OUR decision to take a motorbike trip around the northeast of Thailand I’m pretty sure coincided with the end of the Thai drought.
I came to this conclusion when we reached the most north eastern point of the Nong Khai district, where we stood gazing out across the mighty Mekong River, and realised everything we owned was wet. And if it wasn’t wet, it was damp. And if it wasn’t damp, it smelt so bad that I promised I’d burn it upon our return to Bangkok so the stench would never be sniffed again. For the good of mankind, I tell you!
By that stage, however, standing on the riverbank, ringing out our jackets and pouring water from our bags, our soggy status didn’t bother us at all. We’d already settled into the trip and were totally in the zone.
The start of our journey hadn’t been easy. Getting used to the finer nuances of our motorcycles had taken longer than expected and, because we hadn’t packed well, reaching those essential items buried deep at the bottom of our paniers (saddle bags) proved frustrating.
The routes we had chosen to kick start our trip also appeared long and dull – monotonous stretches of tarmac with little in the way of scenery – but, after a couple of days of riding, with bags rearranged and the Bangkok streets well and truly behind us, we found ourselves totally in the groove – at one with our machines, able to read every subtle sound, relishing our surroundings, and, most importantly, able to whip out the cash needed to pay for fuel at a petrol station without even needing to remove our gloves.
Every road soon felt like a dream come true. Even the blazing sun and occasional downpours couldn’t burn or dampen our enthusiasm for the journey – although we did learn the hard way that if there is any sign of drizzle you should stop and get fully geared up with waterproofs. Oh well.
Well, motorbiking in Thailand has a huge number of benefits. Riding affords you the flexibility to see many parts of the country on your own terms without the need to wait in line for dangerous minibuses or tag along with a tour group. Also, fuel is incredibly cheap (especially compared to Western Europe), and riding into a village on the back of a bike is a great ice-breaker for chatting to friendly locals about where you’ve come from and where you’re heading next.
It can at times be hard – especially in torrential rain – but the great experiences and sense of freedom more than make up for the difficult sections. And without the challenge the good parts wouldn’t taste so sweet.
Our chosen route took us north out of Bangkok to Nakhon Sawan, and then northeast via beautiful winding roads through national parks to Udon Thani. We then ventured to Nong Khai (on the border with Laos) and followed the Mekong all the way around the north eastern edge of the Isaan region of Thailand. This latter section of the trip was a blast, taking in wildlife sanctuaries, more national parks, Mukdahan city (home of the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge), and a rain-forced stop off in a weird ‘short time’ hotel (think complimentary condoms, dimmer switch, and a giant mirror next to our beds. And no, we didn’t partake). Our last port of call was Ubon Rachatani, where we boarded our bikes onto the train for a 15 hour overnight trip back to Bangkok. All this in eight days. And with a shed ton of rain.
For the trip Simon had chosen the naked, sporty and (I’ll admit) slightly better looking Honda CB500F, whilst I went for the similar CB500X. A little more expensive than Simon’s bike, this model has a higher ride position and a larger fuel tank, making it more suited for adventure travel.
oth bikes performed incredibly well during the trip and, apart from occasionally – and foolishly – riding down wet, muddy tracks, we had no trouble at all. I’m sure more experienced riders would cover much further distances than we managed, but our aim was to see what Thailand had to offer, take our time and enjoy the sights.
Of these sights there are many to describe and not enough ink would do them justice. My advice is to just get out there and explore!
Ensure you have a route planned but don’t make it too rigid because, as we soon discovered, some of the best experiences come from getting lost, or heading down unusual looking roads on the map.
Our highlights included some epic bridges and sweeping, windy roads through and around Nam Nao National Park (about 200km north east of Nakhon Sawan); crossing swelling rivers on Highway 212; stopping at various viewpoints, temples and wildlife sanctuaries; viewing the dinosaur footprints of Phu Wiang; and a fantastic night out at the bizarre-but-amazing Grafik Café in Udon Thani, whose gregarious owners always try to have a better time than their customers.
In Nong Khai we had a couple of days of well-deserved rest and discovered all kinds of delicious local delicacies to munch on. Sitting on the banks of the vast Mekong River, sipping a Leo, and tucking into some steamed fish is a great way to relax (and made up for the fact we couldn’t find the local rum distillery we planned to visit. Let us know if you have better luck!).
I must admit that by day eight of our trip, we were both physically and mentally drained, but this is when we enjoyed some of best moments of the ride: the scenery was just majestic, and the visual splendour of the Sam Pan Boak canyons, and the simply stunning cave paintings and views at Pha Taem National Park, made for a perfect end to the sightseeing.
In retrospect, we both could have chosen a shorter route which would have given us more time to reach our various stop off points, but the distance (almost 2,000km) allowed us to really give the bikes a good test. They performed well, and we found some amazing spots which we plan to explore more thoroughly in the future.
I cannot recommend highly enough the virtues of motorbike riding in Thailand, and urge you to get out there and do it yourself – as long as you have a licence, and biking experience, of course!
• Regular stops
• Proper waterproofs – military grade in the rainy season!
• Decent panniers (ensure they fit well and have a waterproof covering)
• Mini hairdryer (for damp clothes. Riding isn’t a fashion show!)
• Thai dictionary/phrasebook (or learn some Thai in advance)
• A wad of plastic bags
• Quick dry riding tops
• A smile for the police (the cops outside of Bangkok prefer photos to ‘fines’).
FOR most of the trip we stayed at the excellent Hop Inn chain of budget hotels, and after a hard day’s ride the clean, simple and very reasonably priced rooms that we arrived at provided a very welcome retreat from the trials of the road.
Owned by The Erawan Group Plc., Hop Inn hotels currently welcome guests in Kanchanaburi, Khon Kaen, Mae Sot, Nakhon Ratchasima, Mukdahan, Lampang, Sa Kaeo, Nong Khai, Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani.
Each hotel occupies a prime location close to business areas, shopping centres, supermarkets and entertainment areas, and are great value with rooms starting at just B550 per night.
All rooms have air-conditioning, power shower, free WiFi, 32 inch flat screen TV with cable channels, refrigerator with two complimentary bottles of water, free coffee, 24-hour service, and parking with security.
For more info Tel: 02 659 2899