This is going to be a long one, so bear with me…
We knew we wanted to get onto motorbikes as soon as possible on this trip. Both Emily and I have been interested in getting motorbikes for a while now, and northern Thailand gave us a chance to get out on the road (albeit the wrong side of the road) and give it a try. So we took on the Mae Hong Son Loop. Over 1800 curves, more than 500 kilometers, and 4 solid days of riding.
Plenty of places in Chaing Mai rent scooters, but we wanted to do it on motorbikes. In the end it was a good choice. I don’t even know how people do those roads on scooters. You’ll see what I mean as you read on.
The Mae Hong Son loop is a 4 day (usually) trip that goes from Chiang Mai through neighboring Mae Hong Son province. This is the northwestern most province in Thailand, and borders Burma (Myanmar). Its well know for its scenery and amazing riding on really curvy roads. We had read about it just before coming to Chiang Mai, and it seemed like a great way to get out of town and stretch our legs. We had some reservation at first because it required leaving our backpacks at a hostel in Chaing Mai, and instead bringing just small day packs. We didn’t want to ride with our big bags, especially as learners.
So let’s begin!
Day 1 – Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang
We had arranged the day before to rent two 250cc Honda dirtbikes. Most rental places focus on scooters, but we really wanted the motorbike experience. You can rent pretty large bikes for these roads, but we wanted something more manageable and of course something in our budget. The 250 Honda worked well for me, since its the same bike I drove for the Niagara College course we took last year. In the end, Emily found the 250cc a little too tall and opted for a smaller 150cc bike.
We knew the first leg of the trip was going to be a challenge. We needed to get familiar with the bikes, work our way through Chiang Mai’s wild traffic, and deal with the longest ride of our planned four days. On top of that all, we were late and didn’t get out of the city until around 11am.
Chaing Mai’s traffic is crazy, just like everywhere in Thailand. The real problem is the number of different vehicles going at different speeds. You have bicycles, mopeds, small scooters, motorbikes, really fast motorbikes, cars, trucks, tuk tuks, songthaews (tourist trucks…sort of like cabs) etc. You name it, its on the road here. And everyone is just going where they want to go, regardless of the lane markings or other vehicles. Our plan was simple – go slow, stick to the left (they drive on the wrong side of the road here). As we continued south, traffic calmed down significantly. The day’s ride took about 5 hours, which is slower than normal because we were driving pretty slow at first. The route was quite curvy too, going through a national park with many twist and turns in the forest. At one point we got passed by a group of probably 15 or or so Harleys, which was pretty cool. I really came to enjoy the “biker wave” or “biker nod” to the other motorbikes on the loop. No one did it to scooters, but we got to be part of the club since we had actual bikes.
We stopped frequently to stretch our legs and take in the scenery. At one of the scenic viewpoints we met another couple who are on a year-long trip as well, and were also doing the Mae Hong Son loop. Aidan and Joanne, from Ireland, recommended a place for us to stay for the first night in Mae Sariang. We ended up seeing them a lot on the trip, and had dinner and beers with then a few times. They are 4 months into their year so it was great to hear about their experiences.
The town of Mae Sariang is about 15km from the border with Burma (Myanmar). As we pulled into town I think we both felt a huge accomplishment. It may only have been the first day, but we made it safely despite the traffic and the windy road. It was a very cool feeling.
Day 2 – Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son
We got on the road around 9:30 am, after having some breakfast and watching a strange parade through the middle of town. A parade on a Tuesday morning you ask? So did we, but we didn’t get an answer.
Just north of town we stopped at the Kaew Komol Crystal Cave, which goes down 30m into the ground and is full of crystals, as the name would suggest. It was well worth the small entry fee.
The road leading north was fantastic, with sweeping curves and lots of new pavement. Surpringly we found most of the roads on this trip to be in really great condition, and we saw lots of road maintenance crews along the way.
For lunch we stopped at the halfway pint of our day’s ride in the town of Khun Yuam. Its famous for having a Japanese-Thai Friendship Memorial. Basically, in World War 2 the Japanese took over Thailand and marched north through this area to attack the British in Burma. They forced the locals to build many roads and bridges that are still in use. The friendship monument is a sort of memorial to this history.
After lunch we continued north, through miles of incredible valley and hills. Sometimes the roads kept going up, and you think you’re at the top and they keep going up and up again. They are not for the feint of heart. We found that going up is easier than dealing with the curves going down. And one thing we didn’t expect was the trees looking and smelling like autumn. This is Thailand’s dry season, so the trees are turning colour and leaves are falling. It was like riding in September back home.
Just before getting into our destination of Mae Hong Son, we stopped in the town of Pha Bong.
We got into Mae Hong Son around 4pm. Mae Hong Son is larger than Mae Sariang, but that’s not saying much. Its the most north-western town in Thailand, and is very close to Burma. Many of the locals are part of the Shan culture, which is also found in eastern Burma. The town is full of guest houses for the various motorbikers who transit through, and after checking a few places out we eventually found a room to our liking and budget. We climbed the huge hill in the centre of town to watch the sunset from the Phra That Doi Kong Mu temple.
Like seemingly every city and town in Thailand, there was a night market with street food. But before we could get to it, we ran into our friends Aidan and Joanne, who invited us to join them for dinner and drinks. We had a great night sharing travel stories.
Day 3 – Mae Hong Son to Pai
After 2 solid days of driving, we were both getting really sore. Its not just sitting on the bike thats tough, but you’re constantly leaning to the side or forward as you negotiate the incredibly twisty roads. We didn’t have gloves either, so my hands in particular were pretty raw from the throttle. But we were only at the halfway point, so we needed to keep going.
Just north of Mae Hong Son is the Su Thong Phae bamboo bridge. Its built over an area that looks to be rice fields, but it was dry due to the time of year.
We knew from looking at the map that the road would get even curvier the closer we got to Pai. It looked daunting on the map, but we had no choice except to keep moving forward. After a quick stop at a waterfall (one of many – visiting waterfalls is basically the number 1 activity in this part of the country), we entered the really curvy bits. We couldn’t really get any pictures of the road because there was typically no where to stop safely, so I’ll just include a screenshot of the map from Google to give you an idea what we were up against.
The roads get higher and higher, as you climb what are basically mountains. The views are breathtaking, but the drops on the side of the road are in some places really daunting. I’m glad we didn’t hit these curves until our third day driving, because you need some experience and familiarity with the bikes. We actually had read in advance that beginners should take the 4 day loop clockwise, rather than counter clockwise, for this very reason. When you come down from the mountains, the road winds through lush valleys filled with ride paddies and small villages. It feels a long way from home.
After a particularly exhausting day of riding, we pulled into the town of Pai around 5pm and found a room for the night. We were exhausted.
Day 4 – Rest day in Pai
Pai is really touristy, but it does have a charm of sorts. But after the quiet towns of Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son, it was jarring to once again see tourists in huge numbers. But we needed a day to relax a bit and there seemed to be lots to do in the area.
I’m sure some of you reading this post have wondered a few times about the safety of riding motorbikes and scooters in a foreign country, especially one with traffic like Thailand. We asked ourselves that question a lot. We’ve heard a statistic that every day there are 38 scooter related deaths in Thailand. Having seen how the tourists ride them in Pai, I can see there must be some truth in that statistic. Everyone in Pai rents a scooter, and no one really knows how to ride them. Its pretty chaotic to say the least. I’m amazed we saw only one scooter crash while we were there. We did see plenty of tourists with bandages and even a few with casts. I don’t know for sure that these are the result of scooter mishaps, but I wouldn’t bet against it.
Now in writing this I’m definitely not trying to claim that Emily and I are any more experienced that these random tourists, but at least we completed a training course and actually have our motorbike licences in Canada. Plus, having ridden 3 days on the loop before reaching Pai really helped. Most of the tourists in Pai get the bus into town and then rent scooters for the day.
Anyways, back to Pai. We found new accommodation, since we didn’t much care for the first place we found. Just across the river from town is basically a little village of bamboo cottages you can rent for about $18 a night. Its very cool, and we had a great view of the nearby hills and the stars. And there is no need for air conditioning, because it gets COLD at night.
We spent the day motoring around the local area, looking at some of the sights. We ran into our Irish friends at the Pai Canyon, and ended up biking with them for a while and then having dinner and drinks. It would have been nice to have had one more day in Pai, but we needed to get the bikes back to Chiang Mai so one day would have to be it.
Day 5 – Pai to Chaing Mai
The t-shirts in Pai will tell you this is the curviest section of road on the loop. They say there are 762 curves in the 120 km between Pai and Chaing Mai, but we didn’t count. The road did not disappoint, as I think it was the most technical stretch we did all trip. Tight hairpin turns, major elevation changes, and stunning views.
It was really cold in the morning, and interestingly some of the vegetation looked remarkably like at home – in particular we saw some fir trees. Pai is at a relatively high altitude for Thailand, so that explains the cold temperatures.
The 120km ride is supposed to take around 4 hours, so that gives you an idea as to how slow you need to take the curves. But the scenery is incredible. I wish we had a Go-Pro to record it, because it was really stunning.
We ended up making really good time, and when we were about an hour out of Chiang Mai we decided to take a side trip to the Bua Tong waterfalls. At this point in the ride we were getting a little waterfalled-out, since there are so many to see on the loop. But this one is different, because we had heard it is “sticky” and you can climb up it. We didn’t exactly know what that meant, but we thought it was worth checking out. It ended up being some of the most fun we had on the whole ride. The only way I can describe the texture of the rock is concrete. But its weirdly sticky, and you can basically climb up and down the face of the waterfall. And for most of the time it was just us there, so we had the place to ourselves. I don’t know why we didn’t see this on more “things to do in Chaing Mai” lists because it was fantastic.
Leaving the waterfall, we had our final stretch back into the city to drop off our bike. We managed to time it right for rush hour, making this the most challenging 90 minutes of the entire ride. The traffic was absolutely insane, with hundreds of scooters and motorbikes weaving in between the cars, trucks, vans and tuk tuks. It was hot, smelly, and just really intense. We were both relieved when we pulled back into the bike rental shop. Not relieved to be giving back the bikes, but relieved to be out of that traffic.
After 5 days on bikes it feels really strange not seeing our helmets at the table beside us. It was a feeling of freedom, not having to rely on taxies or public transport. And really it was just a fun time. We learned a lot and loved getting away from the super tourist areas and into the countryside. There were definitely some stressful moments, but it was more than worth it. I can hardly believe we were on the road for so many days – so many hours in the seat of that bike.
We both wish we still had the bikes, though my butt is thanking me that its going to get a break from riding for a while. If we succeed with our goal of buying motorbikes in Vietnam later in the spring, I’m going to try and find one with a more comfy seat.
Now we are off to explore the city of Chiang Mai, which is as far north as you can go in Thailand and not far from the border with Laos.
– Doug / January 29, 2017 / Chiang Rai @ 5pm, at The Easy House Pub