Don’t ask me why but a friend wanted to motorcycle from Bangkok to Pattaya. There are multiple ways of making the trip, car, bus, and taxi that are quick, cheap, and comfortable so, at first look, motorcycling didn’t make sense except for the adventure aspect.
I haven’t made any real motorcycle trips in Thailand. In the U.S., I have owned large bikes (1+ liter) most of my life and, over the years, have made many long and grueling trips. Every fall while in college, I rode my 1978 Yamaha XS1100 and 1978 Honda CB400 Hawk from Washington D.C. to Chicago and returned in the spring. In graduate school, I rode my Honda CBX from D.C. to upstate New York. Later I made trips with sport bike friends (for me a 2003 Suzuki GSXR1000, 1986 GSXR1100 and a 2006 Yamaha R1) up and down the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco and through and around the California mountains and deserts. In Thailand, a lack of riding companions, the heat and humidity, and the dangerous road conditions have deterred any real road trips.
This is my Thailand motorcycle, a Honda Airblade. When initially purchased, I balked at calling it a motorcycle rather than a scooter. Bought mostly for getting around the city with a 110cc single cylinder engine, automatic transmission, tube tires, and step through seating it be would laughed out of the Rock Shop or the gas station at the bottom of The Crest by “real” motorcycles. Over time, this class of scooter has earned my respect and I refer to it as a motorcycle without feeling like a marketing executive.
The Airblade is perfectly suited for Bangkok traffic. With the power train mounted way low in the frame, no need to shift gears, and a steep rake and very little trail in the front suspension, it can twist, turn, shoot and scoot through bumper to bumper traffic and squeeze between lanes of stopped cars. The center of gravity is so low there is never a danger of the bike tipping to one side and the weight making a recovery impossible. It’s water cooled and can putter along in 100+ temp forever and, in my experience, the powertrain is bulletproof and reliable. It tops out a 100kph wide open and yields approximately 36 kpl on 91 octane. Plus it can stow a helmet under the seat and except being lighter, narrower, and more power, there isn’t much to improve on with this class of bike for these conditions.
There are more serious bikes available in Thailand that avoid the wallet crushing tariffs that apply to the traditional Japanese, German, and Italian motorcycles. These include the Honda CBR150 and 250 and the recently introduced Ninja 250 and 650R. Outside of Bangkok, where most of the riding isn’t in city traffic, these bikes would be the ticket but inside Bangkok they have serious problems. Constant stop and go makes a manual transmission a chore, the extra width makes splitting lanes difficult, and the fertility lowering heat rising from the engine would cook you and your future progeny on a hot day.
Not available when I purchased the Airblade is the Honda PCX. Available this year with the enlarged 150cc engine, it’s extremely popular among expat riders. The PCX is bigger, longer, and wider than the Airblade but it takes everything in the wrong direction. A heavier, fatter, less maneuverable bike is what you want to avoid. If a manufacturer dropped a bigger engine into a smaller lighter more compact package that’s my idea of improvement. Maybe when I get old, I’ll start looking for a comfortable bike. It’ll be the same time I trade my US sport bike for a Harley because the Harley has a big cushy comfortable seat with a barcalounger seating position that doesn’t pinch my enormous fat belly. 555555 For now, speed and handling are still key.
The problem with Bangkok originating motorcycle trips is the inability to use the freeways. Bikes are not allowed on the freeway and have to navigate surface streets. This can mean hours and 10’s of kilometers of bumper to bumper traffic before reaching open road.
In Thailand, I also don’t have any of the safety equipment standard in the U.S. On U.S. sport-bike excursions I have a Vanson ProPerf leather suit (the suit is covered with tiny holes which allow the air to blow through for cooling) with a plastic back protector plus shoulder, knee, and elbow armor, Sidi Vortice boots with an integral ankle brace, shin guards and toe plates, and race gauntlets with studded reinforced palms and titanium wrist and knuckle protecting plates. In Thailand, I have denim jeans, a long sleeve cotton work shirt, tennis shoes, and Peltz leather rock climbing gloves. Any kind of Thailand fall, no matter how minor, where I end up on the ground is going to cause some painful road rash besides any broken bones or other serious injuries.
Driving to Pattaya started out at Asoke and involved driving along Sukhumvit all the way past BangNa. We left early in the morning to get a jump on the heat and traffic but spent the first hour splitting lanes, shooting the gap between slow moving buses and trucks, crawling along at walking speeds, and breathing headache and cough inducing carbon monoxide and diesel particulate pouring from commercial truck exhausts.
After transiting Bang Na and exiting Bangkok, we followed Route 3 past Sumut Prakan through Chon Buri and Si Racha roughly paralleling the coast all the way.
Parts of this section were typical two lane Thai road with a motorcycle lane on the left shoulder. For those not familiar with Thai highways, motorcycles are expected to keep to the left (the shoulder of the road). On two lane roads, there is typically a paved portion about 6 feet wide used by motorcycles. These are unlike the shoulders on American highways because the shoulder is paved, smooth, and identical to the main surface used by cars and trucks. You have to be alert to gravel patches where dirt tracks and gravel roads intersect the highway, narrowing at bridges and overpasses, and occasional broken pavement but you can motor along on the shoulder/motorcycle lane at highway speeds and pass slower cars in relative safety. This is what we did on this section with the throttle frequently wide open and hitting 80-100kph.
Other sections involved riding the frontage road to the freeway. This involved 4 to 8 lanes of controlled access freeway with a 2 lane road alongside. The 2 lane frontage road typically contains gas stations and in many parts the surface is cratered with potholes caused by the heavy trucks. These are the worst motorcycle roads because the bike is constantly dropping into potholes, bumping over raised pavement, in danger of skidding on loose gravel, and the rider is constantly dodging large trucks exiting to freeway to get gas. 30 or 40 kph is about top speed on these sections.
The final stretch into Pattaya is 4 lane road speckled with cross traffic and stop lights. You can hit 80 to 100kph on this section but its dangerous with a constant required lookout for crossing traffic, cars pulling out from roadside businesses and shoulder debris.
My friend and I made the 150+km in exactly 3 hours. Not exactly a grueling ride but at the end my but was sore and my lower back ached.
I’ll probably never make this trip again. About a third of the time was spent in heavy Bangkok traffic getting gassed by exhaust fumes. On the “open road” sections it was hot and humid. Think of being made into a human jerky by the constant flow of hot desiccating air blowing over your body. There was no scenery of note, no good curvy sections, and it was freaking dangerous. Not exactly one of the 100 greatest motorcycle roads in the World.
Pussies that we are, our first stop after reaching Patts was the Pattaya Healthland for a 2 hour Thai massage followed by the all you can eat lunch buffet at the Hilton in the Central Pattaya Mall, and long afternoon nap in our hotel rooms.
After a night enjoying Pattaya, we jumped on the bikes early in the morning, retraced our path from Bangkok, and returned to Asoke before noon.
Your Humble Bangkok Correspondent,