Motorbiking the Mae Hong Son Loop – Northern Thailand

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.

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Our bikes! At one of our many rest stops on the first day. Emily’s 150cc may look small, but it did the trip well. And Emily was the only woman we saw on the entire trip riding a motorbike!

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.

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Amazing views on Day 1, about 34km out of Mae Sariang.

 

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Some of the destinations on our trip.

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.

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Mae Sariang’s main Wat. Every town here has amazing temples.

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.

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Tuesday morning parade in Mae Sariang.

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.

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Exploring the crystal caves. There were only us and a German couple here. Its great to have the place basically to yourself.

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.

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Morning coffee stop. I ordered a tea but it didn’t come.
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Incredible views in the valleys on Day 2

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.

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Japanese – Thai friendship memorial

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.

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Pha Bong viewpoint.

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.

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Sunset looking towards Burma – only a few miles away over those hills.

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.

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The lake in the middle of Mae Hong Son. It was quite cool and misty in the morning when we left town.

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.

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Emily on the bamboo bridge. Its really long – probably 200m, winding through the rice fields and over a small river.

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.

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Just one of the incredibly curvy sections of road between Mae Hong Son and Pai. Its slow going, but the scenery is incredible as you climb up the mountain. 40 kms doesn’t sound far until its made up of curves like this!

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.

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Lookout on top of one of the many mountains along the way on Day 3.
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Beautiful views everywhere. We have so many pictures like this, but they don’t even do it justice.
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This particular view point had this death trap ferris wheel / swing combination. But some Russian guy was happily pushing his kids on it , trying to get the to the top.

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.

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Our little cabin, with the best bed we have found so far on the trip. Most beds in this country seem to be made of wood, but this one was great.
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Not a bad view for $18 a 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.

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This is at a small tourist attraction called “The Land Split” Basically some farmer woke up one day in 2008 and a fault line had shifted and caused his field to open up. So he got all entrepreneurial about it and made it into a donation based tourist attraction. Its really cool.
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Pai Canyon – can you see Emily? This place is crazy and dangerous, but its a major tourist attraction. Basically there are a bunch of ridges that you can walk on. Many are only a few feet wide, but have easily 100-150 foot drops on BOTH sides. Its super dicey. If this was in Canada you’d need an extremely long waiver to go here.
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If this was in Canada you’d need an extremely long waiver to go here. I don’t know if the pictures really convey how far down it was on each side, and how narrow the paths are.  Emily is a lot braver than I when it comes to heights.
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We visited during the hottest time of the day, and got totally covered in dust as we climbed up and down the ridges.
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The bridge out of town is beside a World War II memorial bridge. The Japanese forced the local Thai people to build a bridge over this river so their army could attack the British in Burma.
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We are well aware of the issues with Elephant tourism in Thailand, and we have no interest in supporting the cruelty of that industry. This place is just out of Pai, and is run by a lady who has had these elephants in her family for 3 generations. They use to be logging elephants for her grandfather, but now they are well treated and fed by tourists all day long. You can pay to walk beside them but there is no riding. And they spend each night in a jungle paddock where they have loads of space and no chains anywhere. If they have to be captive (you can’t release them back to the wild after their logging history), this is a pretty decent situation for them.

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.

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Again from Google Maps. This stretch is over 4-5 kms, just to give you a scale of how many turns there are.

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.

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Emily and I with our hogs. Em didn’t take to calling them that as much as I did. She did concede mine could be considered a “dirt hog”.  Also, notice the forest fire sign behind? A lot like Northern Ontario.

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.

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One of the many curves on the road on Day 5.
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Lovely sweeping roads in the valleys were a nice change from the insanity of the hairpins on the mountains.
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Finally out of the major curves, and now in the home stretch. I don’t think either of us wanted to return the bikes. We wanted to keep going

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.

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Its quite steep, but you can climb right up easily. Its very strange. There were 3 sections like this – over 100m of climbing.
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We didn’t have our waterproof camera with us because we had left it in Chiang Mai. But I felt secure enough on the sticky rocks to climb up a little for a picture.

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.

The Mae Hong Son loop. We did this all except for the side trip to the national park in the south.

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.

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Em’s bike welcomed here every time she turned it on. Hi Buddy!

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

 

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12 thoughts on “Motorbiking the Mae Hong Son Loop – Northern Thailand

  1. Great job guys. Be safe… keep posting👍 Love reading your blog. We’re so jealous 😒
    Let me know if your going to Philippines 🇵🇭

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  2. You guys are total champs, not that I’m surprised by this at all! Congrats on an amazing motorbike experience and thanks for including so many awesome photos!
    Though next time you’re posing with a sign that says HOT, make sure the arrow points to you. Just saying.

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  3. Hey Emily & Doug… aunt Maggie here and your dad told me the link to your blog. (For some reason I thought it was on Facebook, which I’m no longer on.) You may have heard that I bought an apartment style condo at 7 Gale Cres., across from the Rex Stimers (yay, skating made easy) and a short walk to the Performing Arts Centre, downtown shops, etc., etc. I won’t be listing my home until I’ve taken my ‘sweet and slow time, without pressure’ to clear and sort all the things accumulated from 25 years here. It looks like you’re both well, happy and healthy… AWESOME!!! I’ve only read the first blog page and will continue bit by bit. Not sure if I need to sign up to be on your list but want to for keeping up with you-two. Take care and God bless you on this amazing lifetime adventure!!! xoxo maggie p.s. I just realized I could easily sign on for your updates, yay :))

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    1. Hi Aunt Maggie! We link it to Facebook because that’s easiest for most, but I’m glad you did the option to subscribe too. We did hear about your condo and we’re very happy for you!
      Love you so much

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    2. Hi Aunt Maggie! We link it to Facebook because that’s easiest for most, but I’m glad you did the option to subscribe too. We did hear about your condo and we’re very happy for you!
      Love you so much, and say hi to everyone for us- Emily

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  4. Amazing stuff, but this post gives me a whole new level of anxiety just looking at the pictures. I can’t believe you let Emily, the clumsiest person I know (apart from myself), walk out on that ridge with a 150m drop on either side! You should just go ahead and not post pictures like that in the future, for my sake :). I’m glad to hear you had such a good time and made it back safely!

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    1. Emily is much better with the heights than I am! It’s a good thing we didn’t post the pictures of what we had to climb up to get to that point. You definitely wouldn’t like those lol. Amazing place though. -Doug

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