Thailand is the land of the smile. And what makes us smile is a good road trip through a country that is beautiful, friendly, and more. In the north of Thailand is a town called Chiang Mai. From here you can start a road trip that loops back to Chiang Mai, with Mae Hong Son in de middle. Hence the name of this loop: Mae Hong Son loop.
- Finding wheels
- Things to keep in mind
- Day 1 – Chiang Mai to Mae Chaem
- Day 2 and 3 – Mae Chaem to Mae Sariang
- Day 4 – Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Song
- Day 5 and 6 – Mae Hong Son
- Day 7 – Mae Hong Son to Pai
- Day 8 – Pai
- Day 9 – Mae Rim
- Day 10 – Chiang Mai
- A road trip we will never forget
Thailand is the country of the scooter; everywhere you see small companies that rent out scooters. From large to small, but often little cc and also little space to take things with you. We want to drive for 10 days. You can do it in 3 days, but we like to take it easy. Eventually, we end up at Pop Rental Cars, just south of the center in Chiang Mai. A half-hour walk from our accommodation Dozy House.
The eccentric owner is a bit reserved about renting his big bikes to us, but when he notices that I have quite a bit of experience (17 years) we get to see the nicer selection of bikes. The real one, 650 cc with suitcases and not that many kilometers on the clock. Helmets and jackets are also available and included. Something that makes sense when you see how people drive here and I’m talking about the inexperienced tourists who think you don’t need a driver’s license here.
Note: Scooters in Thailand are light motorcycles. So you need a motorcycle license. If you have an accident nothing will be covered, even with the best (travel) insurance. There is also a good chance that you are always at fault in these types of countries, so you may have to pay all the costs of the other party as well. There are often checks by the police. Whether these are to fill up the cop’s personal wallet or whether they’re really doing it for security, I often don’t know. But a common “trick” to collect money is the international driver’s license, or rather the lack of it. Always make sure you have your international driver’s license with you.
Things to keep in mind
If you want to drive the Mae Hong Son Loop yourself there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
- Clockwise or counter-clockwise: because it’s a loop you could drive in either direction and continue driving that way. We did some research and decided clockwise was better because you save the hardest part (Pai – Chiang Mai) for last. This part is particularly bendy, it has 1864 curves in total. You might want to skip Doi Inthanon National Park if you don’t feel confident yet because this is also quite bendy.
- Transport: there are several ways to do this loop. We met some people who were biking this loop. Most people drive scooters (which are still motorcycles). We loved our big bike because it’s a bit more comfortable and we could take some luggage with us. You could take a mini-bus to Pai as well, but take some medication for travel sickness.
- Helmets, jackets, boots: if you know you’re going to be on a big bike or scooter for 10 days, make sure you have a helmet that fits and is comfortable. Kenji couldn’t find one so he went shopping with the owner of the big bike rental. Our jackets were included in the price and they had several to choose from. We wore our walking boots that have similar protection as motorcycle boots. A lot of people don’t take this seriously, but if you fall on your bike or scooter you could really injure yourself. If you’re the passenger watch out for the exhaust pipe, they can become quite hot and cause burns.
- Accommodation: we booked all our accommodation beforehand because this area is quite remote and you won’t have access to wifi at a lot of places. This also gives you a chance to just focus on the day ahead of you. If you’re tired of driving and sightseeing all you have to do is check in. Pai is very popular so make sure you have your accommodation sorted out.
- Food: we didn’t bring any food with us, because we didn’t have a lot of space on our big bike. Especially on the left side of the loop, you’ll end up in small towns that don’t see a lot of tourists. Don’t expect restaurants with menus but learn a few basic Thai words or dishes and you should be fine.
Day 1 – Chiang Mai to Mae Chaem
We plunge into the busy streets of Chiang Mai and head for Doi Inthanon National Park, where we have a quick look before arriving at our first stop. Doi Inthanon National Park is a large national park where you have beautiful views. There is not much here, except a small restaurant plus a shop, and a lot of asphalt.
However, here you have the highest point in Thailand. It is a bit chilly (10 degrees Celsius), so the locals wear thick winter clothes. A short walk takes us to a sign indicating that this is the highest point. A little further – and higher – is another sign of the highest point. That first sign is for the tourists; it’s bigger and clearer. Nice for the pictures for home, but the real highest point of Thailand is really that small sign with a well a little further up.
Day 2 and 3 – Mae Chaem to Mae Sariang
From Mae Chaem we leave early for Mae Sarriang, a bit more to the west. Along the way, we stop at a hot spring, Thep Phanom Hot Springs, where we can walk around for free. We also took a hot spring bath. It stinks but feels good. As we drive on, the roads become a little less curvy. We eat at a very nice little … hut where a female understands nothing of our English, except “Pad Thai”. For 110 baths (less than 3 euros) for two full plates and two drinks, we are well-fed and continue driving towards Mae Sariang.
We have a sort of bungalow outside the town at Ben Suan Sukjai. There is not much to do, but the town is nice. There is also a (smaller) national park, Salawin National Park. We get lost a bit, but we eventually find the exit again (luckily the streams are dry). It is not very much visited and it shows. The paths are difficult to see and the signs that should indicate the direction have mostly perished. Much more fun than those overpopulated trails.
Day 4 – Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Song
We leave Mae Sariang early. Waved goodbye by the owners of our accommodation and away from the cold morning, we drive over the mountain to the warm weather. On the way, we stop at Mae La Noi for coffee and a beautiful view. We look at how rebellious the sheep are and then continue our way. We end up at Khun Yaem and look for something to eat. First coffee at a nice, small café and then lunch at a restaurant further on. As usual, the weather is lovely.
After lunch, we encounter a view that does not lie. There has to be a waterfall nearby and we look for it. After driving the wrong way and avoiding the many stray dogs, we arrive at a waterfall. Well, just a rock wall, because unfortunately there is no water. But we don’t give up! One day we will see a real waterfall!
And then we arrive in Mae Hong Son. Our resort Sangsawang Resort is slightly outside the town and the room is very good. We get to choose a room because there is no one else. In the evening we go to see the town. Again small but nice. There is a night market where they all have nice stalls. I buy a t-shirt from a very friendly, pleasant lady. Day 4 is over.
Day 5 and 6 – Mae Hong Son
We take some time to explore Mae Hong Son because there is a lot to see and do. We start with a visit to Su Tong Pae Bridge, a bamboo bridge made by monks which leads to the village of Kung Mai Saak. Across this bridge, they sell everything, mainly food and drinks. There is a temple as well.
After this experience, we get back on the motorbike and head back to Mae Hong Son. We stop at Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu – try pronouncing it five times in a row – to enjoy the peace and the view here. The view is indeed magnificent and you can see all of Mae Hong Son. The temple complex is also well worth a look. The drive there is a challenge because it is very steep and narrow. But the bike acts like nothing is happening.
Day 7 – Mae Hong Son to Pai
We say goodbye to Mae Hong Son and set a course for Pai, a very touristic city above Chiang Mai. Along the way, we stop again at a view, have coffee, and rest. It is already quite warm, but that should not spoil the fun. In Soppong we stop for lunch. That’s quite difficult, but we did find something. When we leave here, we see a scooter victim. A girl has fallen with her scooter and I see that her knee is not looking too good. She is also dressed in a mini tank top, slippers, and mini pants. The locals act like this is normal and don’t really do something to help.
Then we arrive in Pai, which looks more like a big hospital and partying tourist festival than a Thai town. I see non-Thai food everywhere (mainly vegan and Italian) and lots and lots of bandages and other medical ‘quick fixes’. Yes, the most difficult road is coming up, the one from Pai to Chiang Mai where many tourists drive. We quickly fall asleep in our “tree house” at Paitopia.
Day 8 – Pai
Today we are going to discover Pai. We start at Pai Canyon: A kind of Grand Canyon, but in miniature and not really “Grand”… Actually nothing like the Grand Canyon at all. Because we arrived early it is still quiet and we walk around a bit. Then we went to The Land Split. A piece of farmland that was once split by an earthquake. The farmer grows all kinds of fruit you can taste, against donation payment. A very nice experience and very nice people.
We drive a little further. Now to Wat Phra That Mae Yen, a temple with a huge Buddha image on top of the mountain. We have already seen the statue from afar, but when you stand under it it is really huge and impressive. Only the stairs to the top are a bit annoying.
After this experience, we go back to our house on stilts.
Day 9 – Mae Rim
We leave early from Pai, but we soon notice that it is getting busier. This time no quiet locales, but speed devils, tourists without any experience, and locals that drive very defensively. Yes, this is different. We are so happy when we leave the main road where it is nice and quiet again. In Mae Rim, it is nice to relax. The night will be spent at Country Retreat, in the middle of the rice fields. We enjoy the peace and the food.
The next day we drive back to Chiang Mai.
Day 10 – Chiang Mai
It’s a very small drive and we’ll get there quickly. We unload our stuff at Dozy House and return the bike. Once at Pop Car Rent we are welcomed in like king and queen. With a tear in our eyes, we say goodbye to the motorcycle after we have collected our deposit and walk back to our hotel. A wonderful ride has come to an end. We will often think back.
A road trip we will never forget
We have been doing a lot of road trips on our travels, mostly by car. But this one was different. The country, the landscape, the people… It was something different. The country is just really suitable for getting around. The landscape is beautiful and ever-changing. The people are so friendly and helpful, although nobody really speaks English.
And driving around on a 650cc big bike through this landscape gives you a totally different feel than driving in your own bubble when you are in a car. We saw people struggle to get up the mountain on their little scooters.
This is a road trip we will never forget.
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