The Mae Hong Son Loop
Drive through the jungle, over mountains, and through 1,864 challenging curves.
The weather in Thailand is perfect for touring on two wheels; in addition, the landscape with jungle and mountains offers you a great view on the trip.
You will find several loops for motorcycles in Thailand; the most famous is Mae Hong Son Loop in Northern Thailand. Of course, you can enjoy the loop on a scooter or in a car as well; I would advise against riding on a bicycle, though, as Mae Hong Son is the most mountainous province in Thailand.
You can get an impression of the trip in this video:
Please note that the loop is only for experienced drivers, whether you are riding a motorcycle or a scooter.
Mae Hong Son Loop starts in Chiang Mai City, continues in a semicircle to Mae Hong Son City and then completes a circle back to Chiang Mai. The loop offers 1,864 curves along approximately 600 km (375 miles); however, typically, you will get more kilometres and curves under your belt as there are many interesting sights and detours along the way.
You can ride the loop in a day or two; however, most people use four to six days, so they have plenty of time for detours to visit waterfalls, the highest point in Thailand, fields with Mexican sunflowers, fish in a cave, nature trails, a bridge over a rice field, the Thai version of Grand Canyon and much more.
Along the way, there may not be much traffic; however, on some of the detours, you may have to share the road with others:
You can ride the loop clockwise or counterclockwise. I would recommend that you choose clockwise because then you save the most exciting and challenging part of the loop for last. In this article, I ride the loop clockwise.
Most people choose to divide the trip into four parts:
Chiang Mai City to Mae Sariang
Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son City
Mae Hong Son City to Pai
Pai to Chiang Mai City
Chiang Mai City to Mae Sariang:
Detour to the Top
An hour south of Chiang Mai City, you will have the opportunity of the longest detour on the loop: A trip to Thailand's highest point on Doi Inthanon. Until now, the ride has been flat and a bit boring; however, from here and to the top of Doi Inthanon, the road is more exciting with jungle and curves. On the way to the top, you can take detours from the detour and visit waterfalls, a couple of royal chedies, and a nature trail; read more in the Doi Inthanon article.
From Doi Inthanon, you can choose to cut off a little of the circle and take road 1088 to the loop, or you can go back the same way and continue from where you left off towards Mae Sariang.
Mae Sariang is in the Mae Hong Son province; you can find hotels in the province on the agoda website (use the map at agoda to see the locations of the hotels).
Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son City:
At Mae Sariang you can take a detour to visit hot springs, and you can go hiking in Salawin National Park.
From Mae Sariang, you go north towards Mae Hong Son City. On the way, you can take detours to visit Mae Surin Waterfall and Thung Bua Tong Fields. The latter offers fields of Mexican sunflower, which is tall shrubs with yellow flowers. That is if you come at the right time of the year.
Mexican sunflower originates from Central America. They were brought here in the first half of the 20th century by missionaries, and they have since spread wildly. You find them along the road on several parts of the loop, and at Thung Bua Tong you can see fields of Mexican sunflower. They only bloom for about 14 days; the best time to visit is in the latter part of November.
Unfortunately, I had to ride the loop in early November, so only about 10 percent of the flower buds bloomed. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant spectacle.
You can find hotels in the Mae Hong Son province on the agoda website (use the map at agoda to see the locations of the hotels).
Mae Hong Son City to Pai:
Bridge Over a Rice Field
In Mae Hong Son City, you will find Doi Kongmu Temple which offers a great view of Mae Hong Son – even with low hanging clouds as in the photo below.
On the way towards Mae Hong Song City, there are not many sights to see – except, of course, the beautiful nature. However, on the next stretch of the loop, you will have more sights to visit. The most popular sight is Su Tong Pae Bridge that crosses a rice field and a small river. The citizens of Ban Kung Mai Sak built the bridge to make it easy for the monks living on the other side of the rice field to visit the city.
At first, they build the bridge entirely of bamboo; however, since then, they have reinforced the bridge using steel pipes under the bamboo mats. Furthermore, when I visited in November 2016, they worked on a new bridge of steel over the Mae Sa Nga River.
Besides Su Tong Pae Bridge, you will find great views, waterfalls, caves, and strange fish at an underwater stream from a mountain; not to mention a somewhat more challenging road with lots of curves up and down the mountains.
Riding the loop, you will get far away from other tourists, especially on the detours; however, when you get near Pai, you will meet more and more tourists, mostly very young tourists. The tourists begin to show just over 20 km (12.5 miles) before Pai at Kiew-Lom Viewpoint, a popular destination for minibuses from Pai; here you will also find some tourist stalls with products from the local mountain tribes.
From the viewpoint to Pai, you need to pay more attention because of the extra traffic of minibuses to and from Pai; in addition, you will meet young tourists riding scooters with no experience, without protective clothing, and with no knowledge of how to ride a scooter in mountainous areas.
You can find hotels in Pai on the agoda website.
Pai to Chiang Mai City:
Curves, Curves, and Even More Curves
The tourists on the last stretch to Pai gave you a hint that you are not as far out in the countryside as you thought. Nonetheless, you will still be surprised how many young foreigners you see in such an unlikely place as Pai. Far away from sandy beaches and full moon parties.
It is especially backpackers who have found their way to Pai; however, many Asian tourists come too because of a couple of movies. The Chinese film "Lost in Thailand" has in recent years increased the number of Chinese tourists, and the romantic Thai film "Pai in love" has increased the flow of Thai tourists to Pai. Many who ride Mae Hong Son Loop choose to stay more than one night in Pai.
The area around Pai is relatively flat but as you continue towards Chiang Mai, you quickly learn that the curves on the way to Pai were merely a small preview. After Pai, you get to the most challenging part of the loop with sharp and steep curves, which definitely is not for the inexperienced riders.
From Pai to Chiang Mai City, you will meet a lot of minivans transporting tourists between Pai and Chiang Mai; be carefull they drive fast and often reckless too.
Just outside Pai, you will find the Thai version of Grand Canyon, Pai Canyon. It consists of narrow red, steep-sided ridges with a 50-meter drop on each side. The path over the ridges is not for the faint-hearted. In some places, the ridge is just 20-30 cm wide, and in other places, you have to climb to follow the path.
The last stretch to Chiang Mai City is flatter; giving you time to calm down before returning to the starting point. On the way, you can take detours to visit Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden, Mae Sa Elephant Camp, and Mae Sa Snake Farm. However, they are all close to Chiang Mai City; thus, if you stay in the city, you may as well visit them on an excursion for themselves.
There are many more sights along the loop than the ones I have mentioned here. You can find more on this Google map of the Mae Hong Son Loop. The map includes the trip up to Doi Inthanon and a loop around Chiang Rai.