Pai: Motorbike Perfection
Driving through rice paddies and Hill tribe villages is just a little of what your new motorbike has to offer.
In the north of Thailand, tucked between hills and winding roads lies the bohemian mecca of Pai. The small town brings together travelers of every kind, for those seeking adventure or relaxation, a stiff drink or an organic tea, coming by tour or the solo backpacking road. Whichever way you find yourself here, everyone has something in common: motorbike madness. It’s pretty common to see farang and locals alike getting around on motorbikes in Thailand.
Heck, whether it’s Southeast Asia or Central America, knowing how to drive one is a pretty important skill to have. Not only is it a cheap, fast way to get around (between 100-200 thai baht a day), it gives you the freedom to go by your own schedule. Sure, you can rent out a tuktuk for the day, but chances are your driver will rush you through the sites to get back to town by five. With a moto, you can go wherever, whenever, to do whatever.
If you’ve only ever driven a car or a bike though, it can be pretty intimidating. It seems like a combination of the two, but at the same time, nothing like it. Another thing that is so great about Pai: it’s the perfect place to learn how to drive a motorbike. There’s no shame in being nervous, in the same way you were when you took off the training wheels for the first time. Luckily, there are people willing to help.
On the main road, there are several places, like G’Day bar and Peach Pai Guesthouse that offer lessons. At G’Day, the owner will take you out to a private road where you can practice and practice, until he’s satisfied that you’ll be safe on the streets. He carefully guides you through all the mechanics, traffic rules, and hops on the back as you try to figure out how to lean just right in a turn. Don’t worry if you have a Zoolander moment; most folks who aren’t used to driving on the left side of the road have a really hard time learning to turn left.
Once you’ve been given the a-okay, Aya is the best place in town to pick up a bike. Test out your new skills on a Honda Icon, and once you get comfortable, bump up slightly to the Scoopy. At 110cc and 115cc respectively, it’s enough power to get you going, while also small enough to keep building your confidence. But be careful in town! The streets are jam packed people, dogs, cars, and others riding bikes. Take your time. All the distractions will definitely help you get better at maneuvering quickly! Just past the hot springs is a great, quiet place to practice a little more, until you’re ready to face the real challenge: the open road.
This is really the moment you’ve been waiting for. What makes Pai so special is that it’s surrounded by beautiful farm land, villages, and mountains that give way to the most spectacular of views. The kind of views that make you hold your breath and realize, this, this, is what you expected Thailand to look like. If you hop on Highway 1095, the road winds around, but it’s only road you’ll need.
About an hour away, get yourself to Tham Lod Cave. The drive is spectacular, and easy enough even if you’ve only been riding motos a day or two. The cave is just an added bonus. Take a bamboo raft through the dark caverns, and a guide will take you three separate sections. Watch out for the bat guano though!
It may not look the coolest, but it is the law around Pai to wear a helmet. Also, it’s just the smart thing to do.
Know the difference between confidence and cockiness. Don’t push yourself if you’re not ready, and know your own limits. Speeding up beyond 40-50km/h, whipping around turns, or messing around when you’ve just learned how to drive is the quickest way to get yourself hurt.
Wear sunglasses. Even if it’s not that bright out, it can protect your eye. In a car, you have no sense of just how much of a beating your windshield takes. But on a motorbike, the windshield is your face. There’s nothing scarier that trying to make a tight turn while batting a bug out of your eye.
For the first few times, wear longer pants and shirts, and tennis shoes. It might be 100°F out, but it’s better to get dirt on your jeans than cutting up your knee when you fall. And in the beginning, you will fall at least once.
There is a terrifyingly awesome liberation of riding a motorbike. Being granted the ability and skills to take yourself through the countryside, wherever that country may be, it empowering. You’ll experience so much more of where you are, rather than if you stuck to strict tour schedules or what your guide book tells you to do.