Navigating the famous Mae Hong Son Loop
Northern Thailand has a lot that appeals to sensitive Englishmen like me. It’s a bit less hot than the South, the food is a bit less spicy, and the pace of life a bit less frenetic.
Tourists who don’t make a beeline for Thailand’s southern beaches often head oop Norf to Chiang Mai – Thailand’s second city – to get a photo with some elephants and a feel for the jungly, mountainy vibe of the surrounding countryside.
But there’s more to Northern Thailand than Chiang Mai. If you have a few days to spare and are looking for an adventure, you should seriously consider the Mae Hong Son Loop. This road trip through the mountains lets you digest the highlights of Northern Thailand on your own terms.
The complete circuit
The basic 600km loop starts and ends in Chiang Mai, with stops in the towns of Mae Saeriang, the eponymous Mae Hong Son, and Pai. The route you take, journey length and mode of transport are all fully customisable.
My friend Eric and I tacked on a few other diversions, so our circuit was a bit longer. We hired 125cc bikes from Cat Motors in Chiang Mai, which served us well, but you could easily do the route by car or by catching local buses between the major towns.
You can blast through the whole thing in 3 or 4 days, but the more time you have, the better! A week is ideal.
Doi Inthanon National Park (Night 1)
This is the place to go if you like epic waterfalls and cute countryside or just miss cold weather. In my opinion it’s worth it just for the cascades.
Inthanon mountain itself is the highest point in Thailand. If you’re lucky, you’ll get excellent views of the sprawling Thai countryside from the top.
Sadly, we weren’t. But at least the overcast skies and wind chill reminded me why I had left London.
The best place to stay overnight is at one of the many campsites, which offer varying degrees of luxury. The nicest tents had all been booked in advance, but there was plenty of space at the main camping site (bedding and tent provided) when we showed up.
There was also a restaurant and small kiosk selling Thai whisky. What more could you ask for?
Mae Sariang (Night 2)
Mae Sariang is a small market town on the Yuam River – a pleasant resting stop after a long day’s drive. There’s not much in the way of sites, but a small handful of tourists stay more than a night to explore the nearby Salween National Park or to soak up the local atmosphere.
Mae Hong Son (Nights 3 & 4)
Mae Hong Son is busier, livelier and larger than Mae Sariang.
This far North, it starts getting properly hilly and the driving becomes a lot more fun. From the pithily-named Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (a Burmese-style temple atop a hill) you get an excellent view of the mountains that dwarf the town. It’s the perfect place for a sunset pint or two.
Mae Hong Son is also well placed for some day trips to nearby mountain villages – we chose to go to Ban Rak Thai, 40 km up the road.
A short trip into Burma
Ban Rak Thai (“Thai-loving village”) became the home of several Yunnanese émigrés after the Chinese revolution of 1949.
It’s famous for a few things: its Chinese tea; its Chinese food; and its unofficial border crossing into Burma.
Just a few hundred metres from the main village, a border guard was sitting with his feet up playing Candy Crush on his phone. He waved us across the frontier, barely lifting his head. No passport needed.
There isn’t any Schengen-style agreement between Thailand and Burma, though. He presumably allowed us through because we were on foot and he knew we wouldn’t get far in Burma’s politically-volatile Shan State.
Pai (Nights 5-7)
“You’ll get stuck in the Pai Hole!”, the hostel owner warned us when we reached our last stop.
I looked at him blankly. In Northern Thailand, “Pai Hole” is not vulgar slang for your mouth. You supposedly end up in the “Pai Hole” when you fall so hard for Pai’s supposed charms that you can’t bring yourself to leave. The small mountain town is a very popular trip from Chiang Mai. A backpacker staple once only visited by hippies, it’s now very much a mainstream destination.
The town’s activity of choice – swinging in a hammock while admiring views of the countryside – suited us well after several tiring days of driving around. But while I enjoyed my time in Pai, I’m not sure the town lives up to its hype.
Pai very much caters to a certain crowd. It’s full of vegan cafés, people who really like yoga, and food markets selling everything from organic açai bowls to sushi. There are few actual locals in sight.
To me, it felt like Shoreditch with mosquitoes (albeit whiter and more rural).
That didn’t make it unpleasant, but it wasn’t something I found particularly appealing either. I’d encourage you to visit and see what you think!
One advantage of approaching Pai from Mae Hong Son is that you pass Tham Lod – a huge cave system just off the windy mountains roads. This is one of the most impressive things you can see near Pai, but it’s a bit of a pain to get to from the town itself.
If you’re afraid of snakes, bats or large spiders, it might not be the cave for you!
Back to Chiang Mai
We zoomed down the mountains along sharply bending roads with amazing views of the countryside, putting tarmac between ourselves and Thailand’s mountain Bali.
The reason most people do the loop anticlockwise is that this stretch is one of the most challenging. The long, flat and easily driveable 108 Road heading west out of Chiang Mai gives you some time to warm up and get used to your wheels before you hit mountain roads like this!
On the final stretch, I pondered what I would have done differently.
I liked every stop on the journey, but if I had to cut something out, it would be Mae Sariang. I think you can still get a good taste of what the North has to offer by spending your time in the other destinations on this list. You might also be considering a trip to Chiang Rai after Chiang Mai, so skipping Mae Sariang would give you a bit more time to play with.
A strange surprise at the end
Katai Kamminga is the brains behind what’s been described as ‘the first erotic garden in Southeast Asia‘ (not that we’re likely to see lots more popping up any time soon).
The ‘Erotic Garden and Teahouse’ was marked as a point of interest on my paper map, so we decided to turn off the main road to give it a look before finishing the loop.
“At the very least, I quite like tea”, I thought.
Katai greeted us as soon as we’d got off our bikes and welcomed us into her house. One wall of her living room was lined with books on erotic art, and the bookcase adorned with phallic statues.
Katai said she became inspired by nature’s inherent sensuality while living and working in Australia, where she met her husband.
“Everything can be erotic”, she laughed, taking us on a tour of the garden she designed, full of suggestive sculptures and plants.
As strange an end to the Mae Hong Son Loop as it was, I must admit that the garden is quite well curated. You get your very own bottle of Erotic Garden branded mineral water to take home, too. If that hasn’t sold you on the loop, I don’t know what will…