Driving in a foreign country can be scary, especially when the driving habits and patterns of motorists in that country are drastically different than your own.
Different speeds, different rules, different expectations, and possibly even a different side of the road.
However, having access to a motor vehicle can provide you with immense freedom and flexibility during your travels. It allows you to get off the tourist trail and discover your own secret spots, whether that means exploring a quiet natural area or a remote town.
Plus, driving in a new country gives you an additional perspective into the local culture by allowing you to experience those distinct driving nuances. And if you’re in a country like Thailand, renting a scooter for a day (or two) can be even cheaper than relying on taxis or tuk-tuks to cart you from place to place.
That said, Northern Thailand is an excellent place to test out your motorbiking skills, and to get the hang of venturing out of the main cities on your own. There are a number of mapped-out motorbike routes starting from places like Chiang Mai and Pai.
While travel sites such as Lonely Planet are a great place to look for these routes, simply asking your guesthouse owner or the scooter rental shop for suggestions once you arrive in Northern Thailand is another great way to find some local gems.
So, what do you need to know about motorbiking Northern Thailand?
In a city like Chiang Mai, scooter rental shops are everywhere.
Take a walk around the outside of the Old City square and you’ll be sure to pass a rental shop within a few minutes. They’ll ask for a copy of your passport, which is pretty standard–you can either leave it with them, or leave them a copy plus some sort of deposit. You may be able to leave a driver’s license with them instead (I know this from experience after forgetting to bring my passport or a copy of it–oops).
Also, there will be a learning curve. If you’ve driven a motorcycle, scooter, or a similar two-wheel vehicle then you have a definite advantage. If not, it will probably take you a few tries to initially get comfortable with the mechanics of the bike. If possible, try to get a feel for the gas and brakes on a quiet sidestreet before venturing off on a main city street or highway.
And yes, I did learn this the hard way (but hey, I’m still here, right?!)
If you’re starting in a bigger city like Chiang Mai, getting out of the city will most certainly be the hardest part of your journey, as this is where the most traffic and congestion is. I can’t lie to you; dodging songthaews, cars and experienced scooter-drivers can be anxiety-inducing. Highways are much smoother navigation-wise, and once you make it out onto the smaller back-roads, you’ll be golden.
No stoplights, no traffic jams, and if you’re going too slow for a fellow motorist, there’s plenty of room for them to get around you without causing you to fear for your life (it happens).
I was way too much of a nervous wreck to enjoy our time on the motorbike while in Chiang Mai, but once we made it out of the chaos I was able to take a few deep breaths and really enjoy our surroundings.
Here we were, all on our own, in Thailand with the ability to go anywhere we wanted. The whole country was before us, and we were free to explore any corner of the land that we wanted. No bus schedules, no drivers, no tour routes. Where we went was totally and completely up to us, and I absolutely loved that freedom.
One of my favorite things about motorbiking outside of Chiang Mai was getting a glimpse into Thai lifestyles outside of the city. We passed people, houses, farms, and pets which were completely different than those we saw in town. Plus, these gorgeous views didn’t hurt:
We rode undisturbed past rolling green foothills, lush mountainsides, and blue skies. The January weather was warm and dry, balanced by a strong sun and a cool breeze. Yes, I was in heaven.
The best part is, you don’t have to plan an elaborate scooter trip across Thailand to achieve this experience. There are a number of trips you can take from Pai, Chiang Mai, or other cities that take an hour or less round-trip (not including stops), and many others that can be completed in several hours.
One great option is to drive from Chiang Mai to Huay Tung Tao, a beautiful small lake about 20 minutes outside of the city. The lake is surrounded by small bamboo huts where you can order food and drinks, relax, and enjoy the awesome views.
You can drive around the whole lake in about 15 minutes, and the scenery is spectacular. Plus, it’s impossible to get lost–the entire area inside the park is situated on a loop. Keep going, and you’ll eventually end up back at the lake/park entrance.
You could also take a drive up to Doi Suthep, to see the temple there. You’ll have to deal with steeper roads on this drive–just take it slow and use common sense.
If you’re interested in renting a scooter for an entire day, be prepared to fork over 200 baht–i.e. about 6 US dollars. Yep, that’s all it costs!
To sum it all up, if I could offer one piece of advice, it would be this: don’t let inexperience stop you!
Seriously, there are plenty of first-timers who give motorbiking in Thailand a try–it’s really not as scary as it may seem. When we ventured out of Chiang Mai to visit Huay Tung Tao, it was our first ever time driving a motorbike.
We were super unsure of ourselves at first, but quickly got the hang of the controls and were able to relax and enjoy the views of the superb Thai countryside.
That said, if you do decide to rent a scooter in Thailand, make sure you’re well prepared. Bring a map, and highlight your route beforehand in order to make it easier to navigate. Highways are well-marked, but it helps to know the names of your exits beforehand. And of course, drive safely and be aware of your surroundings (just like you would in your home country). Take these precautions, and you’ll be good to go!
What are your thoughts on driving in other countries? Would you ever rent a motorbike in Southeast Asia?