A guide to the famous Mae Hong Son Loop

Mae Hong Son Loop by Alexis Gravel

The Famous Mae Hong Son Loop is a fantastic motorbike adventure. Found in North west Thailand, its one of the most spectacular sealed road loops in the world. You’ll drive past beautiful rice fields, through forests, over hills and mountains, passing water buffalo on the way. Local people wave as you pass their villages, and you’ll see things that few travelers in Thailand do. The Mae Hong Sone loop takes a minimum of four days, but we suggest you take some time out in the towns along the route. Here is a proposed itinerary for this amazing bike route. 

Chiang Mai to Mae Sairang (185km)

When you leave Chiang Mai, the start of the route is fairly simple. Exit out of the South Gate of the Old City then follow Thipanet Road until you get to the airport. Mae Hong Son is well sign posted.

Follow Route 108 towards the town of Hot, this should take around an hour. It is a straight road and simple to follow. Once you have turned right at the roundabout you will continue on Route 108 and the town of Mae Sairang is well sign posted. At this point the scenery becomes very beautiful.

Things to Do in Mae Sairang

 

 

Mae-Sariang by Ken Marshall
The Town of Mae Sariang

Mae Sairang is an authentically beautiful town which benefits from the cultures of both Myanmar and Thailand as it borders both countries. Less popular than Pai with tourists and travellers, this makes it a more peaceful and less commercial experience.

If you are looking for a quiet yet culturally rich place to visit then look no further than Mae Sairang. There are amazing treks to the Karen & Lawa Hilltribe Villages if you are seeking a little adventure. Otherwise, just renting a bicycle and exploring the town is a great way to absorb the ambience. There is also plenty of opportunity to buy wonderful handmade jewellery and other local crafts.

Why not visit a temple while you are there such as Wat Phrathat Chom Thong. It is one of the oldest temples in Thailand with the ancient golden Buddha clearly visible from afar. Once up on the hill you get a stunning view of Mae Sariang Town and the Yuam Valley.

Mae Sairang to Mae Hong Son (181km)

Mae Hong Son Loop ViewPoint by John Shedrick
Mae Hong Son Loop View Point

When leaving Mai Sairang the road is quite curvy and you will pass through dense forest which eventually clears to a clear road with views of spectacular farmland. The traffic becomes much quieter at this point and you will pass through lots of small villages that are welcoming for a rest and refreshment along the way.

As you get closer to Mae Hong Son, the roads become very curvy again and the views are fantastic.

Things to do in Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son by Ken Marshall
The Town of Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son City is nicknamed “the city of three mists”. Being the most mountainous province in Thailand makes this place pretty spectacular. It is much bigger than Mae Sairang and a little busier. There is plenty to do here.

If you are interested in art and history then visit Wat Jong Klang where you can view glass Jakarta paintings that are over a hundred years old and a museum with ancient wooden dolls from Myanmar. The temple is lit up at night and is reflected in Lake Nong Jong Kham which is quite stunning.

There is also trekking to be done here and a visit to the Long Neck Karan Tribes is popular with tourists (but ethically, not for everyone.) Sutongpe Bridge is another lovely spot to visit. The original bridge made completely of bamboo crosses over beautiful rice paddies and fields. It makes for great photo opportunities and a delightful place to see the sunset.

Mae Hong Son to Pai (117km)

The road to Pai is a short but winding one. It goes round in one big curve with lots of twists and turns along the way. Route 1095 has 762 bends in total. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Mae Hong Son Loop. The motorbike certainly beats being cramped up in a sweaty minibus with other tourists. It’s best to take it slow, some of the corners are very tight and besides you will want to take in all that gorgeous scenery. There are plenty of nice eatery’s and bungalows along the way if you want to spin out the ride.

If you are feeling really adventurous you could visit the Tham Pha Mon cave which is located near Soppong en route to Pai.

Things to do in Pai

Pai by Claire Backouse

Pai is a very popular spot on the travellers routes and not without good reason. It is a beautiful little town nestled up in the mountains with a relaxed atmosphere and friendly people. Pai is probably one of the most chilled out places in Thailand or indeed the world.

There are many cosy and quaint little cafes and bars just waiting to be discovered by you with the most delicious food. One fantastic place definitely worth checking out is The Container which has hanging egg chairs that look out onto the most beautiful view of the hills. Pai is also very popular with musicians with a lot of good reggae coming from this part of the country. If you are lucky you may be able to check out a local band such as Rasta Flower.

Artists and musicians flock to this town and makes it a wonderfully vibrant place to be. Pai Circus School is a hostel that has become popular among travellers looking for a fun and unique experience. One thing’s for sure; you will not find it hard to party in Pai.

Pai to Chiang Mai (140km)

If you can bear to prise yourself away from Pai, be sure to wear fully protective clothing (including your feet) and a decent crash helmet as the first 40km of this journey are probably the most treacherous on the Mae Hong Son Loop.

After that it tends to get a bit easier but there are a whopping 762 bends to contend with along the way. It’s all good fun though. There is lots to see and do on the way including the Tha Pai Memorial Bridge. You will find it 9km along from Pai on the way to Chiang Mai. It was built in World War Two by Japanese soldiers and is a very popular place to take some amazing photographs.

You will find many friendly villages on the way to Chiang Mai who will welcome you with that famous Thai smile and a decent coffee to boot. Once you hit the highway you will be able to relax in the knowledge that Chiang Mai is only a short easy ride away.

Things to do in Chiang Mai

Wat Bupparam, Chiang Mai

 

There is so much to see and do in Chiang Mai you should try and spend at least a week there. It’s such a culturally rich and fascinating city that is steeped in history. It was once the capital of Thailand, in fact until 1558. Just renting a bicycle and exploring the city by yourself can be a wonderful way to get to know Chiang Mai.

You may want to stay within the city walls where the hustle bustle of the city gives a vibrant and fun energy.

The markets are fabulous and if you can fit in a cooking class, this is a great place to do it as you will be shown around the food markets first. There are hundreds of fantastic temples to visit in Chiang Mai. Check out our guide here.

Have the best experience of the Mae Hong Son Loop

The Famous Mae Hong Son Loop is the experience of a lifetime. Here are a few safety tips:

  • Be sure to rent a bike from a reputable company
  • Make sure the bike is powerful enough to see you through the long and sometimes tough journey.
  • Make sure that your insurance covers motorbikes.
  • Protective clothing and a full crash helmet are essential
  • Find some travel buddies to join you on this epic journey. It is always good to have support on the road.
  • Always wear sunscreen even when it is overcast.
  • Make sure you have plenty of cash before you set off
  • Charge your phone between stops.

So there it is, our guide to one of the Mae Hong Son Loop, one the most amazing trips of your life. Have fun and take lots of photographs.

Images courtesy of Flickr members: Featured image Alexis Gravel. Other images by John Shedrick, Ken-Marshall and Claire Backouse

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Mae Hong Son Loop

Cities and Towns near Chiang Mai that are wonderful to visit

Mae Hong Son by Ken Marshall

Many people come to visit the historical northern city of Chiang Mai, but never extend their visit to travel into the hills and mountains surrounding it. Even fewer visit the charming neighbouring cities of Nan, Lampang and Lamphun which have an even older history than Chiang Mai. In this blog we will give you a taste of cities and towns near Chiang Mai, that you can visit as a day trip, stopover, or long stay.

Lamphun – 40 min

Lamphune. Thailand
Lamphun. Thailand

Lamphun is a beautiful small city 26km from Chiang Mai. It was founded nearly 500 years before Chiang Mai so  there are plenty of historical sights to see. Lamphun is one of Thailand’s oldest continuously occupied towns and was founded in 660 by Queen Chama Devi, the queen of an ancient kingdom predating the creation of Siam or even Sukhothai. The most important sight of Lamphun is the temple Wat Phra That Haripunjaya, which sits in a lovely location near the river, and was founded in the ninth century. Many people come here just for the day, but if you are in no hurry, this is a perfect spot to stop over and relax in for a few days as there is plenty to do and see.

Thaton – 2 hours

Thatom. Thailand
Thaton. Thailand

Thaton is a town near Chiang Mai and close to the Burmese border. The main draw for tourists to Thaton is that there is a river pier here where boats take you on a 4 hour trip to Chiang Rai. This river boat trip is famous and offers stunning scenery along the route. Thaton is a quiet town without much tourism or nightlife, but is beautiful, friendly and surrounded by some amazing countryside. Thaton also has a large old temple on top of a mountain just outside the town. After an hours walk to the summit you are rewarded with a gorgeous panoramic view over the surrounding beauty.

Lampang – 2 hours

Lampang, Thailand
Lampang, Thailand

Lampang is a charming small city near Chiang Mai that is famous for its horse drawn carriages and home of the king’s stable of white elephants. Of all the cities and towns near Chiang Mai, Lampang has the most distinctive character.  The rooster is a very old symbol of Lampang, derived from a local legend about a white rooster that was sent by the Brahmin God Indra to wake the locals so they could give alms to the Lord Buddha, who was travelling through the town.

Since Lampang is more than 1,000 years old (older than Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) it is rich in archaeological and historical sites from the kingdoms of Hariphunchai, Lanna, and Burma. There are also some nice riverside restaurants and a friendly local population. Just outside of the city, on the road to Chiang Mai,  is the ‘Thailand Elephant Conservation Centre’ which is a famous government run centre. Again, with places like this, please research thoroughly their reputation for animal care. Any centre that makes elephants perform tricks or take people onto their backs for rides are not elephant friendly according to WWF and many other animal welfare organisations.

Chiang Rai – 3 hours

Chiang Rai is a relaxed city within the area famously known as the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge. This area became synonymous with poppy growing and trafficking of opium back in the last centuries, and has become romanticised in many people’s eyes.

Chiang Rai is quite busy and full of tourists year round. It has many traditional Thai temples and also temples with a distinctly Burmese influence due to a long Burmese occupation of the area. There is also the famous White Temple one of the most distinctive temples in the world.

The region is home to many hill tribes including the Akha, Lisu, Mien and Hmong and Chiang Rai is famous for selling handicraft items such as fabric, wood-carvings and silverware produced by the hill tribe people. Doi Mae Salong Mountain is home to another traditional people who come from China and here you will find that Chinese is a commonly spoken language. Be careful in the area of Chiang Rai about participating in ‘hill tribe shows’ which are fake and exploitative.

Mae Sariang – 4 hours

Mae-Sariang by Ken Marshall

Mae Sariang is a rural non-touristic small town near Chiang Mai situated in a pretty green valley and surrounded by hill tribe villages and nature. Sitting on a largely undeveloped riverside and surrounded by forested hills and rice paddies, the town still has many old teak buildings, some Burmese and Shan style Buddhist temples and is authentic in almost every aspect. There are far fewer tourists in Mae Sariang than Pai, Chiang Rai, or Chiang Mai so you will also get a much more authentic experience of hill tribe life in this area. For instance there are no “hill tribe shows”. Despite being less touristic, there are some nice hotels and guest houses here, so it really is a win win experience.

Nan – 5 hours

The City Walls, Nan, Thailand
The City Walls, Nan, Thailand

Nan is the former capital of an ancient small kingdom and is filled with history and surrounded by mountains, perfect for trekking. Nestled in Thailand’s northeastern corner, on the border with Laos, Nan is a remote small city to be explored at your leisire. Because of its proximity to Luang Prabang, (the historical capital of the Laotian Lan Xang Kingdom), the earliest settlers in the area were Lan Xang’s Laotians. After that in the 13th Century, the King of Nan aligned himself with the Lanna Kingdom.

Nan’s ethnic groups are another highlight and differ from those in other northern provinces. The main hill tribes are Mien, Hmong, Thai Lü, Mabri, Htin and Khamu. Nan province also has six national parks, including the Doi Phukha National Park, which contains mountains nearly 2,000 metres high. These parks are filled with awesome natural beauty and are much less touristic than the areas closer to Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son – 5 hours (featured image)

Mae Hong Son is a remote and very pretty little town set in a mountainous valley with a strong Shan influence who make up the majority of the population. The Shan used to be rulers of a vast kingdom, have their own language and own ethnic tribes within their own culture. There are thought to be around 5 million Shan people in the world, and many of them live in this area of Thailand and still live by their traditional culture which originated in Southern China and they traveled south around 1,500 years ago.

Mae Hong Son has a border town feel and is a real experience. It is not totally cut off from the rest of the world though and has been hosting tourists for many years who come to take boat trips and go trekking in the gorgeous mountains, which are actually the foothills of the Himalayas. If you come here in the cool season, you will need to wear a sweater in the evenings.

Pai – 5 hours

Pai by Claire Backouse

Pai is a beautiful little town near Chiang Mai. Set in a stunning valley surrounded by nature, Pai has become a tourist town, offering a relaxed atmosphere with a broad traveller and backpacker scene. There’s plenty of budget accommodation and places to study yoga, eat vegetarian food and view the nature. Whilst Pai has become very touristic and even boasts a small airport now, it is still full of charm, friendly locals, peace and quiet and is surrounded by nature.  Since it is nestled into the foothills of the Himalayas, expect cool nights and wonderful views.

Mae Hong Son Loop – 5-8 day trip

And finally, the Mae Hong Son Loop! – North west Thailand is home to one of the most spectacular sealed road loops in the world: the Mae Hong Son. It’s especially well-known amongst motorcycle tourers as it features over 4000 bends, taking you up and over mountains, through forests and across bridges for its entire 660km length. Apparently you climb the equivalent of Mt Everest one-and-a-half times. The trip starts in Chiang Mai then makes a loop through Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Pai and finishes back in Chiang Mai.

Map (left) is SE Asia in the 17th Century and (right) – current major towns and cities of Northern Thailand

Map of the Lanna Kingdom and present day Northern Thailand

That’s it for this blog. We hope it has given you some ideas for your travels and is some good advice for visiting cities and towns near Chiang Mai. Good Luck!

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cities and towns near chiang mai Ken Marshall- PI

Image courtesy of Flick.com – Lamphun by Deepak Bahtia, Thaton by Kris Dhiradityakul, Lampang by RuckSackKrueme, Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son by Ken Marshall, Nan by James Antrobus and Pai by Claire Bachouse