The Mae Hong Son Loop has been on my brain for a year now. Ever since I rode Vietnam’s Hai Van Pass last summer I’ve been itching to jump on a motorbike for another long ride through South East Asia. Sure I tooled around for a half day in Krabi last Lunar New Year but that trip just whet my appetite for this new adventure!
Brian and I had just finished jungle trekking when we found Pops motorbike rentals near the Tha Phae gate in Chiang Mai’s old city. This magical square is surrounded by a man-made channel and packed to the brim with backpacking hostels, restaurants and tourist attractions. So naturally we did the same thing any sane traveler would do and rented bikes to leave the city!
The worst part of the ride was dealing with Chiang Mai traffic as we exited the city to the north. Signs are easy to follow and the traffic lights become less frequent (along with trucks) the farther you get from the city.
We took a quick detour to an elephant poop paper factory (I bought some for my students!) before heading westward to Pai. The roads are clearly marked with English signs. Everything is so clear in fact that we bought a map and only used it once to check our first turn.
From Chiang Mai to Pai is typically a 3 hour bus-ride through mountains and past rice paddies in the valleys on either side. Our first stop along this route was at the first hint of rain. You see Brian and I made 3 rules for the ride.
- No booze while we ride
- No riding in the rain
- No riding in the dark
It was wet season in mid August so we knew #2 might be tough and #3 could be stretched but with a week or more for this 4-5 day adventure we didn’t feel the need to rush into a dangerous road. Following rule #2 we stopped when the mist turned into a drizzle and met a wonderful Thai woman running a mini mart on the side of the highway. Checking our packs it was easy to see the poncho wrapping it wasn’t good enough for 800km of rain. Giggling she walked over with a boy who must have been her son. Even in this remote roadside village he spoke great English! Moments later we were wrapping our packs in oversize plastic bags and munching on Thai chips while the rain slowed to a halt. We waved farewell and were quickly back on the road.
Keeping a slower pace on the now slick asphalt the highway switched between single and double lanes as we passed a few tiny towns when suddenly the mountains were upon us. The road went from calm curves and curbside huts to steep blind corners. Switchback after switchback the ride grew exciting and we were sure to honk liberally before entering every curve.
Up and up we went passing slower trucks as buses and jeep caravans jetted around us. Curve after curve at least this endless mountain was full of verdant life with limbs reaching well into the road. The higher we got the greater the view when we suddenly burst out into a clearing. One more 180 degree turn and a surprise viewpoint was upon us! Taking a moment to breathe in the fresh mountain air we stood in awe of where we came from. Beneath us you couldn’t even see a road. There were no houses, no city. No trace of Chiang Mai simply lush jungle with hills rolling far into the distance. Turning back around another caravan careened past the bend and we decided to keep moving. We still had a few hours of riding to do.
Turn after turn we climbed with relative ease. A few trucks passed us in huge clouds of dust & smoke but these could be strategically avoided. Occasionally a totally blind corner would turn my stomach into knots but going slow I’d honk profusely and hug the outer curb. On curves with more view we began to get a better feel for the bikes and began behaving like locals using both lanes as we saw fit. For a few kilometers the only sounds we heard were our own engines. Our minds were focused on the road and the nature surrounding us when I noticed a bit of sand and some construction signs coming up.
The next 3 or 4 switchbacks were dusty with large ditches on either side. Backhoes and bulldozers parked at odd angles lined each trench. Luckily there weren’t any other cars on the road so we kept zooming along. Leaning with each bend we swerved through the forest when instantly I hit a patch of sand. I was deep into a turn. Too deep! I felt my wheels slip as I tried to correct right, swerving into the oncoming lane.
Luckily no one else was in sight as I over-corrected and nearly toppled on my left side. My elbow and knee eerily close to the ground when somehow I found my center. Still wobbly and shaken up I slowed down letting out 3 long blasts on my horn. Brian didn’t need the signal. He’d seen the whole thing first hand and later told me how he thought in that instant that our trip was about to end at a hospital.
I walked off my nerves and got back on the bikes. I had gotten to comfortable. Too lazy. These were good bikes and I was enjoying the ride but another mistake like that and I might not be here writing the next chapter. We continued on more cautiously but thankfully there were no more construction sites. A few more kilometers brought us to another lookout along the ridge and suddenly our journey reversed. Downhill meant breaking around these blind switchbacks while our westward journey now proudly displayed a sun threatening to set.
We were heading to Pai meeting a few friends from trekking at a “hotel by the river.” A Google.map screenshot and hotel name would theoretically be enough but Brian and I agreed that any hotel with vacancy was good for tonight. We’d make a decision once it got dark.
After an hour we finally entered the valley and put the crazy turns behind us. To the left endless rice fields framed by a mountain backdrop. The clouds and sun reflecting in a brilliant collage among the green patches brought a smile to my face. 9km to Pai zoomed past me on a sign and I let out 3 long blasts signalling Brian to stop. “We have enough time” I said. “Lets go explore!”
We both dismounted and crept over a fence closer to the fields. Each of these terraced pools had high grass walls perfect for walking on. I noticed the orange glow of sunset creeping over the mountains and among the clouds high above. This magical experience reflecting in my brain as much as the rice terraces below had been in my dreams since coming to Asia. The beautiful display will be forever engraved in my mind yet stay among those things I still wish to see.
Back on the road it was nearly dark and all kinds of bugs decided to grace us with their facial salutations. I compensated by driving extra slow but still had to keep my sunglasses on in spite of the low-light. We eventually found the “hotel by the river” and were stunned to get an air conditioned room with 2 beds for just $12!
Tomorrow we’ll explore temples and more rice fields. Tonight is a night to celebrate this journey with beer!
Stay tuned and explore Pai’s with me before we take the next big leg to Mae Hong Son!
Have you ever done a motor cycle course? Which one, is it similar to the Mai Hong Son Loop?