How I Motorcycled Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Loop
The Mae Hong Son loop was top of my list of things I wanted to do in Southeast Asia. I heard a lots about this 700 kilometer (435 mile) journey from Chiang Mai, with most of the praise being heaped on the gorgeous scenery, the tricky roads and the interesting towns along the way. After completing the journey for myself, I totally agree with everything with everything. It was a hell of a fun ride.
Best of all, I did the trip for only about $200 and saw everything I wanted to see. Getting around by bus would have been even cheaper, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable.
In Chiang Mai, the starting point for the loop, I rented a modest 125 cc Mio motorbike from Mr. Mechanic on the western side of the old city. The place seems to have a good reputation, and offers insurance for an extra price. I rented the bike for six days for a total of about $50. They included the bungee cords needed to strap down my big backpack. Renting a bigger bike was tempting, but also twice as expensive. The insurance would have covered any breakdowns but I didn’t have any issues during the trip.
Day 1: Chiang Mai to Mae Sairang with a detour to Doi Inthanon (266 km)
With my big backpack firmly attached, I hit the road at about 6:30 a.m. Road 108 was your typical Thai highway, with an ample shoulder and decent conditions. I decided to add to the journey by taking a long 100 km detour to Doi Inthanon National Park and was glad I did.
The foreigner entry fee of 300 baht ($10) is a bit annoying, but if you’re going to pay the steep fee to a national park then Doi Inthanon is one of the best ones to visit.The climb to the top of Thailand’s highest point was chilly in the morning, which was worsened by the fact I brought no warm clothing whatsoever. My bad.
The park is full of waterfalls, short hiking trails and the amazing royal garden near the peak (see the photos below). To be honest, I wish I spent the night here so I could enjoy everything there was to see. Instead, I sort of rushed through it because I knew I had a long ride to Mai Sairang.
After what felt like forever, I made it back on the main road with about 70 kilometers to go for the day. I had just about reached my driving limit but stopped for a great pork soup then rode hard to the end. The road was straight and fast, thankfully. By the time I arrived, I checked into the first hotel I could see. The nondescript Mitaree Hotel was thoroughly OK at 300 baht (just under $10) but I think I could have found something better for less money.
This is a sleepy town of 10,000, and a number of the tourist-oriented places were closed since April is the low season. There isn’t a whole lot to do in town, but the Burmese-style temples and the old wooden shop houses make this unlike any other place I’ve been to in Thailand.
The people were also ridiculously friendly. I stopped to get a coffee and do some work when it started to downpour. The owner of the shop, across from Black Ant Coffee, insisted I take her umbrella and just return it the next day. I experienced more kindness the next day when I was stupid enough to lock the keys inside the seat area of my motorbike. I wheeled it over to the motorbike repair shop on the main road, where they managed to wedge the seat open and grab the keys. They refused to take my money and wished me well on my journey.
Day 2: Mai Sairang to Mae Hong Son (181 km)
After the locking mishap, I hit the road to Mae Hong Son at about 10 a.m. Most of the journey was blessedly straight with gently sloping hills, so I was able to make some great time. About 60 kilometers into the journey I filled up the tank at the town of Khun Yuam, stopped for some fried chicken, and kept on going.
The views during the last 35 or so kilometers to Mae Hong Son were spectacular, and the roads were incredibly curvy. When I arrived in the city, I drove around and got a great room at the Sarm Mork guesthouse for 300 baht. It’s on the east side of the small lake in the middle of the city.
Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son could be considered a big town (it has an airport, after all) and it’s definitely livelier than Mae Sairang. Mae Hong Son is the most popular area to see the Karen “long neck” tribe but I skipped that after reading some rather unsettling things about the whole tourist experience.
There’s a great public lake next to the striking temple of Wat Chong Kam that many people seem to hang around at. My favorite moment in town was driving up an extremely steep hill to the Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu that overlooks the entire city. The view is spectacular here, and for what it’s worth, there’s probably one of the most scenic coffee shops in the region. It was well worth the somewhat inflated price of 55 baht a cup ($1.65).
There’s a western-ish bar called the Crossroads and plenty of eating options. N&J’s Chicken had a good mix of western food and Thai food, which seemed to be popular with the locals. Despite having a lot more amenities than Mae Sairang, this was a quiet town with just a handful of tourists. That certainly isn’t how I’d describe Pai, the next destination on my trip.
Day 3: Mae Hong Son to Pai (117 km)
This is the part of the road I was most excited for. The distance was relatively short, yet the many curves make this a slow journey. The best part are the many quick diversions along the way. I had passed some national parks earlier in the trip, but they would have required either too much time or money. The road from Mae Hong Son to Pai has plenty of sights that break up the journey nicely.
This is an odd little diversion. It’s essentially a nice park with lots of Asian carp lazily swimming around. There’s a small 5-foot wide where a bunch of the fish are packed in. Kind of weird and a bit of a letdown, but the area itself is nice and it’s not a bad way to spend 30 minutes or so.
Nobody was here except for a sleeping monk, so I dropped my bag inside the ticket booth (a sign said I could this) and dropped 20 baht into the bowl. It’s a short but steep climb to the cave, which gets its name from the discovery of 3,000-year-old human remains inside. There’s a lot of ducking and climbing, including a very rickety bamboo bridge that needs to be crossed. I had fun.
Another Cave – Sort Of
Tham Pha Mon, next to the military checkpoint seemed really appealing but the wooden walkway leading inside the cave was completely collapsed. I snapped a photo and dropped my lens cap, so I had to climb down. Too bad it was inaccessible because there seemed to be some loud rushing water inside what appeared to be a big cave.
The Top of the Mountain
There’s a scenic rest area about 30 km outside of Pai called Doi Kiew Lam. The view is amazing, but you can pay 40 baht to ride up a steep km road for an ever better view. Going down is scarier than going up but it was exciting and the view was, as expected, spectacular.
After some steep declines, I made it to Pai. Decades ago, hippies attracted by the beauty of the area set up here. Now things are a lot bigger, with many Western backpackers and Chinese people coming here to spend a few days. The Chinese are fairly new arrivals, as this town was featured in Lost in Thailand, one of the most popular Chinese films of all time.
It’s a weird place and something of a tourist bubble that’s nothing like the rest of Thailand. Still, it’s an appealing place. I knew I was going to spend two nights here to relax from all the riding I already, so I attended a rave in the countryside. It was pretty fun.
Day 4: Hanging out in Pai
I ended up massively hungover but gathered the energy to see the sights. There are the Pai canyons, which is a nice scenic area where you walk to the edge of eroded cliffs. I also went to a hot spring pool at one of the hotels. The privately-run hotel was 80 percent cheaper than the public park, which is kind of messed up.
There was plenty to see and I didn’t end up making it to any of the waterfalls, as I wasn’t expecting too much since it was the height of the dry season. I ended the night by meeting up with some new friends for open mic night at Edible Jazz. We only drank tea that night.
Day 5: Pai to Chaing Mai (140 km)
The beginning of this stretch of road was some of the most difficult I had encountered on the trip, with very sharp turns, less than stellar road conditions and a bunch of debris on the road from a previous storm. The first 40 km or so was the most difficult. Things got easier after that and I was able to enjoy the ride. There were a number of funky coffee shops during this leg of the trip and I wish I could have stopped at more.
I passed by a national park or two, but my only sightseeing stop was the Mork-Fa waterfall. For 100 baht ($3), there’s a nice park area and a really massive waterfall after a short hike. If you want to splurge you can rent a cottage for 1500 baht ($45) a night. It’s not an authentic camping experience but it sure looked comfortable.
Finally, the bends and curves of the road ended and I ended up on the highway. This was the homestretch and I was able to get up to some good speeds due to the flatness and straightness of the roads. Chiang Mai was oppressively hot and after just a couple kilometers I missed the calmness of the mountain roads. I forgot that traffic could be so heavy.
As sore I was after each day of riding –- and I was pretty sore on that modestly-sized motorbike -– I loved every part of the journey. If I had to do it all again, I would have taken it a little slower and spent some more time in the towns and a night in Doi Inthanon National Park. Still, that’s not exactly a regret. The Mae Hong Son loop is a must-do if you’re in Thailand.
I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?