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Updated by Ben Barteau on Nov 20, 2016
Headline for 10 Lessons Learned on Motorbiking from Chiang Mai to Pai
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10 Lessons Learned on Motorbiking from Chiang Mai to Pai

The infamous route in Northern Thailand from Chiang Mai to Pai is littered with treacherous switchbacks and the remains of overzealous, scooter-novice backpackers. The latter isn't really true. I found the route highly enjoyable, safe, and stress free. Here are some lessons learned from my recent traversing of the route in June of 2016 that will not only keep you safe, but hopefully calm your fears about the ride, weather you have experience on a scooter or not. Life is too short not to scooter.


Don't Attempt to go Round Trip in a Day.

The ride, while extremely pleasant and enjoyable (and curvy), is taxing on your body (and your butt). I gave myself 3 days, and 2 nights in #Pai, which gave me plenty of time to stop as much as i wanted along the way, take pictures, and spend a relaxing 48 hours exploring Pai. While I have read of others doing the round trip in a day, their accounts all seemed to discourage the idea. Most accounts of round trip tours mention 'sore booties' at some point.


Get Yourself a Fine 2 Wheels.

Walking around Chiang Mai, everyone and their mother wants to rent you a scooter, be wary. There are various things to consider when renting a scooter, condition, power, price, etc… Here are a few of the crucial things to look for:

-Rent from somebody who speaks English, it won’t hurt you when renting/returning the scooter and may save you a great deal of grief if something goes wrong. (I rented from ‘Mr. Mechanic’ who has 3 shops around Chiang Mai. )

-Get a scooter with at least 125 cc. and something you are comfortable riding. This is fairly common in Thailand and will provide 1 person with adequate power to ascend some of the steep hills on the way to Pai. (I rented a 125 cc Honda for 250 Thai Baht a day.)

-Inspect the bike before you drive it away. You should rent a newer scooter if possible as they tend to be more reliable. At a minimum, check to ensure the tires are in decent shape and the brakes work well, without squeaking and squealing like my ’84 hoopty. Make note or take pictures of any major dings or scrapes.

-Instead of leaving the rental company my Passport, I opted to leave a 4000 Baht deposit instead. This proved useful when checking into my hotel in Pai and when confronted by the police.


Don’t Worry About Your Driver’s License (or lack thereof).

What if you don’t have an international drivers license? If you’re stopped by the Police (which you likely will be), you will have to bribe them if you don’t possess an #international driver’s license. When I was stopped, just outside of #Chiang Mai, I showed them my California license, they asked for my international driver’s license and when I didn’t produce one, they told me to pay 1000 Baht. I had heard from a local that a bribe of 200 Baht would get me out, so I countered the Police man (who had decent enough English) with an offer of 200 #Baht. He requested 500 Baht, I paid it, and was on my way in under 3 minutes. He assured me I wouldn’t be stopped again, I was but when I told them where I was going, Pai, I was on my way without a bribe. If you request a receipt for the bribe, let me know how it goes. There seem to be 4 or 5 police checkpoints along the route, some are staffed and some are not.


Dress Appropriately.

Wear a helmet. Also, remember, you are about to motor bike through 150 kilometers of, more or less, rain forest, with varying altitudes. It can get chilly, and rain may surprise you if you haven’t checked the forecast. I did not regret bringing along my sneakers, jeans, and a light sweater to supplement my flip-flops and swimsuit, particularly during the hour or so riding outside of Pai where you are fairly high up in altitude. You may also consider getting a helmet with a face shield to block the wind, rain, dust, pebbles, bugs, butterflies, and everything else desperate to penetrate your eyeballs. My Ray-bans weren’t quite adequate at times. If rain is in the forecast, get a poncho, or live a little and just wear your swimsuit.


Take it EZ

Driving a scooter in Thailand can be stressful, but with a bit of practice on the road, things will get much smoother. If you haven’t ridden a scooter, much (or any) before renting one, spend a day riding around Chiang Mai before heading to Pai.

-Everything and everyone on or even near the road wants to kill you. Keep this in the back of your mind at all times, check your mirrors, and you’ll be fine.

-Start slow, find other scooters going the same direction, keep pace just behind them at first, don’t be a hero.

-Get in the habit of driving in the left lane and making turns into the correct lane. This can be tricky to remember at first.


Lighten Your Load.

Do you really need your hair dryer? Scooting to Pai is challenging enough, make the ride more enjoyable by limiting the amount of ‘stuff’ you bring along. Although, sometimes a backpack will be necessary, I choose to make the trip only with the clothes on my back and a few extra supplies that I was able to fit beneath the seat of my scooter. This gave me a tremendous amount of mobility and freedom as I wound my way up and down the road. I kept my main bag with my hotel in Chiang Mai, and got by with slightly uncivilized levels of underwear. Not only can you lighten the load by bringing less stuff, but if you’re traveling as a couple, consider renting separate scooters. This will allow each person to enjoy the ride in greater comfort, bring more stuff, and have greater independence. It seems the couples who share scooters end up running into more problems (of various degrees of seriousness) than those who ride 1 per scooter. Whoever is a more confident, safer rider should set the pace.


Bring Plenty of Cash and Gas.

You’ll want to have plenty of Thai Baht along the way. There aren’t ATM’s when you get outside of Chiang Mai or Pai and cash is king along the road, whether you need gas, food, coffee, beers, police bribes, bug spray, etc… Bring along at least 2000 Baht each way. Fill your gas tank when you’re leaving Chiang Mai or Pai. It takes around 2-3 liters of gas to complete a one-way trip. A liter of gas will cost you around 30 Baht in Chiang Mai. If your’e nervous about running out, there are numerous roadside pit-stops you can make throughout the route and the price for gas will be a bit more expensive, but at least you’ll have some peace of mind. Also, most gas stations will fill up an empty water bottle or Coke bottle with gas for you to carry in case of emergency.


Give yourself 5 Hours, at First.

On the way there, I spent 5 hours. That included several delays, such as slowing down my pace do to pounding rain stinging my face and wet pavement threatening my life. I stopped maybe 6 times for important things like beer, noodles, pictures, and stretching. The trip can be done in 3-4 hours but it may feel rushed and this doesn’t give you much room for error. Plan your trip based on the weather forecast, sunlight, and the rest of your itinerary.


Don't Drive it Like You Stole it.

Don’t Drive it Like You Stole it. If you have ever ridden a motorcycle or scooted before, you know the exhilaration of taking corners with a particular level of testicular fortitude, of twisting the throttle all the way and zooming past cars in the passing lane, and being able to use the entire lane to weave and dip on 2 wheels. Be careful here. The roads are in decent shape but there are several hazards to keep in mind.

-rubble on the outside of curves


-other cars


-blind corners


Enjoy Pai.

There are so many options in Pai once you have mastered the scooter as a means of effective transportation. Pai is a peculiar little mountain town with a great backpacker vibe. I found great live jazz and strong drinks at Edible Jazz. A great natural waterslide built into a waterfall (Mo Paeng) is only a 10 minute scooter ride from town. This was definitely the highlight of my time in Pai, although be warned, the water is a bit cool. The local food is so money. You’ll find good vibes all around.

My trip details:

Scooter Rental: Mr. Mechanic 125 cc Honda (750 Baht for 3 days, 4000 Baht deposit)

Hotel: Hotel Yoma, Pai (2000 Baht for 2 nights)

Police Bribe: 500 baht

Gas: 150 Baht Round-trip

Food and Drink: Lost Track but around 2500 Baht total.