Escaping Bangkok’s traffic chaos to embrace the quiet back roads and amazing scenery that Thailand has to offer
I watched in my left mirror as another souped-up hatchback blazed across three lanes of traffic behind me, looking for the fastest route through whatever was in front of it. I dropped down a gear, riding on the defensive with so many dangerous idiots around me. Tom, up ahead on his Versys 650, left the highway and pulled off onto the parallel access road and flagged me down. When I rode up, he didn’t mince words. “I don’t want to tell you what to do, but if you don’t go faster, you’re going to die.”
Lesson one of driving on Thailand’s highways: Do not ride slowly. If you do, you will be relegated to the emergency lane, where people will cut you off and debris will puncture your tires.
Law of the Jungle
I’m no stranger to traffic in Asia, as I live in Saigon, Vietnam, and used to live in Hanoi. But – as Tom pointed out to me – Thailand is different in one major way: speed. “While Saigon is a manic cluster fuck of scooters and motorbikes, where people seem to flow in torrents of self-interest, it is for the most part slow; people ride motorbikes like scooters and scooters like bicycles,” he observed. “In Bangkok, people drive cars like they are motorbikes. It’s not uncommon for people to go above 130 km/h in built-up areas and lane-split in their cars. And the place operates solely on the law of the jungle – that is: I’m bigger than you, get out of my way!”
It’s worth noting that riding in Thailand, while fun, is extremely risky. Globally, it ranks second in annual road fatalities, behind only Libya.
So, there was good reason for my white-knuckled apprehension. Also, the bike Tom lent me was in a state of disrepair after a punishing two-week trail ride in Laos, and an unfortunate head-on collision. Tom had fixed as much as he could in the three days between trips, but there was still some more work needed.
The bike was unique: a Kawasaki KLX250S trail bike, bored out to 300 cc with a factory kit, a Dell’Orto pumper carburetor, an 11-litre plastic fuel tank, a K&N air filter and a stainless steel custom motocross exhaust system. It was also fitted with a quick-action throttle, bash plate, luggage rack, hand guards and raised handlebars.
The first day of our six-day trip was a relatively easy one, disregarding the insanity of leaving Bangkok. Our destination was Kanchanaburi, and once out of the spiderweb of overpasses and freeways that surround the capital, we were well on our way.
Because the route between Bangkok and Kanchanaburi is mostly tarmac, we chose to get off the beaten track and tackle some rural back roads. The trouble started when we stopped for lunch and the ignition stopped working on the KLX. This wasn’t abnormal, as the bike had been having ignition problems caused by an apparent lack of charging voltage to the battery. But the battery had been fully charged the night before and Tom mentioned it usually lasted a day or two before it drained to the point where the engine wouldn’t turn over. I had to get him to bump-start the bike, the first of many for the trip. Starting the bike like this in the overhead sun and dry, dusty heat was not fun. Already I saw visions of me, stuck alone in the dirt, trying to roll-start the bike.
On the back canal roads into Kanchanaburi, we stopped by the spectacular Wat Tham Khao Noi and the haunting, but scenic, Chinese Cemetery along the banks of the Mae Klong River. History is literally on every street corner in Kanchanaburi’s rural centre, with a well-kept graveyard for Second World War POWs in the centre of town. Yet, visiting the bridge over the River Kwai was a disappointment, with hawkers, school kids and Chinese package tourists swarming throughout. It has a decidedly carnival-feel. We didn’t linger, instead choosing the comforts of our guesthouse. Sunset river views, pizza, rum, soda and lime – all in all, a good start to the trip.
Smoke hung heavy in the air for our early departure from Kanchanaburi, en route to the Srinagarind Dam. Once into national park territory, we saw scrub and farmland being burned off from the sides of the road. The result was the ever-lasting smell of campfire and almost no blue sky to be seen.
Entering the dam area, long twisties and switchbacks became the norm. I loved having the Versys in front, the parallel-twin engine roaring through the Ixil Dual Hyperlow pipe. The Versys had also been “adventurized” somewhat with Continental Trail Attack II tires, YSS rear shock, back rack, panniers, Denali LED lights, Barkbusters, handlebar risers and numerous other farkles.
As we began to climb and circle the huge body of water at the Srinagarind Dam, I went ahead with the KLX, leaning tight into the corners and giving the bike the beans through the straightaways. Despite my camera bag making the bike top-heavy, I found the bike easy to control. The KLX just had a nimbleness to it, along with the power to go up or over whatever was in the way.
The entire area was devoid of traffic and we checked out side roads, riding through forests to lakeside “resorts” and retreats. On our way to the ferry was a 5 km dirt track, and the dry conditions made for easy riding. I’m sure if it had been during the rainy season, the mud and washed-out trail would have been much more challenging. As it was, the KLX was in its element, coasting over the gravel and sand without any drama.
Travelling always reminds me how small the world is; on the ferry there was a Thai-Canadian from Vancouver. He was driving with a few monks and we passed the 30-minute ride across the dam with easy conversation and some photo ops.
It was when we disembarked that an entirely new bout of fun was to be had. A rocky, rutted clay track led into a massive bamboo forest. The reddish gravel carved a pathway through the dense yellow bamboo, and as the late-afternoon sun broke through the smoky clouds, the entire scene turned golden. We stopped the bikes and just marvelled at what was around us. I found the bike handled better on this surface than on the sandy dirt trails we’d encountered earlier.
As the sun dropped below the surrounding mountain vistas, we pulled into the overnight stopover: colourful bungalows perched on the cliffside, overlooking part of the dam and the valley below. It was pretty breathtaking and the ride had been a blast, so it was in good spirits we cracked open the bottle of Glenlivet I had bought at the duty-free entering the country. It disappeared quickly. So, too, did the bottle of Thai rum I was carrying. And then the 10 or so tall boys of beer we ordered.
I woke the next morning at five when the power was cut and the fan stopped its cooling breeze, lying on the floor of my cabin, under oppressive heat and nursing the hangover to end all hangovers.
And it got worse. It wasn’t so much the blinding headache or the Thai grandmother screaming the checkout procedure at Tom in Thai, or the slow, steady, never-ending dry heat that sucks the moisture from your body. No, it was something else – it was the coffee. The soggy mash of coffee pulp dripped undrinkable goo into my cup through a rag-like sieve. The state I was in had me worried about my ability to ride, as I was acutely aware that the roads today were going to be dicey.
We made our way back to a main highway and headed toward Pilok, a sleepy town nestled high in the mountains, situated right on the border between Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma).
The highway surroundings alternated between farmland and forest, resulting in me being buffeted a metre in either direction from the wind every time we went past a clearing. My heart shot into my throat each time – or perhaps it was the coffee? Either way, I could barely keep it all together.
Watch for Elephants
Around noon, we found ourselves at the bottom end of Route 3272, a broken asphalt mountain road with 399 turns that leads up to the Myanmar border. The engaging roads and scenery helped me completely forget how awful the morning had been.
Before we began the climb, Tom said, “Watch out for the elephant shit – it’s real slippery.” Wait, what? Not a sentence I was expecting. He wasn’t kidding, either. There were several permanent signs and numerous makeshift banners warning of wild elephants on the road.
Is there elephant crap literally everywhere? I thought, or just in a few places? What happens if I hit it? Tom had already rode off by the time the warning had fully sunk in, however, so I revved the bike and off I went, eyes scanning the tarmac for dung heaps.
The KLX’s 21-inch 50/50 tires consumed the broken tarmac and small potholes. Valley vistas opened up below us as each turn led us higher into the thick jungle. At some points, the lushness of the rainforest was pure Jurassic Park. National parkland and hidden trails to waterfalls passed by, and after one final turn, we headed down into the village. Pilok is made up mostly of Burmese immigrants and a few Chinese Thai merchant clans. Official stats list the region’s population at 6,000. I have no idea where all those people are, as there must only be around a hundred people living in town. It’s quaint, like Jasper, Alberta quaint – circa 1910. At sunset, we took the bikes for a spin to the top of a border police checkpoint. The haze hung low, shrouding the entire valley in an orange mist. Myanmar was a stone’s throw away and we contemplated riding along the ridge that served as the boundary line between the two countries, but the possibility of land mines or unexploded ordnance put us off.
What Goes Up
If riding up to the town was fun, going back down the next day was even better. The morning sun bathed the road in a mix of shadow and light, and I couldn’t help but bomb my way down this fantastic stretch of road. The rest of the day was spent on a proper highway lined by huge trees as we made our way to Sangkhlaburi. We took a side road to go explore, and although the driving was certainly fun, my ignition began to fail entirely. The bike also felt a bit rough, but I was quite focused on ensuring that it didn’t stall, because bump-starting it all the time just sucked. It was a welcome respite when we entered the town, which is large and sprawling. The hotel has an excellent view over the river, but that’s about it.
The frontier border town was an unnervingly bizarre place: it had a real Wild West feel. We both agreed to get out of town as early as possible the next day. We stopped for gas and some lady blasted her car horn at me because I was pushing the KLX and was, apparently, in her way. There were a few Burmese workers hanging about and some government/mafia-looking types. Throughout our stay, people just watched us, and not in a curious “Hey look, a couple of foreigners” way. We were being cased – either for what we had on us or because of who we might be and what we may witness and report.
The farther we drove from the city, the better I felt. As we retraced our route back to Kanchanaburi, we stopped to check the bikes and discovered that the oil was dangerously low. We both knew it needed a top-up, but had not purchased any oil in our haste to get the hell outta Dodge. There were no service stations or shops that stocked oil along the 75 km road back to the Thong Pha Phum turnoff.
The whole time, I kept waiting for the head gasket to blow. It was tense and both the bike and I hated every second of it. Thankfully, we arrived at a PTT petrol station . . . that didn’t stock any engine oil. Tom went ahead to the next Shell station, one he knew carried decent oil. There was no way I was turning the bike on again. He returned with the oil and we topped up the Kawasaki with nearly a whole litre, and had a coffee while reflecting on how insanely lucky we were that the engine hadn’t seized.
The City Looms
The last day was a short ride back into Bangkok. Now that I was more comfortable with the bike and Thailand’s frantic traffic, I decided to test the limits, and on one long stretch of road, I made an honest effort to keep up with Tom. While he disappeared on the horizon, testing out his new tires and suspension, I held a steady 130 km/h in sixth, and as we entered the city limits, we lane-split and zoomed through the mess of traffic around us, almost synchronized all the way back to his garage. For me, it was akin to slalom skiing in the Rockies, only it was the gaps between traffic that we tore up, not snow and ice. What can I say about riding in Thailand? It’s all a bit mad, but one acclimatizes to this in Asia. However, Thailand is very much more Americanized and car-oriented than is Vietnam.
Riding real bikes at real speeds in a place where awesome Thai food is cheap and abundant was a most enjoyable experience. Without doubt, having a guide or someone who knows the ropes is recommended, but not essential. Once you get out of the big smoke, Thailand is a very biker-friendly place. But whatever you do, ride defensively and keep your wits about you, or else you may become just another statistic.