Planning a riding tour overseas needn’t be fraught with potholes, even for newbies
MAE HONG SON, THAILAND - There’s nothing like the euphoria of a freshly minted license, especially when it’s a Class 2B that will let you live out your Easy Rider fantasies. Encased in a shell on four-wheels, car drivers tend to forget the freedom of real wind-in-hair motoring that only riders on the long and winding roads can appreciate, and no, it doesn’t even come close if you own a convertible but keep the rag-top up all the time either.
Well, my brother Ken and I finally got our Class 2B bike licenses after six-months. Now, we’ve had our car licenses for 15 years and counting, so it’s been awhile that we’d been embroiled in the testing circus, and underestimated the tedium involved. Fast forward five months post qualification and I’m desperately seeking kakis for a riding trip in Thailand. Destiny must have been smiling, since both our schedules freed-up in December to embark on an epic five-day riding trip. Perfect. I had always wanted to check out Pai and had also heard great things about the Mae Hong Son loop.
We fly into Chiang Mai and make a beeline for ‘Pop Rider Bike Rental’, a ginormous bike rental shop that had every conceivable type of bike for rent. Our initial plan was to rent two Honda CB300Fs, naked bikes that are close to our own Duke 200s. However, our licenses didn’t matter much to Pop Biker, nor did the engine class. It was about this time that I spotted the bike I’d been lusting after all through my bike lessons – the Honda CB500X. What’s more, the keys to all the bikes were in the ignition. All. The. Bikes.
And therein lies the first lesson for novice riders. Don’t be led into temptation, because if this is your first trip (as it was ours) you’re riding a new bike in a new land, so it’s better to follow your head than your heart. I was hopping giddily from bike to bike until my brother’s voice of reason decided we should stick to a lower capacity bike (for safety’s sake, that stick-in-the-mud!), which took the forms of a pair of Yamaha MT-03s, a 321cc naked bike.
Chiang Mai – Mae Sariang
We set off the next morning at 5am in hopes of catching the sunrise at Doi Inthanon. Getting out of Chiang Mai was easy enough at that time, and we had ample opportunity to get to know our bikes and fill them up. The MT-03s are torquey little monsters that satiated our low threshold for power (having never ridden anything more powerful than 200cc in Singapore).
Things got interesting as soon as we started our climb up the mountain. Firstly, we caught a glimpse of what was to come – the Mae Hong Son district consists of hills surrounding a National Park and the sinuous ribbon of corners that greeted us reminded me of South Buona Vista Road and Vigilante Drive back in Singapore, only that these kept going and going. Not that we were complaining, although blasting past slow moving traffic was unnerving at times.
We knew it was high, but didn’t realise Doi Inthanon is the highest point in Thailand, so we were unprepared for the cold front that hit us the higher we rode. At one stage, we were hugging our fuel tanks to keep warm in the 13ºC temperatures – and that’s excluding wind-chill factor. Happily enough, we picked-up cheesy “All I Got...” sweaters at a souvenir shop on the summit – hands down the best 100 baht spent on the trip.
We stopped at the foot of the mountain for a roadside lunch before heading from cold to ‘Hot’ (it’s a real place, we kid you not!). We made a detour to the Ob Luang National Park before arriving at the guesthouse at Mae Sariang after ten hours on the road, tired and hungry.
Mae Sariang – Pai
We had some distance to cover on our second day so we set off at 6am. There’s something magical about hitting the road at the crack of dawn – the gentle purr of the aftermarket exhausts, the slumbering village, the empty streets and cool air collude to engage my senses as the sights, sounds and smells are forever etched in my memory.
Then we arrived in what was clearly God’s own driving roads – the most beautiful set of curves and beguiling switchbacks materialised and invited us to tango.
We were quickly lost in our own worlds negotiating the bends – it was the best ‘motoring’ experience I have ever had. The ability to lean into a corner on a bike made it all the more involving, as was the fact that you’re fully exposed to the grit, grime and elements, with the bugs and gravel etching battle-scars and pockmarks on our gear. The roads were largely clear, but we did spot fellow pilgrims on their own journeys of discovery headed in the opposite direction.
We stopped for coffee at a famous lookout point and then headed into Mae Hong Son in search of our checkpoint to get our certificates for doing the MHS loop (located at the Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce). Then it was onward, leaving the 108 and getting on the famous 1095. Little did we know that it was famous for a reason.
We encountered our very first hairpin almost immediately on the 1095, and it took us by surprise. I kicked down to first and powered up the hill, but Ken dropped his bike on the inside of the turn. Fortunately, a pickup driver stopped his vehicle to help us recover the bike. The weight of the bike, angle of the slope and thin air made it tough for us to get it back on its stand.
We finally reached Pai and once again, were completely knackered by the day’s activities. Thankfully, it was nothing a little Thai massage couldn’t knead out.
Pai – Chiang Mai
Packing became second nature on our last day. Prepping the bike was like clockwork and we soon rolled out for our shortest ride of the trip. The 1095 would have been the perfect route were it not for the multiple roadworks en route. We had to negotiate gravel strewn, steep downhill stretches with cars breathing down our backs. Hairy stuff.
We quickly zeroed in on a local on his Honda cub, following his every move and line down the slope and trying to keep close to him (even if our bikes were rocking double his power).
Bruised ego aside, we were happy to have completed the Mae Hong Son loop, and there wasn’t a better person to do it with than my brother. We chatted for hours on the ride over the intercom, something we haven’t done for ages, even in Singapore.
The dusty boots and mud-caked bikes bore testament to our being thrown into the deep end, with everything that we learnt at riding school – leaning, pushing, counter-steering – all put to the test; a veritable trial-by-fire that we successfully graduated from, if I may say so myself.
And then we got back to Singapore and it was time to put our ‘P’ plates on again... - STORY/PHOTOS BENJY CHOO
This feature first appeared in TopGear Singapore #47 (Feb'2016)