Driving the amazing Mae Hong Son Loop
in Northern Thailand
By Kim Waddoup
The Mae Hong Son Loop is a route that starts and ends in Chiang Mai. It travels through a total of 1,864 curves along its 650 km length. Lauded as one of the best motorbiking routes, nearly all the information I researched was for bike fans – I even started to wonder if it was possible to travel by car – but In fact, these are normal roads open to any road user!
We started from Chiang Mai on the main road north, the 107 and then turned left onto the 1095. After a short ride through the valley floor, the road began to climb and twist, and this became the driving experience for the next 5 days. Narrow roads, lots of very tight corners, first climbing and then descending as we passed through numerous mountain ranges. After 150 km and 762 curves, we arrived in Pai.
Pai is an amazing little town, located in a valley and surrounded by mountains. There are many places here for scenic photos and it is highly recommended to drive up to the Yun Lai Viewpoint and a large café where you can either come to take in the splendour of the valley or return in the early morning for the sunrise. The entrance charge is THB.20 and the view is spectacular.
Down-town Pai is a lively place with quite a choice of very well priced restaurants. On the day that we were there, the night market had just opened with some interesting local handicrafts. We stayed at the rather lovely Pai Iyara Resort which offers bungalows with wonderful views over the rice fields. The bungalow was well equipped, comfortable and quiet. An excellent breakfast was included.
On the second day, we drove toward Mae Hong Song and decided to leave the ‘main’ road to visit the Tham Nam Lod or the Nam Lot Cave with spectacular Stalagmites and Stalactites
Having returned to the main road another deviation was taken up the narrow and winding road to the Pang Mapha viewpoint that offers the most amazing panoramas of the surrounding mountains. There are no seats, just a shelf for your coffee and your legs dangle above the trees way below you. They do serve food and their coffee is an excellent local Jabo blend.
Again returning to the main road we continued to Mae Hong Song(total of about 150 km) at 1,200 metres above sea level it was a little disappointing and did no have much atmosphere when compared to Pai. However, we did visit the Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu temple which is a revered place for motorcyclists from around the world. No driver whether it be by bike or car can leave Mae Hong Son without visiting the local Chamber of Commerce to collect your personal ‘Certificate of Conquest’ which commemorates the achievement of having conquered the 1,864 road curves
Leaving Mae Hong Song our first call was to the enchanting Su Thong Pae Bamboo Bridge. The bridge is entirely made of wood with a laced bamboo pathway. It crosses the rice fields to the Tham Poo Sa Ma temple. It is an idyllic place, we met just 2 other people here and the rice harvest was in full swing below us. Crossing the bridge we were blessed by 3 monks in their saffron robes crossing toward us.
Our voyage continued up the 4001 we climbed more hills and started driving through mountain plateaus and scenic rice fields. Our destination was Ban Rak Thai, an enchanted village nestled around a lake at an elevation of 1,800 meters. There are two main hotels that dominate the village. Cottages are built in Chinese style up the hill and surrounded by tea plantations. It is a wonderful place to stay a night and the lake makes an enjoyable stroll.
Returning from Ban Rak Thai we deviated into the Pang Tong High Land Royal Development Centre. Built to promote agriculture in the highlands it is a vast complex high in the jungle. There is no information available in English but it appears that you are free to drive everywhere which is how we did end up at the end of a road next to the past Kings mountain home(Pang Tong Palace) where there are many wild looking coffee plant. These have a rather unique method of being harvested as the area is a conservation area for the Asian Palm Civet. This breed picks and eats the ripest coffee beans which are then partially digested before being secreted, they are then collected, washed, and dried before roasting. To my great disappointment, there was no opportunity to either taste or purchase this unique coffee!
Departing Mae Hong Song, it was about a 3 hour drive to Mae Sairing an interesting riverside town with minimal tourist influence. Featuring many old teak dwellings.
To complete the Loop one has to continue through mountain roads as one continues to the interestingly named town of Hot! By this time we were quite exhausted with mountain travel and decided to leave Doi Intanon for another day and head back to Chiang Mai.
The Mae Hong Son loop is a fascinating journey however I have seen that very small motorbikes are offered for this drive which I would not recommend. These are serious mountain roads with few facilities between the towns. Do your research before you start and highlight the main sights that you want to see. Enjoy the Mae Hong Son loop, it is an amazing part of Thailand!
More of Kim’s adventures can be read on his website https://meanderingtales.com/