Motorcycle touring in Thailand is probably the easiest* place to begin exploring Southeast Asia, due to its longstanding and widespread tourism industry that caters to everyone from off-road enduro nuts to Harley devotees. Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, Thailand’s infrastructure and services are really rather modernised, meaning an abundance of land, sea and air travel options to reach your starting point and straightforward bike rental when you’re there. You’ll find a thriving and knowledgeable expat scene and for the most part, Thai’s are super welcoming. What’s more, English is widely spoken (that said, making an effort with the lingo is greatly respected).
Accessible, however, definitely does not equal boring. The rural, wild and farang-less regions of this fascinating and proud nation are within easy reach of the main tourist hubs but unless you’re on a motorcycle you’ll never experience the truly adventurous side of Thailand, with it’s excellent trails, tribal villages and adjective defying landscape.
*Note: ’easiest’ refers to motorcycle touring in thailand with rental bikes. Temporary import of your own vehicle via land crossing is as much a headache as in the rest of Asia. More on this below.
Top Routes/Destinations for Motorcycle Touring in Thailand
The infamous Mae Hong Son loop presents quintessential northern Thailand in a manageable 670 km circuit that starts and ends in Chiang Mai. You will climb Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon, encounter rural hill tribes and pass through hippy hideout Pai, home to some of the most stunning rice paddy scenery in Southeast Asia. It’s a popular backpacker route but one of the most scenic in all of Thailand and can be adapted according to your time frame and/or experience. It’s also where you’ll find the best dirt biking in Thailand.
Mae Sarieng Loop
This is fast, flowing 520 km route is an alternative to the above Mae Hong Son loop and particularly good for encountering ‘long-neck’ Karen hill tribes. You’ll also hit the R1192, R1263 and 108, presenting some of the tightest snaking roads in the north and flanked by luscious rolling hills and farmland. From Mae Sarieng you can ride out and poke your nose over the Myanmar border, a journey that again involves steep and tight roads with a healthy dose of loose gravel to keep you alert. This can be joined with the Mae Hong Son loop or used as a scenic gateway to amazing Myanmar.
Doi Ang Khang and the Myanmar Border
This excellent 350 km overnight mission from Chiang Mai is for experienced riders as the roads are incredibly steep and strewn with hairpins. As you plummet into Nor Lae en route to Fang you’ll no doubt be pondering the health and safety guidelines when it comes to building roads in northern Thailand! Take it easy and stay the night in Fang, from which point you can return to Chiang Mai or use it as a gateway for an extended Golden Triangle Tour. Suggested route: Chiang Mai- Chiang Dao – Arunothai- Sinchai – Doi Ang Khang- Nor Lae- Fang.
Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle was once a dangerous land of opium, drug lords and rebel militia. Today the draw card is some of the finest motorcycle riding in the world. The road network built during the region’s dark past delivers scenic climbs to glowing Buddhist temples atop distant peaks, a maze of abandoned logging trails, cattle tracks through hill tribe villages and the ever-challenging terrain of the Himalayan foothills.
Located 180-250 km (depending on the route) north east of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is Thailand’s northern-most city and your base for a journey into the exotic world of the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand meet Myanmar in the north and west and Laos in the north-east. The region is replete with curious markets, traditional village life and mountains to rival any in Southeast Asia. I highly recommend heading up to Mae Sai.
Culturally speaking, the most interesting thing you will experience is the different hill tribes, including Akha, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Tai Yai and Tai Lue. It’s not uncommon to see people dressed in traditional handmade garments and weighty silver jewellery, the originals of which are highly sought after by antique collectors.
The preferred Golden Triangle route, recommended by the guys at GT rider is: Chiang Mai – Fang – Tha Ton – Doi Mae Salong – Doi Tung – Mae Sai – Golden Triangle – Chiang Saen – Chiang Khong – Chiang Kham – Phayao – Chiang Mai. It’s 800 km with plenty of legroom for side trips into Chiang Rai and any back country that takes your fancy. A good week long tour.
Krabi and the south
Although the south of Thailand has an abundance of world class scenery with many regions not overrun by sunburnt, mushroom shake swilling gap year students, the main drawcard remains island hopping and bobbing around on scooters.
You can find the odd dirt bike for rent but island prices for just about everything tend to be double or triple the mainland and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to venture too far before being faced with boat related logistics and/or the annoyance of having to retrace your footsteps to return the bike and regain your passport, held as collateral. The Krabi region however, is home to show stopping limestone karsts, the epic Tiger Cave Temple and pockets of southern Thai culture that tourists largely ignore, such as the fishing village of Ko Klang and Phang Nga township.
Paperwork, Passports and Visas for Motorcycle Touring in Thailand
U.K, U.S and Australian passport holders receive a free 30-day visa upon arrival at Thailand’s international airports.
Have at least 6 months validity on your passport and just to be safe, an onward ticket. Speaking from experience, while onward travel itineraries are not always checked at Thai immigration, it can present hold ups at the airport before you leave home. Often, governments put the onus on international carriers to ensure their passengers have onward tickets, so that it’s one less thing immigration officers have to deal with.
If you are crossing overland into Thailand be sure to check the official visa and immigration website for up to date information as regulations are always changing. At the time of writing, overland crossings have been cut down from 30 to 15 days. You can always acquire a 60 day Thai Tourist Visa before crossing overland.
In major cities and tourist hotspots you’ll often see temporary police checkpoints raking in wads of Baht for their end of year party, thanks to the hoards of farangs (foreigners) who ride without helmets and/or international licences. The fines aren’t huge (400-1000 THB) but can be avoided with an International Drivers Permit, easily obtained from your home country. It is important to note, however that your insurance won’t be worth a thing if you’re IDP is for a car and you have an accident on a motorcycle. More on this below.
Bike Permits & Carnets
The ever informative forums on Ride Asia and Horizons Unlimited have made it clear that temporary import of your own bike and/or crossing into Thailand on one that you’ve obtained from another country on your journey is one major headache. In fact, it’s hardly worth it unless you’re planning on relocating to Thailand and have the time, money and patience required.
At the tail end of 2016, independent travel now comes with the burden of pre-approved guides and itineraries as well as permits. Read about it on the Ride Asia forum.
World Nomads are an adventure traveller’s best friend. They understand that exploring strange and foreign lands on a motorcycle makes many of us very, very happy to be alive. That said, read the small print and email them in person with your itinerary to get a fully personalised quote. Remember: insurance plus valid motorcycle licence from home or you’re not covered. Ticking the “motorcycle“ box on your International Drivers Permit even though you don‘t have a valid bike licence from home will fool/satisfy a Thai policeman but your insurance company won’t swallow it!
Absolutely yes. You’re in a land of corrupt police where you are most likely perceived to have a lot more money than the average villager that you just collided with. Even if it was not your fault, in most cases the finger will point to the foolish farang and you’ll be liable. Having the correct paperwork and being respectful to the police will help but don’t rely on apologising your way out of it. If you happen to have the wrong paperwork or no paperwork, you’ll be in boiling hot water and not even your insurance company will be able to help you out.
Access To Money
In the major cities, the popular islands and even mountainous backpacker spots like Pai you will find plenty of ATMs, most of which have the option for English language. The light blue colour Krung Thai seem to be the most consistent.
In short, Thai roads are dangerous. Technically the country drives on the left, but most of the time it’s a wonder they even bother wasting paint on lane markings, pedestrian crossings or one way signage. Even in cheery Chiang Mai, the swarm of scooters is an ‘every man for himself’ scenario and while we’re not talking Sri Lanka or India levels of reckless driving, tuktuks and songthaews (converted utes) are plain dangerous. In rural areas the riding is of course more challenging in terms of terrain but at least you don’t have crowds to deal with. Still, keep in mind the suicidal tendencies of bus drivers on mountain roads.
Fill up jerrycans from actual gas stations, roadside fuel can be dirty and diluted.
Best Time of Year for Motorcycle Touring in Thailand
High season for motorcycle touring in Thailand is Nov- Feb and the weather is generally good across the country. Avoid June – Oct as it’s monsoon time. Yi Peng lantern festival around the full moon in November each year is a magical time to pass through Chiang Mai.
Advice & Inspiration for Motorcycle Touring in Thailand
Check out our blog for articles on our experiences motorcycle touring in Thailand, read more about motorcycle touring in Southeast Asia or read our general Adventure Motorcycle Touring Guide.