Chiang Mai to Pai on the world’s slowest scooter
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Click here for more information.
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.
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