By Jaspreet Narang
One traveller’s tale about her incredible experience motorbiking through a Northwest corner of Thailand.
Tucked away in Thailand’s Northwest corner lies one of the most forested province known as Mae Hong Son. With Shan, Lisu and Karen hill tribes lending the province its charm, Mae Hong Song might be one of the country’s last frontiers where cultural tapestry is woven into rural beauty. While most of Thailand may be overflowing with tourists, Northern Thailand still has plenty of pockets where you can lose sight of them, providing a perfect off the beaten path exploration opportunity. There is no better way to take in the breathless scenery, misty mountainous passes and steamy jungles than tackling the 600 km Mae Hong Son Loop with a motorbike.
The Mae Hong Son Loop
Adventurous travellers and thrill seekers are in for a treat in Northern Thailand with this multiday excursion. The Mae Hong Son Loop is not for the faint-hearted, especially with 1,864 curves, steep mountain trails and 360 degree blind corners. You will experience various microclimates from burning desert heat to frigid winds to extreme humidity as you pass over hills, ride through river valleys, rice fields, dense forests, as well as herds of cattle and water buffalos. The roads that are in perfect condition change drastically, as you exit Chiang Mai, into sweeping racetracks that are exceptionally enjoyable to ride on. This is, without a doubt, a biker’s paradise.
There are variations of the Mae Hong Son Loop – the starting point always being Chiang Mai, unless you have your own motorbike and would like to ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and continue from there. The most commonly taken route requires four days to complete and goes clockwise. In case you feel the need to rebel, you can also choose to take it counter-clockwise of course.
The most common route follows this path:
Chiang Mai Mae Sariang Mae Hong Son Pai
Variations of these routes exist as well, depending on the amount of time you have at your disposal. Suggestions include:
Opting to go from Chaing Mai to Mae Chaem on the first leg, allows you to spend the day exploring Doi Inthanon along the way. Also, the most beautiful leg of the journey for me was the ride from Doi Inthanon to Mae Chaem. The views were an absolute dream.
A detour from the regular route, especially for those who want to do some cave explorations, water sports and hill tribe visits is to spend the night in Soppong, prior to arriving in Pai from Mae Hong Son.
Another detour is to travel up further north to Chiang Dao from Pai. It is the perfect place to enjoy your last day relaxing in between the mountains at a nice spa resort before making your way back to Chiang Mai.
Renting a Motorbike
A 120cc or 200cc scooter is not going to do the trick for undertaking this Mae Hong Son Loop. However, if you are willing to ride at the speed of 30 to 40 km per hour, then renting a scooter is the cheaper option, but definitely not the safest option, as the curves are tight and often slippery. If you are a confident rider, what you need is a 500cc motorbike at the very least. These bikes will allow you to climb up steep hills and take on those curves beautifully without compromising on your speed. The price ranges anywhere from B800 to B2,500 per day depending on the motorbike you select.
Medical insurance, motorbike insurance and helmets are usually included in the price of the rental, and this should be the bare-minimum standard of safety you set for yourself. Additionally, you also have the option of renting biking gear including jackets, pants and other protective equipment. In order to rent a bike, a motorbike license is required. These rental places will also retain your passport for the duration of your rental. This is common practice, and thus it is important that you are comfortable with leaving your passport in their hands.
Not Confident on a Motorbike?
If you are not an experienced or confident motorbike rider, there are plenty of other options to explore the stunning scenery. These include:
• Car: You can opt to rent a car from Chiang Mai. Just make sure to rent a manual-geared car that is in impeccable condition.
• Public Transport: For a cheaper alternative, and especially if you are on a tight budget, you can also attempt to complete this loop by public transport. However, the journey will take longer.
• Don’t skimp on the bike. It is a tough ride and you want a solid set of wheels under you.
• Go clockwise along the route and buildup towards the hardest leg of the journey which is the trail from Pai to Chiang Mai.
• To experience the microclimates and clock-in some Thailand winter, take on the loop between November and February.
• Do not underestimate how cold it gets on a motorbike. Bring thick sweaters, wind sheeters, riding gloves and sunglasses.
• Although the trip can be done in as little as four days, it is much better if you stretch it out to at least a week.
• Eat your way through the loop, as the lovely northern Thai delicacies and favourites are hard to come by in any other region of Thailand.
• Visit the cute coffee shops along the way. Some of them are hidden gems with amazing views.
I’ve road tripped through several stunning and exotic locations outside of Thailand, but this drive is, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful I have experienced – not just for its scenery, but also because of the locals I encountered. Northern Thailand, especially the Mae Hong Son province has some of the friendliest locals, keeping alive our widely beloved slogan, the Land of Smiles. It is about time we go explore what is right in our backyard.