Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop

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An extensive tour by motorcycle of Thailand’s attractions would obviously take weeks, if not months, but packages are nevertheless on offer. There are also packages for more experienced riders that include off-road sectors. Although every region of Thailand has something distinctive to enjoy, if one only has limited time, it is best to head north. Chiang Mai is a natural touring base as well as being a fascinating and vibrant city in itself where the ancient and modern rub shoulders. As Thailand’s northern ‘capital,’ it has an international airport, and great rides begin within ten minutes of the city centre.

A good taster before tackling the Mae Hong Son Loop and for getting used to both the roads and your newly rented machine is the Samoeng Loop. This is 100 kilometres of gently twisting road taking you through some hilly scenery and down the Mae Sa Valley. There are plenty of things to see along the way, including hill tribe villages, waterfalls, the Mae Sa Elephant Camp and Tiger Kingdom. The loop can be done in two hours, but allow four or more in order to enjoy drink stops, sightseeing and the odd fifteen minutes here and there spent marveling at the views.

 

Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop - 600km - 1600 curves

 

Once you are used to the roads and your machine, it is time to embark upon the Mae Hong Son Loop, undoubtedly on one of the greatest motorcycle rides in the world. With over 1,600 bends, it is regularly rated among the top ten motorcycling routes in the world. I myself have been round the Mae Hong Son Loop 16 times and will never tire of its 900-plus kilometres of amazing vistas, challenging roads, great places to stay and remote hill tribe settlements. And, just for good measure, the circuit includes Doi Inthanon, the highest ‘mountain’ in Thailand, approached through an avenue of rhododendrons. The Mae Hong Son Loop can be done in four to seven days depending on how many diversions you chose to explore along the way.

The first 50 kilometres of the Mae Hong Son Loop are along a straight, fast road north out of Chiang Mai. At Dong Palan you turn left off Route 107 on to Route 1095, and things begin to really change as the road winds up through increasingly thick forest towards Pai. The valleys are thickly canopied, with small streams and spectacular views at every turn. The final descent to Pai is long and very steep — this is a road best taken slowly.

Pai itself is an increasingly busy resort town popular with both foreigners and Thais. The townsfolk include an interesting mixture of indigenous Shan people and Muslim Yunnanese immigrants who arrived from China after 1949. Heading out of Pai along Route 1095, the road once again begins to climb steeply and makes for challenging riding around tight bends. The amazing scenery along the Mae Hong Son Loop continues relentlessly. The only major town between Pai and Mae Hong Son is Soppong. There are some excellent guesthouses and resorts here on both sides of town if you want to break your journey.

 

Riding the Mae Hong Song Loop

Amazing mountain scenery riding the Mae Hong Son Loopy

 

As you continue there is a slow descent taking you through what can only be described as a sort of tropical Narnia. Best seen just before the year-end rice harvest, one drives through little valleys lined with paddy fields of almost luminous green dotted with huge limestone outcrops.

Mae Hong Son always used to have a wild border town feel about it. Somehow, it has managed to retain its air of remoteness whilst actually being quite accessible and extremely congenial. It too has an airport, and there are some particularly agreeable guesthouses around the central lake near a particularly impressive temple, Wat Jong Kham.

Driving out of Mae Hong Son, Route 108 is a much straighter and faster road after Route 1095 from Pai. After about 70 kilometres, there is a choice between carrying on south to the delightful riverside town of Mae Sariang, or turning left just before Khun Yuam and heading directly over the mountains to Doi Inthanon.

If you take the southern route, a one-night stop in Mae Sariang makes good sense. This is a pleasant little town with small modern hotels and old wooden guest houses running alongside the gently flowing Yuam River. The road back to Chiang Mai from here is a good day’s ride, and takes you past yet more splendid mountain scenery before you join the main highway.

If you choose the Doi Inthanon route, you are embarking on a very different ride. Route 1263 climbs quickly and the road starts to weave and wind in earnest. Unlike other parts of the loop, the hills are quite sparsely forested, and at times reminiscent of parts of Spain. The road feels very remote all the way to Mae Chaem at the foot of Doi Inthanon. Approaching from this side affords a marvelous view of the mountain set in its own national park. On the way up, Route 1192 is lined with wild flowers that scent the air amid constantly changing vegetation. At over 2,500 metres, Doi Inthanon is the highest point in the land, and can blow a good wind that will leave you feeling unusually cold for Thailand. It is a great place to stop for lunch. The drive down the eastern side along Route 1013 takes you to the junction with the main road to Chiang Mai. From there, it is a relatively quick trip back with gentle bends and a slow incline.

 

Mae Hong Son Loop Distances

  • Chiang Mai – Pai 128km
  • Pai – Mae Hong Son 109km
  • Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang  164km
  • Mae Sariang – Chiang Mai 190km

 

Mae Hong Son Loop Safety and planning

Before tackling the Mae Hong Son Loop, be sure that you have good protective clothing. A proper helmet is an absolute necessity and a legal requirement — as is an international driving license if you don’t have a local one. Goggles or a visor will protect your eyes against dust and insects — both of which you will encounter in abundance. If you should be unfortunate and take a tumble, be reminded that when tarmac meets skin the results can be excruciating. Make sure you have gloves, stout boots and something that covers your arms. If you can’t afford expensive specialist gear, then go for a thick denim shirt or jacket. And always remember that riding on the open road won’t feel nearly so cool if you wind up with bad sunburn — another reason for covering up properly.

In terms of driving conditions on the Mae Hong Son Loop, be aware that the roads may be remarkably good in much of Thailand, but the driving can sometimes be erratic or lackadaisical — particularly with traffic coming on to the road in front of you from the left. Always keep your speed down and leave plenty of space around you in order to maximize reaction time. There are other hazards to look out for, particularly animals wandering into your path. The main offenders are canines, but don’t rule out buffaloes and the occasional elephant. Also, watch out for potholes along the Mae Hong Son Loop, particularly around the end of the wet season in October and November when the rains have extracted their toll from the tarmac.

Where there is good motorcycling to be had, you will easily find motorcycle rental shops in the nearest big town. Chiang Mai is by far the best in the north, with a huge range of motorcycles both large and small on offer. Single cylinder Honda and Kawasaki 175 cc machines manufactured in Thailand are inexpensive to rent, economic, extremely reliable and easily serviced along most routes. Among cities elsewhere, Pattaya on the Eastern Seaboard offers a particularly wide selection of machines.

For up-to-date information on riding the Mae Hong Son Loop and motorcycling in Thailand, check out the website www.gt-rider.com. GT-Rider also publishes by far the best motorcycling maps of not only the Mae Hong Son Loop but the region in general.

 

Motorcycle Hire Shops in Chiang Mai

Mr Mechanic
4 Soi 5 Moon Muang Road
Tel: +66(0)894430852
Web site: www.chiangmai-motorcycle-rental.info

Tony’s Big Bikes
17B Ratchamankha Road
Tel: +66(0)53207124

 

About the Author
Dan White is a British photographer and feature writer with a special interest in South and Southeast Asia. His work has appeared in numerous publications around the world. He devoted much of 2009 to photographing Eras and Empires: Temples of Thailand, a coffee-table book being published by Marshall Cavendish and has been round the Mae Hong Son Loop 16 times.

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Updated: February 4, 2013 by admin

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