Bangkok is "Overlander Central" for motorcycle travelers moving across Asia. A resting-place for some, a jumping off point to Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia for others. The nice thing about Bangkok, after crossing India, is it is easy. Food is safe to eat (reasonably), drivers stop at stop signs, and it is very cosmopolitan. Everywhere someone speaks a little English (or knows someone who does) and most of the road signs and advertising is in English. It seems nearly every corner has a 7/Eleven convenience store open 24 hours a day. Cheap hotel rooms come with sitter toilets and toilet paper. Electricity works throughout the day and the roads are in excellent condition. Gone are the TATA trucks of India trying to run a motorcyclist off potholed one lane roads, the blaring horns, speed bumps, major bus crashes, and mullahs screaming through loudspeakers four times a day. Most motorcycle travelers enter Thailand with their motorcycles through air cargo at the Bangkok airport, so Customs officials there know what a Carnet de Passage is and how to process it. Gone are demands for bribes from various Customs officials like in India. It is a simple process to get the motorcycle cleared and on the road, where speeds are back closer to 120 kph and seldom is a horn heard unless you have made a mistake. One couple was able to fly their fully loaded BMW R80 G/S from New Delhi to Bangkok for just over $200.00 USD, one of the world's best air cargo bargains for moving motorcycles across water. I think it would be foolish to ride a motorcycle to an Indian seaport and ship it by boat to Thailand. The horror stories of boats and bikes into and out of India abound like jokes about blondes. By air cargo, for $200.00 your motorcycle is out of India and on the road in Thailand, where the only blondes seen are foreign tourists.
I had ridden several different motorcycles on this third ride around the world, some big and slow, others light and fast. The biggest has been the AMAZONAS, made in Brazil. In Thailand I thought I would give the biggest animal on the earth a ride, but was told I would have to go pillion. As the founder of the ELEPHANT RIDE ("World's highest, coldest motorcycle ride") in the USA, I also thought it appropriate I attempt to ride an elephant. Not trusting the pilot, I rode the elephant prepared for any possible low speed get-off, including full body protection and helmet. The nice thing about riding an elephant is when it gets hot up top, you direct the elephant to a stream where it fills it's blower, then hoses a splash of water on the passenger, a good reason for keeping the face shield down on the helmet.
Most motorcycle travelers passing through Bangkok find their way to Dynamic Motors, managed by Yongyut Pol-Isariyakul. Located at 259/1-2 Visuttikasat Rd (firstname.lastname@example.org), this motorcycle repair shop has long been helping BMW, Yamaha, Kawasaki and even Harley-Davidson riders outfit or repair their motorcycles for the next leg of their Asia tours. Some foolishly want to use the shop and tools to do their own work, thus saving some money. The experienced traveler knows a place like Yut's is an oasis for overlanders and happily orders parts through him and pays for service, not wincing at the price, thankful that he is there and willing to help. Yut makes my list of one of the "good guys" for those of us making our way around the world on a limited budget.
Bangkok is motorcycle friendly, until you find yourself riding in a designated bus lane or on one of the "No Motorcycle" expressways. I never figured out how to determine where I was not to ride because the signs were in Thai or non-existent. One motorcyclist from Ireland got tagged for $20.00 USD by a bike cop for being on the expressway, while two others travelers I met talked (cried) their way out of having to pay. I got stopped twice, could not work up the tears to fake a cry or conjure up some good Texas dummy-talk, but did manage to avoid the roadside tax by showing the cops all I had was an American Express Card (expired) and some Pesos from Mexico (in my fake wallet-I carry two, one real and one a fake filled with expired junk and business cards.) The roadside cops around Bangkok ask for payment on the spot, do not write a ticket and want cash. I have a feeling they got their training from the bike cops in Panama. Once you get away from Bangkok these cop problems seem to fade like smoke.
Most motorcyclists head north from Bangkok. After reaching Chiang Mai they loop out to points east and west. Burma (Myanmar) was closed when I tried to enter from the Thailand side, due to political problems in an ongoing up-down relationship involving economics, drugs and human rights. I opted for some twisties and off-road riding in the nearby hill country of the local tribes. The north of Thailand has the best motorcycling roads and some foreigners spend weeks in the area. Add the option of off-road riding in the dry season and a motorcyclist could easily spend a month covering some fascinating areas from the Golden Triangle to the Laos and Burma borders. A word of caution: this off-road riding is not where you want your overloaded BMW GS, Yamaha Tenere, Harley-Davidson or Honda Gold Wing, especially in the wet season.
The motorcycle rental business does well in Chiang Mai. Joe's Bike, owned by a German, Joe Sauerborn, 26/1 Soi 2, Chang Moi Rd, tel.# 053-251 186, has been around for 12 years. Not only does he rent bikes (100 cc-400 cc), but he is the local overlander specialist in the area. Finding a tire for your BMW R1150 GS will be impossible in Chiang Mai, but if there is one to be had in Thailand, Joe can get it in a couple of days. While you wait you can browse through current copies of MOTORRAD Magazine in his small "pub" and swill Singha beer, trading stories with other travelers passing through.
A smart traveler roaming around the north of Thailand would park his heavy and tired road bike, then rent a small one for a few days of fun. Rentals run from $2.00 USD per day to $20.00 USD, depending on size and age. Bring your own helmet. In fact, many travelers do fly to Thailand and do a wide tour of the north, leaving their overland bike parked safely somewhere else or in transit to their next port. I saw numerous white faces on rental bikes wandering around the countryside in the North, but many were without riding clothes or helmets. If you chose the rental option for this part of Asia, bring your own gear. As Joe said, "We have helmets in Thailand, but if you drop one on the ground chances are it will break." Riding gloves, jackets and boots were non-existent in the local motorcycle shops I explored.
The local riders use 100-cc-125-cc motorcycles, primarily to run around town, and opt to go "sans helmet" because of the heat. Although there is a helmet law in Thailand it is seldom enforced. The upside for the tourists "going local" and riding without adequate gear is that some hospital facilities are fairly good in Thailand, if you can get to one quick enough.
I spent some time with Thailand Motorcycle "Guru" David Unkovich. He has been riding and writing about motorcycling in Thailand for 17 years. I call him "Mr. Map" because he is the cartographer for the best motorcycling maps for Thailand. On the side he does some group tours, writes books and explores on two wheels. He can be found at www.geocities.com/goldentrianglerider/ or email David.
His time and information are not free, nor should they be. He has spent nearly 20 years researching what many motorcyclists want to know. Some try to get Thailand motorcycling information free but I believe a 21st Century Shakespeare recently opined, "You get what you pay for." Buy Unkovich's book and his maps. As a writer I know what it takes to get the right information together and published.
To ride in Thailand I was lucky enough to end up on a Honda 250 XLR. This gave me the speed I needed for the high-speed highways but was geared low enough to crawl through streams and down jungle paths. I spent several days hunting the best roads in Thailand, the well paved twisties recommended by David Unkovich and one of his riding buddies David Curtis, a displaced Kiwi. Motorcyclists from New Zealand come from a small land with numerous perfect motorcycling roads, a close second to those of the Alps. If you want advice on where the best local motorcycling roads are in a foreign country, find a Kiwi who is into bikes and they will "set you straight."
One afternoon I spent following Curtis on his Ducati and Unkovich on his Africa Twin. The 250-cc Honda did fine until we came to the straight sections, then the Davids smoked me, but it was a pleasing sound to hear the throaty Ducati and the quieter Honda twin walk away, knowing I could catch them in the twisties where the much lighter 250 could make better use of the brakes. Curtis had wandered all over Southeast Asia on a 250 Honda XLR, a bike made in Asia but got into Thailand by importation. Legally the maximum size for manufactured motorcycles of Thailand is 150-cc. Anything else is brought in and faces a healthy import tax, at one time as much as 600%. In fact, many of the big bikes in Thailand come in through some loophole in the laws. In Thailand 90 % of the motorcycles are small, but it seemed there were big bikes everywhere, from a nice Knucklehead H-D to a pristine BMW R69S. On the showroom floor at Yut's shop in Bangkok, had I the money, I could have purchased a BMW K1 or a tired BMW R80 G/S, but my plan was to stick with something made on the continent I was traveling across, so the Honda fit the plan. Besides not having the money for the K1, I could not picture it on some jungle track, and the R80 G/S looked like it was ready for some love and attention, like mine resting at home. After some days on the 250-cc Honda I realised how much easier it would be to ride the Honda around the world than my old BMW R80 G/S or some newer 400 kilogram monster. The Honda was light, nimble and able to carry nearly everything my R80 G/S could, except for the spare parts and tools. Possibly with the Honda I would not have needed all the spare parts and tools I carried with the BMW, but that is a consideration for another ride around the world.
A good map is well worth the money spent. One small mistake crossing the above bridge could have been a costly error as the motorcycle would have fallen 10 meters into the river below. I have had to dredge one of my other motorcycles out of a river once before. They do not run well underwater, do not float and usually suffer electronic malfunctions after submerged.
Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia was a welcome relief after having crossed India, Nepal and Bangladesh. After two meals at Macdonald's in Bangkok I could feel the calories starting to stick. Had I more time I think I could have easily regained the 10 kilograms I lost over the last four months. The supply line for cool swill was also greatly improved upon landing in Bangkok, where I found a chilled arsenal available 24 hours a day at any of 100's of mini marts. Gas was plentiful at about $1.50 per gallon. Cheap rooms ($5.00 USD, with air conditioning or a fan, sometimes more for television) made camping foolish (Thailand and it's neighbours have some of the largest and meanest snakes in the world, and I hate snakes) and food was well within my limited budget. Internet cafes were plentiful and high speed, cost less than $1.00 per hour, and often air-conditioned. Tires could be a problem if you have an odd size (you may not get the brand you want), but most could be found, especially in Bangkok.
When I walked over an open sewer in a small backcountry village my Thailand bubble popped. There was no sewer system so the human waste was flowing freely into the local river. I was immediately reminded of Varanasi in India or sections of Kathmandu in Nepal. It is a smell not easily forgotten, and I think unique to Asia. It is not the same smell as in Central and South America or Africa, where the level of excrement and disposal system is often the same. Possibly the rice in Asia makes the difference. As they often say in Thailand, "Same-same," but I do not think so. Maybe they mean "Same-game," and I am not hearing them right.
(Next I move North and eventually onto Taiwan. Known as the "most unsafe motorcycling country in the world," I want to see why.)
July 27, 2000, Going Out Again - 'Round The World
October 4, 2000, Why Another Long Ride, The Plan, and Mr. Fish
October 10, 2000, the beginning, in America on an Indian
November 6, 2000, AMAZONAS-Tamed By Beasts in Brazil
November 22, 2000, Monster Cow, Wolpertinger and Autobahn Crawling Across Europe
December 22, 2000, Enfield 500 Bullet, India Motorcycle Dementia, Ozoned Harley-Davidsons and Gold Wings
December 25, 2000, Yeti on a Harley-Davidson, Nepal By Enfield, No Carnet Sexpedition
January 1, 2001, Haunting Yeti
January 25, 2001, Monkey Soccer, Asian Feet, Air 'em Up: Bhutan and Sikkim
February 12, 2001, Midgets, Carnetless, Steve McQueen on Enfield, Bangladesh
February 20, 2001, Higgledypiggledy, Salacity, and Zymurgy - India
March 20, 2001, Road warriors, sand, oil leaks - meditating out of India
April 8, 2001, Bike Cops, Elephants, and Same-Same - Thailand
May 1, 2001, Little Bikes, Millions of Bikes, Island Riding - Taiwan
May 15, 2001, Harley-Davidson, Mother Road and Super Slabs - America
June 8 , 2001, Crossing The Crazy Woman With A Harley-Davidson, Indian, BMW, Amazonas, Enfield, Hartford, SYM, Honda
January 1, 2002, Donged, Bonged, and Gonged - Burma
January 20, 2002, Secrets of The Golden Triangle - Thailand
March 31, 2002, Bear Wakes, Aims Green Machine Around The World
April 10, 2002, Moto Cuba - Crashes, Customs and El Jefe (Fidel)
May 20, 2002, Europe and The Roads South to Africa
June 10, 2002, Morocco Motorcycling, Thieves and Good Roads
July 30, 2002, Russia – Hard and Soft, By Motorcycle
August 30, 2002, USA – American Roadkill, Shipping Bikes and BIG DOGS
September 30, 2002, Good Times Roll Home, Riding With Clothes On, Team Green - USA
November, 2002, Mexico By Motorcycle - Gringos, Little Norman Bad Cock, and Bandits
March 2003, Laos by motorcycle - Guerrillas, Mekong Beering, and Plain of Coffins
July, 2003, Alaska by motorcycle – Deadhorse, Fish Story and Alaskan Bush
January 2004, Angkor, Bombed Out Roads and Dog Eaters - Cambodia
April, 2004, Minsking, Uncle Ho and Snake Wine
August 2004, Around The World Again, 1st Tag Deadhorse
February 2005, Colombia To The End Of The Earth - South America
January 2006, My Marriage, Long Strange Ride, Montana Nights
May 2006, Cherry Girls, Rebels, Crash and Volcano - Philippines
September 2006, Break Bike Mountain Ride – United States
March 2007, Kawasaki Cult Bike “No Stranger To Danger Expedition” - Thailand and Cambodia
November 2007, Lone Wolf Wanders: Bears, Moose, Buffalo, Fish
April 2009, Global Adventure Roaming: Burma through the USA to headhunters on Borneo
February 2010, Adventure Motorcycle Travel: Expedition to Alaska, then Java
Copyright © Dr. Gregory W. Frazier. 1999- All Rights Reserved.
Thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author,
and not necessarily Horizons Unlimited