It’s not the journey, but the destination. Such is the mantra of travelers who hike the camino on foot or spend weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway. Still, there’s one alternative to air travel unique to those with a bike licence—motopacking (motorcycle road trip).
Perhaps you’re craving a getaway from the city and its traffic, or a true-blue vagabond experience. Either way, here are three motorcycle road trips across Southeast Asia of different difficulty levels to get you started.
1. Mae Hong Son Loop, Northern Thailand
Far away from its tropical beaches, the northern region of Thailand actually has a winter season between December and February. There, the Mae Hong Song Loop is touted as the bike route for its 1,865 curves and access to remote regions. The sweater weather makes for breezy rides.
Difficulty level: Easy
Estimated duration: 5 days
Recommended bikes: 125cc semi-automatic/auto
Route: Chiang Mai > Mae Sariang > Mae Hong Son > Pai
Doi Inthanon National Park: Before you get ahead of yourself on the 108 route bound for Mae Sariang, check out the Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest mountain in Thailand. Early in the morning, temperatures at the peak can reach sub-zero.
Along the way, you’ll also find mini farmer’s markets run by the hill tribes, along with four waterfalls, including the Mae Ya Waterfall and Wachiratham Waterfall.
Mae Hong Song: Even as you continue into the rural town of Mae Hong Song, the mountains are never too far away. In this namesake town, you can expect rolling hills, waterfalls, caves and even a UNESCO Heritage Site—the Salween National Park.
If there’s anywhere a motopacker should hop off and set up camp for a night, it would be here, but not before getting a cup of joe from the Baan Ruam Thai Coffee Village.
Pai: Before you come full circle, you would first have to conquer the last stretch of driving from Pai back to Chiang Mai. Riders know this to be the route’s most challenging leg, for over half of its 1,865 curves lay in ambush here. But don’t simply zip past the quaint town—there are a ton of hot springs and night markets in this backpacker’s town.
Before you exit the old city of Chiang Mai, grab a map of the loop from the bookstore, and pack warm clothing for high altitudes and chilly mornings. Even though you could do this route both clockwise and anti-clockwise, beginners are advised to do the former to build momentum before they eventually enter Initial D-zone in Pai.
2. Thakhek Loop, Central Laos
The Luang Prabang and Nam Song River are big hits, but the more adventurous of backpackers will find themselves channeling their inner Indiana Jones at Lao’s many caves. All of the Thakhek Loop is basically a quest for Tham Konglor—one of the most beautiful caves in Southeast Asia.
Difficulty level: Moderate
Estimated duration: 3 days
Recommended bikes: 125cc semi-automatic/automatic
Route: Thakhek > Ban Thalang > Nakai > Ban Khonglor > Thakhek
Even though the route isn’t packed with checkpoints along the way, the journey itself is famed for the varied landscape you’ll pass through. Think arid plains and lush green hills, sleepy towns and rock formations. There are caves along the route for you to seek refuge from the sun, or a lake to take a dip in.
Tham Konglor: Your destination is about 130 kilometres to the north of Thakhek, a gigantic limestone cave that spans 90 meters in height and seven kilometres in length, which you can explore on a motorboat.
Also, in the village of Ban Konglor where you will most likely spend the night, you’ll have no trouble skipping the usual backpackers’ inn for a local homestay.
The last part of the loop back to Thakhek is not as eventful as the first, which can make the ride exhausting at points. Apart from that, some sections of the loop are also prone to construction works, with dirt tracks that could easily lead to sliding and skidding accidents.
Take it easy, especially when it’s dark!
3. Sa pa to Ha Giang, Vietnam
The Ho Chi Minh, Da Nang and Hanoi trinity is no stranger to tourists in Vietnam. But an eight-hour bus ride away from Hanoi lies Ha Giang, a hidden gem along the Chinese border that many describe as one of the last undiscovered places in Vietnam.
Even though the route from Sapa to Ha Giang is shorter than the two trips mentioned above, it’s known to be winding, narrow, and windy, with rough terrains like gravel sections and back-roads at several points. But the brave will be handsomely rewarded with surreal landscapes and occasional glimpses of the village tribes’ way of life.
Difficulty level: Challenging
Estimated duration: 4 days
Recommended bikes: 125cc semi-automatic
Route: Sapa > Muong Khuong > Si Ma Cai > Bac Ha > Xin Man > Ha Giang
Muong Khuong: As you take Road QLD4 past the pineapple plantations, river valleys and streams, you’ll eventually find yourself in Muong Khuong, an isolated town with limestone pinnacles skirting at its edges. It isn’t exactly built for tourism, but charm can be found in post-war remnants that will teleport you to the 70s, and a weekend market where the local tribes convene in colorful ethnic clothing.
Bac Ha: Out of Muong Khuong, Road DT153 traces the Chinese border and passes the Chay River towards Bac Ha. In the small but bustling town, locals toil in the fields, herd cattle and chop wood, allowing visitors a peek into country life. Over 50 ethnic groups call this place home, and many of them converge at the Can Cau minority market.
Dong Van: Like the Mae Hong Son loop, the best is reserved for last at the Dong Van to Meo Vac leg, right before you reach Ha Giang. The winding, mountainside route leads you to the Ma Pi Leng Pass, a perfect vantage point to catch the sunrise or sunset. If time allows it, a short hike to the Quan Ba Pass (Heaven’s Gate) also offers a panoramic view of the landscape and villages.
As this route is considerably more demanding with its vertigo-inducing ups and downs, ample rest time between the days is recommended. The prime time to make this trip is in the fair-weathered months of March/April and September/October, when the vegetation is most lush and picturesque.
Staying safe on the road
Like road trips in 4WDs and month-long cruise holidays, the beauty of motorcycle road trips lies in a slower way of seeing. After all, what better way to explore the nooks and crannies of a city that bus and train networks do not reach?
But roads less trodden can be precarious. Motorcycle-riding has a notorious track record for accidents, making it all the more important for you to exercise good judgement on the road, and see that that your insurance policy covers you sufficiently.
Make sure everything’s working before you buckle up. Enjoy the ride!