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Chiang Mai to Pai on the world’s slowest scooter

December 5, 2011 | Thailand, Travel | 32 Comments
Scootering to Pai

“It seems a bit underpowered”, I said.

“No no, it will be ok sir.” came the reply.

“Are you sure?  I’m going to Pai, remember.”

“It will be ok.  Good bike.”

Good bike my ass.

I would have been better off on rollerskates.

I’d already swapped bikes once due to dodgy brakes and was keen to finally hit the road, so with one last dubious look at the guy from the rental shop I drove slowly away.  Drove slowly away.  Take note of that word.  You’ll be hearing it a lot.

The road from Chiang Mai to Pai in the mountains of northern Thailand is famous for two things: scenery and vomit.  The 140km length apparently contains 762 bends, and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard at least as many motion-sickness stories from shaken backpackers who thought the cheap minibus option sounded like a great idea.

Three hours in a motorised barf bag didn’t sound like my idea of a good time, so it was time for option B.  The mighty Honda Click.  I believe the “Click” refers to the noise it makes when you twist the throttle round as far as it goes.  An extremely regular occurrence.  Not that it makes much difference to your speed, mind you.

A short trip through Chiang Mai’s old town and we were heading north along the traffic-choked highway toward Mae Rim.  Lauren, my partner in crime / masochism on this ride, pointed out that I seemed a little less confident throwing this bike around compared to our previous excursion up to Doi Suthep.  No surprise really, given the damn thing took about a month to reach cruising speed.

Sharp curves

Sucking down exhaust fumes while weaving between buses and pickup trucks for 40km was about as much fun as it sounds, so it was a blessed relief to turn onto route 1095.  The traffic disappeared in a heartbeat and suddenly we were back to the unbridled joy of two wheels, wide-open spaces and the gorgeous scenery of this part of the world.

And then we hit the hills.

The comfortable 50-60km/h pace that we had been maintaining started to wane.  No problem, I thought.  Slower is always safer in this part of the world after all – the multitude of backpackers around town with road rash serves as a sobering daily reminder.

Down to 40km/h we dropped.  And then 30.  Hmmm.  The bike’s transmission – which hadn’t exactly been quiet to start with – really started to complain.  That was slightly concerning, but hey, it hadn’t blown up yet, the views were still spectacular and the slower we went the more we got to enjoy them … right?

This was about the point that we saw the ‘steep incline’ signs.

Ok.

Good.

So everything up until then had been merely a gentle slope then?

Below 20km/h we went.  15km/h was a perfectly acceptable speed apparently.  Well it certainly gave us plenty of time to chat about the weather … our travels … perhaps read War and Peace.  Twice.  Backwards.  While waving at the little old ladies on crutches overtaking us.

Eventually (and I do mean eventually) the road flattened out and we got back to a more acceptable pace.  Just in time to hit a few small potholes.  Nothing major at all for any normal bike … but this was no normal bike.

So just to keep things interesting, the front of the scooter promptly fell off.

Bike with no front

With a sudden clatter an entire plastic section went skittering off down the road behind us.  Now I’m no expert but I didn’t think that was an expected feature of most motorbike rides.  We wheeled round to pick it up, to the bemused chuckle of an elderly woman who had come out to see what all the noise was about.  At least we could keep people entertained.

There was no way that thing was going to stay attached any longer, so Lauren got to add to the camera, biscuits, water bottle and god knows what else she was already balancing between us on the bike.  With the amount of crap that we were carrying I reckon we were about ready to be mistaken for locals.  All we needed was a couple of car tyres, three kids and a goat on the front and we were set.

Thankfully the last hour of the ride was less dramatic – at least in terms of destroying the bike.  The view, however, just got better and better.  After splashing another litre of gas in the tank via a roadside stall and a soft drink bottle, we coasted down the final mountain and into Pai, tired, hungry and buzzing with adrenaline.  It had been an amazing day and we were both grinning from ear to ear.

There is simply no better way to get from Chiang Mai to Pai than on a motorbike.  Period.

Just try to get one that can accelerate.

And not fall to pieces.

The ride from Chiang Mai to Pai on the world’s slowest scooter

 


A few tips for making the most of your ride from Chiang Mai to Pai

  • Make sure the bike is up to the task and don’t be afraid to change it if you’re not sure.  Mine was, but only just – it would have been an even more enjoyable ride with more power and less bits falling off.  Manual is better than automatic.
  • Despite what some people will tell you, the ride is perfectly safe if you have some experience riding scooters.  Take it slow (I didn’t have a choice), give yourself plenty of time and take several breaks.  Don’t leave Chiang Mai any later than 11am, and earlier if you’re planning on visiting the towns and waterfalls along the way.
  • The road is generally in good condition and far from treacherous when dry.  Having said that there are plenty of small potholes in sections, so make sure you’re going slow enough (especially downhill) to see and avoid them if you’d prefer to survive the journey intact.
  • Keep as far left as you can.  The side of the road is your only escape route from other traffic.
  • Don’t ride at night, because that’s just insane.
  • Make sure you’re insured in the event of an accident.
  • Have your camera to hand – you’ll regret it if you don’t.
  • Keep an eye on your fuel gauge as you may not make it on one tank and the last official petrol station is well before the half way mark when coming from Chiang Mai.
  • Relax and enjoy the ride – with a few basic precautions it will be one of the most fun motorbike trips you ever have.
10 great gifts for the traveller in your life, 2011 edition
The Friday Photo #85 – A lot of hot air in Chiang Mai

32 Comments

  1. Reply

    Nice one, I think we're going to head up there in the next few weeks. Am a little scared of the potholes...

    Also, love the hip new edit of the video :)

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 5, 2011

      Hehe ... yeah you inspired me to re-edit it last night. I think it's a little better ;-)

  2. Reply

    Bo

    December 5, 2011

    I hired a similar 125cc honda buzzing around chiang rai province. i mean, the from mae salong, to mae sai, and the golden triangle, traversing along mekong river and what not... 1 week trip! nothing fell off :D

    it was an OK place, and yes hafta get to gear 1 on steep inclines. but hell yeah, its a very robust thingy

    - did some hilltribe visits on it
    - went offroad on it
    - passed through a small stream on it

    came back to chiang rai with the rental owner gawking with my stories. :D

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 5, 2011

      Sounds like an amazing trip! I was just saying to someone yesterday that I'm pretty sure I'll be back in that part of Thailand for a longer trip sometime soon ... there's so much more to see past Pai!

      • Reply

        Bo

        December 5, 2011

        I followed travelfish recommendation.... "doing the chiang rai loop on a bike"

        It was surely awesome. I had my ups and downs of riding, and blazing through visibility of only 10m, windy and cold mountain rain was crazy enough. Even the locals called me crazy for doing something like it LOL.

  3. Reply

    Greg

    December 5, 2011

    Did that ride last year and also had a scooter breakdown. Great fun, though! :)

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 5, 2011

      Some friends that came up a couple of days later managed to blow a belt on their bike on the way up, so it seems to be a requirement for the trip to Pai ;-)

  4. Reply

    The World of Deej

    December 5, 2011

    Awesome stuff....I thought you were going to eventually say you got off and pushed it:)

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 5, 2011

      Nope, but I was going to ask Lauren to get off and push. I'm sure she would have enjoyed that...

  5. Reply

    Haha but in the end you made it! That's all that counts right? ;-)

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 5, 2011

      Safe and sound, amazingly!

  6. Reply

    Greg

    December 6, 2011

    Ride 50 miles on a 1980's suzuki fa50. 49cc's and top speed of 28 (when it was new) took quite a while with the hills in my area. didn't mean it wasnt fun though. was probably a worn or glazed clutch. If its a CVT motor, not hard to do and easy to fix if you have the know-how.

  7. Reply

    Warren Talbot

    December 6, 2011

    Dave,
    Hysterical story and I love how you wrote it up. I only wish I could have been walking beside you and filmed the entire experience. I am sure it could have made for great video.

    We are considering heading to Pi next week and were just talking today about whether to take a scooter. Your post convinced us and we'll be renting one with plenty of power and will ensure the plastic appears ready to stay intact for a few more days.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 7, 2011

      You could probably have been crawling beside us and still filmed the entire experience to be honest... ;-)

      Def. take a scooter there - it's so much more fun than the minibus, - that's what the jealous (and slightly green) faces staring out the van windows at us were suggesting, at least!

  8. Reply

    Briar Jensen

    December 6, 2011

    Love this post Dave. Have done the trip in a mini bus, but thankfully on a private tour, which was probably not as rough as the local buses. Great drive though.

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 7, 2011

      Thanks Briar - yeah, you'd hope the insanity levels of the driving would be a little lower with a private tour...

  9. Reply

    DTravelsRound

    December 9, 2011

    I can't wait to do this! Although I'm not sure if I can drive a motorbike. It scares me. But, I would totally have a death grip on someone as the passenger!

  10. Reply

    Culture-ist

    December 9, 2011

    Sounds like quite an adventure! We took buses or car transportation everywhere in Chaing Mai and its surrounds, however renting the Honda adds quite a bit to the journey!

    • Reply

      Dave

      December 9, 2011

      Yeah it really added a lot to the journey - it made it at least as much fun as the destination! :)

  11. Reply

    Barbara - The Dropout Diaries

    December 10, 2011

    I wish I'd heard the stories about the minibuses before we got on one. Our trip up to Pai was not nearly as pleasant as yours. (So bad, we actually considered flying back to Chiang Mai.)
    Our traveling party was responsible for all the barf in our motorised barf bag. But what really annoyed me was the windows were so small and low (with curtains) that you couldn't see anything at all. The whole way up the only view we got to enjoy was the vomit bags tied to the handle of the seat in front of us.

  12. Reply

    Audrey

    December 29, 2011

    It does look like a slow ride, but on the other hand you got to take in ALL the scenery!

  13. Reply

    We are making this trip in a few days - Loved your recap and hope to get a better bike than you did, but at least it made the trip more eventful!

  14. Reply

    Chelsea Ingram

    September 2, 2012

    thanks for the advice. We are heading from Pai to Chiang Mai on two mopeds with our two little boys cruising on the back:) searching around the internet to make sure we weren't too crazy. I guess we will find out tomorrow!

  15. Reply

    Frank

    January 4, 2013

    Even with the rough bits you still make touring around on two wheels look really fun. So I'm guessing you did a multi day rental in Chiang Mai for the scooter? What are the options for rentals, the bike I have in the states is a 150cc manual and it's been good for me so far, anything like that there?

    • Reply

      Dave

      January 4, 2013

      Yup, I rented that bike for 4 days or so, I think. I ended up renting one by the month after that, as I was in Chiang Mai for quite a while. There are plenty of 110cc and 125cc options, both automatic and manual, available to hire for as long as you like. Expect to pay around $5 a day or so depending on the bike, less if you rent for longer periods.

      While I saw a few 150cc scooter options in Vietnam, I don't really remember seeing any in Thailand. They may well still exist, of course, but I don't remember them if so.

  16. Reply

    Helena

    March 14, 2013

    Alright there matey! I'm planning to do just what you did on the bike ride from Chiang Mai to Pai on a motorbike/scooter.. I'm going to start getting some practice in as have never ridden one before. I'm from the UK but currently living and working in South Korea, on Jeju Island. Amazing place if you ever get to visit Asia this way.
    Anyway, do you reckon it's the best way to see a bit of the north as opposed to taking a domestic flight? I'm only there for a week so wanted to get in as much as possible. Also, did you have to do the same journey back to return the bike? How long did it take it total? I should probably just read your other comments.
    Take it easy and hope things have sped up since then ha haaa

    • Reply

      Dave

      March 15, 2013

      Well, the ride from Chiang Mai to Pai is only around 4 hours or so (depending on how slow your scooter is, of course!). I rode back to Chiang Mai a few days later - I was living there at the time, so it wasn't a hardship. :)

  17. Reply

    Amy

    September 15, 2013

    We've planned to make this trip over and over again, but always been put off by people warning us against it.. So reading that you did it on a crappy Honda Click is great - our bike is only a 125cc, but I reckon it might just be up to the challenge.

    • Reply

      Dave

      September 15, 2013

      You should be totally fine on a 125cc. I should have been fine on that 110cc Click ... except I think it last saw a mechanic in the Clinton era. :P


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