Still at home in Germany I came across the so called Mae Hong Song Loop – a round trip which is supposed to be the most scenic of Thailand. With its 670 kilometres, more than 1865 curves and a route exploring the more remote parts of Thailand’s North, it seemed like the perfect adventure. I have to say, that I am not the most experienced rider since I never ride scooters or motorcycles at home. Only during vacations. Hence it also should be a nice test of my driving abilities.
The first step was to get a good map of the area I wanted to explore. The guys from GT Rider are specialized in motorbike tours in South East Asia and have released a map just for the loop. In Chiang Mai it is sold in about every bookshop. It definitely was a great help in organizing the trip, looking for accommodation and planning day trips while on the loop.
The next thing was to organize a bike. Several websites, including GT Rider, recommended Mr. Mechanic in Chiang Mai. They have a good support and are very reliable. You’d probably be able to rent cheaper, but I wanted to be on the safe side. I ended up renting a Honda Dream 125cc manual for 200 THB plus 50 THB insurance. It was the first time I rented a manual but it seemed right going up and down steep mountains. It proved to be the right decision.
Leg 1: Chiang Mai to Mae Chaem via Doi Inathon NP (130 km)
The ride out of Chiang Mai was nothing special. A big road, fairly busy and not much to see. After the exit to road 1009, things changed. It was the road straight to Doi Inthanon Nationalpark and Doin Inthanon itself, Thailands highest mountain. The road towards the mountain takes you to 4 waterfalls which, compared to the other ones I saw so far, were mighty and raging. I took a break at Vachiratharn Waterfall, which I thought was the best. It was nice to relax there for a bit and watching the Thais stroll around.
But then it was time to chance the ascent to Doi Inthanon. The road was windy and already very scenic. I stopped at the two Chedis set right in the forest below the peak. The place seemed to popular with the Thais, but I didn’t bother to pay the 100 THB entrance fee. In my opinion the ride up to the peak was better than the peak itself. There wasn’t that much to see but a sign indicating that you just made it to Thailands highest spot. The best view of the surroundings were offered a little bit below the peak.
I took my time during the first leg so starting the descent and the ride to Mae Chaem Village, the sun slowly started to set. The ride to my first overnight stop was the highlight of the day. The light was beautiful, the road narrow, winding but still fun and easy enough to ride. At that point I already knew, it was a good decision to do the trip. It was almost dark when I arrived in Mae Chaem. Mae Cham is a really small town with not much there. Yet, I liked it after busy Chiang Mai and I enjoyed my first sunset in the mountains. I found a nice bungalow, got some food from the market and called it a day.
Leg 2: Mae Chaem to Mae Sariang (128 km)
I started early in the morning after I got gasoline and snacks at the local gas station. This was also the first time I realized how cold it is in the mornings and how hard riding can be at that time of the day. I really should have brought more warm clothes – a lesson that would accompany me for the entire trip.
The ride to Mae Sariang was nice and relaxed. However, that day I just wanted to get there since I heard many good things about the town. I didn’t pay too much attention to the scenery and hit the gas. I arrived in Mae Sariang at about 2 o’ clock and started looking for guesthouses. I asked at a local shop and the woman apparently had a friend who owns a guesthouse in town. She called him up and then lead me there with her motorbike. A little suspicious of the usual scams I followed her just to find out, that the place was nice, cosy and a good deal as well. Guess I should trust people more.
I checked in and ordered a late lunch. There I met Dorothée from France who had also arrived that day. We got to talk and decided to explore the two main roads and the river. Mae Saeriang is set between the mountains and a river, it has a relaxed atmosphere and it’s not very touristy. Along the river you can kick back in one of the restaurants with a perfect view. We picked a place and enjoyed the sunset with a cold one. There we also found out, that the town actually offers some really good trekking which isn’t as commercialized as for example in Chiang Mai. Sounded like a good option, too bad I didn’t have the time. Reflecting on it, Mae Sariang is such a nice town in an area that has lots to offer. I am sure tourism will kick off there very very soon. The town might change a lot in the the next few years. I was glad having seen it at this point.
Leg 3: Mae Sariang to Mae Hong song via Khun Yuam (164 km)
The night before, Doro and I decided to meet again in Mae Hong Song, the regions capital. She would take the bus and arrive at about the same time as I. This leg was the longest one but the route was the most scenic up to this point. The road winded like a huge snake up the mountains and down again just start all over again. The road lead through thick forests beautiful gorges and tiny villages. Time just flew by and after a bit I already made it to my half way stop Khun Yuam. Khun Yuam is basically just one road and the gateway to Mae Hong Song. I had a surprisingly great lunch at a local road stop and afterwards had a nap at the local park. The second part of that days ride was just as scenic as the first. By that point it was clear, that the riding is actually the most fun part of the loop and that the journey is the actual reward.
I arrived in Mae Hong Song at about three where I instantly ran into Doro who had just arrived as well. We found a nice guesthouse by the lake and decided to keep moving and go up the hilltop temple Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. It is not only a temple but also a monastery where monks live year around. The view from the top was amazing – the city was located peacefully underneath and from the other side you could clearly see the Burmese Mountains. Having an iced coffee at the sunset cafe right at the spot we called it a day. Too bad I didn’t bring my camera that day.
The next morning I got up at 6 o’ clock to go up the hill again and watch the sunrise this time. It was by far the most amazing view of this trip until that point. The sun slowly rose above the mountains shining all kinds of red, orange and purple onto the blanket of fog that was still covering the city. It was well worth getting up early.
Leg 4: Mae Hong Song – Soppong / Cave Lodge (71 km)
The ride again was so scenic. A lot of photo stops on the way. Before heading off to my next destination, I decided to do a little detour to one of the Longneck Karen Villages close by. It is a controversial issue and I was struggling with the decision to whether go or not. I decided that I wanted to see for myself and took the rough dirt road leading to the village. My stay at the village was dominated by mixed feelings. I was the only tourist there at that moment and walked around the village a little. My impression was, that the people there actually have a normal life for their standards. The only problem was, that I myself didn’t feel good about being there. Imagining, that there are tourists visiting every day, it in the end seems like a sort of a zoo. So with mixed feelings I left for Cave Lodge, close to Soppong, where I was supposed to stay for 2 nights.
Cave Lodge is an amazing place. It is a guesthouse with a few bungalows and a huge common area, set in the middle of the forest, far away from everything and right next to a river. John Spies, the owner of the Cave Lodge, has been living in the area for 30 years and has a long history with the area’s hilltribes. Hence they offer a great variety of trips, hikes and activities. The area being famous for its caves, I decided do a one day caving excursion the next day. We explored three amazing caves with the second one being truly hardcore. We had to crawl through a narrow tunnel with water flowing through it. It was challenging and not for the faint hearted. Apart from the caving, the trip included a lot of hiking through the local hills and valleys. The area around cave lodge seemed so nice, that I regretted not being able to stay longer.
Leg 5:Soppong / Cave Lodge to Pai (47 km)
Before heading off to Pai, I met Marie, a french photographer from Paris. She told me that she was about to visit a village 6 km from the lodge to take pictures for a possible exhibition back home. Marie has a strong focus on portrait photography and since I myself am not that good at it, I decided to tag along and learn from her. It was a good decision. The village was appealing and the people there greeted us friendly. We were invited by a group of women for some hot tea and hung around trying to communicate. I know a few Thai phrases which usually helps to break the ice and put a smile on peoples faces. In terms of photography skills, the trip helped me a lot. I think I am now more confident to take pictures of people and to take my time whenever I do so. Marie was a great teacher.
I took off to Pai and arrived in the late afternoon. I can’t say too much about Pai because I basically spent only half a day there. The problem was, that my laptop quit working a day before, and I had an appointment to get it fixed back in chiang Mai the next day. Apart from that, coming to Pai was very different since all of the places before were really small, quiet and low key. Pai however is quiet busy and popular with the backpacker and hippie crowd. However, it seemed to have a very relaxed atmosphere and I think I would have liked it after a bit. Everyone I met actually like it a lot so it must be good. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to fully explore it and really take it in.
Leg 6: Pai to Chiang Mai (129 km)
I took off early after having a hearty breakfast at my bungalow place across the Pai River. It was very cold again and I once again wished for warmer clothes. I was told, that this part of the loop would be the most challenging and so it was. The roads were steeper and curvier than before and good attention was needed. It was good, that I did the loop clockwise so by this time I felt very comfortable on my bike and rushed through the first part. I stopped at a regular stop having a 10 THB coffee. It was the time to reminisce about the last days and the great experiences I have made. I felt a little bit sad with the trip about to end and not having the freedom a motorbike tour offers anymore. The outlook of entering busy Chiang Mai very soon also didn’t seem to appealing. The last part to Chiang Mai was rather shitty along a busy and big road with the traffic getting worse and worse. I safely made it into Chiang Mai and even got my laptop repaired the same day.
It is safe to say, that doing the Mae Hong Song Loop by motorbike was the best thing I did in Thailand. The beautiful vistas, the nature and the many encounters with the locals as well as with like minded travelers were just amazing. The driving was so much fun and I can say, that I can safely and confidently ride a manual bike now. The freedom of traveling like this is unmatched. You can just do whatever you want – you can eat where and when you want, you can stop as often you want, you can pee where you want and you are always flexible to explore the surroundings of the places you stay. I mean, I only had a scooter like bike but it was sort of an easy rider feeling. It was pure freedom and the fact, that it was a road less traveled just added to this great experience. I really got addicted to this type of travel and I will do it again whenever there is a chance for it. At the moment I am actually considering travelling Vietnam completely by motorbike. We’ll see.