It was two friends who visited us in Pattaya last summer that sold us the exciting Mae Hong Song loop, located in Thailand’s Northern province. They had chosen to skip the gorgeous Thai islands in favour of a motorbike trip on the mainland. This had to be good!
What is it exactly?
The loop is a 600km circular motorbike road-trip that starts in Chiang Mai (aka ‘the rose of the north’) and leads you around Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, through the town of Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son and Pai. As well as all of the natural beauty you can muster- with its rolling hills, breathtaking views and waterfalls- this trip allows you see an authentic part of Thailand. It leads you to the remote hill tribes and local towns, through the village communities and far away from the tourist crowds.
Starting out in Chiang Mai
As it was Christmas and we had time to spare, we dedicated 10 days for the trip. However, most people do the loop in 3-5 (it can be done brashly in one day, but not recommended as there’ll be no time to enjoy the scenery or towns.)
It is also worth noting that the loop can be done in either direction, although it’s probably easier to take it clockwise as the roads can be a bit tricky around Pai. The clockwise route will also mean that you’ll have the cool hippie town of Pai to enjoy in the last leg.
If you’re very short on time, then you can just take the road to Pai and back.
As it’s a long road trip and you’re going around some steep and windy descents, a good bike is important.
We researched thoroughly before choosing a bike rental. Back in 2014, we used this one on Thipanet Road who were very good.
To find them: walk down Thipanet Road towards the centre of Chiang Mai, pass the city wall and it’s on your right, directly opposite a shop called ‘AMP Mobile’. The front of the rental shop has a banner that says ‘Motorbike For Rent’ and two telephone numbers : 052002710 and 0804985582.
The loop is perfect for scooters as well as motorbikes. Ideally you’d want a 150cc, but you can do it just fine on a 125cc (we did). The bikes were near-new, automatic Honda Clicks and we paid 2’000 each for 10 days.
The hire company wanted to take our passports, which is a frequent request when renting bikes in Thailand. Thankfully we managed to get them to settle for just a photocopy and we didn’t even need to pay a deposit either.
DO: Check the bike thoroughly for scratches and damages (and take pictures of any) before taking it out. The Thai’s are well-known for overcharging for bike damages, however minor.
Accommodation: Ban Bon Doi
As we were taking the loop slowly, on our first night we stayed just outside Chiang Mai in the cutest family-run accommodation. The hospitality was gorgeous and the setting was peaceful. We ate a delicious Thai dinner at sunset and a traditional breakfast in the morning. It was the perfect start to our adventure.
Leg 1: Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son
Normally the Mae Hong Son loop takes you through Thailand’s tallest mountain, but, we decided to go UP it! Well, part the way anyway.
In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the best method, considering I was a beginner rider. But it was fun and amped my rider skills somewhat. It was also a very scenic route.
This part of the trek, until Mae Hong Son, is the most remote, tranquil and rural. There will be plenty of hill tribes, views and villages that you’ll pass and maybe stop at.
Despite reading on the internet how busy the route gets at Christmas, we barely saw fellow riders until we got to Mae Hong Son, and even then there were very few. Let’s just say it was the quietest and most remote x-mas day ever. I think people tend to stick around Pai for the actual celebrations.
We didn’t stop at Mae Sariang, but I’ve heard it’s a peaceful village with good rafting and trekking around.
Mae Hong Song
After 4 days of green and hills and winding roads, we finally reached Mae Hong Son. We were expecting to see masses of people and tourists. We didn’t!
There were a few travellers but mainly locals and the vibe was very chilled. The city was cute and pretty, lined with mountainous views in the backdrop and cafes overlooking the lake.
It was nice to have restaurants around again and all the amenities you could need- the loop was very remote until this point and you’ll be practicing your Thai a bit!
There’s quite a lot to see in and around Mae Hong Son with nearby waterfalls, hot springs and gorgeous temples, so staying a couple of nights is worthwhile.
Leg 2: Mae Hong Song to Pai
When leaving Mae Hong Son, you’ll be blown away with the hilly terrain. It truly is a sight for sore eyes.
Expect even more beautiful, scenic views and a few more bikes on the road. The roads also start to get quite windy en route to Pai.
If you’ve got time on your hands, there are some caves you can visit on your way around that are meant to be stunning. We were starting to run short on time but if you plan ahead, Lod Cave is worth a few hours.
Pai was awesome! Filled with love hearts, hippie grooves and layed back residents, it’s a very quirky town. It was a fun way to spend a couple of nights, although we could have quite happily stayed another few days, weeks or months!
There was a huge variety of restaurants in town and their Walking Street offered the best food markets I’ve seen in Thailand yet. The cool vibes make it attractive to young twenty and thirty something expats and travellers, who were there in abundance. If you want to see some natural beauty, then Mor Paeng Waterfall is a popular attraction.
Accommodation in Pai is plentiful, but we had a great time here:
Pai Bamboo Hut: located just a few kilometres out of Pai’s centre. Pascal, the French owner and his wife were incredibly welcoming and ensured our stay was as pleasant as possible. The huts were in good nick, the setting was peaceful and our hosts were amazingly hospitable. They also whip up some pretty great food too, which is handy as there are few dining options in the immediate vicinity.
Leg 3: Pai back to Chiang Mai
This final leg gave me the most ‘crap my pants’ moments. The roads were steep, very windy (762 turns to be exact!) and pretty busy. Because Pai is a popular town, the roads en-route showed their wear. They were’t terrible, but I remember many potholes.
As a travelling couple, there were so many awe inspiring moments on the trip that the Sailor and I wanted to chat about, but couldn’t because we were on separate bikes. Some form of hands-free device would have been handy for this, except we didn’t have one. So we improvised by honking the horn.
- One honk: to signal for attention
- Two honks: for stopping
- Three honks: for ‘OMG’
- Four honks: for ‘OMFG I nearly crapped myself’ (four was honked along the tricky roads.)
Chiang Mai itself one of the coolest cities I’ve been to in Thailand. I can see why many expats choose this place as home. There’s heaps to see and do, so make sure you reserve a few days for this place.
Aside from the stunning beauty of the loop, the thrilling road trip and Pai, I gained even more from this holiday than I expected.
Not only had I seen a remarkable and authentic part of Thailand, but I saw how local villagers and tribes live. In these remote areas, people traditionally live in hand-made wooden huts with very basic resources and the bare essentials to get by. Yet they pull together as a community and make the most of what they have.
Needless to say, it was a very humbling experience and one of those travel moments that start to change you as a person. The loop was definitely remain as one of my favourite Thai holiday yet, and there wasn’t a beach in sight.