A Visa Run to Burma by Moped

It took less than an hour for us to realise that driving to Burma was a mistake.

We could have been napping on a comfortable bus, but instead we found ourselves hunched on the back of our 125cc moped driving further up into the mountains as the icy wind whipped at our faces.

It hadn’t begun well. Our attempt to get an early start had left us crawling our way out of Chiang Mai through thick morning traffic, but it wasn’t until we left the city and were able to get past 40km an hour that we realised exactly how cold it was. As the driver, Simon bore the brunt of the wind tearing at his face and hands and any time he tried to speed up the pain became unbearable and we slowed right back down.

And it wasn’t just the cold—riding at speed on a motorbike without a full face visor was incredibly loud. We felt like we were riding inside our own personal tornado.

We needed to leave Thailand to restart the second two months of our double entry tourist visa, and the Burmese border at Mae Sai is the nearest place from Chiang Mai. Most tourists take a minibus and do the visa run in a day, but the idea of spending a day on a bus felt like a waste and we were tempted by the idea of an adventure. It would be our first motorbike road trip and we’d get to see more of northern Thailand.

The first leg of our drive was supposed to take three hours, but two hours in and we were only a third of the way to our overnight stop in Chiang Rai. This was no fun.

We stopped at a hot spring surrounded by tourist shops and cafes. Simon warmed up with a surprisingly decent cappuccino and we bought some cheap gloves. Simon also improvised a t-shirt balaclava which made him look like an angry dissident but kept his ears warm. Thanks to the extra layers, we were able to gradually pick up speed.

Simon and his tshirt balaclavaThe route improved too – the mountain roads were quiet, windy and fun to ride. We passed green rice paddy fields, stilted wooden huts, pink and red flowers, and women selling piles of tangerines by the side of the road. As we drove further into northern Thailand we could track our progress by the fruit sold at the dozens of identical stalls lined up on the roadside – tangerines, then pineapples and finally, in the cooler hills, strawberries.

Five hours later we made it to the outskirts of Chiang Rai and stopped to see the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and we realised our epic journey had been worth it. This contemporary temple was the most extraordinary we had ever seen – ornate, extravagant, dazzlingly white, and full of gothic details that we spent hours exploring.

White Temple, Thailand

We didn’t think anywhere else in Chiang Rai could top the White Temple, but the Black House (Baan Dam) did. The estate of Thai artist Thawan Duchanee features 40 contemporary buildings influenced by traditional Thai styles, almost all in black, set in peaceful gardens. Each is filled with Duchanee’s art work and collections from around the world – sculptures, wood carvings, and animal skins, skulls and bones, often fashioned into bizarre furniture.

Vihara, Black House, Chiang Rai, Thailand

We spent the night in Chiang Rai, and although we didn’t think much of the city, it’s a good place to break the journey and the White Temple and Black House make it definitely worth a visit.

The next morning we set off for the Burmese border under dark clouds. At times it felt like we were driving through a post-apocalyptic wasteland with dusty, industrial towns of concrete, and the bitter smell of burning fields.

sunflowers thailand

Things grew quieter and more attractive as we left the towns behind and the mountains got closer. We passed sweet-smelling pineapple stalls, fields of sunflowers, and dozens of strawberry vendors. We couldn’t resist stopping and were enticed to sample the strawberry, lichee and mulberry wines despite it only being 10am. Still, 100B ($3.25) was a bargain for a bottle.

Strawberry stall near Mae Sai, ThailandIt took about 1.5 hours to reach Mae Sai where we had the easiest border crossing ever – there were no queues and the Burmese border officials knew why we were there. After paying the 500B entry fee we could have headed straight back to Thailand but instead we exchanged our passports for a temporary identity card and walked over the bridge to Burma (or, officially, Myanmar).

Immediately we were surrounded by tuktuk drivers selling trips to long neck villages. The market didn’t provide any respite – here it was cigarettes and viagra instead. We hadn’t experienced this kind of intense sell since India and as the only non-Asians around we were easy targets. Even more odd were the child monks begging – some very persistently – which we have never experienced anywhere else.

Burma felt dustier and more traditional than Thailand. Cycle rickshaws waited on corners; people wore colourful longhi rather than jeans; and women’s faces were stripped with thanaka, a beige makeup. We bought samosas from a street stall and headed back to Thailand – we had a long trip to Chiang Mai ahead of us.

cycle_rickshaw_burmaDespite having a lot more ground to cover on our second day, the ride was much more enjoyable. Riding together on a motorbike is a strangely solitary experience – it was too loud to talk but this created space for our thoughts to flow and to notice details of the landscape we were passing through.

Simon grew in confidence and we often reached speeds of 80 or 90 km/h which, on the back of our moped, felt like certain death – I didn’t dare move. At these speeds there was no room for error: every pothole or gravel patch could be fatal. This alone makes it a much more visceral experience than a car journey.

Stretches of the return journey were spectacular, especially zooming around the curves of a windy mountain road. In towns we passed dogs on motorbikes, songthaew packed full of orange-clad monks, and the ubiquitous giant billboards of the King.

A straight, traffic-clogged road through uninspiring scenery in extreme cold or heat just isn’t fun; whereas winding through empty mountain roads beneath the shining sun is pure joy. The speed is exhilarating and the sense of freedom intoxicating. Our first motorbike road trip may have had a challenging beginning, but by the end we were hooked.

Tips for Driving a Motorbike to Mae Sai

Field in northern ThailandDriving from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai is a long trip but we do recommend it for intermediate drivers. Here are some tips to get the most from your trip.

  • Chiang Mai to Mae Sai is an over 500km return journey. If you want to do it as a day trip take the bus. Although we know people who have driven it in a day it’s a long way and it’s much better to break up the journey in Chiang Rai or Mae Sai. If we did it again we’d spend more than one night in northern Thailand as it was exhausting.
  • You can hire mopeds in Chiang Mai for around 150B a day (or we pay 2400B a month). We spent around 400 – 450B on petrol.
  • We stayed at the Baan Bua guesthouse in Chiang Rai for 400B for an ensuite double. It was basic but spacious enough with a hot shower and pleasant garden setting.
  • The White Temple is 13km south of Chiang Rai and the Black House is 10km north. Both are free and we highly recommend visiting them.
  • Wear lots of layers of warm clothes. It’ll be hot in the cities but very cold on the mountain roads on the back of a motorbike, especially in the early morning.
  • A motorbike helmet that covers your face would be ideal, but if not wear sunglasses even if it’s not sunny as they will protect your eyes from dust and bugs.
  • Pack light, especially if there are two of you on the motorbike.
  • Motorbikes are expected to keep to the far left of the road to stay out of the way of cars. Be aware though – coming across a bike driving towards you on the wrong side of the road isn’t unusual!
  • You don’t need a map if you are just driving from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai via Chiang Rai. It’s a very easy route: take the 118 from the centre of Chiang Mai until it hits Highway 1. Turn left here and it takes you all the way to Chiang Rai and beyond to Mae Sai.

Trail Wallet

Have you done a visa run to Burma? Leave a comment and tell us about your trip.

38 thoughts on A Visa Run to Burma by Moped

  1. Wow, that is quite a visa run! I arrived in Thailand just over a month ago so have my first visa run to look forward to in March. I’m starting with a slightly less extreme option (Air Asia flights to KL!). This post has definitely inspired me to think a bit more outside the box for visa run number two though – sounds absolutely amazing.

  2. Sorry to hear how uncomfortable your journey was in the initial stages. I can see how you felt it was worth it upon arriving at the White Temple. I really enjoyed visiting there in late 2010.

  3. Hello,

    Firstly I would like to say I love your blog, and I get so many ideas from it for my own travels!

    My boyfriend and I are visiting Chiang Mai in June/July and we are hoping to visit Chiang Rai for a few days to see the white and black temples you discuss. Would you recommend us driving there on mopeds? How long is the journey from Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai? Is the road busy? Is it pretty much country roads the full way? I ask as I would hate to drive on busy, motorway styled roads in Thailand, but would feel comfortable driving on roads like your photos advertise!

    Any more advice would be appreciated! Thanks so much, Nicola

    • Hi Nicola
      It took 5 hours on moped from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and although some sections were on busy highways most of it was quiet roads. The only problem is you are coming in rainy season so that might not be much fun. Also it’s only 3 hours on the bus so you might want to get the bus there and then hire a moped in Chiang Rai so you can explore the surrounding areas and temples. It is quite an exhausting drive and not as scenic as to somewhere like Pai.

  4. I hear you on the moped thing! We have done a few day trips here in Cambodia, and whilst it allows you so much more freedom than a bus, it does come with its own set of challenges! Plus, it’s exhausting! In saying that, we’re thinking of buying one and taking it into Laos!!!! It’s kinda addictive hey?

    • It definitely is addictive and it’s nice to take a break from buses! Driving around Laos sounds fun and something we’d like to do at some point too.

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  6. My wife and I did a visa run to Burma by boat from Ranong on the Andaman Sea. It was a bit crazy but decided to stay for a few days in Myanmar and got invited to a wedding, which was great.

  7. Do I need to secure an international drivers license and/or motorcycle license to rent mopeds or motorbikes in Thailand? I had read mixed accounts, and actually acquiring a motorcycle license in Canada is quite expensive and time-consuming! Thanks for the posts Erin!

    • No one asks to see your driving licence let alone a motorbike licence so you’ll be fine. I think the exception might be if you want to hire one of the big powerful motorcycles.

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  9. Awesome post! We are dealing with the exact same visa situation at the moment, just arrived in Chiang Mai, and thinking about the best way to do it. If you would do it all over again, would you do the same, or would you do a bus stopping at the main attractions? Also, where did you rent your bike? You got a good deal and we plan to stay in Chiang Mai for over a month.

    Thanks again for all the helpful information, love your blog!

    • We’d go by bike again but would spend a couple of nights in Chiang Rai or somewhere else up north so it wasn’t so tiring. We rented our bike from a little travel agent opposite Na Inn in the old town. We just bargained quite hard as we were staying for 3 months (turned out to be even longer), so you could probably do that anywhere, especially at this time of year.

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  11. Hey thanks for the write up, I’m planning on doing a border run from Chiang Mai next month and have been thinking about hiring a bike and venturing up to Chiang Rai like you did as well. Thanks for the tips on the full face helm and how cold it gets. I think i might do it anyways just for fun. It’ll end up being more expensive than hoping on a mini bus but I think it’ll be fun.

    Either way, even if i was just doing a border run by bus, I think i’d still spend the night in Chiang Rai and visit the black and white temples.

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  13. Please get your facts straight,you did not use a moped,you used a motorcycle.A moped is usually under 50cc and because of this it requires pedals to assist the engine on an upwards incline or to help carry a heavier load,it is basically a bicycle with a small engine.Chris.

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  16. Came across this post in my research for upcoming visa run. This post sealed the deal. Mae Sai here I come in 2 weeks on my bike…
    Thanks

  17. I am about to undertake this journey tomorrow. Thanks for the directions. It is much easier than I thought. Also, awesome recommendations with those temples. Cheers!

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  19. Thank you so much for posting this information. I ride in Central London and thought that was bad.. my trip to Thailand isn’t until next year but it’s good to know that I can pick up a bike over there… do you know if helmet rentals are available or is it better just to buy one.. what about taking the bike through to Myuanmar would there have been a problem with that or is it ok..? Thanks..

    • We had helmets included in our bike rental. Some people buy them if they want a better quality one though, there are loads of places around.

      I don’t think you can take the bike through to Myanmar or at least we didn’t see anyone doing it.

  20. Hi Erin, so your English, good to meet you, I’m from that little Island to your west, the beautiful Island of Ireland. I will be moving to Thailand shortly and plan on settling in Chiang Rai. Thank you for giving me an idea of what to expect in Chiang Rai. i will have to do visa runs for a while until my retirement visa is proccessed hence my desire to be near the border. I expect I will move further south once this visa is proccessed, I would prefer to live closer to a quiet beach town but not the tourist spots, Can you suggest any place to me please. i enjoyed your account of your trip, are you still in thailand or are you back home. Regards

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