As you know by now, since my yearlong trip across Southeast Asia I am a huge fan and advocate of traveling and exploring by motorbike. I probably rode a bike at least once in every country I visited and every single time it made for an unique and unforgettable experience. It is about the feeling of total freedom, of really immersing yourself in the scenery around you, about the sun warming your face, a cool breeze blowing through your hair and all the kind people you meet along the way. The freedom of traveling by motorbike is just unmatched. You can do whatever you want whenever you want and you are not confined to anyone’s schedule but your own. You can just take that interesting side road you just passed, you can have a snack at that unique road stop which you’d otherwise whip right past or stop to say hello to that group of smiling children who have been happily waving at you.
“The difference with motorbike travel and all other forms is that you are in the scene, rather than being a passive watcher through a frame (window).”
During my travels I did a few multi-day tours and it is safe to say that each one of these adventures was a true highlight of my trip. And since I keep on receiving enquiries and questions about these tours, I thought it would be good to sum up the trips and list the facts to get you started.
1| The Mae Hong Song Loop, Northern Thailand
The Mae Hong Song Loop is supposed to be the most scenic roundtrip of Thailand. Famous for its 1865 curves, the loop will take you into the more remote parts of Northern Thailand offering a lot of highlights. It’s a very diverse tour and it offers a lot of opportunities to tailor your itinerary according to your preferences. For me personally this adventure was my absolute highlight in Thailand.
Distance: 670 kilometers
Max. per day: 165 kilometers
Highlights: Doi Inthanon, Cave Lodge, the riding itself
Recommended Bike: 125cc semi-automatic, can be done with an automatic
Accommodation: Guesthouses and Hostels. About 200 THB p. night
The starting point for the Mae Hong Song Loop is the Northern capital of Chiang Mai. You can easily get there from Bangkok by either nightbus, train or airplane. The Chiang Mai of today is a large touristic hub with almost every traveler and backpacker stopping there at one point. Whereas it has become too crowded in my opinion, it makes for a good base to prepare for your trip.
The first thing you should get is a proper map. The guys from GT Rider are specialized in motorbike tours in Southeast Asia and have released a map just for the Mae Hong Song 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 you will need is of course a bike. Chiang Mai features an abundance of rental shops, especially inside the city’s old town. I can recommend Mr. Mechanic which has also been recommended by the guys from GT Rider. They are a bit pricier but offer great support and are reliable. I rented a classic Honda Dream 125cc for 200 THB a day plus 50 THB insurance. As I said, if you don’t bother, you will be able to find cheaper deals if you shop around a little.
Before you take off, get a half liter plastic bottle of fuel. It can always happen that you run out of gasoline along the way, which isn’t such big problem as the next shack which sells pre-filled bottles is probably just a kilometer away. But with your half liter reserve, you will be on the safe side.
The first stretch out of Chiang Mai is a bit boring as you will drive through the busy city and along big roads without much to see along the way. But after the exit to road 1009, things will change quickly. On your way to Doi Inthanon National Park, you will pass four waterfalls and finally make it up to Doi Inthanon Mountain, the highest peak of Thailand. After Doi Inthanon you will find out quickly why I count the riding itself as one of the trip’s highlights. Carved into the mountains, the narrow roads wind their way down to the valleys just to take you back up again. It’s fun and yet easy enough for a beginner to enjoy.
One of the towns you will probably stay overnight is Mae Sariang. A quaint little village by the Yuam River. Its relaxed atmosphere is contagious and enjoying the last sunrays on the balcony of one of the riverside restaurants is a great way of ending the day. Mae Sariang is actually known for good trekking as the area is by far not as crowded as Chiang Mai and hence more unspoilt. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do it, but I talked to one of the guides and his descriptions and the report of a group who had just returned sounded very promising. So if you consider trekking in Northern Thailand, I would recommend doing it here instead of Chiang Mai.
Mae Hong Song, the town that gave the loop its name, will be up next. Most guesthouses are located near Chong Kham Lake which also features a picturesque night market and two impressive temples. The highlight of Mae Hong Song however is a monastery situated on nearby hilltop. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu is overlooking the entire valley and if you make it there before sunrise, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view as the sun rises over the mountains, painting the sea of clouds, which usually covers the valley like a thick blanket, in tones of orange, purple and yellow.
One definite highlight of this tour will be a stay at Cave Lodge, close to the town of Soppong. Cave Lodge is a hidden gem of a guest house with a few bungalows and huge common area situated in the middle of the forest and right next to a river. The place itself is magnificent and invites for a bit of lounging and relaxing. But Cave Lodge also offers great trips into the surrounding hills to remote minority villages, white water rafting and one of a kind caving adventures which the place is actually famous for. I only got to stay for two days but I recommend everyone to really spend a few days there. It’s really worth it.
The last stop before heading back to Chiang Mai will be Pai, the famous hippy enclave, nowadays a place for partying and meeting other travelers. It will be a stark contrast to everything you’ve experienced before, that’s for sure. But go and see for yourself. The last stretch of driving, going from Pai to Chiang Mai, is actually the most challenging one. If the whole loop really features 1865 curves, it seems that at least 50% of those are to be found on that part of the trip. It’s some great riding but stay cautious and don’t speed.
| Tips and Advice
You can do the Mae Hong Song Loop either clockwise or counterclockwise. Doing it counterclockwise will take you straight to Pai. But if you are still a bit unsure about riding a motorbike and in need of some easy practice, I recommend to do it clockwise. The first parts will allow you to ease into this way of traveling and by the time you make it to that last and most difficult leg, you will be more than confident.
Make sure to take enough warm clothes along. I was surprised how cold the nights and the mornings can be up in the mountains. Especially when riding early in the morning, a warm fleece and a windbreaker can be life savers. I didn’t consider this and ended up wearing all of my clothes in layers after the first day of riding.
Venture off the main roads and drive into some of the smaller villages. It is really worth it and will make for some great experiences and interesting encounters with the local people. The GT Rider map will make it easy and you can’t really get lost.
Just make sure to plan enough days. There is so much to see and do along the loop, that I would suggest taking 10 days if you have the time. You could squeeze in some trekking and spend a few days at Cave Lodge. If you plan on hitting the backroads, make sure to rent a manual and not an automatic bike.
2| The Thakhek Loop, Central Laos
The Thakhek Loop will take you through breathtaking landscapes. Towering karst rock formations, huge water reservoirs and you will pass a variety of caves ready to be explored. The cave at Konglor is among the most impressive I have seen in Southeast Asia and the biggest highlight of the tour. The riding was pretty difficult due to the road conditions and construction works along the way. This might have changed by now though.
Distance: 465 kilometers
Max. per day: 185 kilometers
Highlights: Konglor Cave, amazing scenery, the riding itself
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
Recommended Bike: 125cc semi-automatic, can be done with an automatic (I heard)
Accommodation: Guesthouses. About 35.000 LAK p. night
Preparations for the Thakhek Loop are pretty much straight forward since it is not a long as the Mae Hong Song Loop for example. You will have to first base yourself in the town of Thakhek which is the start and end of the loop. Since most travelers stop here to do the loop, you might be able to join others if you are by yourself. Rental shops can be found around the city center and I rented a new 125CC Zongshen, which is basically a replica of a Honda Wave. Sceptical at first, the bike was fast, reliable and worked like a charm. The price was 45.000 LAK per day.
It’s good to shop around a bit as different rental shops have different bikes and of course different prices. Maybe even your hotels offer bikes for rent. Let them know you will rent for three days and try to haggle.
The rental places will usually provide a map of the loop which will be sufficient. There is a German guidebook of Laos available (Stefan Loose) which features a very thorough description of the loop including a proper map.
The Thakhek Loop is more about the actual riding and the enchanting scenery than discovering local villages. But exactly that makes the tour a highlight of every Laos trip. Once you have left the sleepy town of Thakhek, you will be right in the Laotian countryside. You will pass huge and towering rock formations and along the loop you will discover a range of caves which you will probably have all for yourselves when you get there. The terrain you will drive through is as diverse as Laos itself. Arid and dusty plains, steep and rocky hills, lush green forests, lakes and rivers. You will pass quaint little villages where you can stop for a hearty noodle soup or some snacks and wait out the hot midday sun. It’s really the riding that makes the Thakhek loop so special. Especially when riding in a group, you tend to get that easy rider feeling, even with just a small 125cc machine. The steep and pointy karst rocks passing by, the cooling wind in your face and the setting sun painting large shadows onto the tarmac. Riding can’t get much better than this.
The highlight of the tour is Tham Konglor, a huge karst limestone cave about 130 km north of Thakhek. The cave, about 7 km long and in some parts as high as 90 meters, can be explored by motor boat which you can charter at the entrance. It will take 30 minutes to make it to the other end of the cave. It’s a very impressive sight and the cave alone was worth doing the trip.
Tourism is growing in the area so accommodation in the small village of Ban Konglor is actually not a problem. We stayed at a small homestay and had a great time with the family that ran the place. The name homestay was really appropriate as we gathered with the family at night, played with the kids and watched TV together. For a short moment we really felt at home.
The last stretch, back to Thakhek, is pretty boring as it is mostly straight without much to see. That makes riding pretty difficult and exhausting. Make sure to take enough breaks.
| Tips and Advice
When we did the Thakhek Loop, part of it was in really bad condition. Rough dirt tracks, some of it just being constructed. I haven’t heard of people having done the loop lately, but I am sure these construction works must be finished by now. The riding should hence be much easier now. When we did it, going slow was mandatory and having a scarf or balaclava for protection against all that dust from trucks passing by just as well.
Some side roads which will lead you to hidden caves are also just dirt tracks. These are definitely doable but be careful. Sliding and skidding can happen so quickly and did it happen to Chris, one of the two guys I was riding with.
Accommodation is really no problem as the places you will visit are not that frequented. So don’t worry about booking ahead. My main advice is to take an extra day and make it a 4 day tour. We did it in 3 days, which was doable, but we had some long days riding, arriving in the dark more than once. That’s actually something you want to avoid in Laos as people tend to drive recklessly and sometimes drunk at night.
3| Ha Giang Province, Northern Vietnam
Thinking about all the tours I have done during my Southeast Asia trip, this has to be my favorite. It has been my last bigger trip and I was afraid that, after all I had seen, this tour wouldn’t really do it anymore. But boy was I wrong. It was an amazing adventure with so many highlights. Regarded as Vietnam’s final frontier, the remote and mysterious region of Ha Giang boasts nature as you have probably never seen it. Massive limestone walls, granite outcrops everywhere, hanging valleys, rice terraces climbing to the clouds and winding roads carved into the mountains. If this doesn’t sound like a great adventure already, add the ubiquitous presence of the local hill tribes, wearing their colorful traditional dresses and a pleasant absence of mass tourism.
Distance: 325 kilometers
Max. per day: 180 kilometers
Highlights: Scenery, Dong Van Sunday market, the riding itself
Recommended Bike: 125cc semi-automatic
Accommodation: Guesthouses and Hotels. About 250.000 VND p. night (double room)
Ha Giang City, the capital of Ha Giang Province, is definitely out of the way for most travelers. But getting there is actually surprisingly easy. You can take a direct and very comfortable bus from Hanoi (several times daily and overnight) from My Dinh station. The ride takes about 8 hours and will cost you about 200.000 VND. I would recommend leaving as early as possible so that you will have enough time for arranging bikes in Ha Giang.
The next thing will be arranging accommodation in Ha Giang which didn’t pose a big problem. There are a few hotels along the main road, just ask around for prices and availabilities. But no need to be too picky since you will be leaving the next day anyhow.
Bike rental was an issue when I was there but things seem to change rapidly up there. Last I heard was that it isn’t much of a big deal anymore. We arranged it beforehand through a contact a fellow traveler had given me. We only communicated via Facebook but it all worked out perfectly. I rented a crisp and clean Honda 125cc and paid 200.000 VND per day. For Vietnam I found this rather pricey so you might be able to find cheaper deals. If you want, send me a message and I can put you in touch with the guy who arranged our bikes. Our guy also provided a hand drawn map which actually worked very well.
The tour starts off with amazing scenery right away and will just continue to leave you in amazement and awe as you make your way across the Northern Vietnamese mountains and along the Chinese border. As you climb up the narrow and winding roads, sheer limestone cliffs and the surrounding mountains will become your constant companions. It’s really hard to keep track of time as you will find yourself stopping way too often to take in the scenery or snap pictures, either of the landscape or together with local children in one of the small villages you will pass by.
You will climb up a pass with the poetic name of “Heaven’s Gate Pass” which will reward you with amazing vistas of the plains and villages below. By the end of that first day, you will enter the land of the Hmong and other minorities of the North Vietnamese Highlands. You will see men dressed in high-necked tunics and matching berets and the women wearing colorful headdresses and skirts, carrying bamboo baskets on their backs. And the good thing is, you will most probably not encounter any other tourists, unlike for example in Sapa, not even too far away.
If you can, schedule your trip so you can be there for the weekly market in Dong Van, which will also be your first overnight stop. The market, taking place every Sunday, is a very important event for the local hilltribes as it represents the regions hub for trading and socializing. For this event, members of the different tribes, mostly wearing vivid, traditional dresses, file down from their hilltop abodes carrying all sorts of produce to the town market. Traders offer everything from traditional clothing, tobacco, incents, and tea. Farmers steer water buffaloes and hogs around the market’s edge. It is busy, lively, colorful and authentic with only very few foreigners around.
As the market closes around noon, you can take the rest of the day for exploring the surroundings of Dong Van. There are minority villages you can visit or you can go to Lung Cu, where the Vietnamese built a huge tower with an oversized Vietnamese flag in order to remind neighboring China of their presence. And once again, just riding across the mountains is a highlight on its own here.
The last day took us back to Ha Giang. The 20 km stretch from Dong Van to the town of Meo Vac is said to be the most splendid of the country. With my other motorbike tours in mind, I can say that at least in terms of scenery, that ride was the best I have ever done. Carved into the side of the mountains, the slender road clings to the side of a massive gorge and winds itself up the Ma Pi Leng Pass just like a snake. At the top you will be rewarded with some of the most impressive views. After Meo Vac it will be quite a bit of driving to make it back to Ha Giang on time. There are more villages and one or two waterfalls along the way.
| Tips and Advice
If you are there for the weekend market, it can’t actually hurt to make a reservation as the few hotels tend to be fully booked. A lot Vietnamese actually travel there over the weekend. We had no reservations and since we arrived late in the evening, it was quite a hassle to get a room.
Your hotel then will arrange the Ha Giang permit for you. This permit is mandatory if you want to travel the area. Make sure to have it on you at all times and don’t forget it in your room as we did.
Three days in my opinion is not enough for this tour. The last day of riding was quite long and could have better been split. You can also extend the tour and include places like Cao Bang or Ba Be. I traveled Vietnam for a whole month and this tour was my absolute highlight. Looking back, I really wish I could have spent more time in the area. So if you go, allocate a couple of more days for it.
4| Last thoughts …
In my opinion motorbike travel is one of the best ways to really explore a country. When you ride a bus, a van or a train, you are confined to this little space, almost like in a cage, looking outside from the inside. When you are riding a motorbike, you are right there, in the middle of it all. You become part of the whole picture; you are not only passing by. That’s why I enjoyed every one of these three trips. I can recommend each one of them as they are among my absolute highlights of my year in Southeast Asia. But this list makes no claim to be complete. I have heard of great tours in Myanmar which have just become doable recently, amazing trips in Cambodia and in the Philippines. I am sure I will do some of them as I am not done with motorbike travel yet. For now, those three described here are my personal highlights. Feel free to send me a message if you need further information and make sure to check my article dedicated to motorbike travel for more inspiration and tips.
Last but not least, please let me know if you have done any interesting motorbike tours in Asia, long or short. I am always interested and would love to get fresh ideas for future trips. Philipp
This article was made possible by Devitt Insurance, the specialist motorbike insurer. Before embarking on a longer motorbike trip, it is a good idea to have a proper insurance in place. A specialist insurer like Devitt can provide a better service than more general auto insurers.