Thailand: World’s greatest motorcycle touring destination?

“ [Thailand's] road-runner, cartoon-like roads simply delight the motorcyclist with stunning mountain vistas and lush nature.   This is the Thailand we buy in postcards, and this is the Thailand we promote to our friends, and this is the Thailand we wish to preserve.   Cruise through it on two-wheels and it rekindles a love affair with a destination born to please.”

road to Phu Chee Fah, Chiang Rai

Let’s make it official, shall we? Thailand is one of the world’s greatest motorcycle travel destinations. Many years and several thousand kilometers of fervent research have proved this to me, and each time I set out to plan a new trip, or review an existing one, I’m struck by the depth of experiences that a motorcycle adventure in Thailand affords.

Motorcyclists choose a riding destination for a few primary reasons:

1 –  Quality of road surface and uniqueness of the route

smooth, grey, built to please

2 – Quality of natural scenery for the motorcyclist to enjoy

3 – Services for the motorcyclist, such as hotels, restaurants, motorcycle maintenance, and of course, availability of great bikes!
4 – Non-Motorcycling activities to combine with the adventure, such as local festivals, activities and entertainment, etc.

Over the years, one of my missions has been to promote Thailand as a world-class motorcycling destination and in doing so Smiling Albino has learned to combine these four points with a degree of creativity and fun that is second to none. If you are a serious adventure traveler or motorcycle enthusiast, motorcycle travel in Thailand should be at the top of your lifetime highlight reel.

 

a gorgeous stretch of rte. # 1093, Chiang Rai

1 – Quality of road surface and uniqueness of the route

You can drive on smooth, clean highways in just about any country, but motorcyclists (like cyclists) know that the real magic is found on the back roads, the farm roads and national parks routes that tease the throttle and ignite the fun. Thailand is simply outstanding in this regard. With 65 million people and a land mass roughly that of France, Thailand has an extraordinary network of rural roads, national parks, and hidden corners with blacktop tarmac that are a motorcyclist’s dream. While of course there are obstructions (chickens, water buffalo, dogs, people, parades) the roadways in Thailand are motorcycle-friendly.

coffee stop on rte. #1256 in Nan

I’ve always been delighted over the years that some of the out of the way routes on provincial maps often prove to have excellent motorcycling conditions and are seldom traveled, without large truck and commercial traffic of the main highways. The provinces of Chiang Rai, Loei, Phayao, Phrae, Nan, Ubon Ratchathai, Khon Kaen, Si Saket and Mae Hong Son provide thousands of kilometers of dream routes, many seemingly light years away from traffic and commercial vehicles. In fact, just 15kms northeast of Bangkok, through the Lad Krabang shortcuts towards Prachinburi are some brilliant, curvy roads among rice fields, coconut trees and smiling locals. You don’t need to go far from the city to understand why Thailand is a great motorcycling destination.

quiet roads in Khon Kaen

Ironically, political pork-barreling over the years has accounted for some superb roads in the most unlikely of places. Who knew that far-flung corners of Si Saket, Ubon Ratchathani and Sakorn Nakorn had hundreds of kilometers of undiscovered blacktop roads? I once found a shortcut from Nong Khai towards Nakorn Phanom in Thailand’s northeast and it felt like I was the first person ever to travel on this perfect stretch of black asphalt. Over an hour of bliss, seemingly no one in sight. Thailand delights with these pleasant discoveries.

2 – Quality of scenery for the motorcyclist to enjoy

In terms of beautiful natural scenery, Thailand is blessed by mountains, rivers, forests and jungle. A primarily agricultural nation outside of the capital means that secondary roads, such as the ones linking Chachoeng Sao to Prachinburi, or Khon Kaen to Udon Thani are flanked with a green backdrop, smiling farmers, canals, and lush banana plantations on all sides.

a spectacle for locals - all part of the fun

Further afield, in less populated corners such as Nan province, or northern Phayao and Chiang Rai, you can travel for an hour without passing a village while being charmed by 2,000-meter high mountains, dense forest, and a dazzling array of twisty highland roads.

On top of this I haven’t mentioned some of the natural and man-made gems you’ll see along the way, but the

motorcycling is so good that I tend to forget about anything else. Waterfalls, glimmering temples, national parks and raging rivers abound in the far north, northeast and upper central areas of Thailand. Call them coffee stops, or photo opp’s, they’re a great reason to pull over and marvel at where you are and become a temporary celebrity for curious locals. Khao Yai National Park, for instance, is Thailand’s oldest and 2nd largest park. Established in 1962, the smooth road through Khao Yai National Park is a favourite amongst motorcyclists with a backdrop of evergreen forests and grasslands, as well as nearly 70 species of mammals.

900-year old ruins discovered on two wheels

Thematically, you can design a motorcycle expedition based on some of these local phenomena. Smiling Albino once designed a trip called ‘The Angkor Road’, which loosely traces the ancient thoroughfare of historic stone ruins from Central Thailand along southern Isaan’s border with Cambodia all the way to the Emerald Triangle in Ubon across the Mekong River from Laos.

Along the way we visit 900-year old Khmer ruins that rival many of those seen at Angkor, such as Prasat Pimai, Phnom Rung, Prasat Muang Tam, and some lovely hidden gems like Sikhoraphum, Prasat Phnom Wan, Prasat Phum Pon, among others. It is true that some of the most magnificent Khmer ruins arewithin Thailand’s borders.  This route also passes through some of the more surreal landmarks of south Isaan, such as the legendary bottle temple in Si Saket, constructed from thousands of discarded beer, whiskey and soda bottles.

As befitting a motorcycle trip, this route also makes a serious attempt at musical exposure – especially the north eastern Thai phenomenon of maw lam, an almost hypnotic folk rock-a-billy rhythmic event worth the trip itself. This kind of music is often played in wooden “roadhouse”-type establishments throughout the north and northeast. For some reason, this energetic nighttime country vibe in Thailand goes hand-in-throttle with rural motorcycle discovery.

charming Chiang Khan, Loei, a Mekong gem

Another route, for those needing more reasons that just the riding, would be to follow the mighty Mekong River from one of its northern points, such as Loei or Nong Khai province, eastward and then south beyond Nakorn Phanom,

Mukhdahan, Ubon Ratchathani and then bid the river farewell as it crosses Thailand for the last time and disappears into to Laos-Cambodia border. This is a beautiful 500-kilometer stretch of road that takes the rider through some of Thailand’s most charming riverside towns, some still in their original wooden store-front state, like Chiang Khan in Loei, or Khong Jiam in Ubon.

the amazing rte. #1155 to Wiang Kaen, Chiang Rai - iPhone shot while riding

After traveling to nearly 40 countries, I can attest that Thailand’s top rides compete with the finest roads anywhere on earth.  The most spectacular routes in Thailand are the high roads around Phu Chee Fah, Chiang Rai, Bo Klua, Nan, Phu Luang, Loei as well as Doi Mae Salong and Doi Angkhang in the far north. These road-runner, cartoon-like roads simply delight the motorcyclist (or van support riders!) with absolutely stunning mountain vistas and lush nature. This is the Thailand we buy in postcards, and this is the Thailand we promote to our friends, and this is the Thailand we wish to preserve. Cruise through it on two-wheels and it rekindles a love affair with a destination born to please. There are fewer finer stretches of road on the planet than the 80-kilomter dream path above the clouds from Song Kwae, Nan, to Chiang

Kham, Phayao, or the mountain top stretch from Wang Saphung, Loei towards Lom Sak, Petchabun. Far from the known tourist trails, clearly, these roads were designed by motorcyclists!  There are thankfully far more curves, twists and dips than would appear necessary. It is pure riding bliss and I challenge anyone to find finer roads anywhere.

 

3 – Services for the motorcyclist, such as hotels, restaurants, motorcycle maintenance, and of course, availability of great bikes!

Above all, this is where Thailand really sets itself apart as a supreme motorcycling destination. Whether a 90-kilometer ride, or a 300-kilometer big day on big bikes, Thailand is filled with hidden gems and boutique resorts to connect the dots of the journey. On recent trips we’ve stayed in a private royal villa on the banks of the Mekong River, to luxury golf resorts such as Kirimaya Resort in Khao Yai, to charming rural properties like Bo Klua View Resort in Nan, or the wonderful Phu Pha Nam  in Loei. These properties are located along some of the nicest roads in Thailand, and arriving on two wheels brings something uniquely enchanting to the stay. Do a few day rides and stay a little longer. This is the Thailand I hope never changes.

coffee break for Harley, Kawasaki, Ducati and friends

There are great services for the visitor and the resident alike on a Thailand Motorcycle trip. We partner with private motorcycle clubs such as our good friends at Siam Wheels, as well as reputable sources to hire out bikes on short term trips such as Joes Bikes in Chiang Mai, Big Cycle in Udon,  ST Motorcycle in Chiang Rai, Bangkok Bikes and several in between.

An excellent source for general knowledge on riding in Thailand and the region can be found at GT Rider, and there are outstanding maps of every corner of Thailand, such as the Roadways Group of rural maps, and of course the groovy folks at Groovy Map, and the well-detailed PN Maps.

We have spent some time compiling a list of reputable mechanics in places as far away as Surin, Nong Bualampu, Phayao, Buriram, and Nong Khai, and it might surprise you that you can get some Ducati service in Ubon Ratchathani, or tune up a Harley-Davidson in Udon Thani. This is a motorcycling country, albeit usually on much smaller bikes (typically 100cc scooters), but nevertheless the services are out there if you look in the right places. We’ve transported motorcycles on trains, boats and trucks in order to start and end the trip just at the right place, Just at the right moment. Better yet, bring a mechanic and bike support team along with you and ride in style.

fueled and ready for the ride south from Nong Khai

What bike to ride?  One of my favourites of late is the Kawasaki 650cc ER-6n. This is an outstanding bike for motorcycle touring in Thailand. Nimble, responsive, and great in a variety of weather and road conditions, the ER-6n is ideal for any road ride in the kingdom.

That said, different routes require different bikes, and the long, winding roads of Isaan are a delight on large bikes such as Harley-Davidson’s. Smiling Albino teams up with Siam Wheels to offer the only completely customized, high-end motorcycle touring to offer a wide variety of motorcycles ranging from Ducati, Harley-Davidson, Triumph, Kawasaki, BMW, Hayabusa, Yamaha and more. There is something thematic about cruising through Thailand’s “wild east” in Isaan on a chopper. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda would agree, and the nighttime music vibe will lure you back again and again.

 

4 – Non-Motorcycle Activities

golf at Santiburi - Northern Thailand motorcyle trip

Plan a motorcycle trip with a bit of whimsical adventure in mind. Recently we took a group of eight riders in Nan Province white-water rafting as part of the trip, and the year before on a private elephant polo session in Surin, or wine tasting in Loei at one of Thailand’s emerging vineyards, and of course a great round of golf here and there. With some planning, you can accomplish all of these things in a single trip (well, maybe not the elephant polo).

On some routes such as heading back from lower Isaan or south towards Pattaya, the mountains meet the ocean through a series of back roads, and you can jump from motorcycles to a golf course, and then to a private catamaran for a sunset cruise and BBQ all in a single afternoon. Logistics need some finesse, but the costs would be a fraction of trying the same trio of experiences in California, Australia, or Europe. The experience is priceless.

great at all angles - motorcycling in Thailand

High-quality motorcycle touring can and should be combined with cultural interaction, and a true appreciation for a region and its people.  From Khmer ruins to the unique food and music throughout Isaan, to Thailand’s indigenous mountain peoples in the north, to the various cultural styles of the Lanna, Thai-Laos, and Thai-Shan regions of Thailand’s border regions. There is a mosaic of cultural discovery beneath the road map. Strap on a helmet and go find it!

Each year we host 3-4 motorcycle trips ranging from 5-10 riders, and we continue to set the standard for exotic, high-value motorcycle adventuring. More than just great roads, funky restaurants, or a fun music pub, we try to weave it all together into a series of experiences that propel the motorcycle adventurer into an experience of a lifetime. Thailand was made for motorcycling.  Get out there on two wheels and discover it!

Here’s a fun motorcycle video of one of our trips a couple years ago:  http://www.youtube.com/user/SmilingAlbinoLtd#p/u/23/l1JYSL8OueM

 

Here are some assorted images of motorcycle touring in Thailand.

suiting up in front of Phu Kha Nan Fah Hotel

 

crusing along the Mekong, Loei

back roads into Nan

easy rider towns in Isaan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the thrill-seeking #1148 into Phayao

curvey roads linking Phayao and Chiang Rai

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7 Responses to “Thailand: World’s greatest motorcycle touring destination?”

  1. [...] adventures!  Listen to Daniel and Trevor discuss motorbiking in Thailand, following up on the blog Daniel recently wrote about his expertise on the subject. Open road for motorbikes in Thailand Share [...]

    • johannes says:

      Thailand is great – so true!
      Btw: Where are thoses shortcuts via Lad Krabang shortcuts towards Prachinburi that you mentioned?
      Is it that you turn left after the airport? (just checked on google maps.
      I took a similar route to Kao Yai once, but there wasn’t too much going on :(
      Thx!

      • admin says:

        Johannes,

        Thanks for the email – not sure how to explain it online – it’s mainly in our head. Give Dan a call at our office if you’d like to chat with him about it and thank you for reading our Blog.

      • Daniel says:

        hi there – if you follow Lad Krabang Soi 11, or Soi 15 over the small canals, then take the old road from Thanon Chao Khun following Khlong Mon towards Bang Nam Priew, it is a lovely ride!

  2. johannes says:

    Thanks guys!
    Gave it a play, guess that’s what you are talking about:
    http://i50.tinypic.com/2wnmjrs.jpg
    looks nice!
    might run in my new tires there tomorrow… :)

  3. Eli Allen Photography…

    Thailand: World’s greatest motorcycle touring destination? – Planet Asia Travel Channel…

  4. Raam says:

    Any recommendations on where to buy a motorbike for such tour?is there an estimate for a cost of fitting motorcycle. A like a suzuki cruiser.

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