Motorbiking the Mae Hong Son Loop
We were standing in a small village in Myanmar having just crossed from Thailand off the books, where two men in military uniform were walking through the dusty streets. Our passports 70km away in Thailand and not a single foreigner in sight. This was one of the most remote and surreal places we had ever been.
Northern Thailand is a far cry from the more popular south. There are no beaches, islands or full moon parties here. In the north you get to really experience true authentic Thai culture. We had decided long before we arrived in Thailand that we wanted to get off the beaten trail and explore the ‘True’ north.Northern Thailand is a far cry from the more popular south. In the north you get to really experience authentic Thai culture. We decided long before we arrived that we wanted to get off the beaten trail and explore the ‘True’ north. Click To Tweet
The Mae Hong Son loop is a 600km motorcycle ride, starting and ending in Chiang Mai, that takes in the main towns of Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang, at least that is how people traditionally ride this route. As always we decided to do things a little differently. We took several detours off the main route including skipping Mae Sariang completely to see the Doi Inthanon national park, exploring the wild west border region of Rak Thai as well as seeing a multitude of small mountain villages, caves, waterfalls and so much more.
After being up early we hired our bike from Cat Motors in Chiang Mai and got on the road.
The first two hours of the journey were fairly monotonous with the roads being mainly highway. The most exciting part of this section was darting down Chiang Mai’s side roads avoiding the police checkpoints where they will find any excuse to fine foreigners, even if they are properly licenced (pro tip: Carry two wallets when riding. One with your real money and one with a max of 200 baht for police bribes fines)
As you turn off the main road onto route 1009 things begin to get interesting. The road narrows, the trees surround you and you begin to climb. We were there in burning season so it was very smoky but as you begin to climb the haze begins to dissipate until you reach a point where you get clear blue sky.
The rest of the day was spent visiting the main tourist attractions of Wachirathan waterfall and the Doi Inthanon peak, the highest point in Thailand. From this high you will often get amazing views across the most mountainous region of Thailand. There are two Stupas built here in honour of the king and they are well worth the visit.
From Doi Inthanon it is about another hour of riding through mountain roads with a wall on one side and hundreds of meters of drop off on the other to reach the town of Mae Chaem. This was our base for the evening. There is not a great deal to do here but it is quite a pretty hill town as you ride through.
We got up early, had breakfast and got on the bike. The road continues like yesterday but as the day goes on it gets more and more remote.
The ride has not much of interest for the first hour and a half or so until you reach the turn off for Mae Surin waterfall. We took the turn here and headed up into the mountains again. In the wet season this region is home to vast sunflower fields which offer a stunning contrast to the views across the valleys. Unfortunately when we went it was burning season so there were no sunflowers.
When we got to the waterfall they wanted to charge us 200 baht for entrance. We couldn’t justify paying $10 just to see a waterfall so we kept moving. We faced a choice of going back to the main road or following the road we were on as a ‘shortcut’. We chose the main road and we are glad we did. Later that day we met a couple of guys who took the ‘shortcut’ and it took them hours to travel about 50km. Two up on a scooter with luggage we wouldn’t have stood a chance!
Back at the main road and a few hundred metres down the road we reached a local police checkpoint. We were waved through with no problem. These checkpoints are mainly to stop drug and human trafficking and to deal with local bandits.
The rest of the ride offers spectacular views of mountains, giant cliff faces until you reach a little café at the top of a hill about 20km out of Mae Hong Son. We stopped here for a coffee and enjoyed the view out through a massive valley while the local Soi dogs played near us. From here is was a short ride into Mae Hong Son, our base for the next few days.
Today was the day we had been looking forward to. Until this point we had strayed off the tourist trail but we hadn’t gone properly remote.
The plan was simple. We had heard an urban myth that there was a relatively uncontrolled border into Myanmar in a region controlled by Myanmar bandits rather than the government that some people had been allowed to cross. It was just near the small hillside village of Rak Thai made up of Ethnic Chinese who were descended from warlords who settled here.
Leaving Mae Hong Son we found the turn off a few minutes out of town. This road was the best so far on this journey. We rode through small hill tribes where all the houses were traditional wooden Thai style houses, past rice fields with workers and their buffalo and through dense rainforest. After an hour or so we reached the town of Rak Thai. The Chinese influence is apparent immediately. Red lanterns hung from the buildings. There were red Chinese characters painted on the mud brick walls of the buildings. We stopped at a small place where only locals were eating and had one of the most amazing noodle soups we had on our entire journey. The flavours were like nothing else I have eaten in Asia.
After lunch we headed the few km to the Myanmar border. On the Thai side two young guards sat at a barricade. ‘Myanmar’ they said, pointing across the border.
‘Can we go across?’ we asked, expecting to be turned back.
‘Yes, you can cross 100 metres.’
So off we went, crossing into Myanmar on foot with no passports or official documentation. As we reached the Myanmar side a lone guard didn’t even look up from what he was reading as we crossed.
This was a small village with dusty roads, a single temple on the hill and all traditional wooden houses. There were the usual chickens and dogs in the roads and kids playing outside but there were also men in military uniform walking up the street. This area is not controlled by the Myanmar government. It is controlled by militia who are still fighting the government.
We explored the village briefly then headed back past the bored guard and back into Thailand before heading back to Mae Hong Son.
We left Mae Hong Son early. The road twisted and turned through the mountains gaining, losing and then gaining altitude again. About an hour into the journey giant limestone cliff faces began appearing.
This region is well known for its caves and we decided that we had to go and visit at least one. Lod Cave was supposed to be the best one so we headed there. The cave is about 20 minutes off the main road but it is still a great twisty windy road in. When we arrived we had to get a local guide. The local village owns the cave and will not allow anyone in without one. It’s worth buying some fish food from the old ladies selling it at the entrance because as you go into the cave there are massive catfish swimming in the ponds.
These caves go straight into the side of massive limestone cliffs. They must be really ancient. Unfortunately our guide spoke no English and probably knew nothing of the cave’s geology anyway, but it’s well worth the stop here.
From here it was an easy hour or so into the town of Pai which would be our base for the next couple of days to explore.
Day 5 & 6
Pai is an amazing town that is well and truly on the backpacker trail. It has an eclectic mix of rasta bars, vegan cafes and yoga retreats mixed in with luxury resorts and upmarket restaurants. It is a place that has something for everyone. It also has one of the best night food markets we came across in Asia. We spent a couple of days eating and exploring the town. It is a really really common place for tourists so I won’t go into huge detail. There are few ‘main attractions’ being ‘The Split’, Bamboo bridge, Pai Canyon and the Big Buddha and all of them are worth a visit. However, the best thing to do in Pai is to relax and enjoy yourself and that’s what we did in those couple of days before heading back to the City.
Today was the BEST road I have ever ridden in my life. It isn’t very far from Pai to Chiang Mai, only about 100km, but there is somehow over 600 turns in this short section of road. There isn’t a lot to see along the way. The journey is the point here. The asphalt is almost perfectly maintained and there are twists and turns all along. If you get in a rhythm, it’s easy for it to pass in a blink of an eye. After a while of riding I caught myself grinning like a little kid inside my helmet. The ride was that good. It isn’t really something that you can describe unless you ride bikes. It is almost like complete euphoria.
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end and the road soon flattened out and the last hour or so into Chiang Mai was much like the road heading out south.
Thus ended 600km of one of the top rides we had done in South East Asia. It is certainly a place I would recommend anyone to visit if they have the opportunity. It certainly won’t stay off the beaten path for long.