Border Ride. N.West to N.East – Northern Thailand.
(June 2017) An approx 950km Northern Thailand solo border ride (loop) from N.West to N.East over 2 days. Taking in many famous “must-see’s”, including Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung, The Golden Triangle, Phu Chi Fa, The Big Dipper and Phayao.
*A video of highlights from the trip is at the bottom of the page.*
Visa extension stamp time was looming and an easy place to do this is at the Mae Sai border, a 260km direct route from Chiang Mai. Normally I would ride along the 118 and route 1 main highway, then ride straight back down again the same day. This time however, I wanted to do something different. So, I set off to Mae Sai with a border region ride in mind.
Day 1 (Google Map)
I set off early at around 7-7:30am and headed up the 107 to Chiang Dao. This route is beautifully scenic and sweeping, but one that I am very familiar with. So, having done it many times I decided to ride on past Chiang Dao without stopping, and continue along the 107 towards Mae Salong.
I also didn’t bother to stop in at Thaton, a town which I like and which has fond memories for me. Again, I have been there many times, so wanted to carry on.
(There is a stunning temple situated upon a large hill there, which offers some wonderful views of the town and beyond).
My first small stop was before Mae Salong, on the 1089 (which the 107 merges with). These interesting large statues caught my eye so decided to take a look.
I stopped only for a quick look, then headed back on the 1089. Before I knew it I was taking a left turn at the checkpoint up to Doi Mae Salong.
The town of Mae Salong is made up of ethnically Chinese and the main language is Yunnanese. Really doesn’t feel like Thailand much at all.
There was a lot of construction of new buildings taking place this time around though. I think sleepy Mae Salong is going to see some big changes in the future. It is definitely developing a more “tourist” vibe than on my previous visits.
As an aside I have an interesting trip report of another border route that follows along after Mae Salong, that requires you to go through some security checks due to it being a sensitive border zone. If you are interested in this route, plus also details on where I stayed in Mae Salong, then go to this link HERE
My original plan was to spend a night there and then head to the border in the morning, but having checked the time and finding it was only 10:30am I decided it would be silly to stop at this point. I actually couldn’t quite believe I had made it that far in such a fairly short time. I didn’t feel like I was pushing to make it there. Surprised myself. So, I decided to take a slow leisurely ride through the town and then head on to Doi Tung, where I would stop at the Doi Tung Royal Villa to have a coffee.
The ride from Mae Salong to Doi Tung is absolutely beautiful and a favorite of mine. I have done it many times before, previously on a 115cc scooter a few times and then on my 250cc. You really do feel like you are riding through the true beauty of Northern Thailand forestry.
I rode with my visor up to take in the fresh damp air and smell the scents around me. Of course this resulted in an insect flying up my nose at one point, and also a dangling caterpillar landing inside my helmet. Was one of those furry ones too. The kind that can cause an itchy rash. I must have knocked it out my helmet because i couldn’t find it. I also half expected to arrive in Doi Tung with a rash on my face (I didn’t. Phew).
These caterpillars are all over the general area at the moment (July, Rainy Season) and hang from extremely long threads from tree branches. I saw many on this trip, dangling in the middle of the road from fine threads. Not a great choice of survival location..but it isn’t like they can gauge it well! They seem to be “Woolly Bear” caterpillars (part of the Arctiidae family of moths)
Doi Tung announced itself when the ornate Royal Villa gardens came into view. I stopped to take a photo first, then rode and and parked up.
At the Royal Villa coffee shop I bought myself a Macadamia nut Coffee, and it was pretty damn tasty! (Macadamias are grown there, as are coffee beans). I took the opportunity to slip off my boots under the table in the outside seating area and relaxed for a moment whilst I pondered my next steps. It was only just coming up for lunchtime, so i figured I may as well do my visa crossing a day early and see how far I get after that.
I finished my coffee and went to get my boots back on. Which is when I noticed something wriggling on them. Hah, was one of the furry caterpillars! I am not sure if it was the same one that had dropped into in my helmet and had fallen out or not, but I would like to think so. Nice to think I had some little furry friend holding on for the journey.
I carefully removed it from my boot and placed it on a big tree. Good luck little one, I hope you get to fly!
I got on my bike and headed along the 1149 which comes out close to Mae Sai.
I rode into Mae Sai, parked up, tidied up and then headed over the border for a straight quick crossing there and back. On my way back through I stopped into the duty free shop and took a look around. They didn’t have any bottles of Amaretto this time sadly, but they did have a brand new chocolate shop section. Heaven!
Bought myself a large bar of chocolate and headed back over the bridge and into Thailand territory. Passed through immigration, ate some lunch on the Thai side, and then got back on my bike and headed along the 1290 border road to Chiang Saen.
On this road I hit a spot of rain. In came down heavy for a while. I already had my rain jacket on as I had noticed it approaching earlier, but with it coming down heavier than expected I decided to stop and get on my waterproof trousers/pants also. One problem. I had only just bought new boots prior to this trip (Forma Adventure Boots), which I had neglected to test to see if the pants fit over the boots easily (without having to remove my boots). This video shows the folly of not prior testing….
When it does come down heavy, my vision is seriously impaired. A friend uses a “pin lock” visor. A concept i had not heard of. When she wears this helmet she can see fine in the heavy downpours. Certainly sounds interesting. Life-saving in fact! I plan to look into it more.
Anyway, turned out to be no big drama as the rain eased off a little while later (as so often does at the start of Rainy Season). Next, I stopped at The Golden Triangle for a short while.
After looking around I got back on my bike and continued along the 1290 to Chiang Saen, which seemed to be a nice looking town, although I only passed through.
I rode at a slow pace. In fact, pretty much all of the trip from this point in was at a slow pace. There were too many beautiful views to want to rush through. Found myself often exclaiming “how beautiful!”, as I came around yet another curve to be met with a stunning view. Was very interesting to see Myanmar and then Laos on the opposite side of the Ruak River and the Mekong.
Later on, as I headed to Chiang Khong, I became a little confused by some signs that showed directions for Chiang Khong pointing in two separate 45 degree directions.
Thankfully a little old lady on a bicycle directed me on the right road. I am a little cynical when receiving directions as I have had some frustrating experiences in the past (see: 10 HOURS OF RIDING: WHEN THE VILLAGERS GIVE YOU THE RUNAROUND). However, this time i was convinced she was giving me the correct direction as she explained that the other direction led to the mountain and a temple. This is when having some Thai language ability really does help.
I am curious to know about the route i didn’t go on though. Wonder what that road would have been like. Maybe another time I will find out.
So anyway, i continued along the 1290 to Chiang Khong, and again, it was beautiful. Until I hit some road works. Now I should count my blessings, for at least it was not raining. If it had of been, this area would have been slick with red mud. Instead it was fairy dry and dusty. I didn’t mind that. Well, until i came to the gravel and stone section that is. Have to say, didn’t really like that much at all. Plus, was weird seeing workers without helmets fly past me on old beat up bikes whilst i hesitated and felt stressed.
I stopped at one point to take a photo and video of what the road was like and a worker in
a pickup truck stopped to collect the sign that was there. I asked him how long the road works go on for and how bad the road condition was. He replied what i WASN’T hoping to hear. He told me that the gravel goes on for a lot of kilometers and that the stones get bigger. Oh joy…
Actually, in the end I was glad he had said that, because i ended up envisioning it much worse than it turned out to be. It was still pretty bad though, to be honest.
By the time I had arrived in Chiang Khong I was desperately looking forward to getting out of my riding gear, getting cleaned up and getting some food and rest. I don’t recall what the time was, but later than I had expected to arrive. The road works had slowed me up. I think it was around 5:45pm. At least I had arrived before dark.
I found a quiet guesthouse on the river front called the Chiang Khong River View Hotel. It was simple, quiet, clean and inexpensive. Which is all I was looking for. I checked in and took a really long shower. Afterwards I lay on the bed for a good half hour or more doing absolutely nothing except rest, in a zombie-like state. Eventually I gathered myself up, got dressed and headed out for food.
I dined at RimKhong Restaurant, which was close to my guesthouse and had a river view. I ordered a couple of dishes plus a large bottle of Leo Beer.
I headed back to my room for a planned early rest.
Day 2: (Google Map)
I slept ok, but kept waking up, so didn’t feel as refreshed as i had hoped. From my window I had a nice view of the mist rolling in over the Mekong and watched for a little while before showering and getting my stuff together. By about 9am I had checked out and was back on the road. I fueled up and headed on the 1155 to Phu Chi Fa.
..and wow, this was a really breathtaking route. I kept pulling my bike over to take in the views. I kept exclaiming how beautiful it was. I even began to irritate myself. Haha.
Throughout this whole trip the roads had been beautiful and fairly quiet. I often had whole stretches to myself. It was great. The road really did take my breath away though.
Later, just before the Phu Chi Fa turnoff I saw a big group of big bike riders stopped in at a cafe. This was the first time I had seen any other big bike riders on my trip so far (which is unusual). They gave me a nod and wave as I headed on past. They were pretty close behind me though, for when I pulled up at the steep Phu Chi Fa road entrance they came around the corner. They didn’t stop to go up the Phu Chi Fa road and instead carried on, offering me a wave as they passed. I headed left, up onto the track. It was steep. As it climbed higher it was not only steep, it also had some slippery green moss. None the less, I got up to the base of viewpoint and parked up my bike. Then I hiked (apparently around) 750 meters to the peak.
It was wonderful up there. With all the cloud cover it wasn’t possible to see the view, but still, it was a vision of nature. The clouds swirled around me and the air was fresh. I was completely alone. It took me back to my childhood days in Scotland a little. Was peaceful and surreal and a little spooky. Almost expected to hear “Heathcliff!” being shouted through the mist. It had that Wuthering Heights quality about it.
As I descended the twisty steep road I realised it seems rather more precarious on the decedent than the ascend. I took it slow.
At the base of the road and back on the 1155 the air and mood felt quite different from the peak of the mountain. Still nice. Just different. I felt like I had been in a whole different country only moments before. Somewhere European maybe. Maybe even Scotland. Anyway, off I went. Next stop: The Big Dipper.
The Big Dipper is a rural road (the 4018) and has the (apparently) steepest gradient sign in all of Thailand (18% sign). I wanted to experience the road for myself and get a photo of the 18% road sign.
Just my luck though, I rode right past the entry point and carried on all the way down the 1155! I mean ALL THE WAY DOWN! I decided that I wanted to get on the Big Dipper road badly enough to warrant my riding all the way back on myself. Thankfully on the return leg i spotted the turn off easier. It was right at a military checkpoint. I stopped my bike to double check the GPS on my phone and a soldier came out to ask me where i was going. To be honest I didn’t really quite know how to reply to that. I had forgotten the name of the town I would pass through and I couldn’t exactly tell him “I am looking for the Big Dipper”, haha. So I just told him I am generally riding around/exploring. He looked at me in an odd way, but finished with a smile and went back to his station. I headed left.
Honestly, finding the Big Dipper was trickier than I thought it would be, but for sure I will never miss the turn off again. I did get a bit of a funny video out of it trying to find it though:
In the end the 4018 Big Dipper road was worth it. I am glad i retraced my route to get on it. It lived up to my expectations. A short 10 km road, but spectacular and fun. I real helter-skelter roller coaster road. If you haven’t been on it, add it to your list. It is worth it.
When I came out of the Big Dipper and onto the 1020, I have to say my heart sank a little.
I knew this road would be more bustling and industrial feeling. I know the road well because i had attempted to find the Big Dipper road about six months before hand and failed (this blog post HERE). I can see why too, the entrance from this side looks like the entrance area of a Moo Baan (housing estate), rather than a road entrance.
I trundled along the hot humid road for some time and could feel my head baking inside the helmet. It was making me sleepy. The combination of unexciting long road stretches and hot humid weather was making it hard for me to keep my eyes open. I decided the best thing to do would be to pull into the next ok looking coffee shop and take a break. Easier said that done it would seem. Chiang Mai is coffee shop paradise, with multiple coffee shops per square meter. However, it would seem around these parts that coffee really isn’t much of a thing. Finding a roadside coffee shop became a quest in itself. At least it gave me something to keep awake and look out for. Plus the unreasonable irritation i felt over not being able to find a coffee shop got my energy levels up, so that is a good thing. Finally I did spot one small and pretty looking shop and pulled over. Got myself a hit of caffeine and a slice of coconut cake.
I took stock of how i was feeling and it wasn’t so good. I felt weary. This was mostly because I didn’t find this road so exciting, plus i knew the stretch ahead wouldn’t be so exciting either. So the prospect kind of sapped my energy levels. I could have chosen a different route maybe, but I decided i would head to a firm favorite location; Phayao. I decided that when I reach Phayao I would work out whether to stay the night there and rest, then in the morning explore more. Or, just head back to Chiang Mai.
Upon arrival in Phayao, I stopped in for some lunch.
I considered my options. I decided that this trip had been an ok adventure already and I was missing my cat, bath and bed. I figured I would eat lunch then just gun it back to Chiang Mai. Well, as much as my 250cc can gun. It gunned enough it would seem, because the new speed cameras on the 118 got me at one point, flashing up red. I await a fine coming through the post any day now. *sigh*.
Not much to write about on this route. It is a nice enough route, but all I wanted to do at this point was get from A to B fast. There was quite a bit of traffic, which meant a lot of navigating around large vehicles and long lines of vehicles. Not much fun at times, but the bonus is that it kept me awake and alert. It was sticky hot and I just wanted to get home by this stage.
When I pulled up and parked up at my condo block I felt happy and was looking forward to seeing my fat little cat (which thankfully my cat-loving neighbours take care of when I am on trips). I pulled off my gear and had a quick cuddle with her, bemused that only a few hours ago I was on the trip. Felt funny to think not much time had passed, yet quite a lot had been ridden.
Reviewing over my trip I think I did the right thing by not carrying on. I felt good on my return and recovered quickly. I think this route is best done over a few days rather than two days, but it was a challenge i had set myself, and was glad to have done it. I would have liked to have added Lampang onto the loop. Next time!
Here is an edited video, showing the highlights of my trip: