Northern Thailand is home to some of the most gorgeous scenery in the kingdom. Travel through Chiang Mai and neighbouring Mae Hong Son province and you will experience sublime views of mountains, waterfalls and rice fields. Embark on an epic road trip from Chiang Mai on the famous Mae Hong Son loop for a memorable adventure where you will witness the outstanding natural beauty of northern Thailand. With twisting mountain roads, this is a route that lends itself to slow travel with opportunities en route to stay overnight in charming small towns and villages, where you can relax before the next leg of your journey. The Mae Hong Son loop is often described as one of the most scenic routes in Thailand. It’s a rewarding trip for experienced motorbike riders, but the hairpin bends, steep climbs and slippery roads can be challenging for inexperienced riders. As an alternative to taking a motorbike, you can hire a car, travel the loop by public transport or just cherry-pick parts of the route by going on day trips using Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Son as a base.
Using Highways 108 and 1095, the circular route can be covered in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. The full loop covers approximately 375 miles and to do it justice you would need to allow at least 4 days, preferably longer. Be prepared for lots of twists and turns in the road. There are reportedly 1,864 curves on Route 108 from Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son. And once you reach Mae Hong Son, pop into the local Chamber of Commerce office and they will issue you with a souvenir certificate recording the fact you have navigated all 1,864 of the curves.
Staying in Chiang Mai city is the ideal springboard to explore more of north Thailand and to travel on to Mae Hong Son. As the cultural capital of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a wonderful destination in its own right. You can read more about what to see and do in Chiang Mai here.
If you want to travel the entire Mae Hong Son loop, or even just see some of the locations mentioned below, then Chiang Mai is the perfect starting point. Travelling in a clockwise direction from Chiang Mai, these are some of the highlights you can see en route.
Doi Inthanon National Park
The highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, is located to the south-west of Chiang Mai city. At over 2,500 metres above sea level, temperatures can get chilly at the top of the mountain and Thai tourists wearing big jackets, gloves, woolly scarves and hats is a common sight in the cool months. The road is paved nearly all the way to the top and the best views are just below the summit at the wonderful twin pagodas dedicated to HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and HM Queen Sirikit. Doi Inthanon National Park is also home to a number of waterfalls and walking trails and is a great location for bird-watchers. A number of Royal Projects can also be found inside the park providing visitors with the opportunity to sample and buy locally produced goods. If you want to stay overnight, basic accommodation is on offer at National Park bungalows or in tents. More accommodation options are also available in nearby Mae Chaem or Chom Thong.
Ob Luang National Park
Continuing your journey on Route 108 takes you through Ob Luang National Park (also spelt as Op Luang). Evidence of a settlement dating back to the Stone Age has been found here and you can still make out the lines of prehistoric paintings on cave walls. The Mae Chaem River has carved out an impressive canyon which is easy to reach from the main road. If you cross the small suspension bridge that spans the narrow gorge you come to a well laid-out walking trail where you are rewarded with fine views over the mountains and the road below. Back on the road, continue your journey west for a few more miles on Route 108 and make time for a stop too at the scenic Bo Kaeo Tree Pine Garden.
The amiable small town of Mae Sariang is an ideal place to unwind for a day or two before continuing your journey towards Mae Hong Son. You won’t find many tourists here, but you will find a welcoming atmosphere and some charming accommodation and places to eat along the Yuam River. With the Salawin National Park on the doorstep, Mae Sariang is an excellent base for hiking or you can hire a bicycle in town and explore the lovely countryside all around.
From Mae Sariang continue on Route 108 north to the town of Khun Yuam. Most people travelling the Mae Hong Son loop tend to overlook Khun Yuam, but anybody interested in wartime history should pay a visit to the Thai-Japan Friendship Memorial Hall museum. And if your visit coincides with the cool season months of November or December, seek out the sunflowers that cover some nearby hills and which attract local domestic tourists for the Bua Tong Sunflower Festival.
Mae Hong Son
For the capital city of a province, Mae Hong Son is surprisingly compact. The centre of town is the Nong Jong Kham Lake with the twin Burmese-style temples of Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang forming a photogenic backdrop. For even more impressive vistas, travel up to the hillside temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu which sits on a hilltop and offers spectacular views of the mountains and valleys below.
The relative seclusion of Mae Hong Son combined with its proximity to Burma has led to a mix of cultures and hill-tribe groups establishing their home in the province. For an extra-special local experience, visit any of Mae Hong Son’s many Community Based Tourism initiatives. These are among the most rewarding and memorable travel experiences you can have as you are welcomed into a local community and stay overnight in a village home stay.
Ban Rak Thai (Mae Aw) and Pang Oung Reservoir
From Mae Hong Son, travel on Route 1095 and visit the delightful Su Tong Pae Bridge. The bamboo bridge is elevated above rice fields to link the village at one end with the community temple at the other. Further along Route 1095 are two more highlights of Mae Hong Son province. Arriving at Pang Oung Reservoir you will find a scene that is more reminiscent of the English Lake District or the Swiss countryside rather than the typical view many associate with Thailand. In fact, this corner of Thailand with its scenic views and cooler climate is often referred to as ‘Little Switzerland’ for just that reason.
Travel a few more miles beyond the ‘Little Switzerland’ of Pang Oung and you reach ‘Little China’. Tucked up against the Burmese border, the village of Ban Rak Thai (also known as Mae Aw) was settled by former fighters attached to the Kuo Min Tang (KMT) political party in China. The fighters sought refuge in Thailand following the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1940s. The picturesque village overlooks a lake and retains strong ties to the past with descendants of the original settlers setting up restaurants and guest-houses in the village.
From Mae Hong Son the next stop for many on the Mae Hong Son loop is Pai. But if you want a quieter place to relax on the way back to Chiang Mai, make a small diversion off Route 1095 and visit the riverside village of Soppong (also known as Pangmapha). Soppong makes an excellent base for hiking or to explore the waterfalls and caves to be found nearby. Tham Pla and Tham Lod are two of the most well-known cave systems in the area with their impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations.
Pai has certainly developed a lot in recent years due to improved transportation links and an influx of Chinese tourists. Pai old-hands who remember when this was a sleepy village may bemoan the development that has taken place, but the nature around Pai remains as beautiful as ever. With plenty of accommodation options and a host of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops to choose from, Pai is still a pleasant destination to chill out for a few days before striking out on the final leg of your road trip.
From Pai, Route 1095 heads out towards Chiang Mai with the big city being the final destination for most travellers on the Mae Hong Son loop. This stretch of road is particularly scenic as it snakes around mountains and through jungle. There are reported to be 762 bends in the road between Pai and the point where the road starts to level out in the final approach to Chiang Mai. It’s an impressive way to end an epic road journey, but if you can’t get enough of that stunning northern Thai scenery there is one final diversion you can take.
If your itinerary is flexible, from Pai you can head to Chiang Dao, the ‘city of stars’. Towering limestone cliffs and a series of caves make this another impressive destination for lovers of the great outdoors.
Good to know
The number of bends in the roads and the climb in altitude can cause discomfort. If you are prone to travel sickness you should take precautions before travelling on the Mae Hong Son loop.
Temperatures in the mountains in the cool season can drop to single figures (centigrade) at night so be prepared with warmer clothing. Equally, hot season can be exceptionally warm and sunscreen and mosquito repellent should be packed whatever the season.
If you do decide you want to rent a motorbike for your journey, make sure you are covered to ride it under the terms of your travel insurance. You are also required to carry an International Driver’s License/Permit and at police checkpoints en route you may be required to show this. You should also carry your passport with you; do not hand your passport over as security to a car rental or motorbike rental company. They may take a photocopy of your passport, but you should keep the original with you.
The roads on the Mae Hong Son loop are mostly good, but inexperienced riders can, and do, get caught out by potholes, loose gravel, sand, and random animals straying into the road. Wearing a thin t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops may be comfortable in the heat, but as far too many novice riders in Thailand find out, offers no protection if you come off your bike.
Golden Triangle Rider publishes an excellent and detailed map of the Mae Hong Son loop. Although the map was initially produced for motorbike riders, it is now a useful resource for anybody planning travel on this route. You’ll find the map stocked in many bookshops in Chiang Mai and also in Pai and Mae Hong Son.
Travelling on the Mae Hong Son Loop
Travelling in a clockwise direction, these are the approximate distances for various legs of the trip. Journey times are an estimate for car travel. Allow extra time to include attractions such as Doi Inthanon or Ban Rak Thai Village.
Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang:
Approximately 125 miles via Route 108. Around 3 hours 30 minutes
Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son:
Approximately 100 miles via Route 108. Around 3 hours 15 minutes
Mae Hong Son to Pai:
Approximately 70 miles via Route 1095. Around 2 hours 15 minutes
Pai to Chiang Mai:
Approximately 80 miles via Route 1095. Around 3 hours.
Arranging Your Trip on the Mae Hong Son Loop
If you only want to do part of the Mae Hong Son loop and want to do it in comfort, you can fly in one direction between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son with Bangkok Airways. Make sure you get a window seat for the best views. A new airline, Wisdom Airways, is also set to launch in December 2017 covering routes from Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Son previously operated by Kan Airlines.
Mini-buses and local buses run from Chiang Mai’s Arcade bus station to Pai and onwards to Mae Hong Son. Most tour agents in Chiang Mai can also book you on a minibus to Pai. Local buses from Chiang Mai’s Arcade and Chang Puak bus stations run to other locations including Chiang Dao and Mae Sariang.
For independent exploration, there are a host of motorbike and car rental shops in Chiang Mai to choose from. If you are travelling as a family or with a small group, a minivan with driver can work out to be an economical option. If you prefer a hassle-free option where somebody else takes care of everything for you, check out any of the reputable tour operators below:
Big Bike Tours (motorbikes)
Spice Roads (cycling)
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by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com