Riding Steel Along Northern Thai Roads

7 min read by Dmitri, with image(s) by Betty.
Published on . Updated on .
I’ve altered the license plate number.

After twenty minutes of washing, soaping, and wiping, the bike is ready again to be enveloped by the highway dust.

During the past year-and-a-half it took me to Lao and Myanmar borders, Pai, Chiang Dao, Buatong Waterfalls, Suthep mountain, and all over Chiang Mai. It got some miles on it.

Being a small engine, it’s meant to redline at about a hundred and sixty kilometres per hour. At those speeds, the piston violently buzzes through the aluminium alloy casing, the frame, and the rider’s tissues. The air is thick and feels harsh like sandpaper. The helmet pushes against the face as it wedges through the wind. Only the roar of Yoshimura exhaust bouncing off concrete line dividers is loud enough to compete with the low whistle of the head gusts. Centrifugal forces are perpetuating everything to stand up straight like a spinning top, only to reluctantly lean and draw arches with the rider’s weight transfers.

At half the size of a soda can by volume, the engine’s combustion chamber is capable of a startling amount of force. Though it could never catch up to the litre monsters screaming along the Thai roads piloted by the local speed and steel fanatics.

Thai people have a uniquely close relationship with their machines.

From street-illegal, race-worthy monsters to vintage Vespas and completely unique builds, the roads are buzzing with the passion to go fast or in style. The average incomes are significantly lower than those in the West, thus the owners often choose to ride smaller, domestically-built bikes. Despite the impossibly-high taxes imposed on imports, Ducati, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Triumph offer brand-new “Built in Thailand” options. Vietnamese Vespas are priced decently, the homegrown pretty-boy Stallions cafe-racer types are popular, too.

For many, motorbikes are the only method of transportation. Being significantly more efficient with fuel and better in traffic than cars, they make plenty of sense in a country that’s always warm.

Top: a beautiful old scooter randomly spotted on a street. Bottom: neighbour’s project.

My Honda CBR 150R was built in Thailand around 2010. Its first rider drove it extensively, clocking over sixty thousand kilometres on the odometer. The second owner left it in a poor shape: awful tires, destroyed sprockets, broken windshield, and busted rear suspension. But the engine sounded good, indicating that, perhaps, for most of its life the bike was well taken care of. I took a chance and paid in cash.

Thai mechanics are typically not in the business to rob their customers. The labour and part prices are fair, though looking for quality service may still pose a challenge. A referral from a Facebook group pointed me towards the local craftsmen from Piston Shop, who did very well.

The first two months were spent fixing a number of minor engine, suspension, and drivetrain issues and cleaning up the exterior. The bike then got minted with a fresh coat of paint throughout with some custom detailing, new hand-stitched seats, a few replaced fairings, and a sticker kit. The handles and levers got an upgrade of their own, making it a much smoother ride on higher speeds. A lighter, better-sounding exhaust was part of the original purchase, but the mechanics spent some time adjusting the carburettor to match its output. Finally, the electronics got rewired, tires upgraded, and the windshield replaced.

77,777.7 on the odometer. A lucky day.

The most striking and defining visual feature of the bike are the bright-yellow analogue dials, surrounded by a jet-black bezel. All of the detailing and design work were to follow that theme, though I made sure to preserve the best elements of the slim shape that looked, somehow, classic next to the newer rides from the same production line.

It wasn’t perfect, nothing is, but it turned heads, got compliments, and, most importantly, made me a happy owner.

Driving in Thailand turned out to be a unique experience.

While the mountain roads and highways are spooky at first, they are fairly easy to navigate and understand, given that extra attention is paid to the pavement condition and limited visibility. But the city rides are frantic and, often, maddening.

With the reputation of the deadliest roads in the world, the country struggles with law enforcement and traffic management. In Chiang Mai, the police regularly set up checkpoints to inspect helmets and paperwork. In most cases, the fines are slapped on tourists failing to present valid international driver’s licenses. The resolution is often to pay cash on the spot, as in, under the table. As expected, this practice does little to no good for the drivers’ safety.

Dangerous driving is prevalent with people not being aware of their surroundings, drunk driving, and haphazard highway layouts.

A welcome side-effect of lacking scrutiny, however, is an easy path to motorcycle ownership. The road taxes are low, the insurance is extremely cheap or optional. Most administrative issues are solvable with relatively small amounts of money.

Owning a light, cheap vehicle is a wonderfully liberating experience, and, in the context of Chiang Mai is worth the money, risks, and effort. Gone are the days spending four hours a day commuting, thousands of dollars on gas, insurance, and repairs. Even though riding steel isn’t as comfortable as sitting in an armchair with A/C in a large metal box, it is much cooler and faster than walking, a lot less painful in traffic, and pure joy on the windy, well-paved roads of evergreen Thailand.

I ride up a two-lane strip, filled with twists, turns, dips, and hills. On my motorcycle, I lean into bends as deep as I can, until it feels like the wheels are about to slip. I take wider arcs across lane divider, trying to keep gear constant while checking rear-view mirrors for trucks and big bikes speeding into my trajectory.

– From Isaan, On a Cloud.