rest of the places would be guest houses or cottages in the jungle.
Instantly I recognized how special Chiang Mai’s location is: a quick day trip and you’re suddenly swimming in pools beneath Monthathan waterfall, trekking through the mist-covered forest or wandering barefoot and blinded by golden Buddhas at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, built in 1383. For thousands of years, different civilizations have made Thailand their home, and the remnants of their cities can be found across the country.
I tried to explore as much as I could but before long the rest of the Farang – slag term for foreigner – started to arrive, a motley group of bikers from all over the world. As diverse as the land we were about to explore and I could tell right off that one of the main highlights of this journey would be the people with whom I would share the experience.
The tour gives you a day to adjust, and it’s a good thing because I don’t know if it was the 20-hour flight, 13-hour time difference, or mass amounts of Chang beer I consumed that had me all out of sorts on day one, but I for sure needed a nap and coordination recalibration before I tried to ride anything safely. Luckily a Thai massage is only about 300 bhat (a little over 9 USD), so I decided to get one (twice!) and sleep the rest of my travel hangover.
The morning of the first riding day came, and I woke up bright and early. It was technically night time back home, and I hadn’t adjusted to the time zone yet, but that didn’t matter; I honestly couldn’t wait to get on a bike and explore a place I knew nothing about. It was a familiar look as I greeted the rest of the group in the lobby. We all shared the same excitement and anticipation so, after our safety briefing from the guys we raced to load up our Honda CRF250L’s and prepared to fight the wild and rapid traffic out of the city. Tenacious bicyclers, belching taxis, roaring tuk-tuks, fearless pedestrians, and the occasional mobile ‘meat, cigarette and sweets’ stands all fought our bikes for room on the narrow, two-lane road turned local byway. I fucking loved it! Splitting lanes, sliding in-between cars, running lights, all of it made me feel like I was in a nonviolent, but just as chaotic, version of Grand Theft Auto. It wasn’t until we finally got out of the city and the road opened up to expose more curves than Sofia Vergara that we understand just what we had gotten into. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to defy gravity, then you have to skip the trip to the moon and just ride in Thailand instead.
To put things in perspective, day one is 762 turns, the famous ‘Tail of the Dragon’ in the US has only 318. To write about how exhilarating the constant barrage of corkscrews, winding, off-camber, twisties, and wide up and down hilled sweepers will never do it justice. Videos and photos don’t give the full effect either. The only way to ever know what I am talking about is to actually go and ride it yourself. Even then, you still won’t be able to fathom the amount of fun you’re having. It’s that mind-blowing. Think about the best sex you’ve ever had, the best meal you’ve ever eaten, and the best sunset you’ve ever seen. Then put it all together, and you will still fall short of the visceral orgasmic feeling this road gives you.
To take the slack out of the curvy roads is a carefully balanced combination of maneuvers. Like an orchestra conductor managing acceleration, braking, traction, and lean angles all at once to create a sympathy masterpiece. Now, I played the saxophone in school but I ain’t no musical genius. Lucky for me I followed behind our guide Brandon Cretu who also happens to be a seven times Isle of Man TT competitor. I learned in superbike school years ago that in order to get better you have to ride with the best, follow their lines, and mimic the way they ride. I studied with laser focus as Brandon hit every turn, not wanting to miss this rare opportunity to learn from him, and at the same time, thinking to myself how fortunate I am to be on a dream vacation with one of the most skilled riders in the world. As I hit the apex on every turn, an otherworldly sense of elation came over me as my brain flooded with endorphins.
Every stop was carefully planned. It was obvious that it took years to create the routes and locations on this journey. Brian and Brandon have been unofficially leading tours for five years in Thailand. Brian actually lived in Thailand as a teacher and is knowledgeable in Thai culture and language which comes in handy since my “khob khun kha” (“thank you” in Thai) is said with a strong southern drawl.
This next statement could make me sound kind of basic, hipster, first-world or high maintenance but it’s just true, so I have to point it out; the coffee in Thailand is the best I’ve ever had which is surprising because no one ever thinks about Thailand and coffee. The guys had planned plenty of coffee stops for us on our ride as well as the most breathtaking places to eat lunch with a variety of dishes from traditional curry and fried rice and, for the most adventurous of palates, one can venture into specialties such as fresh frog legs or wasp larvae smoked in the nest, which are white and puffy, like popcorn. Everything gets washed down with fresh-squeezed fruit juice that was literally just picked from the tree you ate beside.
Before sunset, we traded in our bikes for hiking and headed into a Tham Lod Cave. Like a modern-day Indiana Jones, we blindly stumbled into a dark abyss lead only by the light of the lantern from our non-English speaking tour guides. This cave is home to one of the largest populations of bats in Thailand, and you can hear them everywhere. You can meditate to the chattering of their squeaks or the sound of water dripping on limestone. All of it echos off the formations and bounces across the Lang river that flows through the cave which we traversed on for part of the tour by floating across on bamboo rafts and boats, all while thousands of fish swam by our side begging for food.
Exhausted physically and over-exhilarated mentally we were excited to get to the first place to lay our heads, Pen’s Place, a self-contained guest house in the mountains outside of Pai. Our wooden constructed bungalows were set in a dense forest of papaya and banana trees with the most vivid colors of flowered vines overhanging along the stone pathways. If I believed in marriage and wanted to plan a romantic honeymoon, it would be here.
We ate a traditional homemade dinner by the fireside on top of a balcony and cheered our wine and beers to a magical day of exploration. After a couple of days together, the bond had already formed between us all. Some I knew before the trip, David from @caferacersofinstagram had been a friend for years, but the others who had only been friends via social media now became real. More real than real life because we were removed from our lives and focused only on the now, each other, and our surroundings. I knew then that I could have never planned this experience on my own. The sheer camaraderie of a group of people who are open enough to go to a strange and unfamiliar place and who share the same love of adventure and passion for how we get there, a motorcycle, is a thing that fuses people together for life. Had I rented a bike and came here alone I wouldn’t have gotten this and I can 100% guarantee I would have wasted half of my time getting lost and missed out on all the best parts of this feral yet alluring countryside.
Morning came softly, and it was just the beginning of day two, yet we already had developed a habit of taking our coffees outside at sunrise and watching the mist burn off over the unsettled stretches of mountains and jungle, deeply veined rivers and wildlife that laid before us.
Every day was filled with a wide array of stops and a mixture of regional experiences, but to write about them, all would make this article a book. Besides, I know you’ll want to book this trip and see everything for yourself after reading this story! I would be lying if I didn’t include the Long Neck Village as one of the highlights of the tour. Another boat ride to a remote island near the Burmese border, we entered a place that I swear should make the cover of a National Geographic magazine. The tradition started many years ago as protection from tigers. The girls start wearing five neck rings when they are six, adding two extra rings every year. There is no limit to how many rings a woman can have, but some have worked their way up to 25 rings and are regarded as the most beautiful women in the village. The craziest part is that they only take off the rings for a couple of hours once a year. For this short window of time, these women are extremely careful as they risk breaking their fragile necks from the slightest strain.
Obviously, the roads will always be a favorite. Aside from the track-styled road racing, we also ventured into more remote places via dirt and rocky paths, dodging the occasional meandering cows, wild dog or free-range chicken. At first, I wasn’t sure about the choice of bike but, after a few miles, I wouldn’t want to ride Thailand with another bike. They were perfect and suitable for every level of rider. In fact, even though the curves or off-road may seem intimidating to some of you, I assure you that you can handle a tour like this. Brian and Brandon are very accommodating in regard to allowing everyone to ride at their own pace and leaving no one behind. The amount of stops were timed perfectly, and even though these were some of the most mentally challenging and visually stimulating roads, I never felt too exhausted because of the planning that went into the tour.
Another highlight would be the elephants. Elephants are Thailand’s national and most sacred animal. We stopped at an elephant camp, Hug Elephant Sanctuary, a place for rehabilitated elephants, nearly all of whom have arrived here following mistreatment elsewhere in the tourism industry. This is a place where the emphasis is less on tourism and more on what tourism can do: help rehabilitate and care for endangered elephants.
At this point in the tour I had crutches, and the elephants loved them. I guess the long wooden sticks reminded them of their favorite snack, sugar cane, and so I was constantly attempting to stand my ground by simply trying to stand on the ground! One of the elephants thought a kiss would sweeten the deal and he almost had me, but the slimy (and hopefully) mud that was all over my face brought me back to reality.
You’re probably wondering how I already acquired crutches, and I could tell you a heroine story, but the truth of the matter is that it was an unavoidable oil spill in a curve on the road. I hit it and went down faster than a toupee in a hurricane, all while dragging my newly ACL replaced knee with it. I kicked the bike off of me and crawled to the side of the road to wait for help which came quickly since we had a support truck with us. Within minutes I was loaded up, handed a bottle of wine to numb the pain, and taken to the nearest hospital. Another reason why I was glad I booked this trip with a group. I would have been alone with no way to communicate or knowledge of where I was at without them. I didn’t let it keep me down though. I was determined to finish out this trip one-legged or not. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, and I had already been consumed by the culture so much that I didn’t want to miss a second of it. Like any good cowgirl, I sucked it up and straddled the bike again and did the best I could do.
Ending a trip like this hits you in the gut like the last day of high school, knowing that your life and the people in it will forever be different, and the uncertainty that comes with it. It’s an emotional time but, instead of being a bunch of sappy fucks, we decided to be the degenerates that we are and drown away our sorrows with lots of Chang beer and Samgsom whiskey on the last night. Then we followed it by being complete tourists and attending a Lady Boy Show before finishing the night dancing at a club. This time, morning came too soon and we sleepy-eyed souls said our goodbyes and made a pact to all come back and do it again next year. Thailand has a saying “we are fish from the same water,” and no other phrase is better suited to describe this group.
“A huge reason why I chose to pay for tour guides was the ease of mind. Every step of the way Brian and Brandon took care of the little stuff that allowed me to fully immerse myself in a new culture. Rather than always having to look forward to the next stop and the next ride I was able to live in the here and now. That ease of mind was invaluable.” – Zach Crister
“My favorite things are the people, both on the tour and the locals. Brandon and Brian are some of the most fun and caring individuals you can ask for as guides and as friends. The type of people who normally go on these tours is similarly travel-experience welcoming individuals. So the group dynamic is always fun to experience and be a part of. What better place to explore an exotic location on motorcycles and experience great people and food! And after leaving Chiang Mai, I miss it frequently. It’s a place that you just want to go back to.” – Atticus Anonymous
“My favorite memory from TMT was the first few days in Thailand. I had just met an incredible group, and once we hit the mountain roads, I couldn’t help my smile under my helmet the entire ride. This group of people would eventually become close friends through the memories and experiences we had together for the remainder of the trip. When’s the next trip?” – David Chang
Our natural state of being is freedom. How we achieve that freedom is different for everyone, but the goal is always the same. Buddhist culture strives for a deep insight into the true nature of life. If our true nature is freedom, then I’m convinced that the absolute freest place that I have ever been is Thailand on a motorcycle. Given our limited time on this earth and the sheer magnificence, the nearly limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available in this country, it makes Thailand a must-do on your bucket list.