1,500km in 8 days: My Epic Scooter Trip Around Northern Thailand


Lake in Phayao
Lake in Phayao

Back in January, Dave happened to casually mention to me that Stuart would be coming to Chiang Mai in a couple of weeks and was planning on doing a road trip on scooters around Northern Thailand. He wanted to know if we would be interested in joining him.

Having ridden around the moat of Chiang Mai on the back of Dave’s scooter at least twice by this point, I already felt like a highly advanced scooter passenger.

I knew that this road trip would be a piece of cake.

…Until I saw our planned route.

Northern Thailand road trip route
Northern Thailand road trip route

Day One: Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao: 78km

Within minutes of setting off from Chiang Mai I knew that this adventure wouldn’t be as pain-free as I had imagined. I felt every bump in the road and within half an hour my bum was sore, my back was aching and I was wondering what the hell I had got myself into.

Fortunately, it was just a short day of riding. We stopped for lunch in the mountain town of Chiang Dao and after a few minutes of sitting down on something other than a hard motorcycle seat, decided not to move for the rest of the day.

It was a good decision.

Mountains in Chiang Dao, Thailand

Day Two: Chiang Dao to Phayao: 215 km

For the first time since leaving London, I awoke to see my breath in a cloud in front of me.

Cold.

I hadn’t felt that sensation in months. 

Wearing five layers, two pairs of socks with my flip flops and a pair of trousers as a scarf, we set off through Chiang Dao. The scenery was much more impressive than that of the previous day. We had left behind the city fumes of Chiang Mai and spent the day riding through rice paddies and mountains.

It was gorgeous.

Rice Paddies in Northern Thailand

Northern Thai Countryside

Forced to catch up on the miles that we avoided the day before, my bum was extremely glad to arrive in the pretty lakeside town of Phayao.

Lake in Phayao

Day Three: Phayao to Phu Lang Ka: 163 km

Before leaving Phayao, we visited a couple of interesting temples scattered around the town.

Our first stop was Wat Sri Khom Kham, which featured a bizarre sculpture garden depicting various different scenes from heaven and hell. The hell section was the most amusing with sculptures showing what happens to you if you lie or have an abortion, among many other sins.

Wat Sri Khom Kham in Phayao

After being suitably terrified by the vision of my impending doom, I calmed myself down by visiting the gorgeous Wat Analayo.

Wat Analayo, in Phayao
Wat Analayo, in Phayao
White Buddha at Wat Analayo
White Buddha at Wat Analayo

After taking hundreds of photos of the temples, we set off back on the bikes and arrived at Phu Lang Ka by late afternoon. With fatigue setting in, it felt more like 10 o’clock than 4 and I was tempted to go to sleep right then.

I’m glad I decided to stay awake a little bit longer so that I got to witness one of the most amazing sunsets of my life.

phu lang ka sunset
Sunset in Phu Lang Ka

Day Four: Phu Lang Ka to Nan: 127km

Not tired enough from all the riding from the previous few days, we decided it would be a great idea to wake up at a ridiculously early time so that we could catch the sunrise before starting our journey to Nan.

It definitely wasn’t a bad decision.

As we sat shivering, huddled up on a bench and eating a disgusting breakfast of soggy rice porridge, I couldn’t help but smile to myself. This is a part of Thailand that few tourists ever get to see and I felt so fortunate to be able to experience it for myself.

phu lang ka sunrise

phu lang ka sunset

After finishing our terrible breakfast, we hopped back on the scooters and began our trip to Nan. Our route took us down through the mist-covered valley, along the road that you can just make out in the photo above.

Day Five: Nan

By day five, my increasingly sore bum was in desperate need of a rest and as I stumbled out of our guesthouse, wailing in agony, we came to the very sensible decision of staying in Nan for an extra day to recover. A less sensible decision was that made by Dave and Stuart, who told me they were just popping out for a short afternoon ride, but instead spent the entire day riding 350km to the Laos border and back. It was a decision that almost resulted in their deaths.

In contrast, I had a very calm and relaxing day wandering around Nan Town and taking photos of the beautifully intricate temples.

Needless to say, I’m very happy I stayed behind.

Wat in Nan
Wat in Nan
Gold Wat in Nan
Gold Wat in Nan
Intricate temple in Nan
Intricate temple in Nan

Day Six: Nan to Phrae: 202km

Today was one of the longest days of riding, due to our detour to Sao Din. We were promised a series of breathtaking rock formations that Stuart claimed would change our lives forever. I could barely contain my excitement on the drive down.

It was going to be incredible.

Magnificent.

The highlight of our road trip. 

Sao Din
Sao Din

Or not.

Day Seven: Phrae to Lampang. 103km

With just a short distance to drive today, Dave and I decided to spend this morning wandering around Phrae and exploring some of the temples.

Reclining Buddha in Phrae
Reclining Buddha in Phrae

The highlight was finding a small Monk Gym outside of one of them!

Monk Gym in Phrae
Monk Gym in Phrae

Our day’s journey was brief and uneventful – the majority of the ride was via a main road, which is never very interesting. However, when we arrived in Lampang I was extremely excited to discover the streets filled with horse and carriages, offering scenic rides of the town.

Strangely, nobody would agree to a horse and carriage ride with me so I celebrated the final night of our road trip by watching Dave and Stuart eat one hundred plates of pork. Each.

Day Eight: Lampang to Chiang Mai: 155km

I awoke on our final day feeling sad that the adventure would soon be over, but excited to get back to my apartment in Chiang Mai. There were two options for our final route back: the shortest distance along the main highways, or the much longer option through the backroads and mountains.

We chose the latter.

Lampang road
Lampang road
Lampang Rice Paddies
Lampang Rice Paddies

With the mountains being so steep on the way up that I actually had to jump off the back of the scooter just so we could make it to the top, we knew we were going to have problems on the way down.

After five minutes of squeezing tightly on the brakes, the inevitable happened.

They overheated. 

All of a sudden, a disgusting smell filled the air and we started speeding down the mountain at scarily high speeds. Clinging onto Dave for dear life, he thankfully thought to put his feet down, creating enough friction for us to slow down, before steering us into the side of the mountain.

Eight days of driving and we almost died a few km from the finish line. 

—-

As we arrived back at our apartment in Chiang Mai, I was sad that the trip was over, relieved that I would now be able to rest my aching bum, and excited to have a hot shower for the first time in a week.

As we reluctantly removed our helmets and tied them onto our bike for the final time, we looked over at the odometer to see how far we had travelled.

1385 kilometres. 

… And my butt had felt every single one of them. 

This road trip was one of the best things I’ve done on my travels to date. I can’t even begin to describe just how amazing it was and the next few weeks will be filled with lots of stories, photos and adventures from my time on the road in Northern Thailand.

 

 

Previous Month 8: Travel Summary and Statistics
Next The Incredible Sunset and Sunrise at Phu Lang Ka

86 Comments

  1. Someday I'll Be There - Mina
    March 26, 2012
    Reply

    This sure was exciting! Glad nothing too bad happened at the end. You know, judging from your history, something like this had to happen :D

    • Lauren
      March 26, 2012
      Reply

      Haha, you know me so well! I’m sure there will be a highly dramatic post in the future about my near-death experience! ;)

      • Someday I'll Be There - Mina
        March 27, 2012
        Reply

        Looking forward to it!! ;)

    • orin oppermann
      January 29, 2013
      Reply

      Hello:
      I found your site by accident. I too am a world traveler. My wife and myself were choking to death with laughter over your adventures at “Roach Motel” and your tea ceremony. But please let me know where you are going next, as we don’t want to cross paths with you as you are “jinxed”. We don’t want to have any of your karma rub off on us. Best of luck, keep up the laughs.
      Orin & Margarita

  2. Laura
    March 26, 2012
    Reply

    Amazing pics, specially of the gorgeous Wat Analayo.

    • Lauren
      March 27, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks, Laura! I can’t wait to write an entire post about that temple! :)

  3. EurotripTips
    March 26, 2012
    Reply

    Indeed breathtaking sunset! I love that photo, and it looks like you’ve had a good roadtrip :-)

    • Lauren
      March 31, 2012
      Reply

      It was the highlight of my time in Thailand :)

  4. Caroline
    March 26, 2012
    Reply

    Lauren! That sunset and sunrise photo along with the other misty road one is GORGEOUS! Like, truly amazing, definitely my favourite photos of yours up to now! You’ve inspired me to try out a road trip when in Thailand. I’ll just need to get my butt in gear haha!

    • Lauren
      March 27, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks, Caroline! Those sunset/sunrise photos are some of my favourites too.

      Definitely go for a road trip in Thailand, it’s been the highlight of 6 months spent here!

  5. Dean
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    What an awesome road trip. I loved Northern Thailand but I chickened out of riding a scooter because I’ve never ridden one before. Next time I’m going to have to give it a try.

    • Lauren
      March 27, 2012
      Reply

      That was the reason I sat on the back and didn’t ride it myself – I was too scared that I’d die! After the road trip I had a few attempts at learning but was pretty terrible. If you work up the courage next time, I highly recommend doing a road trip of some sort!

  6. Sheryll
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    Beautiful! One of my dreams is to drive a motorbike through a country in SE Asia. Loving the pics!!!!

    • Lauren
      March 27, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks, Sheryll! You’ll have to take a trip over here while you’re in Korea! ;)

  7. Tash
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    Dirt biking in SE Asia was one of my highlights too!
    Those sunset and sunrise photos are amazing! Looks like such an untouched area, which makes trips like this even more amazing!

    • Lauren
      March 31, 2012
      Reply

      High five for being badass! ;)

      Thanks so much for the compliments! It was really untouched – I didn’t see another tourist for the entire time!

  8. Anis
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    Wow – the pics from Phu Lang Ka are unbelievable! Thanks for this post – I feel like I just took a little mini escape to northern Thailand.

    • Lauren
      March 31, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks, Anis! It was definitely one of my favourite spots on the road trip :)

  9. Kieu ~ GQ trippin
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    The things you do.. always an epic ending. That’s a lot of km.. and pork! Haha. LOVE IT. Hope your bum’s healing. :)

    • Lauren
      March 31, 2012
      Reply

      Hahahahaha, I know, right?! My bum is much better now, thanks! :D

  10. Francy R
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    Cool! so many kms in such a short time!You should be completely drained! Congratulations for your picks as they’re so bright and coloured! I love most that of the Monk Gym Temple!

    • Lauren
      March 31, 2012
      Reply

      I was absolutely exhausted afterwards, Francy! :) Thanks so much for the compliments on my photos. The monk gym was hilarious!

  11. Ali
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    It does sound like a great trip, but I don’t think I could’ve handled riding a scooter for that long. That sunset photo is amazing! Glad you survived the trip!

    • Lauren
      April 11, 2012
      Reply

      At times I felt like jumping off and I spent most of the time whimpering and sobbing quietly on the back. But it was worth it! :D

  12. Laurence
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    Wow, what an adventure, and what incredible photos to go with it! Looking forward to hearing more :)

    • Lauren
      April 11, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks, Laurence! I’ll be writing about it for weeks!

  13. Christy
    March 27, 2012
    Reply

    This sounds like so much fun! What a great experience. I’m going to have to read the post about the scooter ride to Laos now. :/

    • Lauren
      April 11, 2012
      Reply

      It WAS so much fun… Apart from when the guys nearly died!

  14. Jaime
    March 28, 2012
    Reply

    Wow, got agree with everyone else… this sounds & looks amazing. I just finished highlightign where I wanna go in Thailand in my SEA LP & umm yeah I didn’t highlight just about any of these places & now I wanna go. So glad you are seeing off the beaten track over there. A I get jealous when I see you post a beach photo though. I hope you are still over there when i get over there so we can drink buckets & buckets…lol!!!

    • Lauren
      April 11, 2012
      Reply

      Yep, I didn’t see another backpacker for the entire time I was there. In fact, I didn’t even see another white person, so it’s REALLY off the beaten track!

      I’ll probably still be here when you FINALLY get over here as I’m never leaving haha!

  15. Waegook Tom
    March 28, 2012
    Reply

    I’m glad that your butt lived to tell the tale! By the way, that first sunset photo is AMAZING! :)

    • Lauren
      April 11, 2012
      Reply

      Me too, I’d be lost without it! And thanks :D

  16. Christy @ Technosyncratic
    March 28, 2012
    Reply

    Dang, over a thousand kilometers on the back of a scooter?!? My bum hurts just thinking about it. How did you manage to get down that mountain after you hopped off the run-away bike?

    • Lauren
      April 14, 2012
      Reply

      We had to sit on the side of it for half an hour waiting for the brakes to cool back down and then slowly rode down dragging our feet on the floor! Scary!

  17. Monica
    March 29, 2012
    Reply

    I always thought that I didn’t spend enough time in Northern Thailand and you’ve just confirmed it. I went to the usual backpacker hotspots but didn’t go to any of these amazing looking places – definitely inspired me to go back there some day!

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      You must go back! I didn’t know anything about Northern Thailand (except there were 5 million travel bloggers in Chiang Mai), but I’ve now realised how amazing it is!

  18. Ayngelina
    March 31, 2012
    Reply

    So many great photos but Day 4 is my favourite.

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks! Day 4 was one of my favourites :)

  19. Cam
    April 1, 2012
    Reply

    What a great way to experience northern Thailand. The open road and freedom to do and see what you want, the best way to travel!

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      It truly was! I want to go everywhere on a scooter now! You see so much more that way.

  20. 360 Photography
    April 2, 2012
    Reply

    That sounds like an epic week – I’m heading to Asia in a few months, so scouting out some ideas at the moment.

    Not sure that I can do a week on a bike, but I definitely love the idea of some sort of road trip

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      You’ll be very sorry if you spend a week on a bike… But you get to see much more that way! :)

  21. Maria Alexandra @latinAbroad
    April 3, 2012
    Reply

    Great trip! You’ve definitely introduced me to some Thai towns I had never heard of. On to the travel bucket list ;)

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      Of course :)

  22. Eric @ Trans-Americas Journey
    April 4, 2012
    Reply

    That’s quite a ride. Not sure how you racked up so much milage though. We did a similar tip AND went all the way up into the Golden Triangle and I didn’t think we had that much milage.

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      The 350 km trip to the Laos border and back added up the miles significantly!

  23. Chiang Mai – Where everybody knows your name | Nomadic Notes Travel Blog
    April 4, 2012
    Reply

    […] had some friends go on an epic Northern Thailand bike ride recently, which I would like to do at some point. I might save that for later in the year for when […]

  24. Jade - OurOyster.com
    April 12, 2012
    Reply

    Wow that sounds like an amazing trip!!! Although I don’t know how you managed it…. motorbikes sure arn’t desined with the passengers comfort in mind. Your butt must have been black and blue! lol

    • Lauren
      April 21, 2012
      Reply

      I KNOW! Why is it impossible to find scooters that are comfortable at the back?! Damn, it was painful…

  25. cheryl
    April 29, 2012
    Reply

    Glad everything worked out for you! Seems like such a really fun and beautiful experience. :)

  26. Mary @ Green Global Travel
    May 15, 2012
    Reply

    Lauren, what an amazing experience and such beautiful photos! What a great way to see Thailand.

  27. Stuart Land
    June 5, 2012
    Reply

    Your adventures are truly amazing, Lauren, and your photography is excellent. Having lived in Thailand for 13 years and Chiang Mai for 7, I can tell you that you were extremely lucky to have the adventure you did on your road trip. This year, particularly, has been really bad with the smog from burning rice fields. I took a similar trip recently (but have a much softer bike seat :-)), and I could hardly see anything. I’ll be doing it again soon.

    Best of luck on your continuing adventure. If you ever get back to Chiang Mai, let me know, I have a bigger bike with a better seat.

  28. Bruce
    August 8, 2012
    Reply

    Thanks for the insight, am planning my trip for next year…cant wait..
    Chiang Mai here I come…

  29. Gregory
    October 11, 2012
    Reply

    Love it! I’m considering something like this when I arrive early November. But when you “just go out” like this, where do you stay? Did you just happen upon hostels or inns or whatever along the way? Did you do some pre-research? Or perhaps you camped?

    • Lauren
      October 12, 2012
      Reply

      Hi Gregory,

      We were travelling with Stuart who owns travelfish.org so he knows the region extremely well :) We stayed in guesthouses everywhere, but Stuart obviously knew where there would and wouldn’t be places to stay.

  30. Gregory
    October 12, 2012
    Reply

    So, Lauren, if I wanted to do something similar, do you think that if I had a tent with me that I could just wing it and be okay? In other words, I could just go (on this route or another) and assume I will find lodging. But, if I don’t, then can I assume it would be pretty likely that I would find a place to bivouac for the evening? (I guess I’m asking if impromptu camping is common or discouraged.)

    • Lauren
      October 13, 2012
      Reply

      Hi Gregory,

      I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer that question! I can tell you though that I didn’t see a single person camping over the week, so it’s definitely not a common thing to do in Thailand. I’m not sure whether it is discouraged though…

      All of the places we stayed and wrote about in this post were reasonable sized cities with a load of accommodation. The only exception was Phu Lang Ka, which was just one hard to find lodge in the middle of nowhere.

    • Stuart Land
      October 13, 2012
      Reply

      Sawatdee Krab, Gregory. I live in Thailand and can tell you that camping is not something Thais do, although it is available in the national parks. You cannot “wing” it and camp along the road or in the woods. Accommodations are cheap and plentiful, but my advice is to get a Lonely Planet guide. Also, advice from people you meet along the way. Outside the main cities, no one speaks English, but they enjoy helping you nonetheless. A few words in Thai will go a long way. Listen to audio pronunciations, don’t try to sound out words from written transliterations because it’s impossible. As one last bit of advice, dress more or less normally, not as a 60’s refugee or wondering guru. No one dresses like that in Asia and everyone just thinks you’re crazy, except other like-dressed Westerners. Choke dee le sabai sabai.

  31. Gregory
    October 13, 2012
    Reply

    Thank you, Lauren and Stuart; very helpful.

    Stuart, I tried running the Thai in your message through Google Translate but it was stumped.

  32. Stuart Land
    October 13, 2012
    Reply

    Basically it means, good luck and be happy!

    • Gregory
      October 13, 2012
      Reply

      :-)

  33. Joseph
    May 18, 2013
    Reply

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience through this post, which I found accidentally. Me and my spouse are also thinking of an epic travel either through Thailand or Vietnam.

  34. Chris and Angela
    August 12, 2013
    Reply

    …and I thought our 270 km round trip motorbike ride to and from Pai was a butt killer. Really though, this sounds amazing. I definitely want to do this while living in Chiang Mai. Might need to start planning a trip of our own very soon :) Thanks for the great post!

    • Lauren
      August 15, 2013
      Reply

      It was pretty incredible! I can definitely recommend it :-)

  35. Michael
    January 15, 2014
    Reply

    Sounds like an epic adventure. There’s some crazy drivers in Thailand, so well done in just surviving ;)

    • Lauren
      January 19, 2014
      Reply

      Thank you! Fortunately, the roads were quiet once we left Chiang Mai :-)

  36. Andrea Anastasiou
    September 5, 2014
    Reply

    Hey Lauren! This trip sounds EPIC and the pictures are amazing. My boyfriend and I are considering doing something similar, but we have our 55L backpacks with us. This may sound like a stupid question, but what did you do with all your stuff while you were away? I’m assuming you couldn’t take all of it with you on a small scooter?

    Thanks :-)

    • Lauren
      September 5, 2014
      Reply

      Hi Andrea. We left our bags in our apartment in Chiang Mai. We were renting one for three months when we took this trip. We just took one 15 litre daypack on the scooter.

  37. andra
    February 23, 2015
    Reply

    Heyy, Your photos are really amazing! When did you take this trip to Thailand? We want to go on the 9 on March but I heard there is smog and you can’t see anything. The scooter trip would also be out of question I think.. :(

    • Lauren
      February 23, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks so much, Andra! I did this trip in January. There is a lot of smog in March so I’d imagine the views wouldn’t be as pretty when riding.

  38. Backpacking Thailand
    April 24, 2015
    Reply

    So awesome!!!!! My favourite part of Chiang Mai was just spending days motorbiking through the mountains. Would rather do that than go on a tour!

    • Lauren
      June 30, 2015
      Reply

      Absolutely! There are so many great places to explore outside of the city :-)

  39. H055086
    December 5, 2015
    Reply

    I think you did not travel 1500 Km. You have skipped the sidetrip in Nan, so that works out to be 1043 km.

    • Lauren
      December 6, 2015
      Reply

      I’m so glad that’s what you got from this post.

  40. Travel Expert
    December 5, 2015
    Reply

    What an awesome road trip of Thailand. I must say, the places looks like such an untouched area which makes this more amazing.

    • Lauren
      June 3, 2017
      Reply

      It was pretty spectacular to feel so far away from the tourists.

  41. Bruno
    March 22, 2016
    Reply

    wow this looks amazing! I really have to explore Northern Thailand when I’m back in the country!

    • Lauren
      June 3, 2017
      Reply

      It’s such an underrated part of the country.

  42. Jonathan
    November 14, 2016
    Reply

    Wow weeee, amazing inspirational and exactly what i wanted to read before going to bed, so thank you :-)
    I’m leaving from london tomorow for a cheeky week in northern thailand (booked my flight 5 days ago as found a gap in a project im working on, and been researching ever since!!)
    I’m going to do a similar trip (just not as far maybe 100-150km per day) Just wondering what bike you were on?
    I’ve provisionally booked a honda zoomer 108cc or should I upgrade?…..don’t mind going slow!!
    …i’ve travalled a far bit in asia so fine with getting lost etc :-)

    Thanks again

    • Lauren
      November 15, 2016
      Reply

      Yep, that’ll be fine! I think we had a 110cc Honda Click and it was all good.

  43. Jonathan
    November 17, 2016
    Reply

    Thanks, glad to know I made the right choice :-)
    Made it to Wiang Pa Pao, to my supprise very easily considering the beers the night before!…..next stop Tha Ton :-)
    Will definatly make it to Phu Lang Ka, however can’t find a nearby alternative to the concrete bed….probably Rico Resort?

    …..the ease of travelling with wifi, smart phones and internet (it’s like they were all designed for travelling!)

    Thanks again for such a inspirational blog, you should write a book (with pics!)

  44. Jonathan
    November 25, 2016
    Reply

    Just arrived back in Blighty and thought I’d send an update.

    Made it 900km :-) absolutely amazing, Phu langka was magical especially driving in the dark from Chiang kham….

    Few top tips…..
    1) get a Thai sim, I had 3G 90% of the time, so enabled me to take smaller roads.
    2) try and get off the highways, e.g road 3032 was amazing probably one the highlights, but driving through the mountains is hard work and takes a lot longer.
    3) getting questioned by the army (not police) is fun (keep telling yourself that!)
    4) watch out for snakes and buffalo
    5) check your oil every other day if not every day.

    So now I’m planning Lima to cusco on a dirt bike (I do a little Moto X) ……any top tips?

  45. Matt
    May 8, 2018
    Reply

    Great article!
    I’m currently in Saigon, Vietnam and soon gonna ride up to Dalat (highlands) when it stops raining!!
    Keep up the great work.

    • Lauren
      May 15, 2018
      Reply

      One of my favourite countries! Enjoy! :-)

  46. Ben Beck
    January 7, 2019
    Reply

    Love this article! I’m relatively the same journey in 2 weeks (currently living in Chiang Mai). Do you happen to remember if the scooter was 100, 115, or 125cc? A friend might join me and I’m wanting to make sure my scooter is powerful enough :)

    • Lauren
      January 8, 2019
      Reply

      I think ours was 110cc Honda Click.

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