North Thailand - Chiang mai, Doi Inthanon - Highest Point in Thailand, Mae Sariang

After graduation, I was finally debt free and more free in term of time. With my penned up wanderlust and leave from 3 years of work, studies and vacation deprivation, I went on another road trip three months after returning from 3 weeks road trip on Vespa.

I was intending to travel Bali to meet Mario. However, another enticing offer presented itself. My biking khakis, Wei Jie, Cherie and Uncle Mike will be riding to North Thailand in December. Riding North has always been a yearly pilgrimage for them. 

Old bird, Wei Jie has been to North Thailand numerous times and to Laos and China Border a few times. Cherie is not unfamiliar to the touring scene. She has wandered solo to Thailand and meet up with other bikers to tour Myanmar earlier that year. There is a Facebook page Ride North which holds all the photos and stories of past escapades since 2011. Do check them out.

Wei Jie and Cherie would later proceed to Laos while Uncle Mike would return. I could not afford to spend too much time away from work so I could not ride my scooter up. Plus I would need a head start for that if I went on scooter. The only choice was to rent a bike in Chiang Mai and meet them.

All I booked for this trip was my flight to and fro Bangkok and then planning my arrival in Chiang Mai by train, enough time to find a bike to rent and meet them at a nearby town.

Riding to North Thailand has been very popular among Singaporean bikers especially during the year end. Experiencing winter and soaking in rustic charm does not have to be a far away and expensive affair if one heads to North Thailand. 

Before I departed for Bangkok, I knew of Singaporean biker friends in North Thailand who warned me about the cold there - it was less than 10 degree celsius! On that day of departure, it was a mad rush to run errands and also to repack my backpack with more warm clothings

Two backpack and one helmet bag to lug around.
Bangkok to Chiang Mai by Train

It was more expensive to fly directly to Chiang Mai. In order to save $100, I inconvenienced myself by flying to Bangkok and then taking a train to Chiang Mai. I did not mind taking train as it will be a new experience anyway. You can find out the train schedule and the different seat type here.

Arriving at Suvarnabhumi Airport 7.30 pm, it was a mad rush to Hua Lamphong Railway Station to catch the last train departing at 10pm. In Bangkok, the air was chilly in the low 20s. I could not imagine the cold in the Northern counterpart.

Hua Lamphong Railway Station
Got to railway station ticket booth at 9pm, the sleeper class was sold out. The next best arrangement was the second class seat which cost me 431Baht (S$17). I may have to sit through out the ride. 

Fortunately, there was nobody sitting next to me so I could rest across two seats. It was a consolation that I was "fun-sized", had I been any taller, I may have to stick my legs out of the window.

As there was not enough room for my legs, I propped it up the window sill.
Not in the most comfortable sleeping position, I was drifting in and out of slumber throughout the night. The chilly wind draft wafting into the cabin further added on to my insomnia. 

Second class seat without Air-Con
Despite the inability to sleep, I set my alarm for 6am anyway to catch the sunrise. The breathtaking view was worth the inconvenience! The chilly air caressing my face was enough to refresh my senses.
Splashes of red and yellow on the horizon.

Catch the 8.10pm or 10.00pm train if you see sunrise.
The train arrived in Chiang Mai Railway station at around 2pm. Once out of the station, I was ambushed by Tuk Tuk drivers offering their rides. I hooked up with two other Chinese backpackers to bargain with the drivers the fare to city centre - 30baht (S$1.20) per pax. On the ride, we shared our experience in the different cabin class. They paid for the 3rd class seat which was just a thinly-padded seat, not very comfortable. 

The lady from Shandong shared her worse experience in India, the train was crowded and she was constantly kicked by a young kid having crying fits. There was no rubbish bin, litters were strewn all over the ground. As she was holding her food wrapper thinking how to deal with it, a local passenger took it from her hand and threw it out of the window.

My first stop at the city centre was to look for Rider's Corner Bar & Restaurant run by motorcycle enthusiast Philip. It is a popular stopover for overland traveller. The yearly Asian lake of Horizon Unlimited Meet Up is also held here.

Cherie told me I could always approach Philip for help and advice. There are rooms available and also secure parking space for motorcycle. I checked into a simple room there as I was too tired to recce around for another place. 

The simple room with a huge bed which was more than enough for me. I do not even have my own bed at home.
Rider's Corner Bar & Restaurant
357 Moon Muang Road
8:00 am – 10:00 pm
+66 87 048 1787

Renting a Motorcycle in Chiang Mai

The bureaucracy of renting a motorcycle in Thailand is very lax. All the rental shop needs is your passport and money. Yes, as a driver in Thailand, do not be surprised if a motorcyclist turns into your path without checking. I have seen a lot in South Thailand and even an accident involving foreigner in Koh Phangan. BamB told us everyday there would be at least a serious accident on the island. I saw riders in school uniforms and I doubt they are even of legal driving age.

The only rental shop I saw that offered insurance was Mr Mechanic but they were more costly. You can find out more about motorcycle rental in Chiang Mai here.

Honda CRF 250 M
Honda CRF 250 L was one of my choices and there are many in Chiang Mai. However, I find them too tall and heavy. Being "fun-size" also means there was limited choices of bikes for me, besides scooters.

I walked along Mun Mueang Road, making enquiries at different shops. Kawasaki D Tracker X 250 caught my attention. The height and weight was manageable and there was enough space to put my backpack.

However, the shop owner who speaks Chinese kept pushing the 125 cc version to me. The 125cc's height was better suited for my "fun-sized" stature but there was not enough space for my backpacks and the suspension was almost non-functional.

Pissed, I told the shop owner, I will go look around. I have handled bikes taller than this. On my KTM, I could only land one foot, for the D Tracker, both my toes could reach the ground! He see me no up to handle the bike! If he does not want my business, I will take it else where!

As I was scouting other shops, a lady lugging a suit case approached me for directions, thinking I am a local. She was looking for a particular guest house in the vicinity because it only charges 120baht ($4.80) a night and explained that she was a long term traveller and could not afford anything too expensive. I used the Google Map on my phone to show her the directions to the place.

Intrigued, I asked how long she has been travelling? Her name is Nicki, from Greece and she has been on the road for 4 years! Wow!

She was disappointed that Chiang Mai was not like what she expected - tranquil and scenic. It was just like any other cities. I told her yes true, she need to get to the outskirt of the city and I suggested some of my destinations in the outskirts for the next few days.

The D Trackers from other shops were already rented out. It seemed like that was the only shop. I had no choice but to return and insist on renting the D Tracker X 250. Anyway, the 125 version was rented out shortly after I left the shop. From 700baht for rental a day, I bargained to 600baht (S$24) a day for 7 days.

If you are specific about the bike to rent, I recommend making a reservation in advance. "Fun-size" people like me do not have much choices.

Kawasaki D Tracker X 250. I brought my own Rok straps to tie down my backpack.
I was in need of a facial foam and I could not help laughing in the shop when I saw this thing.
If you do not know what I was laughing about, watch the below video.

Tha Phae Gate

My plan for the evening was to head down to the Night Bazaar. I passed by Tha Phae Gate and curiosity drew me to this sign.

Free chocolate and prayer. Why not?
It turned out these youngsters manning this station were missionaries from Switzerland. I engaged in a long conversation with the gentleman below about God and Christianity.

I asked for his name, and he insisted on the name "Amen"
I was not sure if that was his real name. It has been a while since my days in a Catholic primary school that I said Amen so many times.

Amen: "Where are you from?"
Me: "Singapore. And you?"
Amen: "I am from Switzerland. My town is very near Liechtenstein."
Me: "Oh there. That small but really rich country."
Amen: "Whoa, how do you know about Liechtenstein?"
Me: "Ermm.... I like to look at maps?" (I could not remember if it was because I listen to a Liechtensteiner rock band called Elis. The former explanation was easier.) Do you know where is Singapore then?"
Amen: "Ehhh.... not really? Is it near China?"

Singaporeans who travel abroad get that a lot! I had to explain like I had done so many times. The next question was, "Why is your english so good?" Another common question.

They offered to give me a prayer which I gladly accepted. I am not a believer but I am a believer of positive thoughts. 

At Tha Phae Gate, there were a few other Chinese tourists and also Chinese living and working in Chiang Mai. I had to act as a translator during most of our conversations. For that moment, I felt really honoured to be bilingual -  to be able to bridge two groups of people over language barriers. 

Jian Hua, who was travelling Thailand for two months, complimented my Chinese which I think was very kind of him. My Singaporean peers would have thought otherwise. I think it is substandard for a native speaker. It has been deteriorating since I left secondary school. 

He lives and works in Chiang Mai, recently broke his foot while riding and needed the crutches.
Still, he would rather ride the distance than to walk the distance.
Jian Hua, we went out for food after the meeting at Tha Phae Gate. As Facebook in banned in China, I gave him a photo for remembrance sake.

Doi Inthanon

Many times during the night, I woke up in curling up like a ball, chattering from the cold despite tightly wrapping myself a few rounds with the blanket. Heater is not a common commodity in Thailand, as I later realised, although their winter is still a season to be reckoned with. Or maybe my entire life growing up in tropical sunny Singapore left me unwonted to such climate.

After two nights of lousy sleep, I still had to make my way to Mae Sariang to meet the rest.

I learnt this trick from Jackie Yap, a Malaysia rider whom I met in a Ferry from Koh Samui.
Navigating around Thailand is easy. I highlighted the highway number to look out for on my maps and just have to look out for those numbers as I rode. 

On the way to Mae Sariang, I wanted to drop by Doi Inthanon, the highest spot in Thailand at 2565m and then Op Luang National Park to see the "Grand Canyon of Thailand".

Spotted a nice temple
But first let me take a selfie. Testing the monopod.

On the way to Doi Inthanon, as soon as I see bikers, I waved or nodded to them including a few Singaporean Bikers. As the altitude climbs,  I could feel my ears blocking and temperature dropping. It was 11am in the morning, bright and sunny there but temperature was 9 degree celsius!

At the peak and a selfie shot with my monopod. My monopod drew many curious stares from other visitors.
Above the cloud. Could not see anything really.
As I was walking down to my bike, I crossed path with a group of Malaysian bikers. It was obvious I am a biker from the Dainese Jacket I was donning.

Malaysian Biker: "Hello xiao mei (little sister in Chinese), you rode here by yourself?"
Me: "Yes, but I am meeting friend at another town."
Malaysian Biker: "Wah, daring to ride alone ah. Are you from Singapore?"
Me: "How you know?"
Malaysian Biker: "Because you got the look mah." *Tickled my cheek*
Me: "Oei!" *Trying to dodge his hand.*

HE TICKLED MY CHEEK!!! I quickly walked away. I do not want to take any offence in that as long as he was not tickling me anywhere else. Brushing that aside, I crossed path with them on our bikes later and just gave a friendly air tickle.

The distance to Mae Sariang from Doi Inthanon was only another 150km or so. It would be quick ride out and hopefully I would have time to visit Op Luang National Park as well.

Obviously, my mind was still grounded in the complacency of having straight paved roads in Singapore. The route out of Doi Inthanon to Mae Sariang was laid with narrow bends and at some parts uneven ground. It was almost impossible to cruise fast, my speed was hovering at 30 to 40km/hr.

At times, I was lagging behind a crawling truck with little chances to overtake safely. However, going slow allowed me to appreciate the picturesque view in my surrounding. It was just swathes of undulating hills before me and the surronding space was so open and liberating. With just me and the motorcycle, the freedom became more palpable.

 I could not help to stop a few times for some photos. Monopod is the best tool when you are alone and wish to take photos of yourself. 
And the roads were such - not well-paved, narrow, meandering. Riding slow allowed me to appreciate the picturesque sight.
I stopped for petrol and snacks at Mae Cheam, which was also the half way point out. When I returned to start the bike and engage my gear, the bike died!

I tried again and again to no avail. By then, the sky bore tinges of orange, marking the onset of dusk. Hungry and panicking, I was clueless about troubleshooting this foreign bike, and uncertain if I could reach our rendezvous in time.

Chomped down more snacks to stimulate some brain juice, I tried to start the bike again. Unbeknownst to me, the bike could not start because the side stand was down. Ok, I admit I am very obsolete. I do not have inkling about safety powercut features in bikes. The most complex electronics in the two bikes I owned is the IU unit.

Fortunately, I managed to get out of the small difficult road before dusk. Nonetheless, the night sky was catching up with me as I was riding on highway 108. Picking up speed means having the unforgiving cold wind lashing at me, slowing down means I would have to ride in the dark. I had to find the balance.

Mae Sariang

As the sun began hiding behind the mountains, the cold became more unbearable. I soon realised that a pair of ventilated riding glove was the least appropriate in this situation. I continued to talk and encourage myself as I rode. With minimal street lamps, the bike's head light was more vital than ever. Apparently, I would not be visiting Op Luang National Park anymore.

I regretted not bringing the thermal liner which comes with my riding jacket and pants. I always thought you would need to be riding in a temperate countries where there is snow and such for a thermal liner to come useful. But no, winter in North Thailand calls for that already. Even the Swiss lady I spoke to in the Mae Sariang Guesthouse underestimated Thailand's winter.

The sight of street lamps and road signs brought some relief everytime I past them - I am nearing the town.

At the periphery of the Mae Sariang, I stopped to confirm my location on the iPhone with my frozen finger and also received a message from Cherie with the location of their Guesthouse.

Familiar bikes spotted
After scouring the street for the other bikes, I found them and cuddled myself at the porch. I called them and dropped a message about my arrival but the calls and messages were unanswered because they were taking a shower upstairs. Shower was the last things I wanted then.

We had dinner at the stall located within the Guesthouse compound. I learnt that the Pad Thai there is good and many locals patronise it.

The cold and prolonged time without food had quenched my hunger by then. I could not eat much.

There, the familiarity of our accents connected us with a Malaysian lady in her late 40s. She was travelling alone in Thailand for 2 months.

The topic about travelling solo as a women came up and the prominent gang rape incident in New Delhi was brought up.

She has been to India a few times and even by herself, but nothing eventful like this happened before.

"Maybe I am too old for their liking. Haha," she laughed it off.

This lady's name is Alice Wong and she refused to reveal her age when I asked. When I chatted with her, I could not help to see a bit of myself in her - a genial demeanour behind that placid front. Maybe that placidness comes along with age which I have not honed. At her age, travelling is still an unwavering pastime and she took it slow and easy.

After dinner, we went for a stroll down the chilly street to find a place to chill further more. To counter the cold, Wei Jie and Cherie occasionally broke out into dancing fits and we started to run up and down.

We settled down in one of the bar for a warm drink. Soon after, a guy came to our table and sat himself down.

"Are you modern?" he asked in his drunken stupor, directing the question at Cherie.  Do we look like we were from a different era or was that some new pick up line?

"Are you modern?"

"Yes, as in not ancient," Cherie's witty response to him.

In between his hiccup, he went on to compliment Cherie. "You are so beautiful."

Probably he thought that Cherie's beauty was out of this time. Maybe that was the next pick up line but no! He went on a incomprehensible rant on how British and Thai people suck.

Finally, the golden question came, "Can I have your phone number?" We decided that it was time to leave and spare further awkwardness with a guy who probably did not know what he was talking about.

We later figured out he was actually asking, "Are you a model?"

Being slaves to gadget, a power point is vital.

From top left clockwise, Cherie, Uncle Mike, Wei Jie, me and Alice from Malaysia.
Guest House with Good Pad Thai Stall in Mae Sariang
I was too cold to find out the name of the place. But here is the Google Map Street View of the place.


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