Tired of waiting for buses and mini-vans and wanted more freedom to explore the area at your own pace? Try riding the Chiang Mai-Mae Hong Son loopby Marco Ferrarese
Looming overhead, a patchwork of soft white clouds covers the intensely blue sky like a torn mantle. The road ahead of us rolls along the gentle-sloping hills as it transforms into a tail of shimmering grey snake chasing the horizon. We are standing next to our scooters somewhere along road 108, the well-maintained asphalt strip connecting Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son in a circular loop.
We have already stopped in the MaeLa Noi district to rest wheels after having spent the night at the foothills of Thailand’s highest peak. Fields that burn with yellow-hued wheat and extend all around us, beckoning and waiting for our next move. But honestly, moving is the last thing we want to do right now.
We took to this less-visited corner of northern Thailand to find some respite from Chiang Mai’s sprawling modernity. As we were tired of waiting for buses and mini-vans and wanted more freedom to explore the area at our own pace, we decided to ride the Mae Hong Son loop.
This epic 600km roadtrip touches Mae Sariang, the Burmese border-town of Mae Hong Son, and backpacker-heaven Pai before closing the circle again in Chiang Mai. Renting a bike is flawless: companies and shops at every corner offer everything from automatic scooters and 100cc two-strokes city bikes to bigger sport-end motorbikes. Tony’s Big Bikes (www.chiangmai-motorcycle-rental.com) is recommended for his wide selection and a decade worth of experience. Consider that for those with less time on their hands, a motorbike with bigger engine will better negotiate the steep inclines and hairpin curves this loop is famous for.
One can take the loop in either direction. However, going clockwise will help cover the longest, flattest and most urbanized stretch (190km) in-between Chiang Mai and Mae Sariang at the beginning of your itinerary.
We rode out of Chiang Mai after lunch, but adrenaline started to kick in only when we hit the turnoff to the Doi Inthanon national park about an hour-and-a half later. Travelers usually bypass this park and opt to spend the night in Mae Sariang but we kept stopping at several of the park’s waterfalls until we reached the incline to the summit of Doi Inthanon (2565m).
We tried the ascent, but our simple scooters couldn’t make it: we gave up mid-way. Beaten but still giddy, with dusk upon us we found shelter at the park’s wooden chalets. We spent our first night savoring the fresh embrace of the pine-scented mountain air, looking at a metropolis of stars from our veranda.
When we reached Mae Sariang mid-morning the next day, we were immediately glad to have spent the night closer to nature. Inspired by serendipity, we decided that we would have stopped only where we liked, not following any prescribed itinerary. Continuing along an increasingly small and beaten-up road, we entered an underworld of lesser-known villages where gas stations are an infrequent commodity.
Mae Hong Son appeared as a spell of golden stupas and pointy-roofed temples, which were set along the Myanmar border. The road, however, had hypnotized us: after filling up the tank, we pushed on until dusk beckoned us to a roadside restaurant and an unknown guesthouse in a village we found along the way. The good thing about this loop is that no matter where you are, it’s always quite easy to find food and accommodation.
The next 100km to Pai along road 1095 is made up of a serpentine mountain road that keeps arms twisting until the mountains retrace to Chiang Mai’s lowlands. Pai itself sits in a gem of a valley, but the town center has sadly transformed into a Western-steak house and bar-lined walking street for foreigners. Having wheels helped: we got out of the commercial melee and visited the surrounding countryside, which also offered the best accommodation options.
A visit to Pai’s canyon, with its deep sandy gorges and rocky cliffs, is another natural highlight of an area that otherwise would possibly disappoint those who arrived by public transport. We spent a couple of nights cruising around Pai’s idyllic surroundings and resting before taking on the last stretch of mountain road and its famed one-thousand bends. It is tough biking but the hills are beautiful: between a pit-stop and a picture opportunity, we took our time to roll down the slopes and we reached Chiang Mai only in the early evening.
Dropping the bike and getting back to modernity was a bit of a shock compared to what we had experienced for the past four days. The first impulse is to get back to the rental shop, get another motorbike, and turn around to do it counter-clockwise. Or even better, to set off somewhere new using one of the excellent northern Thailand motorbiking maps provided by GT Riders (www.gt-rider.com/maps-of-thailand-laos-maps). Having wheels, as I said before, the possibilities are endless.