Mae Hong Son Loop
The Mae Hong Son Loop is a tour through Thailand’s largest province located in the far north of the country along the Myanmar border. It’s 600km and 4,000 curves through some of the most beautiful mountains in SE Asia. The tour will take you through 3 small towns each with it’s own personality and several small villages. Along the way you will find waterfalls, spectacular views, the highest peak in Thailand, a canyon, caves and much more.
Direction: Being a circular loop you have the choice of going clockwise (Chiang Mae- Mae Sariang-Mae Hong Son-Pai-Chiang Mae) or counterclockwise (Chiang Mae- Pai -Mae Hong Son- Mae Sariang -Chiang Mae). The area around Pai is considered the more technical driving with all the curves of the mountains and it’s often recommended that if you’re a new rider you should go clockwise saving the harder riding for last. However, you if you decide to take the side trip up Do Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand then you will hit technical riding either way you start.
Having done the loop, I recommend going clockwise and skipping Do Inthanon. The views on the way up are amazing but the peak is a let down as there is a military post at the top and no good viewpoint. You will get plenty of spectacular views throughout the rest of trip. Another reason I prefer going clockwise is that Pai offers more to do than Mae Sariang and is a good place to end the trip.
When to go: The weather is cooler from Nov-Jan making the riding and hiking much more pleasant and in December you can see the Mexican flowers in bloom. Jan-Feb brings in the burning season making the air quality and visibility terrible. March-April are the hottest months. May-Oct are considered the wet/rainy season and although the temp is cooler and nicer be prepared for driving curvy roads while they are wet.
How to traverse the loop: The loop starts and ends in Chiang Mae giving you 3 options
- Rent a scooter/motorbike- Because of all the mountains I recommend atleast a 125cc bike.
- Rent a car- Convenient during the rainy season but not as fun as a motorbike.
- Go with a driver/tour- This may be the easiest way but you will not get to experience the hidden off the beaten path gems the loop has to offer.
How much time does the loop take: The loop can be done in 3 days if your just in it for the ride, staying one night in each of the 3 main cities. But if you want to soak in the culture and enjoy all the nature along the way you should spend at least 7-10 days.
Our trip ( May 2021):
Day 1: We picked up two scooters from Cat Motors for 100 baht each per day and began our trip around 11am. We had planned 3 stops today with the plan being to end up in Mae Sariang for the night. But as usual we were denied at 2 out of 3 stops. It doesn’t make any sense though. Our first stop was at the Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong temple. The temple was open and we were allowed in with no questions. We only saw 1 other family there and several of the monks weren’t wearing masks. No social distancing at all. The thing that makes no sense is that the next 2 stops were at waterfalls and at both we were denied entry. So to the Thai government it is safer to be in a confined temple with monks not wearing masks than it is to be outside in nature at a National Park. It’s makes no sense that I need to wear a mask as I walk into a restaurant but once inside I can take it off and converse with the waitresses and patrons with no limit to how many people are allowed in. Anyway the temple was not to spectacular as far as temples in Thailand go but remains a Buddhist relic because it is said that the Buddha himself once visited the hill where the temple now stands. After being denied entry to the Mae Ya waterfall and the Wachirathan waterfall we decided just to explore the town of Mae Sariang. We found a really nice room with AC for 400 baht ($12.50) then went for dinner at a small family shop where we had a great meal for only 175 baht ($5). The food was great but best part was the owner who was so happy to see us he just basically stayed at our table talking to us through the entire meal. He and his wife had to be in their mid 80’s and the old guy thought it was hilarious to keep making fun of his wives hunch in her back in broken English that she couldn’t understand. We got to see more of Mae Sariang on this trip then we did on the first time we were here and really enjoyed it’s small town feel. We felt a better vibe from the people here than we did in Chiang Mae as well.
As much as we enjoyed our time in Mae Sariang we only planned to spend one night so the next morning we hit the road around 9am and continued on the loop. Our next stop was the town of Mae Hong Son, the capital of the province. It’s the most built up of the 3 towns but still lacks any western influence other then 7-11 and BP gas. Along the way we planned to stop at a waterfall which was in a national park so it was closed. The main stop we wanted to make was at the Thai-Japanese Friendship Museum and to our surprise it was open so we spent about an hour alone in the museum. My love of all things Japanese made this a great stop. It wasn’t a very big museum but it was definitely worth the 100 baht ($3) entry fee. Afterwards we drove about 5 minutes up the road and stopped for lunch at a roadside family run place. Two meals with drinks for $5.50. The plan then was to stop at a hot spring and a viewpoint before reaching Mae Hong Son. The stops were about 20 minutes from the town and just as we arrived at the viewpoint it started to pour so we held up there until the rain past then decided we would backtrack tomorrow for the hot spring. When we arrived at the hotel we cleaned up and went for a walk. The town is built around a lake with 2 temples on one side so we walked around the lake, got a cold fruit shake then went for dinner before turning in for the night. There were no other tourists around again and the famous night market around the lake was closed. With Alyssa being new to driving a scooter it is really nice not having the typical tourist traffic but we are still missing other farang to socialize with. This is the part of the loop where the driving gets a bit more technical but that also means the views get better and the open road gets more fun for me. I love the curvy road at higher speeds so every so often I will pull over and wait up for her. But in all fairness, she is doing great and much better than other tourists we have seen in the past. We found better straps and secured her bag a little better, so she feels much more comfortable now.
We extended our stay another night ($16) and were all set to head out for the day when we realized Alyssa had locked her keys to the scooter under the scooters seat. We could either drive 2 days back to the rental place and get the spare key or find a friendly Thai to help us. Easy choice. So we jumped on my scooter and headed to a nearby auto garage. The guy working there didn’t speak English and couldn’t help us but he knew a guy who could. The guy arrived within 5 minutes and we followed him to our hotel where he pulled out a lock pick set and within 10 minutes we had her keys back. The first guy wouldn’t except any money from us and the guy who got the lock open only wanted 200 baht ($6). Gotta love Thailand. So with only a 30 minute delay we were off. We drove about an hour north stopping for lunch in a small village where we flew the drone above some cool eco dome hotels rooms. Afterwards we headed to Pang Oung, a lake in the mountains. The lake was open but there was no one around to take us out on the bamboo rafts. Still we had fun walking around. Next we stopped at the Namtok Pha Suea waterfall. The falls were open but swimming was prohibited. We stayed around 30 minutes and enjoyed the falls as we were the only ones there. On the way out we grabbed an ice cream cone and headed to the next stop, the Tham Pla Fish Cave. The grounds were beautiful and again we were the only tourists. There was a stream that ran into a tiny cave where there were hundreds of large carp. We bought some fish food (20 baht / 64 cents), fed the fish and walked around for awhile. All 3 stops were included in one ticket that cost 100 baht each($3). Our last stop was the Ban Kung Sak Rice Bridge. On one side of the bridge the Ban Kungmaisak villagers live and on the other side of the rice field the monks live in a temple. Seeing them walk across the bamboo bridge over the rice field in the morning is quite a site. The bridge itself was quite impressive and worth the free stop. By now we were exhausted and ready for dinner so we headed back to town for the night.
We probably would have spent another night on Mae Hong Son but we got news that some friends of ours were going to be in Chiang Mae for a few nights so we skipped the extra night and headed to our next stop, Pai. We drove straight there stopping only at a few viewpoints. The last being a 20 minutes respite from a sudden down pour. Then the day got scary. Six minutes from our destination Alyssa was attempting to make a turn on her scooter and she crashed. Luckily, she wasn’t too badly hurt only a little road rash(ankle, knee and elbow). The rest of the day was spent eating and resting up.
Pai is not only the liveliest town on the loop but it is also the most touristy. It has a reputation as a hippy hotspot with yoga and wellness resorts. It also has a large expat community. This is probably why Pai seems to be withstanding the shutdown better then most towns. About half the businesses are still open. The night market / walking street is gone for now but most things not government run like national parks are still open.
We woke up and Alyssa was feeling better and ready to get back on the bike, so we plotted an easy route around Pai to see a few sites before the rain came. The skies were clear so we headed first to the Sai Ngam hot springs. When we arrived we were told it was closed and wouldn’t reopen until next month however the guy at the gate must have felt bad that we drove the 30 minutes to get there only to be turned around so he said we could peak inside just to look but we couldn’t go in the water. He told us that the waterfall we planned to see next was closed as well and not to waist the trip so we headed next to the Yun Lai Viewpoint. To get there we had to drive through a small Chinese village and luckily when we arrived it was open. We stayed about 90 minutes enjoying a delicious lunch with the best views of Pai. I flew my drone for awhile before we decided to head back home and beat the afternoon rain that was coming. The viewpoint should not be missed if your near Pai.
There is plenty more to do in Pai from viewpoints and waterfalls to the famous and spectacular Pai canyon but we did those things the last time we did the loop so we decided we were going to just relax and then take a slow easy ride back to Pai.
In normal times we would have taken atleast 2 or 3 more days to complete the loop but with everything closed and no real nightlife 6 days were plenty. Even with so many of the highlights closed the Mae Hong Son Loop is one of the best things to do in Thailand. The ride itself is not only full of epic views but it’s peaceful and relaxing. The villages along the way are like stepping back in time. The food is authentic and costs a fraction of what the same dish would cost in the cities. English isn’t spoken as much but the people know enough to get along well with tourists. Each time around the loop I see and learn more and can’t wait for travel to return to normal so I can do it a 3rd time. Now it’s time to start looking forward to Vietnams Ha Giang loop as soon as the border opens.