The Mae Hong Song Loop
The Mae Hong Song Loop is supposed to be the most scenic roundtrip of Thailand. Famous for its 1865 curves, the loop will take you into the more remote parts of Northern Thailand offering a lot of highlights. It’s a very diverse tour and it offers a lot of opportunities to tailor your itinerary according to your preferences. For me personally this adventure was my absolute highlight in Thailand.
Distance: 670 kilometers
Max. per day: 165 kilometers
Highlights: Doi Inthanon, Cave Lodge, the riding itself
Recommended Bike: 125cc semi-automatic, can be done with an automatic
Accommodation: Guesthouses and Hostels. About 200 THB p. night
The starting point for the Mae Hong Song Loop is the Northern capital of Chiang Mai. You can easily get there from Bangkok by either nightbus, train or airplane. The Chiang Mai of today is a large touristic hub with almost every traveler and backpacker stopping there at one point. Whereas it has become too crowded in my opinion, it makes for a good base to prepare for your trip.
The first thing you should get is a proper map. The guys from GT Rider are specialized in motorbike tours in Southeast Asia and have released a map just for the Mae Hong Song Loop. In Chiang Mai it is sold in about every bookshop. It definitely was a great help in organizing the trip, looking for accommodation and planning day trips while on the loop.
The next you will need is of course a bike. Chiang Mai features an abundance of rental shops, especially inside the city’s old town. I can recommend Mr. Mechanic which has also been recommended by the guys from GT Rider. They are a bit pricier but offer great support and are reliable. I rented a classic Honda Dream 125cc for 200 THB a day plus 50 THB insurance. As I said, if you don’t bother, you will be able to find cheaper deals if you shop around a little.
Before you take off, get a half liter plastic bottle of fuel. It can always happen that you run out of gasoline along the way, which isn’t such big problem as the next shack which sells pre-filled bottles is probably just a kilometer away. But with your half liter reserve, you will be on the safe side.
The first stretch out of Chiang Mai is a bit boring as you will drive through the busy city and along big roads without much to see along the way. But after the exit to road 1009, things will change quickly. On your way to Doi Inthanon National Park, you will pass four waterfalls and finally make it up to Doi Inthanon Mountain, the highest peak of Thailand. After Doi Inthanon you will find out quickly why I count the riding itself as one of the trip’s highlights. Carved into the mountains, the narrow roads wind their way down to the valleys just to take you back up again. It’s fun and yet easy enough for a beginner to enjoy.
One of the towns you will probably stay overnight is Mae Sariang. A quaint little village by the Yuam River. Its relaxed atmosphere is contagious and enjoying the last sunrays on the balcony of one of the riverside restaurants is a great way of ending the day. Mae Sariang is actually known for good trekking as the area is by far not as crowded as Chiang Mai and hence more unspoilt. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to do it, but I talked to one of the guides and his descriptions and the report of a group who had just returned sounded very promising. So if you consider trekking in Northern Thailand, I would recommend doing it here instead of Chiang Mai.
Mae Hong Song, the town that gave the loop its name, will be up next. Most guesthouses are located near Chong Kham Lake which also features a picturesque night market and two impressive temples. The highlight of Mae Hong Song however is a monastery situated on nearby hilltop. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu is overlooking the entire valley and if you make it there before sunrise, you will be rewarded with a breathtaking view as the sun rises over the mountains, painting the sea of clouds, which usually covers the valley like a thick blanket, in tones of orange, purple and yellow.
One definite highlight of this tour will be a stay at Cave Lodge, close to the town of Soppong. Cave Lodge is a hidden gem of a guest house with a few bungalows and huge common area situated in the middle of the forest and right next to a river. The place itself is magnificent and invites for a bit of lounging and relaxing. But Cave Lodge also offers great trips into the surrounding hills to remote minority villages, white water rafting and one of a kind caving adventures which the place is actually famous for. I only got to stay for two days but I recommend everyone to really spend a few days there. It’s really worth it.
The last stop before heading back to Chiang Mai will be Pai, the famous hippy enclave, nowadays a place for partying and meeting other travelers. It will be a stark contrast to everything you’ve experienced before, that’s for sure. But go and see for yourself. The last stretch of driving, going from Pai to Chiang Mai, is actually the most challenging one. If the whole loop really features 1865 curves, it seems that at least 50% of those are to be found on that part of the trip. It’s some great riding but stay cautious and don’t speed.
| Tips and Advice
You can do the Mae Hong Song Loop either clockwise or counterclockwise. Doing it counterclockwise will take you straight to Pai. But if you are still a bit unsure about riding a motorbike and in need of some easy practice, I recommend to do it clockwise. The first parts will allow you to ease into this way of traveling and by the time you make it to that last and most difficult leg, you will be more than confident.
Make sure to take enough warm clothes along. I was surprised how cold the nights and the mornings can be up in the mountains. Especially when riding early in the morning, a warm fleece and a windbreaker can be life savers. I didn’t consider this and ended up wearing all of my clothes in layers after the first day of riding.
Venture off the main roads and drive into some of the smaller villages. It is really worth it and will make for some great experiences and interesting encounters with the local people. The GT Rider map will make it easy and you can’t really get lost.
Just make sure to plan enough days. There is so much to see and do along the loop, that I would suggest taking 10 days if you have the time. You could squeeze in some trekking and spend a few days at Cave Lodge. If you plan on hitting the backroads, make sure to rent a manual and not an automatic bike.