Thailand's North has some of the most spectacular and accessible roads in Southeast Asia. With cheap, safe, easy motorbikes for rent all over Chiang Mai, exploring the lush green mountains, minority villages, mountaintop temples and bizarre roadside attractions couldn't be easier.
FIND YOUR STEED
If you're in Chiang Mai you're probably less than five meters from a bike for rent, but if you really need help then Bikky, Buddy and Mr. Mechanic are all safe bets. Make sure to check the tires and breaks, but most shops are pretty good about bike maintenance.
Automatics are the easiest bikes to ride and the least well-suited for long trips. They're great on flat roads and just fine for the city, but they're bad at cornering, slow uphill and absolutely terrifying going down (you have to use breaks instead of gears). Even if you've never been on a bike before, you're far better learning to ride a...
Don't be put off by the gears - there's no clutch and you can't stall. The Honda Cub is the best selling motorcycle of all time, and if 80 year old Vietnamese grandmas can learn to ride them so can you. The four gears will make going up and down hills much easier and safer.
Most shops also rent bigger motorcycles with an actual clutch and five or six gears. Honda Phantoms are the cheapest and most popular, but with heavy bodies and only 200cc engines they're a little weak for a 'big bike'. Go for it if you know how to ride one already, but if not this probably isn't the place to learn.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
There are several well-worn paths throughout the North, and all but the dirtiest are totally do-able on small bikes. The Samoeng loop day trip and the 3-4 day Mae Hong Son loop are the best known and most accessible, but you can hardly go anywhere in the mountains without finding great roads. Captain Slash is a great source of inspiration, with photos, trip reports and GPS trails for most of his hundred-something rides.
Most of the major roads in Thailand are well-connected and signposted, but you're probably still going to get lost all the time (that's half the point!). Maps are available in any of the used bookstores by Thapae Gate, the best being te "Roadway" map (it's black and yellow) and GT Rider. The GT Rider maps are about seven years old now and somewhat outdated, but they were made for motorbiking and mark attractions and road quality. RideAsia put out an updated version with many more roads about a year ago, but it's so badly designed as to be unreadable (their forums are great, though).
Beyond that, Google is your friend. Plot your route on Google Earth (learn to use it, it's great!) and follow it on the satellite images - you'll not only be able to find the twistiest, most interesting roads on your route, you might discover some gems before you even get on the bike. Remember too that much of the North has Google Street View images now. A smartphone with GPS is the best tool on the road, but Google Maps is wildly inaccurate for these parts. Use the satellite images.
ON THE ROAD
You've got your bike, planned your route and now you're on the road bright and early! What now?
Petrol stations are everywhere, but the tanks on most bikes are so small that you'd do well to carry an extra liter or two with you. If you're really in a bind, keep an eye out for hand pumps or glass bottles. There should be one in every town.
It's unlikely anything serious will happen to your bike, but flat tires, broken chains and other minor incidents are definitely possible. Mechanics are everywhere and should be able to take care of anything you need for next to nothing. Ask for a receipt and take it back to the rental shop, too - they probably won't reimburse a baht, but it's worth a try.
Unless you are doing something transparently stupid, the police are unlikely to give you a second glance. Checkpoints are mostly to catch illegal immigrants and people speeding, so as long as you slow down when going through one they probably won't even notice you. Around here, you will rarely if ever encounter a policeman demanding a bribe on tenuous grounds.
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