Motorcycling Thailand - The Mae Hong Son Loop... and Then Some!
The Mae Hong Son loop in Northern Thailand is famous in motorcycling circles, and beyond them. The core loop covers about 600 km split over four stages on excellent, winding roads. I rented a bike in Chiang Mai for two weeks and decided to do an extended version of the loop.
Here’s a video:
If you’re impatient, you can skip to the motorcycle bit. Otherwise, let’s learn a bit more about Thailand.
Thailand was unified into a single kingdom in the 14th century, and was known as Siam until 1939. Iit is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. A bloodless revolution in 1932 established a constitutional monarchy.
Since 2005, there have been several rounds of political turmoil in the country, including two military coups, and the country has been led by a military junta since 2014.
- GDP per capita is $20,474 (PPP) - 68th in the world - growing at 4%. This is much higher than the other countries I’ve been to recently (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), and the difference is immediately noticeable.
- Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.765 - “high” - 77th in the world
- 95% Buddhist
Sources: CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand; the metropolitan area has a population of about a million people. It is thus also the tourist center for visitors who want to see Thailand’s north.
The city has many temples. At one of them I talked to the monk Aekapop aka “Earth”:
Aekapop struck me as an unusual monk. He likes guns, has the US Navy Seal figurine (which he got from his brother, who is a Thai Seal who in turn got the figurine from US Navy Seals he trained with). He listens to metal. He is a university student, in Chiang Mai for a month to practice his English with foreigners. He plays Call of Duty, and is a self-admitted camper in that game. He became a monk when his parents split up; it was the easiest way for him to survive and get an education. He hopes on day to to visit the US, and mentioned that “many” Thai monks spend some time at Wat Thai of Los Angeles, located in North Hollywood.
I went to a local Muay Thai fight, or rather a series of fights. This was really cool - local people get really into it, and the atmosphere was great. The fighters were excellent, too.
There are many elephant sanctuaries and reserves around Chiang Mai, and many of the elephants in them are rescued from work, circuses, or riding attractions. I went to one which styled itself as an “elephant spa”. The visit included a mud bath with the elephants, which was quite an experience.
I need to give a shout out Like Home Guest House in Chiang Mai. Nuy, the owner, cooks a delicious homemade dinner every single day, and most of the twenty-or-so guests come by to enjoy it and hang out. The place is a great melting pot - I met everyone from new college grads to lawyers to retirees there, and this made for fun conversations. I’m also happy to report that I entertained the assembled good folk by playing guitar and singing, for which I was compensated in beer. Like Home is one of the most memorable places I’ve stayed during my six months of vagabonding.
To be honest though, after a few days in Chiang Mai I was ready to hop on a motorcycle and escape the city - and that’s just what I did.
Mae Hong Son Loop
The core Mae Hong Son Loop consists of these stops:
- Chiang Mai
- Mae Sariang
- Mae Hong Son (town)
I wanted to slow down a bit to make sure I see things beyond just the road, and so I added an extra stop just outside of Doi Inthanon National Park, and also spent two nights in each spot, with some day trips on my “off-days”. It felt nice - much more relaxed than some of the consecutive long-riding-days I’d done in Vietnam.
Eventually I decided to extend the trip all the way south to Sukhothai, the ruins of the capital of the aforementioned Sukhothai Kingdom from the 13th century to the 16th century. This would mean a lot more riding, and more riding on consecutive days… but the riding is so fun here that this was not much of a con at all.
Here’s roughly the route I ended up taking (the Mae Hong Son loop is in the upper-left quadrant):
As my ride, I got a Honda CB300F:
On the first day, I rode south of Chiang Mai and into Doi Inthanon National Park. Doi Inthanon is Thailand’s tallest mountain at 2,565 meters (8,415 ft.) above sea level. The top of the Doi Inthanon is forested, and there isn’t actually a view. Not far below the peak, though, or two large Stupas, which offer good views of the valley to the west.
I spent my first two nights on the loop at Fuang Fah Camping, just outside of a small town a short ride to the west of the Doi Inthanon National Park. It’s run by a family with a young boy and two dogs, one of which is an energetic and playful puppy. I slept in an open-air bungalow, which was wonderful. The night sky was beautiful.
From there I rode southwest to Mae Sariang, a small and sleepy town, where I ate some excellent traditional northern Thai barbeque.
On my off day in Mae Sariang I did a day trip up to Doi Pui Co - a mountain peak with wonderful views in all directions.
Parts of the route up were fun narrow twisties, but parts were a steep, bumpy, tight dirt road. Here I really wished I’d had a dualsport or adventure bike. Clearly, you can make it with a road bike (I did!)… but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. The views from the top were well worth it, of course.
Some people camp at the top, as the night sky is said to be amazing from up there. I didn’t have camping stuff with me, so I unfortunately did not do this. You can get a porter for the last 1km from the parking lot to the top, and I met a Thai tourist who’d hired one… here he is:
He was barefoot! Here’s the funny thing: I met the him again at the parking lot on the way down… and he put on a pair of sandals to ride his motorcycle back home! He just prefers to trek barefoot.
Back in Mae Sariang, I met Thomas, the 59-year old Swede. He retired when he was 51, and since then he spends the winter months of each year (when it’s cold and dark in Sweden, as he says) riding his Honda CB500X around Thailand. His pension isn’t much, says Thomas, but he doesn’t need much (he points to the free bananas we’ve both been eating for breakfast), and his bike doesn’t need much gas, and money goes a lot further in Thailand.
From Mae Sariang I rode north to Mae Hong Son, the capital of the province of the same name. This ride was really fun, perhaps the most fun section of the entire trip - the last 70km are endless twisties on great tarmac with only very light traffic. If you were designing this road to be ideal for motorcycling, I’m not sure you would do anything differently.
Mae Hong Son has a great night market. People say that about lots of places, and I generally disagree (regarding Chiang Mai, for instance). They’re usually too crowded for me, and full of people trying to sell useless trinkets to tourists. That is not the case in Mae Hong Son - the visitors are overwhelmingly locals, and the stalls are overwhelmingly focused on food and drinks and desserts. I ate a cheap and tasty dinner there on both of my nights in town.
Incidentally, “noodle soup” is very common here. This is distinct from Khao Soi (a… noodle soup), which is also common and delicious here. Locals always just referred to it as “noodle soup” without a more specific name. Through in-depth, in-the-field research, I’ve created the hypothesis that this is simply the Thai take on Vietnamese pho. They are quite similar, including in their tastyness.
It was in Mae Hong Son that I decided to extend the trip south to Sukhothai - and to make it all in time, that meant I wouldn’t have any more rest days until Sukhothai. Let’s ride!
From Mae Hong Son I rode to Pai, stopping at the Lod Cave on the way. Lod Cave is a large cave system, and encapsulates a river for about 800m. Huge fish swim in the waters of the cave, used to visitors feeding them from rickety bamboo rafts.
The road to Pai continued to be excellent, and really fun to ride.
Getting to Pai felt like reentering major tourist country - the number of foreigners around went way up, and there were many more shops and services that cater to tourists. This has upsides (comfortable hotels) as well as downsides.
The road from Pai towards Chiang Mai is famous for its 762 turns, and it was a fun ride. There was noticeably more traffic here than on the sections I’d covered in the previous days.
The next place I wanted to see were the Bua Tong Waterfalls, also known as The Sticky Waterfalls, some 60 km north of Chiang Mai, so I got a farm stay near there for one night. The waterfalls are covered by a layer of mineral deposit, which makes the surface not sticky as the name might imply, but rather quite grippy. The waterfalls are thus very fun to walk on.
Onwards South to Sukhothai
From the Sticky Waterfalls I rode south to Lampang, a city on the way to Sukhothai. I chose to avoid the highways and picked a small route through the mountains, including the Doi Khun Tan National Park. This was great riding, and I even had time for a short hike through the park. Visibility was mediocre, sadly. I am told this is the norm here during the dry season.
The quick route from Lampang so Sukhothai is about 200km, half of it on a big highway, and should take about 3 hours. I felt like finding a more fun route, and decided to take a small road I’d found on Google Maps to cross the nearest mountain range, and then some regional roads through the valley on the other side and across the second mountain range between me and Sukhothai.
The area I rode through in the morning was strangely bleak and well off the beaten track. I rode through some tiny villages, and finally started to get a little worried about my route when the map guided me off the main village road (which was quite small) and even smaller roads into the back areas of the village. At the edge of the village the forest started… and the pavement ended.
I thought about turning back there and taking the quick route back to Lampang and then onwards to Sukhotai. At that point, though, I would have lost two hours of riding time that day - and still have another three hours of mostly-boring riding ahead of me. And, I thought, I’d handled the dirt roads up to Doi Pui Co reasonably well! I decided to press on, keeping open the option of turning back if the going got too tough.
It wasn’t bad at first, and got worse only gradually. The second time I considered turning back was when the road got more hilly… and decided to press on. The third time I considered turning back was the first stream crossing. Here I stopped and was about to survey the stream carefully… when a couple of locals rolled up on their bikes (with noticeably more dirt-capable tires) and crossed. I followed the path they took and made it across.
Another stream crossing followed soon. I made it across again, and soon asphalt appeared again. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy to see asphalt. From there the road got nicer, and eventually became downright fun - recently repaved and twisty.
I think the lesson I learned here is that in addition to checking maps, I should also check the satellite view, and where possible, street view. I should also do it in multiple sections of the same road. These two photos were taken on different sections of the same road, shown exactly the same on Google Maps:
I think the dirt road section was only about 10 km long, but I admit it was somewhat stressful. For a big chunk of that I didn’t see anyone else, too - so any misfortune could have turned ugly. It makes for a fun story now, but I would not take that road on a road bike again. I was glad to have two full rest days coming up.
Sukhothai was the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 13th and 14th century. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the remains of the royal palace and twenty six temples.
From Sukhothai I finally rode back north to Chiang Mai, this time mostly sticking to the Google-suggested fastest route… except for a quick(ish) detour through the mountains around Doi Khun Tan National Park, which I’d enjoyed so much on the way down.
I got pulled over (along with all other motorcyclists on the road) twice in Chiang Mai. They are aggressively enforcing that everyone must have a Thai or International Driver’s License for the proper class of vehicle. The first time the officer was satisfied by my International Driver’s License (including for the M1 motorcycle class, naturally). The second time, the officer chatted with me very amicably while I tried to retrieve my driver’s license from my duffel bag (which is a slow operation - I had to undo the buckles keeping the bag in place). The officer asked where I was from, and when I told him “America”, he just smiled and told me to go - no license needed.
Thoughts on Riding Around Northern Thailand
And so I rode about 1,600 km total - one thousand miles!
I was originally a little worried about doing so much distance on the Honda CB300F I got - the bike isn’t really designed to carry much luggage. On the other hand, it absolutely is designed to be fun in the twisties - which it absolutely is.
Honestly, I’m not sure you could pick a better motorcycle for the core Mae Hong Son loop. I had a ridiculously good time riding here. Many a time I realized that I had an ear-to-ear smile on my face. Roads are better and speeds are higher in Thailand than in Vietnam, and I am glad I had the extra power (roughly double of the 150cc Honda XR dual sport I had in Vietnam).
On the other hand, some places worth visiting here are off the beaten track and only accessible by dirt roads. To see them, a dual sport or an adventure bike might be the right choice (and should come with a decent luggage rack, too). I’m told there’s good off-road riding in Salawin National Park just west of Mae Sariang, too. You know, I could do this whole loop again - get a different kind of bike and do a different kind of riding for a different kind of experience.
I got my motorcycle through Cat Motors out of Chiang Mai. They have “a special bounty program for travel bloggers that provides them with an opportunity to rent a motorbike for one or two weeks free of charge”. I don’t think I’ve ever referred to myself as a travel blogger, but I do have this blog, and it sure seems to have a lot of travel posts nowadays… and so I got to ride that amazing motorcycle for free for two weeks!
If I could make two suggestions to Cat Motors, they would be:
- Add a cell phone mount! They’re cheap, and every tourist who rents a bike here could use it. I ended up zip-tying my phone to the handlebars, which worked better than I’d expected.
- Add a luggage rack. It might be tricky with the CB300F, and everything worked out OK without it, but I do think a luggage rack would have made life a little bit easier for me and for many other tourists.
One thing that’s great about Cat Motors is that they accept a cash deposit for the motorcycle. Most places in Chiang Mai require that you leave your passport behind in lieu of the deposit, and that just makes me really uncomfortable.
The Honda I got was in great shape, and I had a great time, and would not hesitate to do it again. In fact, the bike handled so well even in the situations for which it’s not made that… Dear Honda/Santa, all I want for Christmas is an Africa Twin
I had a really wonderful time in Thailand. The riding was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a motorcycle (and thus also some of the most fun I’ve had, period). Add in the beautiful countryside, friendly people, delicious food, great massages, cheap everything, and what you get is a good time.
See you again soon, Thailand.