Family on a bike, Phnom Phen, Cambodia
Family on a bike, Phnom Phen, Cambodia

Ride a motorbike and make new friends in Asia

Well, this is what my life has come down to as of late 2014. After years of riding luxury BMW motorcycles in the ‘States, I’m now lumbering around on 125cc motorbikes in Asia. I’m trying to wrap my brain around what my body is doing.

My BMW R1200RT
My BMW R1200RT back in the States

Renting an 1100cc BMW over here costs almost $800 a month! That's because there's only one BMW bike in this class in northern Thailand for rent!

A motorbike? Really?

It seems I’ve taken a leap of faith, mixed it with a dash of insanity and, wrapped my consciousness in a Zen Buddhist mindset. As Karla and I weave our way around back country roads running past gigantic Wats (Buddhist temples), chickens, dogs, goats, an occasional Brahman Bull, cars, trucks and motorbikes —lots of ‘em — cross the road in front of us.

Motorbikes descend on us like a swarm of bees. This is especially so at rush hour all over the country.

This is the BigC department store parking lot (for motorbikes only) in Chiang Mai, Thailand! This short video implies a reality here in Thailand: http://youtu.be/nNfvhgsnZRg.

Yes, 125cc type motorbikes are a primary means of transport here. There's a reason for that: many simply cannot afford cars. It's not unusual to see 4 or 5 people riding one motorbike. Young school-age children drive them.

RoverTreks — Five on a motorbike, Thailand
RoverTreks — Five on a motorbike, Thailand

Pretty young girls donning pink helmets on pink bikes dart about town. Grandmothers and grandfathers tootle around visiting cafes, friends, and smiling at all they meet. Fathers, mothers, and kids … some of whom have their own rides … and many who simply quadruple up … can be seen traversing the local highway.

And they perform every conceivable variant function. Here's some examples:

  • One with a flatbed sidecar
  • One with a multi-passenger sidecar
  • One with a chicken coup sidecar
  • One with a hot-dog stand-like sidecar
  • One with a hauling, hooded trailer like sidecar

Every conceivable commodity is delivered on these tiny bikes. Pizza, firewood, concrete, bottled water, paint, eggs, chickens and goats: the variety seems endless.

Bamboo Hauler
Bamboo Hauler
Hauling cardboard on a motorbike
Hauling cardboard on a motorbike
Balloon vending mama and her baby
Balloon vending mama and her baby

You’ll see riders with no helmets everywhere! Some project umbrellas before their faces in the driving rain. Others wear paper masks to limit inhaling fumes.

Rider @ Work: Vietnam
Rider @ Work: Vietnam
Hauling a ladder on a motorbike
Hauling a ladder on a motorbike
Motorbike pulling trailer!
Motorbike pulling trailer!

So, I tried it. I put my 6’3”, 250 lb. body on a bike, threw Karla on the back and took off. I hate this, I told myself. No power. No height. No riding gear. And an automatic transmission — sickening.

The tires on my hosts’ bike have some tread but are crying for replacement. The left brake lever is bent 180°. Oops. I guess someone dropped it. The kickstand cutoff switch works sometimes – sometimes not. I guess I’ll find out when the bike shuts down on the highway and locks up in the parking mode.

Everything over here is Karma. I took a leap of faith riding this half-broken down toy.

Then, after riding off and on for a few weeks, my attitude began to change. Thai’s smile and wave at you when you ride by. They’re happy to stop and say hello.

You’re like them when you ride. And you ride by at 15- 20 mph. The world goes by slowly at those speeds. You have time to take it all in, smell the flowers, and hear what’s going on about you.

Roadside eateries abound when you ride here. There are fresh meats on a spit ready to eat on a quick stop. You can snap up fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and other food grown locally quickly.

And the roads here have a “motor bikers” lane. It’s just for them — so stay off it if you’re in a car.

Here’s a typical traffic section encounter during rush hour in a small-town outside Chiang Mai, Thailand around 4:30 in the afternoon.

Somehow, it all “just works”.

The American traffic police would have a field day over here. But I must confess, the lack of withering traffic enforcement here as we see in the US is welcome. It’s nice to see “freedom” and yes, a little chaos — alive and well. Yes, there are potential downsides to this somewhat Wild West like driving environment. But I’ll take it any day to the oppressive enforcement practices we see in the ’States.

These bikes are even more popular in Vietnam.

Hauling cucumbers on a motorbike
Hauling cucumbers on a motorbike

Stay tuned for more posts about motorbiking and Southeast Asia.

Tom, for RoverTreks

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Get lots of smiles and new friends on a motorbike in Thailand

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Tom @ RoverTreks
Tom is the editor at RoverTreks. His feature-length stories span travel, technology, history, culture, security, national security, military affairs, languages, communications technologies, and law. He's a member of the Board of Directors for the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association and serves as the Technology & Security Advisor for the Association. Media appearances: CNN, CNBC, ABC, MSNBC, National Public Radio, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, The National Law Journal, Decision Management (Ireland), Fortune Magazine, Ebusinessforum.com, ZDNet News, USA Today, e-BUSINESS Advisor magazine, eWEEK, CIO magazine, CFO magazine, Accounting Today, Government Executive Magazine, Time, The San Francisco Chronicle, Matrix, The Chronicle for Higher Education, Newsbits, Information Security News, and Business 2.0.