Got hold of the visa on arrival (which was hardly a few minutes process) at Suvarnabhumi international airport (Bangkok) and sat on the flight to Chiang Mai in the wee hours of a december morning. My first visit to Amazing Thailand was on an invite from Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote biking tourism amidst travellers. Got out of Chiang Mai airport, to be received by Mr. Sethaphan Budhani (Director, Tourism Authority of Thailand), an avid biker himself and Mr. Sumon, from Ride Thailand, who was to be the team leader during the next seven days of biking. Riders, bloggers and NDTV crew joined us as we made our way out of the airport with our luggage. We soon had our introductions and exchanged pleasantries. Six riders on super bikes with the TV crew and 2 back up vans were to travel 2000 kms across Northern Thailand, from Chaing Mai to Bangkok cutting across places like Mae Hong Son and Kanchanaburi over the next seven days.
The route- Chiang Mai- Mae Hong Son- Mae Sot- Phitsanulok- Suphanburi- Kanchanaburi- Bangkok
Day 1- Chiang Mai- Doi Inthanon- Chiang Mai
Distance- 264 Kms
The van drove all to Hotel Empress, an impressive and luxurious hotel in Chiang Mai. Refreshed, and were out by early afternoon to check out the bikes. Three Kawazaki Versys (650 CC) and three Honda CB (500 CC) gleamed in the bright sunshine. Rode one of the Hondas and was quite impressed with its performance. The major excitement that was fluttering inside was the ride on a foreign land. A first timer's excitement can only be experienced, like how I did. Cannot explain it in words. Go experience it!
The bikes slowly made its way out followed by the vans across the streets of Chiang Mai to Khum Khantoke, a very popular restaurant. With numerous signals, moderate traffic and right hand drive, everything seemed quite similar to Indian roads. But the excitement never died, it only grew within after every kilometer. Food at Khum Khantoke was authentic thai cuisine, spicy and sour. Definitely a meat lover's paradise and undoubtedly delicious too. Relished the lovely lunch and proceeded to Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand. En route, stopped by a BMW showroom to check a few bikes. Ogled at the beauties for a while, then followed Sumon (ride leader), and rode the long 130 Kms to Doi Inthanon. Initially traffic loomed everywhere, but slowly eased out as the group crossed city limits. Brilliant roads with well laid out tarmac, almost nil potholes, hardly any stray dogs and people with a good road sense made the ride a wonderful one. Now this was something new. The needles on the speedometer rarely went below the three figure mark and constantly touched 140 Kms/ hr without a shake. The Honda CB500X is definitely a brilliant bike.
The roads to Doi Intanon national park were curvy and winding, and it was a pleasure to take them on. With the ascend, the temperatures dropped drastically and mist appeared surprisingly. Not many tourists or visitors are aware of such climates in Thailand and most of them refer to the country as a warm one. Never expected something like this and it was a pleasant surprise. There are a couple of buddhist temple en route the national park. Doi Inthanon national park is quite frequently visited by Thai tourists. Along with a few waterfalls and safaris, the park is a favourite weekend getaway. Skipped the park and headed further to the highest point which at 2565 MSL also happens to be the highest point in Thailand. It is moderately vegetated on the hill and a small climb from the parking lot leads to the highest point. The temperature showed 8 degrees near the coffee shop at the top. There is a small temple on the hill and all wandered around in the mist, sipping some black coffee. This place was surprisingly the unexpected one in the itinerary with its mist and chillness. Rode down before it got dark and stopped by near the park gate for a break. There was this huge gang of bikers who were on their weekend ride back from Doi Inthanon. Biking culture is quite prominent and well encouraged in Thailand. Both guys and girls ride super bikes and huge biker gangs were seen through out the ride across Thailand. After a few photo sessions and discussions about the bikes, hit the road. Back in the plains after those lovely winding curves, reached Chiang Mai through heavy traffic and darkness, and headed straight to Khum Khantoke restaurant.
Khum Khantoke restaurant was difficult to recognize from its appearance in the afternoon. Extravagantly lit up, the place looked more of a cultural fair than a restaurant. Music, lights, people, stalls and pretty girls playing instruments made it seem like a festival out there. Walked in to find the place was teeming with people, occupying almost all the seats available. Seated cross legged on cushions placed on the floor, people enjoyed their dinner as the cultural show played. Stories from ramayana were depicted along with many ethnic dance forms like war dance with drum, tee dance, sword dance, hill tribe dance, ram wong etc. A colourful cultural evening came to an end with some lip smacking thai food. Came out of the restaurant as the show ended and sent a few sky lanterns up. Gorgeous they looked as they lit up the otherwise dark sky. The belief is, it takes away all the sins and I seriously hope a few of mine did travel far with those lanterns. The ride back to Hotel Empress was through a crowded street which was lit up. The night market of Chiang Mai had just come alive and a few did contemplate about hitting the market. However the previous night's sleep which was eluded and the tiring ride took all the riders to bed rather than to the lively street.
Day 2- Chiang Mai- Pai- Mae Hong Son
Distance- 252 Kms
The day began at eight in the morning after an early continental breakfast. Geared up, followed Sumon (ride leader) and left Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, destination for the day. The vans followed the bikers with the NDTV crew, tourism authorities and the luggage. Being a saturday, bikers were all on the roads, in huge numbers with bags and luggage tied to their rear seats. There is always a camaraderie amongst the riders, that each time a group passed by, hands were waved with a big thumbs up. With magnificent tarmac all through it was a blissful ride after the city limits. The roads are broad, mostly four ways and all vehicles maintain lane discipline. The six bikes rode staggered on the right most lane (which is for the fast moving vehicles), where all had to maintain a speed of 110 Kms/ hr or more. 100 Kms in less than an hour and a half, constantly, was a commendable achievement and an exhilarating experience for a rider who had ridden earlier only on indian roads.
The road that leads to Mae Hong Son is quite well known for its 1864 curves. Yes, one thousand eight hundred and sixty four breathtaking curves! Mae Hong Son is a small town in the hills and many bikers were on their way to enjoy those lovely smooth curves. The curves are steep at many places, are a real treat and definitely tests the riding skills. En route to Pai, which was the town for lunch break, met a huge BMW biker gang who were on their way back from Mae Hong Son. A short photo session later, the bikes were on the way to Pai. Meanwhile, the television crew did a bit of shoot of the rides on the curves. Ta Pai bridge is a well known bridge and the surrounding area is a preferred tourist destination. It is also an ideal break en route Mae Hong Son and could judge that from the numerous bikers and holiday makers who had stopped by this famous World war-II bridge. It was built during the world war by the Japanese to travel from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son and vice verse in order to attack Burma, which was a British colony. Villagers were forced to work on the wooden bridge which collapsed post the war, during a flood. Presently there is a steel bridge built parallel to the old Ta- Pai bridge which connects people and transport from either sides. Spent quite sometime for both photo and video session and then rode on. A couple of kilometers after the bridge is Pai Town, where the group had local cuisine at one of the many small restaurants by the road. More spicy and delicious food came in platters and gobbled them as soon as they landed on the table.
There were more video shoots on the further curves to Mae Hong Son. There were also a couple of excellent view points, and stopped to capture the vistas and to take take in the fresh mountain air. The distant majestic hills, thick vegetation and curvy roads way below made for magnificent frames. Another major break was at Kiew-Lom view point, where many bikers took a break. The place offers magnificent vistas of the expansive misty hills, low lying plains and green canopy. On the opposite, lies more distant hills and is a great place to enjoy the sunset. Met many bikers, including a huge group of Harley Davidsons. Spent quite an amount of time there and it was almost five in the evening before the bikes hit the road again. It turns dark pretty fast in this part of the country and there was a lot of distance to catch up. Riding the curves in darkness was something everyone was not quite keen on. However, when the sun set, there was another 100 Kms to Mae Hong Son and covered those lovely curves in dark with flashing head lights. Though it did seem slightly risky, due to the high riding speeds and pitch darkness in the surroundings (hardly a vehicle crossed), that last stretch of one hour was absolutely the best ride till then. It very much turned out to be an exhilarating and and adrenalin rush experience.
The Dai resort, a couple of kilometers from town is where the group rested for the night. It was quite a tiring ride that all hopped onto the van instead of bikes, to go to the town for dinner. The lovely restaurant had live music and served delicious food which were relished on. The town has a lively night market to stroll through. Most of them sell t-shirts, curios and fridge magnets, and the emphasis is completely on the 1864 curves. There was a band of 10 year old children who were playing exceptional music by the road. The day ended with a peaceful sleep inside a cosy wooden cottage at the Dai.
Day 3- Mae Hong Son- Mae Sariang- Mae Sot
Distance- 550 Kms
The resort looked beautiful in the morning with a spread out garden, mist all around and the lovely wooden cottages. The day began late due to the video shoots post the breakfast. The ride began only at 9.30 and the group first headed to Wat Phra Kong Mu temple. Situated within the town, but at an altitude, the temple showcases beautiful pagodas, buddhist statues and architectures. Being a sunday, it was quite crowded with believers praying and lighting incessant sticks. The temple also offers fabulous views of the town and its misty airstrip. From the temple, rode down to the centre of town where the night market was alive the previous night. Adjacent to the market lies a huge water body and a couple of gorgeous temples by its side. The stunning architectures of Chong Kham and Chong Klang temples reflected beautifully on the gleaming waters of the pond. As the group patiently waited near the pond, for the certificates to arrive (we got a certification for covering the 1864 curves to Mae Hong Son), I languorously strolled along the water body to the temples. We had to leave any moment and hence did not enter the temple. The place was serene and devoid of people, but for a couple of monks. Walked around, explored the outside and captured the architectural beauties on the lens. The temples are lit up during the night and looks beautiful against the water body in the foreground.
The certificates did not arrive and the wait had eaten a lot into the riding time. Hit the road without further delays and what lay ahead was further winding roads. Exchanged the Honda for Kawazaki Versys for a while on the lovely curves. Versys is much more heavier than Honda, but definitely sturdier. Lost more time waiting for a couple of bikers, but the excellent roads helped to catch up soon. The road to Mae Sariang, where the bikers were to break for lunch, proved to be one of the best of the whole ride. The curves had died down a bit, it got more green on the sides and with hardly any traffic, the bikers cruised blissfully. That was absolutely a long and fast paced stretch. During a break at a fuel station, there was a big group of Yamaha SD riders who had stopped by on their way up the hills. Shortly, reached Mae Sariang, another small town, and the hungry bikers were led to Intira restaurant for a late lunch. The restaurant had two super bikes parked inside. Interesting! The lunch was over a discussion of delicious thai cuisine and its flavours. Had a short visit to a Burmese Thai pagoda near the restaurant, to capture its attractive architectural facade. The next stretch was close to Myanmarese border, and the pagoda was hardly a curtain raiser of what lay ahead. It was past 3.30 pm when the bikers began the last 230 Kms ride for the day. Got back onto the Honda for the rest of the ride. There was more traffic and the excellent wide roads turned narrower. At a couple of points there were signs which showed that the road led to Chiang Mai (our start destination). The ride leader confidently lead us and there was nothing to be worried about directions. After covering about 60 Kms, stopped for a break. The long straight line of the road with a nice dip in between was an absolute beauty. Clicked a few photographs while Sumon, the ride leader kept busily checking out the map and directions. No surprises, the bikers were on a wrong route while the vans took the right one. Sumon felt extremely sorry for this confusion, but no one absolutely had any complains. No adventure is complete without a lost direction. By 5 pm reached back Mae Sariang (after covering 120 kms in the wrong direction) and took a detour from the main town to enter the village road.
The luxury the bikers had earlier was not there any more. The roads turned narrow, with sporadic potholes and villagers. The speed reduced drastically. However, the only consolation was the almost nil traffic. The other concern that ran through every head was that the beautiful sun had turned the sky into a lovely orange and was on its way down. There was hardly another half an hour or so before it turned into a ride in the dark. The wide swathe of paddy fields with distant hills in the background, beyond which was Myanmar, made for a beautiful landscape as the sun set. Stopped for a quick shot of the frame and then rode further. The tarmac got replaced by a muddy track and gravel somewhere during the ride, and then began the toughest and the most horrible stretch. It had been fantastic roads for the last three days and here without any cue, was one of the worst tracks. The bikes kept a safe distance from each other as dust kicked up. Soon, the sun went down and wilderness engulfed. Speedometer needles tickled near the 20 Km/ hr mark as the group made its way through the narrow forest track. It was a real adventure ride on the lonely forest track with absolutely no traces of traffic or people. The ride was along the border of Myanmar and Thailand. Surrounded by forests, all were sarcastically apprehensive that some militant or tribal might show up in the darkness. After the sun went down plunging everything into darkness, the bikes stopped for a break. Refreshed by the road and in the darkness with the blinkers on. Surprisingly a truck carrying a large number of cattle came by and covered all in a blanket of dust. Sumon exchanged pleasantries with its driver, and then all rode the remaining distance with limited visibility through the darkness. That was a 50 Km horrendous stretch which came to an end after an hour when tarmac reappeared, surprisingly, just like how it disappeared. Though a single track, with well laid tarmac and very little traffic, the bikes picked up speed on those deserted roads to cover the remaining 180 Kms. The roads were winding in places but straight for most part. Incessantly cruised over the three figure mark with just head lights for visibility. Suddenly a buffalo appeared on the road from nowhere. Though the bikes were staggered, the riders were in for a real shock for a split of second. A crash in that darkness without a soul in the vicinity for help was the last thing that was needed. However, slight sways helped all from a disaster. A few hundred meters ahead, there was huge herd of buffaloes that strayed on to the road and brought all the bikes to a screeching halt. Now that explained how that one lonely soul who scared us landed there (now, did they all fall off from that truck?). It was a quick ride through pitch darkness and there was another hour's ride when the group took a break. A rest was very much needed as tiredness had overcome enthusiasm. Plunged in darkness, took one of the best breaks of the whole ride, in the middle of nowhere. Tired and hungry, the last dash was a quick one and covered the remaining 50 odd kilometers to Mae Sot, the border town and the destination for the day. The back up vans had reached quite a while ago and they waved as the bikes entered Huenkamfah golf resort, a beautiful place where the riders had a warm dinner and good night's sleep. Grueling, tiring and testing with fantastic roads, horrendous mud tracks and an engulfing jungle, the ride from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sot along the border of Myanmar was undoubtedly the best ride day of this bike tour across northern Thailand.
Day 4- Mae Sot- Tak- Phitsanulok
Distance- 296 Kms
Huenkamfah is a golf resort built in Burmese architecture with most of its staff conversing either in Burmese or French. The resort is a beautiful one with a lot of gorgeous wood work and an expansive golf course. The day began early to accommodate a long session of video shoot. First stop for the day was the border point, 7 Km from the resort. There was a lot of traffic as the entourage neared the border. A bridge over River Moei connects both the countries and people from either sides happily cross over for their daily work. Children from the border town in Myanmar cross over to Mae Sot for education and then go back to their home country after school. However, people who cross over have free access only up to 10 Kms, beyond which they need a visa. Mae Sot is a bustling town with lots of shops, markets, tourists and locals from both countries. Men from Myanmar stood under the bridge and lured the tourists with cigarettes. After a small candid video shoot, the group dispersed into the clutter of shops that sold a plethora of items. The lure to ride into Myanmar was put aside for another time with a lot of difficulty. Read more about the border town here- http://rajniranjandas.blogspot.in/2013/12/glimpses-of-myanmar.html
The ride from the border town was along the country side with vast open fields lined on either sides. Shortly, reached a market run by the Muser hill tribe. Situated by the highway to Phitsanulok, this make shift arrangement attracts a lot of passers by. They sell the local hill produce and this includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, spices and meat products. It was a nice experience to wander through those stalls, explore some delicious food and take in the flavoured odours as they emanated. Spent a considerable amount of time at the Muser market, and then the group were on the roads again. Slowly, the curvy roads turned straight and less exciting. The long double roads with less traffic and not so lovely vistas made for a quick ride to a nice restaurant for lunch break. Satiated the hunger with a delicious thai lunch and rode to Sukhothai. The roads were spectacular, people drove with a good road sense, and the bikes cruised at high speeds (hit a top speed of 151Kms/ hr). Reached Sukhothai, a UNESCO world heritage site by late afternoon. Sukhothai was Thailand's first capital and the whole site is sprinkled with Buddhist statues and stupas. After a long session of video shoots, entered the main site and rode around soaking in the wonderfully calm ambiance. The site is exceptionally well maintained with numerous temples and structures where visitors get lost gazing at the mesmerising structures or in oblivion at some secluded corner.
Read more about Sukhothai here- http://rajniranjandas.blogspot.in/2013/12/sukhothai-unesco-world-heritage.html
The sun was about to set as the Big bike tour left Sukhothai for Phitsanulok, a major town. After a peaceful 1300 Kms three day ride through the woods with fresh air and magnificent vistas it was back to traffic, sounds, lights and people in Phitsanulok. The whole place glowed as the bikers and support vehicles entered Topland hotel, one of the best in the town. Being on the higher floors, the rooms had exceptional views of the glowing Phitsanulok. Shortly moved out for dinner at a restaurant by a huge water body. Dinner was special and the thai frog curry and fish balls were seriously delicious. Most of the group left back to the hotel after dinner, while a few explored the night life in the town. Roamed the almost deserted streets of Phitsanulok. The monarchy of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej's posters and hoardings were seen everywhere as we strolled the streets and pub hopped. That definitely was one amazing night out in Amazing Thailand.
Day 5- Phitsanulok- Nakhon Sawan- Chainat- Suphanburi
Distance- 307 Kms
The day started late as one soul (yeah, myself :)) got up late by an hour. With blurry eyes, rode to Wat Phra Chinara, also known as Wat Budh Maha Tat, less than a kilometer from Topland Hotel. A beautiful temple with a wonderful Buddha shrine and impressive architectures. It was a national holiday and the temple was quite crowded with believers praying and giving offerings. Spent a considerable amount of time inside the temple and then it was more straight, well tarred roads to reach Nakhon Sawan for lunch. Lunch was at a floating restaurant on Chao Phraya river. The river flows all the way to Bangkok. The restaurant in addition to the lovely food, also provides excellent vistas of the flowing river.
It was then a quick ride to Chainat Bird park. Situated beside the highway to Suphanburi, the bird park has numerous birds in all colours and sizes. The sanctuary also has a wonderful aquarium and an egg museum. Read more about the bird park here- http://rajniranjandas.blogspot.in/2014/01/chainat-bird-park-thailand-photo-essay.html.
Had an extended shoot session inside the park. Exchanged the Honda and rode the Kawazaki Versys again for a nice ride to Suphanburi. Cannot really choose between the two bikes. Both were absolutely brilliant. As the sun set, checked into Khum Suphan hotel in Suphanburi. The magnificent views of the lit up town and the television tower from the room was breathtakingly beautiful. After dinner roamed the streets and checked out a few pubs. Another beautiful night.
Day 6- Suphanburi- Kanchanaburi
Distance- 167 Kms
Got back on the Honda and it was a short ride after a delicious breakfast at Khum Suphan hotel to Kanchanaburi. More long, straight, wide double roads laced with enchanting paddy fields on either sides welcomed the bikers on the sixth morning of the Big bike tour. It definitely was more warm in the plains and all could feel the heat beating down. Reached Kanchanaburi in an hour and stopped for a cold coffee break at one of the fuel stations. From there took a detour from the highway to the famous tiger temple. The tiger temple in Kanchanaburi attracts numerous visitors as they get an opportunity to pose with tigers. As the wait continued for the gates to open, finished a couple of riding shoots and interviews with the television crew. In a while the crowd walked into the temple and followed the tigers which strolled ahead. Though it comes with a lot of restrictions and precautions, it was absolutely a mind blowing experience to pose with those majestic creatures. There are also more activities for the visitors like 'walk with the tiger' and 'play in the waters with a cub'. Volunteers from across the world help function this temple of tigers, which was earlier run by buddhist monks. Clicked a few snaps with the stripped cats and then left for lunch at Kanchanaburi.
Lunch was at a wonderful restaurant by River Kwai. It was a delicious gourmet spread and relished it along with a small talk about the same for the television. The vistas of the beautiful Kwai river, the famous bridge over river Kwai and the speeding long necked boats were an absolute delight. After satiating the hunger, all headed to River Kwai bridge resort to dump the luggage and to freshen up. Definitely, the best resort on the entire tour with beautiful cottages and exceptional views of river Kwai from the dining area. Since there was a lot of time due to the short ride, all had the late afternoon for themselves before the Kanchanburi night market opened. Some went cycling, some caught up with sleep and a few enjoyed a foot massage as the final interview clips of the bikers were shot. As the sun descended, went for a stroll on the River Kwai bridge also known as Death railway bridge. The bridge is well known as a world war II reminiscent. The inhuman behaviour dealt out to the American soldiers by the Japanese army has left deep scars on the city, the people and history buffs. The railway line over the bridge in not officially functional now, but a toy train for kids runs over it for a short distance. It was an ambivalent walk over the bridge which exudes sad memories of the ordeals from the past. The bridge and the surrounding area gets lit up as the sun sets and it definitely was a beautiful sight. Also visited a monument erected by the Japanese community in memory of the soldiers who died during the construction of the bridge. Kanchanaburi night market is right next to the bridge and it undoubtedly is an exciting, crowded, colourful and blaring market. The long line of stalls sold anything to everything. Read more about tiger temple and Kanchanaburi here- http://rajniranjandas.blogspot.in/2013/12/kanchanaburi-reminiscences-of-world-war.html.
Dinner was special, facing the river and enjoyed the fireworks which were a part of the show that gets played every evening over the bridge. The last evening of the tour culminated with a delicious thai dinner, thanksgiving speeches, group photo sessions and handing over of the certificates for covering 1864 curves of Mae Hong Son. Post the session, ventured out to explore the night life of Kanchanaburi, before snuggling into the warm cottages of the resort.
Day 7- Kanchanaburi- Bangkok
Distance- 106 Kms
The last day of the tour began on a languorous note as the distance was short and there was only a war cemetery that had to be covered. Done with breakfast, visited the war cemetery where rests the bodies of 300 soldiers who lost their lives to the brutality of Japanese army during the world war II. Walked through the garden bed where the stone graves have been beautifully laid. Most of the soldiers were either in their twenties or thirties when they met with their death. Across the cemetery is the Death railway museum where history behind the bridge and the sufferings of the soldiers are depicted through videos, audios and photographs. After that began the last stretch of 100 Kms of the Big bike tour to Bangkok. It was wide straight roads again as it had been in the past three days, but laced with intermittent traffic which turned incessant as Bangkok got closer. The speeds dropped and then it was a vigil and alert ride through the traffic to the City of Angels. Just before the city limits, stopped at a coffee shop for a break and bade good bye to the amazing super bikes. The bikes were headed to Phuket, and the bikers and television crew hopped on to the vans for a last one hour drive to Suvarnabhumi International airport through the traffic and protests of Bangkok.
It is one of the best journeys I have ever been on and undoubtedly the ride of a lifetime. Would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Sethaphan Budhani, Mr.Sumon and support staff (Ride Thailand) and Tourism Authority of Thailand for this wonderful and amazing bike ride through the less explored regions of Thailand. Not to forget the delicious cuisines, the ever hospitable Thais and the lovely friends I made during the Big bike tour.
Signing Note- The odyssey of a lifetime...!!
While travelling across Thailand, it is recommended to carry TSIM's Thailand SIM card. I could access internet due to TSIM's good connectivity across North Thailand.