Since moving to Taiwan a few years ago, my primary transportation is my scooter and weekends are often spent cruising mountain roads and exploring small villages. This newfound love of riding has opened up new doors when exploring other areas of Asia and especially northern Thailand.
Last Spring my friend Deborah and I decided to tackle the popular Mae Hong Son Loop, a challenging ride consisting of 1,864 curves (according to the t-shirts!). We did the loop counter-clockwise, heading southwest first from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang and then north to Mae Hong Son. Scooter issues in the mountains outside Ban Rak Thai forced us to abandon some of the most scenic parts of the northern section of the loop. So we did it again, this time taking a leisurely 10 days and focusing on the north, giving us plenty of time to stop and smell the roses.
A few notes on the route:
This ride is not for beginners. The traffic getting out of Chiang Mai is challenging, especially for novice riders. Inexperienced riders may want to take the shuttle from Chiang Mai to Pai and rent a scooter there. Tackle small sections to get your confidence – Pai to Soppong is a beautiful ride without the city traffic. Once you’re comfortable, continue on to Ban Rak Thai. Take it slowly!
Last year, we rented Honda PCS 150cc which handled the hills well, until they broke down. Our replacements were Yamaha Filano 125cc that had less power on the hills but more storage space, a consideration when traveling for 10 days. We chose the Yamaha again this year, with our backpacks fitting nicely on the floor and extra layers or shopping fitting in the seat. Keep in mind that the 125’s have smaller gas tanks – top off whenever you have the chance!
After last year’s disaster, we were determined to find a place that offered the option of purchasing insurance. There were very few choices in Chiang Mai: Aya or Mr Mechanic. We went with Aya and paid an extra 40 baht per day for coverage but it was well worth it. Unfortunately, their customer service in both Chiang Mai and Pai was terrible.
We also purchased a travel insurance policy through World Nomads Travel Insurance to cover anything unpredictable that may happen while out on the open road. It was very reasonably priced and gave us enough protection from the unexpected, like crazy drivers or slippery pavement.
Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao (1 hour 30 min)
Route: This is an easy drive (once you get out of the crazy Chiang Mai traffic!), heading north on 107. There’s not a lot to see until about 15K outside of Chiang Dao, when the road gets windy and the scenery beautiful with sheer limestone cliffs.
Hotel: We stayed at Chiang Dao Huts booked on Agoda. The huts area conveniently located walking distance from the famous Chiang Dao caves. They also have a great restaurant right across the street.
Things to do: Definitely spend time going through Chiang Dao cave. If you have extra time to explore, there is an amazing temple just up the road called Wat Tham Pha Plong. Peaceful, serene, and deserted except for us and the monks.
Chiang Dao to Soppong (4 hours 15 min)
Route: Leaving Chiang Dao, head south on 107 until you get to Mae Taeng, a small market village. The right turn for Pai is well marked and will connect with 1095, the main loop road. Parts of 1095 are being resurfaced (Feb 2016), so travel times will vary from google. Also allow time for photos as the views are amazing! Once you cross the highest pass, if you’re running low on gas look for this guy in the small town – he saved us!
Hotel: We spent two nights at Soppong River Inn in a nice little bungalow, cute and very affordable (another great find on Agoda!). There is a large patio overlooking the river, perfect for relaxing. Our hut was cute but located close to the main road. Tip: try to get something closer to the river. The Inn also has a restaurant with excellent food.
Things to do: Tuesday is market day when all of the local tribal people gather in town to do their shopping allowing for interesting people-watching.Tham Lod cave is one of the largest in the area, a massive cave with coffins inside. We spent a few hours touring the cave and then stayed for sunset when millions of swifts (birds) fly in and millions of bats fly out. Creepy but kind of cool!
Soppong to Ban Rak Thai (1 hour 50 min)
Route: This is a short but beautiful stretch passing over Phangma Pha viewpoint. There are signs a few kilometers before the right turn to Ban Rak Thai (also known as Mae Aw) but the turn itself is not very well marked. Look for signs to Fish Cave – Ban Rak Thai is the next right turn and winds through a small town Mok Chom Pae, which is a confusing maze of streets. (Consult your GPS here!)
Hotel: We’ve stayed at Lee Wine Rak Thai Resort twice and love it. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to book ahead of time and there’s very little English spoken here. We found it listed on Agoda but availability was limited since it was high season so we had better luck calling directly.
Phone: (+66)89-950-0955, (+66)89-262-1335
The rates are high for Thailand ($1800 baht/night minimum) but well worth the splurge!
Ban Rak Thai to Mae Hong Son (1 hour 15 min)
Route: This is another short but beautiful stretch, returning back to route 1095 and heading west. Once you get back to the main road, it is very well marked and heavily traveled with lots of options for gas and food.
Hotel: On our first trip to Mae Hong Son we stayed at Ngamta Hotel, which was clean and centrally located. Unfortunately, they were full during Chinese New Year so we opted for Likeview Guest House, a smaller, very low-budget option in a great location. The view from our patio was amazing, but the noise from the community patio right next door was deafening.
Things to do: The temple across the lake is beautiful, day or night. On Chinese New Year’s Eve, they released lanterns into the sky and we watched from our patio – perfect view! The other popular “tourist attraction” in the area is a visit to the Long Neck Village. I’ve been there 3 times and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. If you’re driving a scooter there, be VERY CAREFUL crossing the moss-covered streams – “Slippery when wet” signs are there for a reason!
Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang (full loop option – 3 hours)
Route: The stretch of 1095 heading south to Mae Sariang is one of my favorites. The road is curvy without being really twisty – more relaxing and a much faster pace! There are a few small villages along the way that are worth exploring is you’ve got the time. To complete the full loop, take 108 from Mae Sariang heading east to Hot and then head north back to Chiang Mai. (This section of the loop isn’t that interesting, which is why we focused on the northern loop this time.)
Hotel: We spent one night at River House Resort which was clean, modern, and affordable. Large balconies overlook the river and it’s very quiet and peaceful.
Things to do: Mae Sariang is a small, quiet, untouristy town with just a few shops and restaurants lining the river area.
Mae Hong Son to Pai (northern loop option – 2 hours 20 min)
Route: Take 1095 and head east! The day we drove this stretch, it was sunny but spring burning had started so there were fewer photo options, which meant we just drove! It’s a fun stretch of road, passing through Soppong and over the high pass back to Pai.
Hotel: Pairadise is our hotel of choice in the area. It’s on the edge of town and away from the noise and chaos, complete with a swimming pool, fountains, and a hammock. They also serve an amazing breakfast!
Things to do: There is so much to do around Pai! I spent 2 weeks there a few years ago, mountain biking, exploring country roads, waterfalls, and temples. The town has become famous as a backpacker ghetto but I still love it!
Pai to Chiang Mai (3.5 hours)
Route: Again, take 1095 heading east. This stretch is popular with the gray vans hauling people between Pai and Chiang Mai, so drive carefully because they don’t. A nice half-time stop is a little cafe called the Witch House, serving food and all kinds of coffee and tea. Cute place!
Hotel: Our “home base” in Chiang Mai is Anoma Bed and Breakfast (great rates available on Agoda), which is located in a great area of Old City and walking distance to some of the best bars, cafes, and spas. They’re also very accommodating with storing our “stuff” there while we’re on the road.
Things to do: Just a few of my favorite things – breakfast at Dada cafe, happy hour at John’s Place, shopping at the night market! Try the massage at Lila Thai Massage, but don’t be an idiot like I was!
My first trip to northern Thailand was almost 20 years ago, mostly viewed from the back of an enclosed pick-up truck on one of those ever-popular group treks. It was an amazing experience, but since I was following a guide I never honestly knew where we were. Riding this loop allows more of a connection to the roads, villages, and people along the way.
Enjoy and be safe!