The Mae Hong Son Loop is a rites of passage for motorcycle enthusiasts and the route is constantly ranked in the top ten motorcycle routes in the world. But it is not just motorcyclists that can enjoy the scenic route. It’s the perfect way to explore the charm, natural beauty and ethnic diversity of the north, making stops in places like Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang and back to Chiang Mai via Doi Inthanon.
With its 1,864 curves, the Mae Hong Son Loop is not for the faint of heart and tales of car sickness in a crowded minibus deter even some of the most adventurous travellers. But that’s a shame, because the loop is a great way to explore this part of Thailand, taking the traveller north from Chiang Mai to Pai, Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam, Mae Sariang and then back to Chiang Mai via Doi Inthanon. The loop can be done in either direction and has unlimited side tracks and variations. The trip can take as much as a week and as little as a couple of days.
The phrase “Mae Hong Son Loop” is said to have been coined by Australian cartographer and motorcycle touring pioneer David Uncovich in the early 1990s when he published a guidebook on the loop.
The route can be taken by car, motorbike or bike, and some people have even walked the route. No matter your mode of transport, you are bound to pass beautiful temples, stunning waterfalls, hot springs, national parks, bird sanctuaries, jungle and fields of wild flowers. Along the way you will see a remarkable variety of scenery, vegetation, climate and people.
Most travellers start in Chiang Mai and go north towards Pai. The road to Pai is one of the more technically challenging; the road is in disrepair in several places and the traffic coming out of the city can be quite heavy so it is advised to curb your enthusiasm if you want to a good start to the trip. Don’t worry, it will get better the further you go from Chiang Mai.
Along the way you will find several places of interest as well as restaurants and cafes. Amongst them is Coffee Hill in Mae Taeng district a little outside Chiang Mai. The hillside cafe has a constant stream of motorists stopping for a fix of highland espresso coffee, to enjoy the amazing views and the first chance to revel in the cooler climate the mountains have to offer. If you are hungry, make sure to stop by the sala pao shop a few minutes before you reach Coffee Hill.
After Coffee Hill you are treated to one of the most beautiful stretches on the route, which goes from tight mountain roads to sweeping curves and challenging chicanes. The terrain transforms from panoramic mountain views to rainforest with rice paddy filled valleys and some beautifully designed Lanna-style temples.
In Pai there are several places to sleep and refuel. One of the most popular lunch spots is TTK, a falafel institution that attracts travellers from all over the world. The quaint town is also home to several good coffee shops and massage places – your back could probably use a good rub!
After Pai the road takes you towards Mae Hong Son. There, make sure to visit Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, which is located a short ride from the town centre. It is always a treat for the beautiful chedi and the awe inspiring views. The best views are at the top of the small road hidden on the back of the car park which goes up to an even taller viewpoint. A lot less crowded than Pai, Mae Hong Son offers the same idyllic slow pace of life, and you can visit several Shan-style temples and see the old teak buildings that speak of the region’s past as a teak trading centre.
The area around Mae Hong Son is also home to a variety of ethnic minorities for whom life has changed little in the last century. A little north of Mae Hong Son town you can visit Pang Ung, a picturesque Shan village high in the mountains.
Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai
The roads from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang are in great condition allowing a faster pace and a more sporty ride. On the way, stop by some of the shacks selling barbecued pork belly, sticky rice and sai oua, which is a spiced sausage common in northern Thai food.
There are a few options for food in Mae Sariang. If you are in a group and feel like a good sit down meal, head to Kru Kan Eng Restaurant on the river side. The restaurant specialises in local fish dishes, however, if you are travelling alone, the night market or a guest house restaurant may be a better bet.
From Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai you are treated so some of the most scenic landscape in all of northern Thailand. The forest near Pa Bong gives way to pine plantations not too dissimilar from those in central Europe. Then, near the turnoff to Mae Cham and the base of Doi Inthanon the view changes from alpine to plains to rolling hills covered in vegetable farms and corn fields.
Highway 1192 takes you to the foot of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand. This narrow, ridge-top road is the steepest, most windy road of the trip and rewards riders with a fast paced roller-coaster like ride. The blind corners are so sharp and the road so narrow that there are signs urging drivers to sound their horns to alert oncoming traffic. The arid grassland and crags turn into dense dark temperate rainforest canopy and small windy roads cut through the jungle of the Doi Inthanon National Park. The road is usually wet and the edges are often slippery from moss and leaf litter so be careful.
After the mountain, the road is pretty much downhill all the way into Chiang Mai. Back in the city, treat yourself to a nice meal and a hot shower at one of the many restaurants and hotels and lean back in the knowledge that you have covered one of Thailand’s – and perhaps Southeast Asia’s – most scenic routes.
- The best season for riding is November through to March. If you want as few people on the road as possible, aim to go before high season in November when the hills are still green from the summer rains and the flowers are blooming.
- Mae Hong Son has some of the most extreme weather conditions in Thailand, often setting the record as the hottest and coldest place in Thailand during summer and winter, respectively. During winter temperatures can drop down to zero degrees in the mountains so make sure to bring appropriate clothing if you visit during this time.
- If you go by bike, make sure to wear protective clothing. This means helmet, closed shoes and no shorts and t-shirts. Gloves are also a good idea, especially if the sun is shining, burnt hands do not make a safe rider!