The rural north of Vietnam was spectacular, so we didn’t hesitate to explore the northern most region in Thailand. Our base for this loop was Chiang Rai. I recommend ST Rental for a motorbike. They have serious bikes too. I was batting eyelids at an all matte army green 250cc Honda off-road bike, but at 1000baht per day, that would leave nothing of our budget for food and other essentials. Maybe another time. Anyway, we got a Honda Wave S 125, which seemed to have lost a few cc in its many years of service. We packed one green bag plus the small dry bag and set off, dodging the first timers on the way out of Chiang Rai. ST Rental was happy to keep our other luggage for free.
Chiang Rai to Doi Mae Salong
With the intention to loop out west first, we had no choice but to head back to Mae Chan via Highway 1. With a dirt bike you could head along the Namkok river and then up to Kiu Sataa. Highway 1 has lots of traffic and like any other highway in Asia, some crazy driving. Top speed was 70km/h. After 30km we hit Mae Chan. After a quick break we headed west on Route 1089. Pretty soon we discovered this road is filled with crators. Seriously deep potholes littered across the width of the road. I took it slow for this part at 40km/h.
It betters after Lao Fu. After another 30km we hit the turn off to Mae Salong. There are some very persistent hill tribe women selling goods on the bend just before. When we stopped, Emma had real trouble breaking away. The road up to Mae Salong is in great condition. A steep, windy and picturesque 15km.
Mae Salong is a sleepy Chinese / Yunnan village, that speaks both Thai and Mandarin. The Thai government granted refuge to Chinese Yunnan anti-communist refugees here. With help from the government, they have built a self-sustaining economy and the town is now prospering with tourism and known for its tea. It is a very beautiful town on a ridge with one main road cutting through it. It has an ancient and authentic feel about it. It is what I imagine China to be like. There aren’t many colours and neon lights yet and nightlife is non-existent. Tea plantations surround the town and great views of the valley can be enjoyed from the central camp ground or from Maesalong Mountain Home. We stayed at Shinsane Guesthouse – perfectly adequate. I recommend skipping the others unless you carry a money printer.
The climb to Wat Santikhiri is well worth it for the spectacular views. Don’t be disappointed as people can and do drive up from the other side. There is a restaurant in town that sells Yunnan noodles. It is situated a few doors down from 7-11 past the corner. This dish is a must and easily my favorite noodle dish this month! We got served really great free tea with every meal we had. This was a very nice gesture and at night especially appreciated as it can get quite cold. We couldn’t help but notice the many expansion projects going on. It felt like this place is soaring in popularity and could face a similar fate to places like Sa Pa in Vietnam and so many others all over SE Asia. The Chinese Soldiers Memorial Museum is very informative and free.
Doi Mae Salong to Huai Khrai (near)
The next leg was less logical, so we opted to ride along Route 1234, which is very scenic and a joy to ride. 12kms later in Sam Yaek, we turned off onto Route 3051. There’s a friendly checkpoint here and the road is brand new asphalt. This new road continues for a while and cuts through some bamboo villages, which makes for an odd sight.
After 8km, the right turn onto Route 1334 is not obvious. If you went down the hill and to the beginning of the village, you’ve gone too far. Some friendly locals pointed out the direction to us. Then the roads on the map all muddled together into a maze that can only appear logic to a local. We decided to head up to the Royal Palace. The road is in great condition and still has gravel on it from its construction, which makes it a bit slippery at times. Then we got there and glided through a sea of tourists. When we went up to enter the Royal Garden, we realised that the entrance fee would leave us starving. It was too expensive and we decided to share a can of coke and push on. We decided to stay near Huai Khrai and near Highway 1. Quite an OK little place called BoaBan Resort (no English sign, nor English speaking staff, nor, well anything we know, like a toilet you can throw used toilet paper into..). Food options in this area were very limited and not great.
Huai Khrai to Sop Ruak
The next morning we rode past the Royal Palace again and went to see Doi Tung. After we rode the road right along the Thai-Myanmar border on Route 1149. For me this was one of the best roads we had ridden in Thailand so far. We were so close to Myanmar and could admire its vast beauty from the road in Thailand. We went through a checkpoint where the incredibly friendly border guards took Emma’s passport details and our bike registration. He even let us have a photo, but warned not to take pictures of the Myanmar checkpoint up the road. They are not as relaxed apparently.
Feeling very excited to be on the very fringe of two countries, we tuckered along. Then we saw the brown bunkers on the Myanmar side. It was very cool. The road kept getting more and more spectacular. It was steep and narrow with nice corners and good road conditions. To our left was Myanmar and to our right Thailand. We could often see the road ahead as it carefully chose its path right along the border. The season meant that it was super hazy, which made for some average landscape photos, however being there was well worth the ride.
When we rolled into Mae Sai, we didn’t spend much time there. It is known for being expensive so we just had a look at the border checkpoint at the tip of Highway 1. Then we pushed on along Route 1041, which was still close to the border, but hardly as inspiring as the previous section. Just as the evening sun scared most tourists back into their minivans headed for Chiang Rai, we rode into the weird Sop Ruak or Golden Triangle. It is a three country border that you can only admire from a distance as it is in the middle of two converging rivers, the Mekong and Ruak rivers. Too bad the Thai government keeps commissioning increasingly strange and seemingly unrelated sights to be built right on the corner where you could otherwise simply enjoy the presence of three countries. It’s hard to know what it is and how to describe it. I guess I didn’t know what to expect, but I expected to see something at this “Golden Triangle”, hence why I suppose there is so much drive to put stuff there. That way us bloody farangerers don’t get confused when there is no statue to take a photo of for Tripadvisor.
It was however in all honesty a bit disappointing, similar to an unfunny joke. We stayed at a rather nice place called Golden Home. You can also spend 50000baht plus to stay at the “world’s best hotel”, complete with baby elephants to entertain you at your breakfast table. We decided to stay an extra day and do some much hated, I mean loved blogging.
Sop Ruak to Chiang Khong
Before leaving the weird and wonderful Sop Ruak, we visited the Hall of Opium in the morning, which at 200baht per person, was an expensive activity! But luckily, we were both impressed and learned a lot about opium in the Golden Triangle. We agreed that it was definitely worth it. We spent 3 hours in there, trying to read at least 200baht’s worth of Opium facts in tiny font. After coming down from our high, we rode east on Route 1290, which very soon turned bad. It seems to be under construction or destruction, I’m not sure. There are huge holes, most of the road is gravel and the few sections of asphalt abruptly stop with a small cliff dropping several inches at times. I went very slow on this bit.
We kept left and later turned onto Route 4007 for the scenic ride along the border and Mekong river. This is a good idea if you have the time as it features some great scenery with very little traffic. The road condition does fluctuate from good to bad quite frequently, so go easy on the Opium beforehand.
Chiang Khong to Pha Tang
After a very random night involving a Spanish couple, two older Aussie blokes and an Austrian guy from Salzburg, who was convinced he could speak to dogs, we slept in a little and left around 1pm. We didn’t have a definite target for this day and aimed for the cluster of accommodation options on our map near Pha Tang. We went along Route 1020 and then 1155 a very nice ride all round.
The weather was not great and it was quite cold. Once we tried to find options to sleep, we took a left turn in “town” which took us down the worst road we ever encountered to date. There is video somewhere of me slipping our bike down it to the amusement of Emma holding the camera. Turns out that this is the “old road” used as a shortcut only by locals. We did see one woman ride up it past me as if it were nothing, while I was sliding down it uncontrollably on the other side.
Then we rode past town to find some of the places marked on the map, however we only found some very confused local kids playing in the rain and turned around. After these adventures, we decided to stay at Chill Chill Guesthouse, which was just outside Pha Tang.
Our five year anniversary was coming up the next day. There was nothing for hundreds of kilometers around us to make it special. We watched a very nice sunset from the great view of our little home and got take away Chinese food from the only restaurant in town that was open (the other one was closed). Then we crawled under the blanket to watch some Homeland, it was damn cold and freakishly windy outside.
Pha Tang via Chiang Kham to Phayao
We woke up to another day of appalling weather. The rain was pounding down when we woke up in the morning. Very uneasy about having to stay another night up here, we opted to wait it out, intending to push on today. We decided to get breakfast and rode up the hill to sneak inside a concrete storage shed with roller shutter doors to find a few randomly placed plastic chairs and tables inside. There was also a bit of 3-4 year old Christmas decoration and a clock. There was no light however. An old lady had some pots and gas cookers ready to cook up a storm. So we did the standard “two noodle soups with fried pork” dance “please” and we gobbled down the 30baht meals to a bunch of chuckling teenage girls. In the meantime it stopped raining. So we proceeded down the mountain along Route 1093. It didn’t take long until we had to fix our Halloween rain costumes and endure the face nailing.
Because I could barely see the handlebar, we decided to not take the scenic route and opted for 1155 and 1021 to Chiang Kham where we intended to spend the night. A surprisingly unremarkable place with many coffee shops along the main road. This can only mean that they get plenty of people stopping for coffee but not staying for longer. Very hungry, we opted for a 13baht banana cake from 7-11 and chose one of the coffee shops. Using their precious Wifi, we concluded that Phayao is our next destination and we are going today. After all there is a great place to stay, a lake and even supposedly good pizza.
Delusional we were. After another 65km through the rain along Routes 1021 and 1202, including the shortcut across the river (Route 1298) to avoid the highway and a few kilometers, we got to magical Phayao.
With high hopes, we dragged our poncho / motorbike helmet getup into the reception area of Win Hotel. The overly enthusiastic receptionist then checked us in. The place is fine. Its hay day however, is definitively in the past. The shower head is the most exciting feature of the room and the mold and moldy communal shower slippers the least exciting. So we watched NHK channel until it froze on a single frame. For dinner, we thought we’d try “Brick Oven”, which turned out to be a large, cold, brightly lit Pizza consumption hall with contemporary missionary graffiti on the wall. They do however offer way overpriced pizzas on their menu. We proceeded to order two of those. A very young Thai girl with a half detached eye-patch bandage multi-tasked slapping ingredients on our pizzas and entertaining her colossally bored boyfriend out the front of the restaurant. Unsurprisingly, the pizzas were unremarkable, almost blasphemous. We later learned that this place is the money collector for a local Christian church. We asked for a doggy bag for the remaining pieces of pizza and our hopes and expectations and took it all back to our great room. Happy Anniversary.
We spent a few days more in Phayao, to wait out the rain and fog. We found a great little coffee place with Wifi and spent a lot of time blogging and photo managing in there. Then we did get some better weather and once the sun was out, Phayao is a wonderful place. We rode to the nearby Wats and then home along the lake, which is absolutely beautiful. We had the remainder of our Tesco Feast for lunch near the lake.
In the late afternoon it is great to relax in one of the lake side bars with a beer, watching the sunset over the lake and the tour bus people spending their allocated 15 minutes of sightseeing on the bus ride from Bangers straight to Chiangburger.
Phayao to Lampang
We got stuck for several days in this quaint little town. The streets are lined with old buildings, which are filled with lovely locals! There are horse carriages that pull tourists through town. Street food and restaurant food is cheap, delicious and readily available. We also found an amazing breakfast at The Hangout Cafe and the best pizza in Thailand at Long Jim – New York Pizza. Admittedly these two establishments have helped make this place a safe heaven from our traveling days. They are both excellent value and aided in filling a gigantic void for Western food. They felt like an oasis after days of ordering food by pointing and imitating the animal we desired to eat. There are plenty of Wats to see around Lampang and it is a great place to lay low for a while and just walk the streets.
Tonnam is a hidden gem, a one of a kind place to spend the night or in our case several. The place feels very warm and we had little incentive to move on. We initially intended to come here by bus after the loop to see the Royal Thai Elephant Conservation Center, but decided to link it into our loop. I’m very glad we did. On one of the days we rode out to see the elephants. We didn’t feel the need to ride and elephant or watch one paint, so we visited the sick elephants next door at Fae’s Elephant Hospital. After that we rode into the Royal Thai Elephant Conservation Center and watched a baby elephant play with a ball. It was a great, unforced experience.
Our affair with Lampang didn’t end there and we found it very hard to break off. We returned on our way down south and spent another few nights. Emma even got some dental work done. I’m sure she will blog about it!
Lampang to Chiang Rai
We didn’t intend to ride these 230km along Routes 1035 and 120 in one day and scheduled for an overnight stop in either Wang Nua or Mae Kachan, both about half way. However, after stopping for lunch in Mae Kachan, we decided that it is not much of a place to stay and decided to ride the rest of the way back to Chiang Rai. Of course we got rained on again and put on our shredded plastic cloaks. There were a lot of young kids with cool, pimped up old Honda motorbikes on the roads. Sadly we witnessed one of them being carried on a stretcher to an ambulance on the way. Hopefully he is OK. It always reiterates the importance of being very careful when riding a motorbike. Be well rested and take regular brakes.
A fantastic loop. 16 days of autonomous, hardly planned traveling through northern Thailand. This is definitely the way to do it. Feel free to ask questions!
Edit: The map mentioned in this post is the GT Rider map titled “Golden Triangle – The Loop”. We picked it up in Chiang Mai at Mr. Mechanic for 250baht. Worth every baht!