By Duncan Forgan
Photographed by Aaron Joel Santos
Sep 9, 2019
MY KNIGHT IN SHINING leather arrives with some sound advice. “Just holler if I’m going too fast for you,” says Roberto Gentile, the co-founder of Royal Bike Tours, as he straps bags to my machine and whisks me away from our rendezvous point in the little town of Takua Pa in southern Thailand.
I’d traveled to the south keen to live out my Easy Rider fantasies. And as the 500cc Royal Enfield rockets down the highway towards our resort at nearby Bang Muang beach, the wind whistling past my ears so violently I can’t even hear myself tell Roberto to slow down, I feel the outlaw spirit course through my veins.
Some of my most memorable experiences in Thailand have been piloting rental bikes, most with barely more power than a hairdryer, around the rollercoaster mountain roads in northern provinces like Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son and Nan. The south though is another matter. It remains a mystery to me.
So, when I hear about Royal Bike Tours and their multi-day trips around the back roads on vintage dream machines, I’m onto it in a flash. A relatively new operation—it debuted last year— the company was born when unashamed petrol head Roberto, originally from Australia, and his now business partner Belgian Eric Limbos bonded over their joint loves of high performance motorbikes and of Thailand.
“It’s just a bloody awesome country to motorbike in,” laughs Roberto as he and Eric deliver a briefing session over cold beers on Bang Muang beach.
I’m certainly raring to go. Over the course of the next three days, we’ll ride deserted roads past limestone crags and through verdant jungle, bathe in secret waterfalls, eat spicy local food and generally immerse in the culture of southern Thailand—a flavorsome stew of influences that encompasses Buddhist and Muslim, Chinese and European influences. Best of all perhaps, I’ll be exploring this fascinating area of a country I love astride a classic motorbike that looks like a million dollars. What’s not to like?
Day 1: Khao Lak to Khao Sok
On our first morning, we waste no time. A dawn chorus of insects and birds is still in full swing as I familiarize myself with my Classic 500. An updated version of an iconic model that Royal Enfield premiered after World War II, this machine remains defiantly old school.
Fuel injection and ABS offer nods to modern technology, but otherwise, everything is unashamedly retro. The bike vibrates as I kick it into life: the plant pot-sized piston shaking the mirrors, number plate and indicators as it reciprocates up and down. In fact, as I pull on my goggles and move through the gears, I imagine myself as a dashing rake in the mold of a tropical Errol Flynn.
The feel-good factor lasts throughout the day. First, we return to Takua Pa to check out its charming old town. Like a smaller version of Phuket or George Town, the stately Sino- Portuguese architecture carries echoes of the glory days of the spice and tin trade. From there we take back roads towards Khao Sok, stopping for a mid-afternoon dip in a jungle pool fed by a towering waterfall along the way. Such breaks are both enjoyable and necessary, given the strain the outmoded suspension of the Classic 500 is putting on my rear end. But the star of the show remains the incredible scenery. Sunset arrives as we crest a summit near Khao Sok, the fading light of the day casting a warm glow over limestone karsts poking upwards like monstrous incisors from the lush forest.
Day 2: Khao Sok to Krabi
The next day brings another early start. We take a quick look at gorgeous Cheow Lan Lake—a placid body of water on the outskirts of Khao Sok National Park—before heading south towards Krabi. Clocking in at 150 kilometers, it’s a long day but the frequently changing landscapes and the thrill of taking corners on the winding roads keep things from getting dull.
At one point, feeling peckish, we pull over to the side of the road to a busy eatery where talkative ladies in hijab knead and shape roti dough into murtabak, the classic Muslim snack of pan-fried folded flatbread stuffed with chicken, mutton or egg. While we feast on deliciously oily sections, Roberto and Eric tell me a little more about how Royal Bike Tours started.
“I’m a long-term motorbike nut,” Roberto admits. “And when I first came to ride here in Thailand, I was immediately hooked.”
“We thought about the type of riding we like to do—not off-road, but definitely off-the-beaten-track—and found that there wasn’t that much on offer,” chimes in Eric. “We thought that if we did our research properly and added the enticement of brand-new, well maintained and regularly serviced Royal Enfields that we’d be onto something.”
Days 3+4: Krabi to Koh Yao Noi to Phuket
Our final full day on the bikes starts at a leisurely crawl up the coastline, a consequence of a festive evening out in Ao Nang Beach near Krabi, which descended into a messy karaoke session. The scenery eases any pain we might be feeling this, the morning after the night before. As the road swings away from the water for the first part of the ride to Ao Thalane pier, we’re brought down to size by giant limestone outcrops that this landscape is Instagrammed for. Then we zip through the cooler air of rubber plantations and sleepy Muslim villages around the next bend. As we near the pier, we catch tantalizing glimpses of the sea before slowing even further to admire the shimmering waters that come into view.
In fact, the slow pace causes us to narrowly miss the car ferry from the mainland to Koh Yao Noi. As honored guests, Aaron the photographer and I are able to sit the crisis out at a pier-side restaurant. Roberto and Eric, though, have to sweat out the misdeeds of the previous night and help two unfortunate boatmen lift the heavy-duty bikes onto a wooden vessel.
Later, as we step off the boat onto Koh Yao Noi and cover the short distance to Cape Kudu— our plush accommodation on the island—the sky explodes into a riot of red and orange that illuminates Phang Nga Bay.
In the morning, there’s time for one last ride before we go our separate ways: Aaron and I to Phuket, Roberto and Eric back to the mainland. Bijou and beautiful, the island is a breeze to circumnavigate. Therefore, our tour feels more like a victory lap than a serious day’s biking. Along the way, we pass a group of giggling teenagers walking home from a mosque.
“Take me wherever you are going,” jokes one girl. I’m not the only one getting dreamy about vintage motorbikes in the south of Thailand.
Thai Life Homestay Resort
This expansive resort has plenty of charm, largely due to the traditional Thai architecture of the guest villas. rooms are arranged around a tranquil lake; Bang Muang beach is just a short walk away. thailifehomestay.com; rooms from US$80 per night.
Our Jungle House
A wild river and towering limestone cliffs provide the backdrop at our Jungle House, a long-standing favorite near Khao Sok national park. other highlights of the resort include its varied selection of tree houses and rooms, and an excellent restaurant. khaosokaccommodation.com; rooms from US$40 per night.
Cape Kudu Hotel
One of the smartest addresses on Koh Yao Noi, Cape Kudu offers an idyllic beachside setting, fantastic service and range of accommodation spanning suites to lush pool villas. capekuduhotel.com; rooms from US$145 per night.
Royal Bike Tours
Live out your classic-ride and open-road fantasies with their range of tailored adventures in south, north and central Thailand. The southern itinerary followed here costs Bt50,000 per person, including meals, accommodation and transfers. royalbiketoursthailand.com.