Thailand… When hearing about this country one imagines golden temples, pristine beaches and amazing street food. One of the most visited countries in the world (in fact, pre-pandemic Bangkok was the most visited city in the world) it always had this image of a far away exotic destination. For travellers it usually takes many hours to get to Thailand by plane… Hence it felt bizarre to just rock up on the Thai border on my own motorcycle that I’ve ridden all the way from Europe!
The previous few weeks were a mixture of very challenging riding conditions in Pakistan and India and a lot of new exciting experiences. As we crossed into Myanmar from India things have somewhat relaxed - as I have been in South East Asia many times before the environment looked more familiar. We had to cross Myanmar as a group and have arrived at the Thai border all together, 5 of us, all on foreign vehicles - 3 bikes and 1 van. Few years ago Thai authorities created a rule that required all foreign visitors travelling with their own car or motorcycle to have a special permit and a guide. However, in the true Thai fashion the rules were only sporadically enforced and this border we were about to cross was known to not follow that rule. Until it did…
The problem was that our group had a person who wasn’t even supposed to be there - but he had a permit and a guide arranged. And as we rocked up at the border our worst fears materialised - the customs just couldn’t turn a blind eye on the fact someone had a permit and we didn’t. At the same time, we’ve already been stamped out of Myanmar and were stuck on a small bridge in between 2 countries where a myriad of dusty tuktuks and beaten up local cars were crossing - our bikes were so big they were actually partially blocking the traffic. A stalemate ensued - the customs didn’t know what to do - they couldn’t let us in but they didn’t want us there either.
Finally a face-saving solution was worked out - the “new” rule would miraculously be applied “from next month” so we were “lucky” and they let us in. The whole conversation was very friendly - I even got to practice my Thai a little bit! But it was a friendliness resembling the Thai smile which included layers of tough negotiations beneath it.
Having had the temporary import papers stamped we were let out on Thai roads. Mae Sai, where we have crossed the border from Myanmar, is a small border town with one main highway and many side streets. But after riding across remote areas of India and Myanmar it felt like a megapolis. It seemed as we crossed the border we’ve travelled in time at least a few decades. All of a sudden perfect tarmac replaced the roads full of potholes that we got so used to for the past weeks. There were many familiar labels around. Gosh, the cars were even using their indicators, can you imagine that? Thai roads seem so chaotic for those of us who just arrive from Western countries. For us at the time it seemed like a staple of order and safety! All in comparison…
We would be parting ways with the rest of the group the next day but as we crossed the border at 3pm we had plenty of daylight left so we rode together to Chiang Rai, the first major city on the way. I have to admit I don’t particularly fancy Chiang Rai - to me it seems more dull and boring compared to its southern neighbour Chiang Mai. But it has 2 amazing sights - the White Temple and the Blue Temple - and it was the Blue Temple we headed to for a photoshoot. It couldn’t look any more Thai - a beautiful, colourful, impressive mixture of gold and blue, statues of Buddha….and a crowd of tourists around. As we parked the bikes and began taking photos - the “we’re in Thailand!” kind of photos - people looked at us as if we’re aliens. Our gear was saturated with sand, dust and sweat and our bikes were covered in mud.
“We can’t go inside the temple” - one of us remarked - “one has to go bare feet and if we take our boots off the whole place will have to be evacuated”.
She was not wrong.
Everything around looked familiar - even a small family guesthouse in Chiang Rai I booked that night. I stayed at that place a year or so ago when on a holiday and it was so nice to be welcomed by the owner like an old friend. Being perhaps the most familiar with Thailand and things around, I took our group for a meal out in Chiang Rai food plaza. We bypassed the “touristy” area with fancy tables and calm, traditional music and went to the “local” area. Iron tables and chairs that haven’t been washed for the past decades with burn marks from the hot pots. Groups of locals eating and drinking around. Dozens of vendors selling all sorts of food and barely speaking a few words of English. We loved it!
“Tom Yum Talay nuun krup phet phor dee krup!” - as I ordered spicy Tom Yum Seafood, the famous Thai soup, my rudimentary Thai was coming back to me and I was so happy to get an opportunity again to practice it. “Lee Pad Thai Moo nuun krup!” - and a pork Pad Thai! That soup is a true wonder of the world, an amazing mix of flavours hit you with every mouthful. And it has to be washed down with a beer for which we’ve ordered a Beer Tower - again a very Thai way of drinking out - and another one.. And another… We had a lot of talks that evening and even though we were happy to be in Thailand everyone seemed genuinely sad to be parting ways the next day.
I was in a desperate need of a break and a few days of hibernating - and the bike was in a desperate need of servicing. For that reason my plan was to ride further south to Chiang Mai and make it my base for the next week or so. As I was envisioning a perfect windy road from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, at the very last moment the guesthouse owner commented about some “roadworks” on that section. A bit of research revealed that the road is completely destroyed, full of mud and is hardly passable. Instead, I had to take a long detour of over 150 kms - a bit worrying considering my bike was acting up, the puncture in the rear wheel was letting air out and the clutch was on its limit. Thankfully the roads were perfect and the ride enjoyable and a few hours later I rolled into the courtyard of the guesthouse in Chiang Mai. Another place very familiar for me - a family run, local place with very friendly owners. “You look like an astronaut!” - the daughter of the owner commented on my look in the bike jacket and pants - a very rare attire for riding motorcycles in Thailand.
This family would become my own family in a way over the next few weeks as I would have to come back to Chiang Mai again and again due to issues with my motorcycle… But I didn’t know that yet. In a blissful ignorance I unpacked and unstrapped my bags from the bike - the first time in weeks - and went to drop it off with a local mechanic that I’ve been in contact with for the past few weeks. He has arranged the replacement parts and we’ve agreed on the service that would be required - a very major one. Little did I know that picking that guy would be one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made on the whole trip. But at that time I was happily riding the streets of Chiang Mai on a small scooter that I was provided with as my bike was being serviced. Watching the sun set over the many Buddhist temples dotted around Chiang Mai painting those red - and anticipating another portion of a delicious Tom Yum for dinner!...
The founder of Andalus Moto Rentals, Alex is an avid motorcycle traveler. He started with short classic trips around Europe, explored some of Asian countries on rental motorbikes. He eventually embarked on a solo motorcycle journey from Europe to Australia passing through Europe, Middle East, South and South East Asia.