About the Tour Guides
I was lucky to be able to take the opportunity to join tour guides, Brandon Cretu and Brian D'Apice, on their first official group motorbike tour of Northern Thailand this past week in December. Brandon Cretu is a Rider and Manager at Team Rabid Transit and was a former rider with other road racing teams. You can learn more about Brandon here. Brian D'Apice grew up with Brandon, both from York, PA and both grew up riding two wheels. Brian is a natural athlete and traveler and had spent much of his time after school teaching English to High School students in Thailand.
NOTE: I tried to shorten my writing about this trip, but it is hard to not want to talk about over a week's worth of amazing experiences. There is a general review at the end of this with suggestions and recommendations. Feel free to skip to that part if you don't want to read about each day's adventures. But please do scroll through the galleries. Although the photos don't do real justice to the magic of Thailand, it definitely leaves a desire to want to go do this trip (again even.)
Arrival in Chiang Mai
Upon my arrival, I was greeted by Brandon and Brian. I made it a point to only have carry on and no checked in baggage, making my arrival quick and painless. They hailed a tuk tuk, a little motorized open taxi vehicle, to take me to the guest house we were staying at that weekend. We arrived at Kikie's Guest House—the owner, Kikie, is a sweet, warm, welcoming, and energetic Thai lady. She has known Brandon and Brian for nearly a decade and continues to be a great resource as a friend and hostess to them and traveling guests.
It was suggested to arrive Saturday or earlier before the actual Moto Tour on Monday--to adjust to the time and enjoy much of Chiang Mai. Such as the Muay Thai Saturday Night Fights or the Sunday Night Market that fills the streets with food, drink, and artisan vendors from all over. I am glad I did arrive Saturday afternoon, it gave me a chance to relax and walk around as well as getting to know my peers on the trip.
We were lucky enough to have a group where most of us were friends with someone—making our cohesion easy and our willingness to have fun or be easy going seem effortless.
Before we started our Moto tour on Monday, we visited many beautiful Buddhist temples in the area and one that was high above the city. In Thai, Wat means Temple hence they are often named "Wat..."
There was a lot of eating and drinking and it was all inexpensive. Thai food consisted of a lot of grilled food, rice, noodles, sweet and salty palettes, food with coconut and curry and Thai chili peppers. I made sure to try to drink a fresh young coconut everyday since, in my opinion, coconuts from Thailand are the sweetest and most refreshing (versus ones from Brazil that seem tart to me).
Anything that we had forgot to pack, it was easy to find and buy and generally inexpensive. Except for camera stuff outside of the city.
Day 1: Chiang Mai to Pai
Brandon and Brian had rented Dual Sport Honda CRF250Ls as our bikes for the entire week. These bikes were light and not too powerful and were okay for both street and off road. Although, the normal seat height is 36”—they were able to get us two shorter bikes.
Normally, it takes a long time to get out of the city because of traffic and congestion (worse than Manhattan) but that Monday was a Thai holiday, Constitution Day, and we were able to make it out of the city fast and without splitting lanes (in and out of traffic).
In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road and the etiquette for slower people is to stay left and allow people to pass you on the right. You will see a lot of scooters or slower bikes actually ride in the shoulder of the road. People there move at their own pace and road lines and signs are taken as a suggestion. People will pass you on blind turns. It was sort of nuts at first but if you wanted to get anywhere you had to do the same.
There are an incredible amount of blind turns, hairpin turns, switchbacks, lack of barriers, cliffs, and steep roads (up and down). Definitely a great amount of concentration and focus if you are going to fly through these roads, but it is always recommended to go at your own pace since people can pass you and we barely made any turns.
On our first day, we made our way to Pai, which is a small river town with a lot of tourists. It reminded me of some of the beach towns in New Jersey (because of the tourists, touristy shops, themed restaurants and bars) but very quaint. Our lunch stop was this small quaint place in Pai with a beautiful view of lush green views and horses. Some of the other notable stops we made in the area were the Pam Bok waterfall and Pai Canyon.
I think Pam Bok waterfall was one of my favorite stops on the entire trip. You had to walk a little bit to get to the water and waterfalls, but the clean cool and shallow water was worth it. And It was fun to see others dive into the deeper end from the waterfall. I think I just like that relaxing but fun energy of going to a swimming hole with friends with no frills or dollars.
The Pai Canyon was breathtaking but... I never realized how terrified I was of heights until we went there. The fall below wasn't too insane that you would die instantly but you definitely would get messed up. The canyons have these land formation that you can walk across, climb, and walk around from tall heights. And some of the walk ways to each section were very skinny and narrow. Some of the gang were like, 'Com'mon, let's go." And I followed them across the first narrow path and my palms got sweaty and I became anxious. As they continued onto the other terrifying paths, I felt like a cat in the tree... Kind of like, "I didn't like that but how do I go back?" I followed behind a few friends back to the main grounds, but... Yeah, I did not like that.
They say that our irrational fear of heights or falling or jumping from heights is our self preservation instinct in our minds to create fear in order to protect ourselves. Some people apparently lack that.
When we returned to Pai, we all went back to our individual rooms. Couples had their own rooms and the rest of us roomed with one or two people. After every day's trip, we are all free to freshen up, relax, explore the town, and do our own things. Although since this group was pretty fun, we often ended up exploring, eating and drinking together.
Day 2: Pai to Mae Hong Son
Every day we do breakfast and lunch as a group. It is included in our trip costs with the tour (they cover the bikes, gas, places to stay, breakfast, and lunch). Pai is really nice and quiet in the morning. A lot of places in Thailand will serve American/European styled breakfasts with bread, eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, and fruit.
We took part of the Mae Hong Son loop to and from Mae Hong Son. This road is famous for its amount of turns and a favorite among riders. We had a fantastic break and lunch at a place called Sweet and Salty Cafe. The food there was great and they had a lot of delicious drinks and treat. The aesthetics of the cafe made it nice to relax and the people were really accommodating. I really liked that place.
After our lunch, we made our way to the Tham Lot Caves. It reminds me of what the Luray Caverns are like, except Tham Lot doesn't have electricity or lights setup everywhere. So it is pitch black in the Tham Lot Caves and you have to follow tour guides with gas lanterns. Also, you have to keep at their pace or they will leave your ass behind. Another cool thing about the Tham Lot Caves is that there is this amazing river that runs through it, filled with fish. And you get to ride a bamboo raft on the river to get to a part of the Caves where there are ancient coffins left in the cave by previous ancestry. So yeah, really neat tour. A lot of walking and steps.
After our cave tour, we made our way to Mae Hong Son. Before we got to the small town, we stopped to see an amazing temple, Wat Phrathat, on Doi Kong Mu at sunset. This was on a mountain, so the view was beautiful. They have these white shrines that made the sunset sky so ethereal.
One side note about Thailand is that there are a ton of dogs, cats, kittens, puppies... Animals. And our group were animal lovers who sought to find these critters. And there were a lot of puppies and kittens at this temple.
We got to Mae Hong son and checked in a nice hotel called B2 and took a well earned dip in the outdoor pool before we freshened up and made our way into town for dinner and drinks. It seems that every town has a sort of night market of their own and this one sold a lot of merchandise and t-shirts on the Mae Hong Son loop.
Day 3: Mae Hong Son to Pai
We stopped somewhere in town first for breakfast before we made our way back to Pai. On our way to Pai, we went through a lot of small roads and mountain areas. We made several fun stops this day. One of them was this stop with a view and a strange Ferris wheel-swing contraption that took nearly the entire group and some other tourist to get four of us on the swing. It need a lot of weight and force to move the swings and each person around. Of course because I am small, they put me on it. The top was not fun. Why... Why do I say yes?
After that stop, we made our way to a different area and small town. This included this amazing restaurant on the cliff with a view. They served a pho-summer roll like noodle dish that was delicious and your only options were spicy or not spicy. The cool thing on top of eating delicious food at this place was that they built seats on the outside of the restaurant so that you're sitting on the edge of the cliff while eating. I thought that was fun.
We continue our way back to Pai and we stopped at Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery. Some of these temples will allow guests to stay if they do work for the temple and this place was one of them. It was a beautiful scenic landscape with steps that lead you to the shrines and praying areas up in the mountains, basically inside caves.
After that, we arrived at Pai and stayed at this amazing bungalow house at Darling View Point Bungalow. The owner is a sweet lady whom people refer to as Darling and she also calls you darling, takes tons of video and photos of you with her iPad, and is all smiles and giggles. And also says I love you a lot. It's really cute.
The Bungalow we stayed at had many rooms, each with their own bathrooms, and an amazing patio with hammocks, benches, and common area to hang out.
Darling's is a short walk to town too, which made it convenient for dinner and drinks. There was also a bonfire that night. And cats.
Day 4: Pai to Mae Win
After our breakfast, we make our way towards Mae Win, a small town near Chiang Mai city.
For lunch, we made a stop at the Royal Projects tree sanctuary. The Royal Project is a foundation started by the King and the government to pay non-profit workers to maintain a land reserve to keep from trees being cut down. The area is gorgeous and it is another place where you can also stay, hold banquets, or have lunch--as means to get donations and continue the organization. It is a really beautiful place, the food was truly delicious, and the people were warm and happy.
After days of riding and traveling, it did get to me. This day, I crashed my bike taking a turn too wide and not focusing on where I should go. Luckily I was thrown into a ditch and just ate a lot of dirt (literally spitting dirt out of my mouth). If I could redo that again, I would've been more focused with where I had to go and take that turn slower. Also wear riding pants with padded knee and hip protections--bruised and impacted my knee a bit. Nothing broken but a bit annoying.
We took a small break and regrouped at a small school... Where we accidentally rolled into the school yard with all of our bikes, greeted by screaming and delighted small children. I have to admit, if we didn't have that incident and had to regroup, we wouldn't have made this stop. It was a nice surprise to see all the adorable children and briefly talk to one of the local school teachers. I think that's what I have always enjoyed about this trip was how genuinely welcoming and delightful Thai locals were.
We continued our trip and stopped at a rural area with hot springs. It smelled like boiled eggs, heh. There are some photos. It was a strange place because it was so rural and far from everything.
We reached our destination in Mae Win and stayed at these small individual bungalows and met up with Kikie and her friend. We all went as a group to go visit a local elephant sanctuary. Elephant rides and tourism fuels unwanted actions like baby elephants being captured and separate from their families from the wild and forced into labor. Our group is against elephant riding and instead visited this sanctuary where they take care of elephants and give them land to roam. There were a few elephants, notably a five year old elephant named clear sky (fa si, ฟ้าใส in Thai) and a baby one year old elephant. Both were hungry fellas. Also at the sanctuary was a river with a waterfall. Beautiful area for the elephants.
That night our host that we stayed with made a fest of a dinner for us. Definitely a great place to stay and visit again.
Day 5: Mae Win to Chiang Mai
The host made us a delicious breakfast in the morning. With fried bananas, small fluffy pancakes, eggs, ham, and fruit. After breakfast we took our bikes and a truck to Wat Luang Mae Win. A beautiful temple, which to get to, you have to go through unpaved dirt roads with a climb--which was tons of fun. I was a passenger and it was nice. I guess "nice" and "fun" doesn't truly describe how awesome the trip was to the temple. But yeah... Would do it again. It wasn't recommended for everyone to go on bike unless you have previous trail/dirt riding experience.
When you reach the temple, you are greeted by these amazing white dragon steps. And all the different shrines and buildings in the middle of the forest seemed like you were in a fantasy movie. The architecture and the craftsmanship of detail and decor in all of these shrines, buildings, steps, and statues are at such a different level.
After we returned from the temple, we packed our things and made our way back towards Chiang Mai. We stopped at this delightful lunch stop with a view of farmland. Our trip back to Chiang Mai was short since Mae Win is really close and within the Chiang Mai district. Although...
Our ride into the city was hellish to be honest. Because we wanted to keep together as a group, we weren't exactly splitting lanes and the traffic lights are long because they rotate for each side instead of two ways at once. There were so many cars and so so many scooters everywhere, squeezed into every free space of the road. Some of our bikes were over heating from not moving (recommended to turn off the bike if we are sitting and waiting) and we ended up splitting lanes as individuals to stay with the group anyway. Which was fine--something learned from riding in New York.
We returned our bikes and the damages I paid for was silly inexpensive, like 30$ USD worth. We all returned to Kikie's and freshened up for dinner. As a group, we went to a nice restaurant at Riverside and then went out for drinks and dancing. A lot of drinks and dancing. It was a late night but I think a proper grand finale as a group.
Last day and return trip
Most of us left for our return flights Saturday afternoon, which allowed us to have breakfast in the morning, do some shopping or lounge at a local pool, and have lunch. It made me sad to go because there's this water park canyon that I wanted to go to but didn't have time for (but others who left Sunday got to go to, how fun for them!) I also didn't have time to find a monk or temple who will do Sak Yant, which is a prayer or lucky charm tattoo done by monks. These tattoos are done with a steel needle and not a gun and are generally small--they also bless them after they are done. Monks are not allowed to touch women, so I needed more time to find one that is more unorthodox (or a bad monk as my one friend kept saying, lol).
I also liked our group and Chiang Mai that I felt like a week was not enough time.
My travel back was hellish, as I booked my flight last minute and had to do two connections in China with layovers over 7 hours each. Also, pro-tip, charge your phone and know your flights and try to get your tickets for your connecting flights. My phone was dead and the folks at Chiang Mai airport didn't get me both tickets, so getting into Kunming in China was a headache because instead of having an area to go to your connecting flight, you actually had to sort of leave and go through security again--which meant that I needed to go through customs and receive a temporary visa for being in the airport.
So expect weird things like having to go through customs and security all over in some of these airports, long travel times and layovers, and a lot of material to keep you happy for hours. If you have money and time, maybe think ahead and see what is close to the airport if you want to leave and rest or something.
Last thoughts are... I would do this again in a heartbeat, especially with my new connections and my knowledge of what to expect in the future. Also, I would wear riding gear that is more impact oriented than abrasion proof. I enjoyed the Bell adventure helmet we were sponsored with, the MX-9. Highly recommended with the transition visor. I also liked the Knox armored woman's jacket (also available in men's), it wasn't too hot or cold for me. And I love love love my summer Icon Pursuit gloves, (also available in men's). They definitely saved my left hand. One major point is that I should've gotten a pair of riding pants like Worse for Wear jeans or Ugly Bros. (can casually wear off the bike too.)
My overall suggestions/review of this tour/trip:
- Rating out of 10, 10 being best: 8 | Guide local knowledge: Pretty knowledgeable, pretty fluent with local language and culture
- Riding Level: Intermediate but you don't have to be a rider, you can be a passenger to someone else or to Brandon or Brian | Riding Gear: Not mandatory but highly suggest impact oriented gear | Mostly street, some dirt/off-road | CRF 250L Dual Sport bikes
- Trip Price: $$ | Local Spending: $ | Travel time: Very long | Vaccinations before trip: Recommended not Mandatory | Will need international health insurance, which is pretty inexpensive and international driver's permit, which is inexpensive at your local AAA
- Group or Solo: Group | Touristy or more local: A little of both, a lot of sight seeing and walking and stairs, tall heights
- Weather: Warm/hot during the day, cool and sometimes cold at night | 12 hour difference (ahead) from Eastern Standard Time
- Packing recommendations: Pack and travel light but also for hot and coolness, flip flops/sandals are a must | Women must be wary of what they wear when visiting temples, shoulders, too short of shorts or skirts, wide neck shirts can be viewed as disrespectful
- Food: Good or Mediocre, depending on establishment | Water: Bottled, suggested. Most places like hotels and even some clubs will give you bottled water for free as long as you are a patron | Locals: Generally friendly | Currency exchange: As of December 2017, about 1$USD equals to about 30 baht (Thai currency)
- Tipping is not expected, but it is acceptable to give service your change (coins). A lot of places prefer cash and there are ATM's everywhere (generally they do accept cards but I have been forced to pay with cash before). 100$USD which is about 3000 baht will take you a long way for a while.
- Electronics: Bring plenty of portable chargers, SD/mini SD cards for your camera or GoPros, you can use a regular power plug for cellphone chargers--It is 220V outlets in Thailand, be careful with larger/powerful electronics like shavers or blow dryers. Those will burn up without a converter | Cellphone service: It is a country with edge to LTE, depending on your carrier. If your carrier doesn't cover Thailand, make arrangements for coverage. There is generally WiFi at every restaurant and places to stay available for their guests
- Bathrooms: Showers and toilets are generally in the same room. Hot water is generally on demand using gas or electric and sometimes doesn't always heat very well. Thailand's plumbing infrastructure does not allow the use of disposable products like toilet paper to be flushed. Therefore, they discard it in a closed container but also use a hand held bidet, "bum gun."
- DO tip the tour guides. Brandon and Brian are super accommodating and bend over backwards to pay for things and make things work and please everyone. The general rule is 10-20% of the total cost as tip
- DO wipe your helmet visor inside and out every morning--it gets very humid in the morning and I had to ride a day with a weird film of smudge on my visor.
- DO make time to arrive days early to acclimate to time, relax from long travel, and explore the local town and DO make time to have a day or two when you arrive back in the states to acclimate and relax from a long travel and time difference
- Last thoughts: Would do it again in a heartbeat. I would wear riding pants with knee and hip protection next time.