2-Wheeling in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Baby boomer motorcycle riders, today’s guest post is for you. Thanks to Facebook (you’ve liked the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook right?), I connected with Nancy Allen from my hometown of East Point, Georgia. It turns out that Nancy has experienced many boomer adventures, plus she’s a Harley rider, which makes her the right choice to tell us about 2-wheeling in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Nancy starts the motor in Chiang Mai

Sawatdeeka!  Yes, I did learn a few essential Thai words and phrases to help me navigate my baby boomer adventure in Thailand. The language, however, has many nuances that can’t be learned in a one-month excursion.

As usual, my boyfriend and I made minimal travel plans, and since this was our second trip to Chiang Mai, we decided to rent a condo and scooters for commuting around the city. We rode to the western market for specialty items and took daily forays to the Night Bazaar. If we wanted the ultimate in convenience and adventure, we could bring home a feast for only a few Baht from the local vendors at the open air markets.

Being a Harley rider in the States, I wasn’t exactly intimidated. After all, I’ve ridden across the U.S. on my own bike, but riding in Thailand was its own challenge. I just needed to remind myself to drive on the opposite side of the road and look right before pulling into traffic. That’s what I told myself anyway and hoped that old habits wouldn’t undermine my best efforts.

Nothing can prepare boomers for the onslaught of dozens of bikes humming like army ants converging from all sides to position themselves in front of cars. The 2-wheelers take up all lanes across and are layered two and three deep. Some bikes have singular riders, but it’s more common to see riders with multiple passengers — some sitting sidesaddle, kids standing on floorboards, transporting worldly goods, or the whole family, for that matter. It’s the Thai version of the mini-van. Some of my favorites scooter sightings were a man with a full-sized computer monitor in his lap, a vendor guiding a rolling retail display along side him and a young girl facing backwards eating a bowl of noodles.

Of course there’s The Moat in the center of the Old City to contend with. Don’t get me started on that one. Traffic outside The Moat flows clockwise, while traffic on the inside of The Moat flows counter clockwise. It’s so congested and there’s so much to see; it’s like being inside a kaleidoscope. Before you know it, you’ve missed the gate entrance to The Moat and you’re just another scooter in the throng of motorcycles, tuk tuks, songtaews, metered taxis, hired motorbikes, rickshaws and bicycles rotating in a mega circle waiting to find the magic portal again.

Nancy finds her next Chiang Mai excursion

Special lanes are dedicated to bike riders of all kinds. Even sidewalks are fair game — remember, it is a flat surface. And beware of riders in your lane heading directly towards you. They’re just borrowing your lane because it’s faster and closer to their destination. What would be perceived as aggressive and annoying driving in the States begging for a case of road-rage, turns out to be customary. Lane splitting is expected and definitely practiced. In some of the larger, more congested areas, traffic lights tick off the minutes remaining before the light changes, which only adds to the excitement at the front of the line.

Imagine pulling up to a light in your vehicle thinking you are first in the cue. The longer you sit before the light turns green on your side, the more bikes accumulate in front of you. They materialize from all sides ready to pounce ahead of everyone. Once you get the hang of it though, it can be quite exhilarating. The key is to NEVER look back.

Having prepared ourselves by riding scooters in Chiang Mai, we rented motorcycles and rode north through some of the more rural areas of northern Thailand. Our 3-day adventure included stops in Fang, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Phrae, Nan, Lampang and back to Chiang Mai. Each location offered its own charm as well as language challenge. It was easy to spot the tour buses at the hotels, which meant someone would speak English. But many of our pit stops for gas, water and food were met with curious stares, hushed whispers and sometimes muffled giggles when we attempted to communicate our needs and desires. But nods, smiles and contorted monkey-motions seem to work in any language. Rosetta Stone here I come…

Photos courtesy Nancy Allen.

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