8 days. 1,600 kilometers. Honda CBR 250 CC. Solo.
Chiang Mai -> Doi Inthanon -> Mae Sariang -> Mae Hong Son -> Pang Ung -> Ban Rak Thai -> Pai -> Fang -> Chiang Saen -> Chiang Khong -> Thoeng -> Chiang Rai -> Doi Tung -> Phayao via Thoeng -> Chiang Mai
Initially I read about the Mae Hong Son loop in a magazine article, and I decided that I wanted to give it a go on my Christmas break. Its supposedly one of the top motorcycle journeys in the world, and I certainly agree with that ranking. The loop begins in Chiang Mai and can be done clockwise (in my case) or counterclockwise. The loop runs through popular tourist destinations like Pai and Mae Hong Son City which is the capital of the Mae Hong Son province bordering Thailand and Myanmar. The route is filled with hairpin turns and steep inclines but the breathtaking scenery makes it worth it. At an average pace the loop can be completed in about five days time.
I currently live in Lampang which is about 100 km south of Chiang Mai. I got a shuttle Sunday morning (12/22) up to Chiang Mai where I rented my Honda CBR 250cc from Tony’s Big Bikes for 600 bhat/day. I quickly learned how to drive a clutch bike in the heavy traffic of Chiang Mai’s old city and was off to Doi Inthanon by 10:00 am.
In a couple of hours I made it to the base of Doi Inthanon and was beginning my upward journey. Doi Inthanon is the tallest mountain in Thailand and is actually one of the first peaks of the Himalaya mountains. “Doi” means mountain in the Northern Thai dialect. Most people think of Thailand as a tropical country, but It gets really cold here in December especially in the mountains. I had two jackets on and wished I had a pair of gloves. It was really cool driving up through the barrier of clouds around the summit and eventually reaching the top basked in sun shine with a massive layer of clouds below me.
The view isn’t that great from the top, but its cool to say you did it.
Once I was finished taking photos I decided to next take the 1192 linking up with the 1088 to get back to the 108 which was the main road on the loop. Bad idea. This mountain “shortcut” was in horrible condition with heavy hairpin turns and endless potholes. I fell while coming down and learned a valuable lesson about using low gears down hill and avoiding dirty patches on the road. I cut up my knee a bit and bruised my thumb pretty bad. It could have been a lot worse so I was thankful this is all that happened the entire trip. The fall really slowed me down and fortunately led me to my next adventure. Without it I would never have ended up staying where I did.
I was about 80 km from Mae Sariang and with the sun going down it was getting far too cold to continue riding. I stopped in a small village and asked where the nearest hotel was. At this point I spoke okay Thai, but if you don’t speak any Thai you’re going to have some difficulty communicating with villagers. These people generally do not speak a word of English though they’ll usually know someone that does. Often they’ll fetch their son or daughter and have them translate. Fortunately I did not need any of that. I inquired about the hotel and they told me there was a bungalow just next door. 500 B, a clean shower and plenty of blankets to keep warm at night. I took it.
Once I cleaned up, I headed up to the little restaurant/home up the street and chatted with the mother that lived there. She invited me to sit by their fire and I ended up chatting it up with her and her friends in Thai. I learned throughout the trip that Thai people like to ask five questions of all foreigners they meet in this order:
1. Do you have a girl friend?
2. What do you do?
3. How much do you make?
4. How old are you?
5. Where are you from?
Many westerners would find this intrusive questioning offensive, but Thais seem to not mind. The mother at this restaurant ended up feeding me dinner and dessert, put bandages on my wounds, and gave me some pain killers. I spent the evening chatting with her family by the fire. This night was when my Thai language ability really took off. My limit was about a 30 minute conversation, but here I was going for hours. Definitely with some difficulty, but completely in Thai nonetheless. I felt like I had joined this family for the evening. I told them I didn’t have many Thai friends because I had only recently started speaking conversationally. They cheerfully said we’re your Thai friends now! They made me promise I would come back and visit.
Mae Hong Son
The next morning I had breakfast with my new friends and was off to Mae Hong Son around 10:30. I stopped for lunch in Mae Sariang at a small halal restaurant near the center of town. I ended up chatting for a while with the Muslim girl that lived above the restaurant entirely in Thai. It seems like nothing now, but I was so proud of myself in that moment for successfully having another conversation entirely in Thai.
The ride up to Mae Hong Son was long but stunningly beautiful. It was one of the more remote parts of the journey, but unfortunately I didn’t have much time to stop anywhere because of the brutal 5:30 pm deadline in the winter. After 5:30 its just too cold to ride, and I didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Mae Hong Son was a pretty town with a nice little evening market around the lake, but I felt like the real attraction to the area was out in nature beyond the city. I got a nice little phat thai on the lake and headed back to my hotel to get some sleep.
The next morning I read about some attractions in the area and heard about this mountain lake called Pang Ung. I also wanted to check out Ban Rak Thai and both were on the way. I wanted to spend the night either camping at Pang Ung or in a hotel in Ban Rak Thai. I checked out both places, but ended up staying in Ban Rak Thai for the evening.
The trip out there was beautiful, and this area was probably my favorite for the entire trip. There was a pretty waterfall and Royal Development Project (AKA flower garden) on the way up.
Pang Ung was so pretty. I really wish I could go back sometime, rent a tent, and sleep right on the lake. It was around 300 bhat for a tent, sleeping bag, blankets, and pillow. Fair warning though: you’ll probably be the only foreigner out in these parts. These people’s English ability is at a minimum.
After Pang Ung, I set off to Ban Rak Thai to try some tea and check out the Yunnan Chinese culture. Anti-communists fled from China in the 1970s and built this little mountain village near the Thai/Burma border. Now they mostly survive off tourism and tea sales. I bought some green tea and dried fruits that are delicious. I ended up spending the night in a little shack on the lake in town. It was insanely cold. Around 5 am, I thought I was actually going to die if the sun didn’t come up soon.
I also managed to follow the road out the back of town up to the Burmese border, but there was a security checkpoint 20km before the border not allowing anyone except locals that live in the border region to enter. Its a very notorious drug smuggling route so I understand why they don’t want a foreigner creeping around the border region. There were also security checkpoints everywhere along the loop. I was always waived through, but trucks and large vehicles were heavily scrutinized because of common drug smuggling.
After Ban Rak Thai, I made my way out to Pai and met some interesting characters along the way.
This lady has a giant sign of her giving the “thumbs up” in front of her restaurant. Of course I had to eat there. When she found out I spoke Thai we again went through the five question sequence. I told her that I had just spent the night in Ban Rak Thai. Upon hearing that she said I am a “full Thai person” now because so few foreigners ever travel up in those parts. It really was the unseen Thailand. Truly off the beaten path. Mae Hong Son is well off the standard Pataya Phuket Thailand trip, but getting deep into the mountains really shows you a different kind of Thailand few people (even Thais) get to see.
On the way up to Pai I stopped to check out the view from the tallest mountain in Pai district. It felt like I was back in Colorado with all of the high altitude pine trees.
I spent that night at Spicy Backpackers in Pai. While I am not the biggest fan of backpacker places, this one was really cool. Regarding backpacker joints, I just feel like if I wanted to hangout with Europeans all day, I could just go to Europe. I’d rather get to know the local culture instead. The hostel was really cheap though (150b/night) and all the buildings were bamboo huts. Very Pai.
Comparing Pai to Mae Hong Song, I felt that Mae Hong Song has more nature, but Pai’s restaurants and bars cannot be beat. The night market is hands down the best I’ve ever seen anywhere in Thailand, and its full of foreign and western food. Western food something I really miss from home. Pai is kind of like if you took all the good things in Chiang Mai and condensed them down into a small city. I had some great Indian food at literally the first stand I saw. I could of spent a week in Pai just eating.
I was supposed to return my bike to Chiang Mai the next day, but I called up Tony’s Big Bikes and asked if I could keep it until the 31st because I was having so much fun. They told me no problem, and the next morning I was off to Fang beyond the Mae Hon Song loop.
The road down to Chiang Mai from Pai was pretty bad. Many people told me all sorts of things about how I was going to die or get hit by a van, but these are far from the truth. Its the worst part of the loop, but by no means is it unmanageable. The biggest problem was really the road quality. Keep in a low gear, don’t get too ahead of yourself, and you’ll be fine.
The road up to Fang, in my mind, is almost the last bit of the Mae Hong Son loop. It doesn’t technically go back to Chiang Mai, but the mountains in that region are just as beautiful as the rest of the loop. It is certainly prettier scenery than the eastern part of the north (places like Chiang Saen). If you can spare and extra day, I would recommend heading up there and visiting Doi Ang Khang.
I spent the night at the Phumanee Hotel in Fang, and I would highly recommend it. It is owned and operated by the local Lahu Hill Tribe, and the profits are used to help support their tribe. They have a traditional Lahu menu, and they have Lahu artwork and displays around the hotel. I got their #1 recommended dish off the menu and it was amazing. It tasted like a pork lime ceviche.
As an aside, I saw a lot of hill tribe people while on my trip, and its easy to say they’re selling out their culture for tourism profits, but I don’t see it that way and I don’t think they do either. Without tourism, these people would not be able to preserve their lifestyles. They would be integrated into the Thai culture, and forget about their cultural roots because of higher economic opportunity in the cities. When the hill tribe people have these traditional dance shows, homestays, and other opportunities for their culture to be observed, they are actually taking pride in their culture and showing it to others. By profiting from this it allows them to continue their traditional lifestyles unaffected by globalization’s forces of creating a more homogenized society.
When I see parents forcing their children to take part in these dance shows, I see it as the parents trying to preserve their culture by getting the children involved. Its no different than my parents forcing me to go to church and sing in the choir. Its so I learn my cultural roots just as they would learn their roots which we both will again pass down to our children. If the kids don’t take part in the traditions, then that culture will be dead in a few generations.
After my night in Fang, I headed up to Doi Ang Khang to check out the gardens. These were probably the best gardens I’ve been too so far in Thailand. At such high altitudes some of the trees were blooming with pink flowers on the drive up.
After I finished up at the gardens I made a massive trek from just around the Burmese border across the entire country to the Mekong river. It was a pretty cool sight to see the road eventually end in a T-intersection with the Mekong.
I spent the night in some pretty crappy budget accommodation in Chiang Saen before checking out the Golden Triangle the next morning. I would recommend not even bothering to come here. Have you ever seen a smaller river flow into a bigger river before? Then you’ve seen the Golden Triangle. Its cool to think about how you can see Thailand, Laos, and Burma in one frame except they literally look exactly the same. There was a opium museum that was pretty cool, but I wouldn’t go out of your way just for the museum.
I traveled from Chiang Saen down to Chiang Khong along the Mekong on quite possibly the worst road ever. It was mostly dirt or concrete with so many potholes it would be better off just being dirt. On my journey I would always see a couple of monks walking along the road often in the middle of nowhere with their alms bowls, but on this leg I saw over 150 monks walking together along the road. It was a really crazy sight to see them all in their orange robes. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of that, but I did snap a picture of a pretty cool view of the Mekong winding through this valley.
From Chiang Khong, I traveled into Chiang Rai along the AH3. There wasn’t really anything notable along the route.
In Chiang Rai, I went out to the night market on Saturday night which wasn’t too impressive. It was essentially the same as any other night market. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Some how Thai people still like going to these even after they admit its pretty boring. I don’t understand.
The next morning I headed up to The Doi Tung Royal Gardens on a nice drive up until the last few kilometers where I had to weave through insane holiday weekend traffic. I’ve never seen so many Thai people taking selfies with flowers in my life. I went to a temple later and caught some Thais in the selfie act. You’d get beat up for this stuff in the US. Remember the criticism for Obama’s selfie? Cultural differences I guess. I don’t really understand what’s so bad about a selfie though…. perhaps I’ve been here too long.
I got a nice photo with some of the hill tribe girls as well.
After Doi Tung, I headed back to Chiang Rai and spent another night at Fundee Hostel. They have a washing machine AND a dryer. Its was amazing. I also saw a guy walking his elephant home along the highway on my way back. Couldn’t help taking a photo of this. So Thailand.
Before my long journey back to Chiang Mai, I checked out the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) just south of Chiang Rai. It was recently built and is sort of a modern Buddhist narrative. You enter the temple by passing through hell, and you can see all the hands from hell reaching out for you. The point is that to find salvation you must pass through suffering or hell. You see a modern version of all the terrible things people can do to each other on the back wall of the temple. Images of 9/11 and wars, and eventually towards the front of the temple you see the Buddha and his philosophy as the answer to suffering. Pretty cool stuff.
To finish off the journey I returned on the AH3 back to Thoeng and stayed on the 1021 all the way to Phayao. Just after Thoeng, there was a big traffic hold up and I wondered what was going on. I looked to my left and saw these massive fields of sun flowers with Thai tourists walking about. I pulled off the road, parked my bike, paid the 20 bhat entrance fee and snapped a few photos before heading back to Phayao.
I cruised around Phayao for about 20 minutes on my bike before leaving for Chiang Mai. Phayao is a pretty cool city. It is built along a lake and has a nice river front area with bars and restaurants. I hope to get back there sometime.
The final leg back to Chiang Mai was long but beautiful along the 120 and 118. I would love to go back and explore those mountains again on a motorbike. I saw a few national parks with tents for rent and a pretty cool temple way up on top of one of the mountains. It would be a good Chiang Mai day trip. Unfortunately it was getting late and I couldn’t stop for fear of the cold.
To finish off my trip, I rolled into Chiang Mai December 30th, spent the night in a hotel and returned the bike the following morning. I stayed the night at a small guest house the first night and befriended the family that lives there. I got some good Thai practice, and got to gush over their three year old daughter. So cute. Ron Burgundy was right — Thai babies are beautiful. We set off some lanterns to pre-celebrate the New Year and wrote our names on them.
Lastly, I brought in the New Year with some friends in Chiang Mai before sadly heading back to work.
All in all, this was the trip of a lifetime. I went by myself and I couldn’t be happier that I did. My Thai improved incredibly — I’ve been hanging out with Thai people speaking nothing but Thai for upwards of six hours lately. I met some interesting people, and I learned so much about Thailand’s interesting culture. I have been living here for about four months, but I really put the effort in to learning the language. Its not difficult if you are motivated. I have found it to be so incredibly enhancing to my overall experience here. The relationships I can have with Thais in their native language is incredible. Its something very few people I will ever meet will have experienced.
Lastly for being a relative novice on long distance motorcycling, it wasn’t too difficult to get the hang of. I felt very safe my whole trip and I would strongly recommend for others to take the leap and go for a journey like this. You won’t regret it.
For further reading, click here to hear about my most recent journey on the Ban Mae Kapong/Lampang Motorcycle Loop.
Several years after this trip, I went on an even longer epic motorcycle journey throughout all of Northern Thailand. You can read about it here.