The Mae Hong Son Loop Fact File:Distance: 650km. Length of time: 3-5 days. The Route: The route can be done in either a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction (makes sense huh!?) and depending on how fast you ride, you have various options for spending the night. There are also many interesting excursions along the way of waterfalls, temples, hot springs and of course hill-tribe coffee shops to break up the journey. Here’s the way we did it…
START: Chiang MaiHead out from Chiang Mai on Highway 108 and 1009 in the direction of Doi Inthanon. Sign posts will say Chom Thong or Mae Chaem. The route will take you through the beautiful Doi Inthanon National Park, through forests and ethnic minority, hill tribe villages. It is possible to take a short detour to reach the summit of Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand at 2,599 metres. There are also a few spectacular viewpoints along the way which are well worth a photo break.
NIGHT ONE: Mae ChaemAfter coming through Doi Inthanon National Park you will descend to the quiet town of Mae Chaem and Mae Sariang, traditional towns which contain a mix of hill tribe ethnic minorities such as the Lisu, Hmong and Lawa.
NIGHT TWO: Mae Hong SonHeading out on Highway 1285 (arguably the most scenic part of the journey), you will finally reach Mae Hong Son, the capital of the province and home to some spectacular scenery. This is the half way point of the journey.
NIGHT THREE: SoppongA quiet town located on the River Mae Lang, Soppong, also known as ‘Pangmapha’ was traditionally a market town where local hill tribe villages came to trade goods. The town is culturally diverse, home to a high proportion of hill tribes, with Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Burmese Shan and Haw Chinese Muslim. Make sure you visit Tham Lod, or the Coffin Cave (so called because the cave contains many stone age coffins) which is said to be the largest cave opening in Southeast Asia with a river running through. At sunset, the cave comes alive with bats and swifts, entering and exiting simultaneously.
NIGHT FOUR: PaiRelax once you arrive in the chilled out Bohemian town of Pai and reward yourself with a mojito in one of the trendy bars in town. Brimming with hippie sorts and bouncing with reggae music, Pai is a favourite amongst backpackers and has a great range of restaurants, bars and tea shops.
END: Head back to Chiang MaiFrom Pai back to Chiang Mai it’s around three-four hours and only 762 curves to navigate!
The Mae Hong Son Loop: Essential Tips
WHAT TO TAKE:Even though when you leave Chiang Mai you are sweating in the heat of the city, it can get pretty cold up there in the mountains, so be sure to take warm clothing. This is especially important if you are attempting the route in the months between November and February. Also, (as we are in Thailand) sun cream and mosquito repellant are necessities all year round. Although the route is well signposted all the way, Google Maps on your phone will come in handy. And, if you want to go old school, there’s a great map which can be purchased for about 150 baht in book shops in Chiang Mai – called (rather aptly) the Mae Hong Son Loop Map! Aside from the curves (did I mention there are 1864?), the roads are very good, tarmacked and smooth in most places.
WHERE TO HIRE A MOTORBIKE IN CHIANG MAI?There are many places to hire motorbikes and scooters in Chiang Mai which usually charge per 24-hours. Cost ranges from 200 – 350 Thai baht/day depending on where you hire the bike and what type of bike. You will need to pay in advance and leave your passport as a deposit. If you don’t want to leave your passport you can also leave a deposit of around 5,000 Thai baht. We have had no bad experience with companies failing to return passports so don’t worry too much about this, just make sure that you are hiring from a reputable place. Also, be sure to take a business card with the company name address and phone number case in case there is a problem with the bike. We recently hired an automatic scooter from Tripper Bike and Tour for 200 / THB / day on Huay Kaew Road and the owner, Len, was really helpful.
TYPE OF BIKE & COSTS:There are three types of scooters available for hire at most motorcycle rental places in Thailand; the automatic (with no gears), semi automatic (with 5 gears but no clutch) and manual (for pro’s only!). If you are an advanced rider you can also plump for an off-road motorbike also known as a ‘crosser’ (5 gears and clutch). The automatic is the easiest bike to ride for beginners, yet with a little effort, most people can master the semi-automatic in less than a day which offers the rider much more control, especially riding mountainous, windy roads. Costs are per 24 hours, however, it is usually possible to barter if you want the motorbike for a longer trip, for example, one week.
- Automatic motorbike – (150 baht – 250 baht / day)
- Semi-automatic motorbike – (150 baht – 250 baht / day)
- Off-road motorbike – (600 – 1000 baht / day)
SAFETY FIRST!Bike Insurance: Insurance will often set you back an extra 20 or 40 baht when hiring your scooter and it is always worth paying the extra minimal fee. You don’t want to be faced with a huge bill if someone crashes into your bike or heaven forbid it gets stolen. Insurance covers all of this and the bike shop will often be able to pick you up and deliver the bike to a mechanics. Personal Travel Insurance: Make sure that you have personal travel insurance for your whole trip that covers you in the event of a motorbike accident. You will need to make sure that you have an International Driving Permit and that you are legally able to ride motorbikes in Thailand. Helmet: It goes without saying, always wear a helmet on Southeast Asian roads. The rental of a helmet should be free with bike rental so always ask for it if the owner isn’t forthcoming. The roads: Drive slow and use your back brake on wet surfaces. Most accidents are caused by people breaking with their front hand brake causing the bike to flip out and slide across the gravel. There are thousands of stray dogs in Thailand and chances are that many will wander out as you are driving along the road. If you see a dog crossing the road, don’t panic and swerve dramatically to avoid it. Beep your horn and the dog will slowly move (hopefully) people have died swerving off the road to avoid frogs. And we know which creature your mum and dad think is more important! International Driving Licence: To ride legally on Thailand’s roads, technically you need an International Driving Licence, with a stamp to say that you are qualified to ride motorbikes. In Chiang Mai, many foreigners are stopped by the police and fined 200 THB for not having the proper licence. Elsewhere on the Mae Hong Son Loop, you are unlikely to get stopped and fined for this, it’s only the city that seems to be having a crackdown at the moment. If you’re from the UK, you can apply for an international driving licence at the Post Office, or through the AA or the RAC. In the States, you can get an IDL from the America Automobile Association.
ALWAYS CHECK THE BIKE BEFORE YOU SET OFFBefore you set off, make sure that you thoroughly check of the motorbike. That paper that you just signed says that you hired the bike in pristine condition. If there was a scratch or a dent in the vehicle before you set off, if you haven’t marked it down on a piece of paper beforehand, you will end up paying for it upon your return – despite it not being your fault. Beware, some motorbike companies are sticklers for this so make sure you don’t get bitten!
WHAT TO DO IF YOU BREAK DOWN / LOSE YOUR HELMETDon’t panic! This is South East Asia! There will no doubt be a friendly mechanic/grocers/hairdressers down the road who will help you to get back on track in no time! Pumping up tyres is often free of charge, changing the oil around 20 baht, fixing a light around 100 baht and changing a tyre, around 200 baht. If you lose your helmet expect to pay around 200 baht for a new one and the same price for a motorbike key. In our experience, it’s always better to get these minor things fixed yourself, rather than having the bike rental company tell you that the cost is ten times more than it should be.
FARANG TATTOOS!Perhaps the most common injury in Thailand, farang tattoos (motorbike exhaust burns) are no joke! When you get off the motorbike, be sure to set off the left side to avoid brushing your leg against the boiling hot exhaust pipe on the right-hand side leaving a nasty burn on your inside calf. In the heat and humidity of Asia, the wounds take forever to heal and can cause scarring if not treated properly. Get to the chemist immediately, apply antiseptic cream and cover with a bandage. Clean with iodine daily and avoid getting the wound wet, as the water contains bacteria that could cause infection.
This article was written by Alicia Kidd.
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