Nothern Thailand scooter trip - empty mountain road

My Epic 8-Day Northern Thailand Motorcycle Road Trip

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Two scooters. Three people. Eight days. 1385 kilometres.

Thousands of photos. Stray dogs. Mountain roads. Stunning vistas. Lumpy beds. Sore butts. Amazing sunsets. No tourists.

One amazing road trip around northern Thailand.

Day 1:  Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao

Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao map

“If you’re about and up for a bit of a ride, keep it in mind.”

So ended the laconic message from my mate Stuart, when he’d mentioned a few months earlier that he’d be showing up in Chiang Mai for a while.

I was going to be about, and I was definitely up for a bit of a ride.

And so it was that one warm January morning, loaded up with a couple of small packs and a full tank of gas, we headed north on the road out of Chiang Mai. 

Like the ill-fated trip to Pai several weeks earlier, I had Lauren on the back. Unlike that trip, we had a bike that actually worked properly. That would come in handy later.

Highway 107 was busy as far as the Pai turn-off, but the mayhem subsided once all the minivans stuffed full of nauseous backpackers had careened off up the mountains.

The original plan had been to grab a leisurely lunch in Chiang Dao and continue east in the afternoon, but the idyllic setting and full bellies led to a swift change of plans. Well, you don’t want to overdo things on the first day, right?

Even in the middle of the day it had been surprisingly cold riding in the shade — Chiang Dao is a mountain town after all — and once the sun went down it was positively freezing. Thailand has a well-deserved reputation for beaches and sunburn, but as we huddled in our jackets and watched the steam rise from dinner, it became a little difficult to remember why.

Distance travelled: 78km

Stayed at: Mallee Guesthouse, Chiang Dao, in an overpriced bungalow with fan and bathroom.

Check out other discounted Chiang Dao hotel options.

Day 2:  Chiang Dao to Phayao

Northern Thailand scooter trip - sunset at Phayao

If sitting around eating dinner the night before was cold, it had nothing on barreling through the mountains shortly after eight o’clock the next morning.

With teeth chattering and nose running furiously, it was hard to decide whether to ride slower to reduce the wind chill, or faster to get the agony over sooner. In the end we opted for an unsatisfactory middle ground that saw us still stamping the chill from our feet in the afternoon sun several hours later.

We must have looked ridiculous bundled up in several layers of clothing as the mercury continued to climb, but damn it had been cold.

Traffic was light that early in the morning, but pretty much disappeared once we turned onto route 1150.  Down out of the mountains we swept, with just the occasional slow scooter or belching old pickup sharing the road.

Even with frozen fingers and an aching butt, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. This was the side of northern Thailand I’d come to see, so different to the beaches and buckets of the southern islands or the glorious chaos of Bangkok. Most foreigners never make it to this part of the country, and that’s very much their loss.

Chiang Dao to Phayao map

Blazing through the rice paddies around Phrao, we eventually found Doi Farang resort (signposts optional) and pulled up for a surprisingly good coffee. There was no time to waste, however — we still had over 150 km left to ride that day, while there are many great benefits to riding scooters on mountain roads, maintaining a fast pace is not one of them.

Finally rolling into the pretty lakeside town of Phayao late afternoon, it was definitely time for a break. A few quiet whiskeys and a plate or two of mouth-searingly spicy food soon put the world to rights, and we could finally relax as the sun fell behind the mountains and darkness swiftly descended. It had been another incredible day on the road.

Looking back on those first couple of days, it’s the colors that stick with me the most. Muted greens and browns of the forests giving way to the iridescent green glow of rice paddies ready for harvest. Hazy grey morning mist burning off to deep blue afternoon skies. Burning orange sun dropping below the horizon, leaving only the light of thousands of stars to illuminate the black landscape.

I’d thought I had a reasonable grasp of northern Thailand after spending a few months there, but after only two days on the road, I realised just how much more there was to see.

And there was still another week to go…

Distance travelled: 215km

Stayed at: Jumjai Homestay, Phayao, a lovely wood-panelled guesthouse one block back from the lake, with air conditioning and private bathroom.

Check out other discounted Phayao hotel options.

Day 3:  Phayao to Phu Lang Ka

Dragon guard, Wat Analayo

After a restful night in Phayao broken only by the regular cacophony of roosters, traffic, and a painfully malfunctioning fridge, we all eased our respective backsides onto our scooters and hit the road again. It was temple time.

Like most towns of any size in northern Thailand, Phayao has a good collection of wats dotted around. Even for someone with a relatively low temple tolerance like me, these ones were surprisingly interesting, with something for everyone.

If your children have been playing up recently and you’d like to scare them into submission, for instance, a trip to Wat Sri Khom Kham should feature highly on your travel itinerary.

Looking at statues like this makes for a perfect family bonding experience, right?

Female sculpture at Wat Sri Khom Kham
Male sculpture at Wat Sri Khom Kham

Depicting Buddhist notions of heaven and hell, the sculpture garden doesn’t exactly tone things down for delicate sensibilities. Fortunately it didn’t take long to wander round the small park, so we were able to leave before sinners like me had our tongues pulled out or were eaten by wild dogs.

Further out of town was the sprawling Wat Analayo. The good news is that there is a road that goes all the way to the entrance, avoiding the need to climb several hundred steps up the crumbling staircase to get there. The bad news is that we discovered this fact at the top of the aforementioned staircase.

The wat had been added to repeatedly over the years, so consistency wasn’t a strong theme. From looming rabbits to wooden stags and carved dragons guarding ornate temples, there was plenty to look at in the hour or so we wandered around the grounds. Plus it was a pleasant change for our feet to hurt rather than our butts.

Onwards we rode, soon leaving the highway behind as we tracked northeast through Chun and climbed the forested slopes towards our destination for the night. It was one hell of a ride, the winding roads becoming ever quieter as the tropical sun slowly turned our exposed skin a delightful shade of red.

Phayao to Phu Lang Ka map

Tired and suffering from a minor case of heatstroke, we bounced up the rutted trail to the optimistically named Phu Lang Ka Resort, a place of stunning views and minimal comfort. Unfortunately cold drinks were apparently not a big seller around there, as the nearest ones were in the village 8km away. Damn.

Once that problem was finally resolved with a final ride back down the hill, we settled in to watch the sun set over the toilet block. I don’t remember seeing that in the brochure. Drinking heavily was pretty much a requirement if there was to be any chance of sleeping on the bags of lumpy cement masquerading as mattresses that night.

And so we did.

Distance travelled: 163km

Stayed at: Phu Lang Ka Resort in a very basic, overpriced bungalow. The bed had lumps larger than the surrounding mountains, a cold shower, non-flushing toilet and holes in the wall big enough for families of rats to dance the can-can through. But hey, there’s nowhere else to stay around there, and did I mention the view?

Day 4: Phu Lang Ka to Nan

Phu Lang Ka sunrise view

Between the random 3 am gunshots and hyperactive roosters, we managed to see the sun rise for the first time in months. Not a bad one to wake up for, I suppose.

Tempting as it was to stick around for a second helping of watery rice porridge and Nescafe, we decided to make an early start. The sun broke through the clouds as we prepared to leave, warming our backs while we navigated the sweeping curves down to the misty valley floor below.

Phu Lang Ka to Nan map

The scenery seemed to change dramatically every few minutes as we rode, from open farmland and small villages to dense forests and craggy mountain ranges. Crossing and recrossing river tributaries the whole way, this hour stands out as one of my favourite parts of the entire week.

Sadly the back country roads could only last so long, and the traffic increased as we rode the tree-lined highway towards Nan. The biggest town in the region, it seemed far removed from the tiny villages we’d ridden through that morning.

Even in peak season, though, Nan seemed strangely devoid of foreigners. I spotted less than half a dozen during my time there. Koh Phi Phi or even Chiang Mai it certainly wasn’t.

The riverside bars that would be packed with backpackers elsewhere in the country catered mainly to a smattering of locals, even on a Friday night. Other than the occasional band belting out dubious covers, there wasn’t much of a party scene.

Given what was about to transpire the next day, however, not waking up with a hangover was very fortunate.

Talking it about it the night before, our plans were pretty simple. Wander round a couple of temples and take some photos, perhaps. Have lunch beside the river. Maybe take a nap.  Ok, definitely take a nap.

Instead, it would turn out to be both the best and the worst day I’ve ever had on a scooter.

Distance travelled: 127km

Stayed at: Phailueng Guesthouse, Nan – a cheap, quiet room on a side street, with fan and a hot shower.

Check out other discounted Nan hotel options.

Day 5:  Nan to the Lao Border and Back

Just before 9 am I received the following message:

“Am thinking of doing a bit of riding around…”

Even by Stuart’s epic standards of understatement, that probably wasn’t an accurate description of the next ten hours.

Nan to the Laos border and back map

Stopping briefly at Wat Chae Haeng (personal highlight: a golden rabbit), we sped eastwards out of town, through the trees and rapidly-decreasing traffic of route 1168. As the highway numbers climbed so did we, the flat fields giving way to mountainous ridge lines and the remnants of what once must have been dense teak forests.

The road wound backwards and forwards for hours, always searching for a way through the steep peaks of this little-travelled part of north-eastern Thailand.

Thinking the first part of the ride was impressive, after turning north at Mae Charim I started to understand why Stuart had been so insistent we didn’t give our butts a rest today. It was quite easily the best ride of my life.

Largely dirt roads only a few years earlier, our route was now smooth tarmac for almost the entire distance. A few parts showed signs of landslide damage after recent flooding and were being actively worked on, but even they were flat enough to maintain a decent pace.

I counted a total of three minivans and half a dozen scooters for the entire section from Mae Charim to Bo Kluea, Wide sweeping corners promised epic views every few hundred metres, and never disappointed. Every time we stopped for a photo, our grins were big enough to dazzle the non-existent oncoming traffic.

That, right there, was why we had taken this road trip. No matter what lay in store for the rest of the week that ride made it all worth the effort.

Something I really needed to remember a few hours later.

Northern Thailand scooter trip - road being constructed

Stopping for an early afternoon drink in the junction town of Bo Kluea, we had a decision to make. A straight run through the pass to Pua and back to Nan, or a much longer loop up to the Lao border.

I don’t know whether it was the adrenaline of a great ride, or just a desire to prolong the fun as long as possible, but we barely even discussed the options before pointing the bikes northwards once more.

The long way round it was.

The road narrowed and worsened within minutes, requiring slower speeds and more attention to avoid putting the bike over a cliff. The views just got better, but I couldn’t help but notice an increasing chill in the shadows that reminded us that time was rapidly passing.  We needed to keep moving.

Village dogs barely raised an eyelid as our bikes rattled past inches from their nose, and the shy smiles of children playing in the road suggested that farangs weren’t a common sight around there. Only a matter of miles from the border, I was reminded of my time in Laos eighteen months earlier. It is a truly beautiful part of the world.

Stopping briefly at the immigration point to gaze longingly into Thailand’s laid-back neighbour, we were soon dropping down out of the mountains and picking up speed as we headed towards home. With well over 100km to go and the sun rapidly falling in the sky, it was always going to be a race against time to get back before dark.

Mountain view, northern Thailand

It was a race we totally lost.

Despite blasting along the highway at speeds faster than was perhaps sensible, we were still at least 45 minutes from safety when the evening gloom turned to pitch blackness. One thing that I had always sworn not to do was ride the roads of Southeast Asia after dark. There was a good reason for that.

Cars loomed out of the night, their headlights completely blinding us. Pedestrians and unlit scooters owned the side of the road, pushing me out towards the middle where passing trucks missed me by inches as they weaved past. Bugs splattered in my eyes continuously as I tried to spot the corners and potholes before I hit them in the darkness.

And then we found the roadworks.

As a cloud of choking dust rose several feet in the air and I struggled to keep the bike upright on the rutted, invisible dirt, I genuinely thought I was going to die. Slower and slower I rode, willing the road to return to tarmac more with every passing second. It was several lifetimes minutes before it did.

Slowly counting down the mile markers, we finally made it back to Nan in one piece, after what was undoubtedly the longest hour of my life. Hyped up on a combination of fear and excitement, I didn’t stop shaking until at least half an hour and three vodkas had passed. I was still scraping insect parts from the corner of my eyes two days later.

It had been a hell of a day.

Distance travelled: 338km (yes, that’s ridiculous)

Stayed at: Phailueng Guesthouse, Nan again. The hot shower got quite a workout that night.

Day 6:  Nan to Phrae

Mud rock formations at Sao Dun

Grudgingly remounting our bikes after the madness of the day before, we were certain of only one thing: there was no way in hell we were going to be riding another 300+ km today.

That didn’t stop the detours, however.

Promising a short side trip to visit some impressive mud rock formations, Stuart led us south off the main road through Wiang Sa. Side trip it was, short it was not. Still, at least we had the promise of those amazing rock formations to keep excitement levels high.

And then we got there.

Nan to Phrae map

Let’s just say the formations were perhaps not quite as incredible as we might have hoped. They were indeed muddy and rocky, admirably living up to their description, but the wow factor was…well… not there.

Given the landscape we could easily have been on the set of Star Wars, if only there had been a few more members of the Skywalker family around, and a few less coachloads of hyper-excited Thai tourists. Lacking a Jawa sighting, however, after a few photos we soon turned the bikes around and carried on.

Stopping for lunch back near the turnoff we came to one unanimous conclusion: Sao Din was not worth the 90km round trip. Still, the ride through the hills was scenic, and we got to improve our terrible t-shirt tans in the beating sunshine, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

After battling traffic for most of the next two hours, we limped into Phrae hoping for only a good guesthouse and a cold beer. We got one of the two, with a hotel that strived for mediocrity and didn’t quite get there. It did have a condom machine at the end of the hall, however, which I find always adds to the ambiance.

The nearby night market provided some tasty if not exciting dinner options, and with that we were pretty much done for the night. Tired we were. Sleep we must.

Distance travelled: 202km

Stayed at: Thep Vong Place, Phrae, a forgettable but good value budget hotel close to the old town, with air-conditioning and hot shower.

Check out other discounted Phrae hotel options.

Day 7:  Phrae to Lampang

Buddhas, Phrae

We devoted the morning to eating an abysmal breakfast, and checking out the large wooden buildings and variety of temples in Phrae’s old town. It was surprisingly more enjoyable than it sounds — there’s no wonder the region’s teak forests have been depleted, given the amount used in Phrae’s construction, but I guess it makes for impressive sightseeing if nothing else.

Footsore and sweaty, for a change we were happy to be getting back on the bikes. It was short-lived, of course, but at least the feeling was briefly there.

Phrae to Lampang map

Riding 100km on a scooter would have seemed like quite the adventure a week earlier, but by now it was barely worth talking about.

Other than a fun but brief blast up and down the mountains, the road to Lampang was both busy and disappointingly flat. At least the short day meant we had plenty of time to find a guesthouse after we dawdled into town.

And then we ate pork. Lots and lots of pork.

Distance travelled: 103km

Stayed at: R-Lampang guesthouse, Lampang, in a large clean room with air-conditioning, paper-thin walls, and a hot shower that I couldn’t work. Highlights included the balcony on the river, and the comedy value of the staff unlocking and relocking the fridge every time we wanted a drink.  I guess we looked suspicious.

Check out other discounted Lampang hotel options.

Day 8: Lampang to Chiang Mai

Winding mountain road

The last day of our road trip dawned with a mixture of sadness (from our brains) and relief (from our butts). It was barely 100 km to Chiang Mai via the main highway… but who wants to travel on the highway?

Instead we opted for the back roads once again, heading north on the flatlands via route 1157 for an easy hour or more, stopping in Mueang Pan for lunch in a roadside restaurant overlooking the rice paddies.

And then the fun really started.

If traffic was quiet beforehand, it now became positively silent as we left the farms behind and headed up into the mountains. These roads were something special: little wider than a car, vibrant green jungle on all sides, and majestic views for miles around. The chatter of bird life was only briefly interrupted as our bikes groaned up the ever-increasing gradients.

For the only time on this trip the scooter decided enough was enough, refusing to go any further up a particularly hilly section until Lauren jumped off the back. Eventually finding a somewhat flatter piece of pavement, I looked back to see the forlorn sight of a small walking backpack plodding one foot after another up the steep mountain road.

Judging by the grimace on her face as she drew level, I was pleased we had decided not to climb these mountains under our own steam.

Unfortunately what goes up must come down, and just as steeply. Even more unfortunately, the brakes on most small bikes aren’t really designed to deal with slowing the near-vertical drop of two people and baggage for any length of time.

Lampang to Chiang Mai map

This one was no exception, and around two-thirds the way down the other side, the inevitable happened.

After one long, steep section, I released the front brake lever briefly, then reapplied it a few seconds later. Or tried to, at least, as it flapped uselessly around in my hand. Oops. Time for plan B.

Crushing the back brake as if my life depended on it (because, well, it did), I stuck both feet out to try to slow things down a little more. Somehow managing to wrestle the bike around the next corner and away from the cliff edge, I finally managed to steer it into a large bush on the side of the road. We came to a halt with our hearts in our mouths and the smell of hot brakes wafting in the breeze.

“Wasn’t that fun?”

Not so much.

After letting things cool down for a while we slowly carried on, Lauren now on the back of Stuart’s bike, and me nervously avoiding using the brakes. It was slow going but we made it, and once we got to the bottom and rejoined the main road, everything was fine.  Still, not an experience I was looking to repeat in a hurry.

From buzzing insects and deserted roads to honking horns and exhaust fumes, in less than an hour we rounded the moat in Chiang Mai and our trip was over. 

Pulling into a parking spot and killing the engine, I patted the seat and delivered a silent thank-you to our trusty steed. 1385km in eight days is a lot to ask from a scooter, and other than those over-heated brakes, it had come through without a hitch.

And so had we.

I had never experienced a two-wheeled trip like this one. The views, the challenge, the roads were all incredible, but the best part was simply getting to see parts of Thailand that most visitors never do.

The beaches and buckets, the hotels and holidaymakers are all good fun, but I can’t help but feel that the real heart of Thailand lies elsewhere. After this road trip, I feel privileged to have caught just a glimpse of it.

Distance travelled: 155km

Stayed at: my own apartment!

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  1. Kudos, Dave for getting out there, and on a motorbike no less! We’ve done the same route via car, and that was exhausting enough to drive, so a big virtual Beerlao to you for your journey. Uh, just don’t actually drink beerlao while on a bike though. πŸ˜‰

  2. That looks really stunning. All of my adventures in Thailand have been in the south so far, but when I see pictures like these it really makes me want to spend a few weeks touring the North at a leisurely pace. And one day I will. Great series, thanks πŸ™‚

  3. You are lucky. I have ridden bikes all over northern thailand and was beginning to think i was semi bullet proof..until i had an accident going down a steep dirt road and ended up being pitched off the bike on my head and shoulder….fortunately a broken collarbone as the helmet did it’s job.

    If you ride motorbikes it is not IF you will have an accident. It is when. Especially doing stupid stuff like racing nightfall.

    1. Yep, agreed – accidents are not uncommon, and racing nightfall is not something I’d recommend to anyone in this part of the world. It is hard to judge travel times on those roads as I’m sure you know, but still – we should have left earlier or not taken the loop up to the border. Nothing bad happened but that was more good luck than good management…

  4. It sounds like the detour and the night riding was worth it for the views! Of course, that’s easy to say with hindsight and after a few vodkas (I thought I’d have some just for solidarity!!) πŸ™‚

  5. I’ve been there with the bugs in the eyes. Mind you, as a lady (ahem) I tend to go slower after dark on dirt roads. Or maybe that’s just me being a wuss?

  6. I know exactly what you mean about riding after dark in this part of the world. It can be hair-raising enough in a car, but on a bike, look out!

    Looks like an amazing part of Thailand though, I bet you’re glad you pushed it….in hind-sight! πŸ˜‰

    1. Sure will, although probably only for the second half of it – down south in the islands, most likely Koh Lanta. Where are you heading to?

  7. Sounds like one amazing trip with fantastic views and not a minimal amount of risk. You will be working hard to top that one!! Pleased you all came through in one piece.

    1. The funniest thing about that comment is that after 1400km without a scratch on either of us or on the bike, Lauren managed to scrape the skin off her foot as we maneuvered out of a parking spot in the mall in Chiang Mai. Oh the irony…

  8. I finally found some uninterrupted time where I could read your story. Very inspirational! I love the idea of getting off the touristed routes. It reminds me of my 9-day trip around Central Highlands and Mekong area of Vietnam – although that was on the back of someone else’s bike. That trip then inspired me to do a 4-5 day loop around the Bolavan Plateau in Laos – this time riding my own bike. My next trip – I’m game to take on something much more adventurous – similar to what you described. Reading this gets the adrenalin pumping! Thanks for sharing!

  9. Dirt biking in SE Asia was one of my highlights too! Such an adventure, and a chance to go places so few Westerners get to see! Love that moment of the shared grins at each stop – sums it up perfectly!

  10. Another inspiring post! After reading this, I’m even more determined now to learn to ride a scooter. It seems like a great way to experience these unique areas away from the more typically trodden path. Thanks!

  11. Amazing pictures… I’m hoping to go next year!!..Was wondering what camera did you use when you took those photos???

    1. Thanks Adam! I just used my plain old Panasonic Lumix ZR-1 – it’s about 3 years old now, but it’s a tiny little camera that takes remarkably good photos. πŸ™‚

  12. hey what kind of bike did you ride on your loops around northern thailand? details on where you rented and costs would be appreciated mate!

    1. Just a plain old 110cc Honda Click (automatic) – absolutely nothing special. I rented it from large scooter sales and rental place near Chiang Mai gate – I was renting by the month for around 2500 baht/$80 USD, but you’ll pay more like $5 or $6 per day if you’re only renting for a few days.

  13. Very nice touring in north of Thailand. Living in Bangkok I did about 70+ Tkm touring in Thailand / Malaysia on Honda cb400 SF, Vespa 300GTS, etc.
    Currently I have Yamaha Mio 125 and Honda Forza 300. Anyone interested in touring together ?

  14. Man, what a road trip! I have done 15 rides around the US on a Harley, not the same I know, but love being on the road and experiencing places and meeting folk as you journey. I’m going to look into biking around Northern Thailand after reading this.

  15. I read your article with interest because we are on our own four week adventure from Songkhla in the far south with stops in Surat Thani, Prajuab Kirikan, Ayutthaya, camping in Saraburi, Nakorn Ratchesima, Mahasarakham, Ubon Ratchethani, Mukdahan, Bueng Kan, and currently in Nong Khai to Udon Thani on our way back through Nong Bua Lam Pu, Chayapum, Kao Yai, Samut Prakan, and heading back via Ranong, Pang Nga, Phuket, Lanta, Trang. We are on a Honda Forza 300 (2 up plus a small amount of luggage and camping gear), so busier roads don’t bother us as much, the trip hasn’t had much in the way of hills, not so cold here, and we never drive at night. Two weeks in and 3000 kilometers, with as much as that left to get back home to Songkhla. The bigger bike seems to mostly prevent the sore bum problem, but we stop for a couple of nights at least once a week, sometimes twice if we find someplace we particularly like.

    Looking forward to another long trip to the North early next year.

  16. Here I am 12 years later reading your ride report- very cool! I’ve got a mango orchard north of Chiang Mai and always on the lookout for good rides. I rode a giant motorcycle down the PanAM Seattle to Tierra del Fuego taking a year, but I actually think scooters are the way to really ride.