Chiang Mai Motorbike Culture
Chiang Mai is a motorbike city. Where I come from in Colorado, folks love to ride their motorcycles along the big roads between developments and on the winding roads over mountains when the snow melts and the weather gets warmer. It’s a joy ride, but it’s also a bit dangerous because nobody in cars looks out for the bikes. In Chiang Mai it’s the opposite. Motorbikes outnumber cars and when the traffic builds up at a red light it is perfectly normal and expected for the motorbikes to wind their way up through the cars to the front of the line. So long as you are keeping with the flow of traffic, cars always know where you are.
And motorbikes expand your mobility, which is an obvious statement, but I’ve lived here for a year now and it wasn’t until about the one year mark that I finally rented a motorbike and learned how to drive it. I was cautious at first because I’ve never been the driver on a bike (my brothers used to ride as teens so I’ve been on the back of a bike a few times) but within only a few days of having the rented motorbike I had seen areas of Chiang Mai which are just slightly out of walking distance, as well as having the freedom to zip over to various restaurants for takeout before they closed after PM training. Without the bike and with only the red trucks (share cabs, basically) to take me around town I could only ever run one errand in a day due to time constraints and fatigue. With the bike, my husband and I could go to the consulate, the visa service, and the post office all in one day and not come home exhausted or have to miss training due to timing.
More than any of this, however, is the freedom one gets from having a bike. It’s like when you’re a teenager and you finally get your license and – provided you can convince your parents to let you borrow the car – suddenly you can just go somewhere. It’s incredibly liberating and you can see it and feel it among the Thai teens and young adults who cruise around at night, sometimes three on a bike. You share in that freedom, waiting for the sun to go down so you can feel the cool night air as you kick into the higher gears on the big roads.
Where We Bought Our Used Honda Wave
After two months of renting from a place down in the Old City, we finally decided to buy our own motorbike. The bike rental place was good – nice bikes, free maintenance and roadside pickup within a certain radius if anything goes wrong – but it was pricey and even when I rented a second, cheaper bike the fact that we’re here for a second year made it a mathematical no-brainer that buying is cheaper.
I wanted a semi-automatic rather than the full automatic, the difference being that semi’s have better gas mileage, more control, more power on hills and a sense of self-satisfaction and authority that automatics cannot provide. In a car, I drive stick – gears are a necessary part of a driving experience for me. What’s cool about the semi-automatics is that they have gears but no clutch, so you just use this lever at your left foot to shift up or down but never have to engage a clutch with your hand. It’s half-way to a motorcycle.
The motorbike is in good condition and I test-drove it before buying. I loved her right away, given the piece of junk I rented in order to learn how to drive semi-automatic that ran like a rodeo bull this new bike felt like an Olympic equestrian champ or something. The guy who helped us knocked about 1,000 Baht off the ticket price without me having said a word about it and all in all we ended up paying about $1,000 USD for the bike. We don’t haggle because we absolutely hate it, but we felt it was a good, fair and reasonable price. If you’re a haggler, go at it and see how good of a deal you can get. But this was a licensed Honda dealer, so I’m not sure how much wiggle room there is at a place like this rather than buying from a person selling their own bike or whatever.
When I slipped onto Huay Kaew road to feel the wind at my chests on my iron steed I noted that my right side-mirror was drooping like a dead flower head, so I had to flip a U-Turn and go back to the dealer to have it fixed. They happily performed the repair while I waited (I guess they missed that during the inspection they gave it as we were doing paperwork, which I assume involved more of fluid checks than anything else). It comes with a six month warranty and there’s a shop right at the dealer, although I will likely ask the fellow at the gym who rents out motorbikes where he takes his for repair, since I suspect the price is better elsewhere.
Buying a DOT Helment – Bpreekawalaiyon
Legally, you have to wear a helmet when driving or riding a motorbike in Thailand. Up north and the northeast they’re more lax about enforcing these rules than in Bangkok, but you can still be ticketed – especially if you are notably Falang (western) from a distance – you’ll see many or even most Thais not wearing helmets. I’ve heard the ticket is about 300 baht. But I also happen to love motorcycle helmets – I think they’re aesthetically pleasing and feel like a spaceman when wearing one myself – and would rather survive a crash than not, so helmets were something I was keen on purchasing.
A wide range of helmets are available at numerous locations around Chiang Mai. You can buy the turtle-shell type that don’t cover your ears for as little as 200 Baht (about $7 USD) or some really nice top-end that are full-face (meaning open face) or 3/4 (which go over your chin/mouth like a BMX racing helmet. I opted for a company we’d read good reviews for, “Real,” with a full-face that offers good DOT protection, is comfortable, has washable padding inside and comes with two visors (one clear, one UV solar protected) for 1,200 Baht ($40 USD). In the US these would surely exceed $100 each.
The shop was very helpful and patient while my husband and I tried out many different styles and sizes of helmets to find the two we liked. The lady also showed us how to disassemble the padding inside for cleaning, smiling at me as she struggled to get the padding snapped back in rather than being flustered at the difficulty. It’s good to know that I will struggle with it, too.
We happened to purchase this bike while my parents are visiting. When we brought the bike I was already renting (coincidentally from a guy who rents out of the same hotel where my parents have a room) and since I’d rented for a month I was able to give the rental over to my parents and allow my dad to get comfortable on it for a day or two before going to buy my bike so we could all get our “Easy Rider” thing on together. My dad looks good on a motorbike. The way my trainers slip into Muay Thai movements like an amphibian into water, all those angles and oddities suddenly making sense, that’s how my dad changes when he sits behind a wheel or grips handlebars. He was made for driving. They borrowed our helmets while they got used to the bike and then after we purchased my motorbike we all went down to this same shop and my parents opted to buy the same helmet brand and style they’d borrowed from us. My dad was excited to buy the helmets and take them home to the US, since they’re good quality and much cheaper than what he could find there. I was excited because it means his feelings of freedom and being a stud on the motorbike (my mom his “babe” on the back of the bike) might carry over to them riding together when they get back to Colorado.
Getting Residency – the US Consulate
You need a residency affidavit before you can buy a bike in your own name, otherwise you can purchase under a Thai citizen’s name. A trainer offered to do this for me because I’m long term and said that the previous Sylvie had done so, but since we are able to get residency through the US Consulate it seemed like something I wanted to do, to get the bike in my own name. For Americans you have to make an appointment with the US Consulate ahead of time – you can do it online here – bring your passport and then fill out the affidavit with your address. Then you get it stamped, shell out about $50 for each piece of paper (it’s one sheet, but my husband and I each got one) and try to make a really good color copy of it that you can offer to the dealer. Thais love original documents, but sometimes you can get away with using a good color copy and keep the original, saving you another $50 should you need it for anything else (like getting a driver’s license). The affidavit is good for only 90 days.
Once we got our residency affidavit we brought that, along with passports, to the dealer to pick out a bike. We bought used and plan to sell it again when we leave. As mentioned above the residency affidavit allows the transfer of the “green book” title to yourself. We got a copy of the “green book,” which is kept with the bike at all times like registration papers in the States and a hard copy of the actual “green book” will be mailed to our residence in a week.
Riding in Chiang Mai
As I mentioned before, I’d never been the driver on a motorbike prior to thinking about renting one in Chiang Mai. A fellow at the gym owns a motorbike rental shop right next door to Lanna camp and he offered to teach me. First he took me to a small parking lot where I could just make the bike move, get used to the blinkers and the breaks and go around turns. It’s wonky at first, like when you first learn how to level and balance a bicycle, but at a higher speed because you have to figure out how to accelerate and balance with power instead of kicking off on a bicycle. This was on a fully automatic with a back brake on the right pedal and a front brake on the right handle bar. The next lesson was out on the highway with a bike that only had hand brakes, the back brake on the left hand and the front brake on the right hand. I had to do U-Turns in traffic and figure 8’s around chairs in a side lot, as well as learning how to be comfortable at higher speeds and getting caught in a rainstorm. Perfect.
With only those two lessons I felt comfortable enough to go rent a bike on my own and drive it back from the South Gate of the city, which is a good 20 minute drive. In Thailand we drive on the left side of the road (madness!) so “keeping left” as a motorbike is pretty much the norm, although you’re free to pass traffic on the right with abandon so long as you have your eyes open. Being passed is not a big deal either – vegetable carts that are basically a motorcycle with a sidecar and families of four or five piled on a bike are very common, so driving slow is no big deal. I, however, did not drive like this… I”m just saying you can.
There are so many motorbikes in Chiang Mai. Almost a university town countless young persons are out and about on motorbikes all the time. You can see in the culture now how the US must have been in the 50’s and 60’s teens and young adults used cars for “cruising,” and bikes are even better than cars for this because you’re so highly visible – scoping people out is easier – and you’ll see many couples on the bikes, sitting closer than what is generally permissible in public between opposite sex, but you have to because it’s just a little bike.
When women wear skirts they ride side-saddle on the back, comfortable as can be. Little babies will stand on scooters, gripping the stems of the side-mirrors as they balance perfectly. Some sit in front of the driver, their hands cradling their chins as they lean against the front of the bike and sometimes doze off on the way home from school. Some sit in little seats that are welded on to the bridge in front of the seat, some are wedged between adults and some are sitting on the back tethered to their mothers with a tightly tied scarf. Dogs balance on the back of bikes when they are small to medium sized, ride in baskets when they are tiny or even sit in the front with their paws on the handlebars as if they are driving when they are big dogs, like labs and huskies. It’s amazing.
Thais grow up on motorbikes, they’re part of the culture. Joining in by riding your own bike (owned or rented) is a completely different experience than being only a pedestrian, relying on share cabs or even driving a car around town. I enjoy the rot daeng share cabs and they are a part of the culture and experience of Chiang Mai as well, but you simply cannot tap into the arteries that lead to the heart of experiencing Chiang Mai unless you get on a motorbike.
A few minutes of riding around Chiang Mai at night:
A Google Map of Important Places We’ve Found in Chaing Mai
This is a map that my husband has been compiling of places we’ve discovered while making our way through Chiang Mai, everything from places to eat to government offices, to wats (temples) and fighting rings, the places mentioned in above are included. We will keep updating it as well:
View Places of Chiang Mai in a larger map