Being new to driving motorbikes, this week I jumped in at the deep end.
I returned my little scooter to the shop and swapped it for one with a working speedometer and suspension (to the great relief of my bum). Sporting a marvellous pink helmet, a set of not-so-sturdy flip flops and with my pal Chrissie in tow, I set out, from my current base of Chiang Mai, to motorbike the Mae Hong Son Loop.
The Mae Hong Son Loop is lauded as one of the world's best motorbiking routes and boasts a whopping 1864 bends in a route of 650km.
With strictly timetabled plans allowing us to leave no later than 9 am, we clambered onto our bikes to begin our journey, a mere five hours behind schedule. Having no idea how long the journey should take us, and with no directions other than road signs ('what you didn't take a map?' I hear you cry. Well frankly, no. Where's the adventure in that?), we pulled up in Mae Chaem as it started to get dark.
This tiny town obviously doesn't see many non-Thais, and two white girls on motorbikes certainly seemed to draw a lot of attention. Finding somewhere to stay was a little tricky, but after some rather excellent haggling of mine ("How much is a room?" "350Baht." "Can we have it for 200 Baht?" "Yes."), we had a room for the night with two planks of wood, each with a pillow and blanket.
After a little wander around the town, we settled in a tiny bar with two bottles of the finest wine/alcopop concoction known to man, 'Spy'. Wave goodbye to Lambrini - Spy is now the gold medalist when it comes to high-class beverages. Enjoying my refreshment, I stroked the kitten who was pottering about the place. Upon asking the landlady its name, I was told that in fact, it was not a cat, it was her son, and it was he who owned the bar we were in. We didn't stay much longer.
The next morning, with fresh fruit from the market, we sat and ate breakfast beside a river, sharing a field with a cow. Pondering whether there was a generic Thai name for cows, similar to our unoriginal British desire to refer to all cows as Daisy, I got myself in a bit of a pickle. The Thai word for cat is meow. So I figured that a cow would be 'moo'. But to my dismay, things simply aren’t that straightforward, and moo means pork (BUT WHY?). Anyway, I soon got bored, said goodbye to Daisy and jumped on the bike to begin the four-hour drive to Mae Hong Son.
Having encountered enough hair pins to give Rapunzel a nice up-do, we arrived to find Mae Hong Son to be a small, very pretty town, located on a lake, with a very local feel and not many tourists. I decided it was the perfect place for me to crack out my best Thai and ordered us some drinks. As it turns out, I ordered two plates of banana milkshake. Haha, hilarious yes, thank you.
The next morning, we embarked upon a mission to climb to the top of the town's highest hill, to the temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu, which overlooks the whole of Mae Hong Son. In 40 degree heat with a backpack, it would be an understatement to say that I was sweating. Reaching the top to discover there was a road that led right to the temple entrance left me feeling mortified at the amount of unnecessary exercise I had just endured, but although the red sweaty me of that afternoon would hate me for saying it, the view was worth it.
Back on the bikes the next day, we wound our way towards Soppong. I stopped at one point to move a 5-ft piece of inner tube out of the road. As my brakes squeaked to a halt, the inner tube reared its head and flew towards me. I swerved and narrowly missed flying off my bike myself! Phew.
At Soppong we stayed in a small bamboo hut on a hillside overlooking the river. We spent the evening marvelling over the nature in our room, paying particular attention to how incredibly big cockroaches can be and pondering whether stripy geckos are poisonous. (They're not.)
The following morning we hired a couple of kayaks and hit the white water on the Mae Lang River. An hour or so in, we climbed out to do some caving in our flip flops (hey, at least we had headlamps that kind of worked...). The cave is rather disturbingly known as 'Coffin Cave', due to the many stone age coffins which can be found inside. The creepy caving our previous night’s ponderings on the natural world to shame as hundreds of birds, bats and spiders stopped to watch what on earth these two human girls could possibly be doing inside a cave! Half an hour later, my fingernails were full of bat poo and my hair was plastered to my face with sweat. Move over Angelina, I’m way more suited to playing the role of Lara Croft than you are!
Exhausted from the day’s adventures it was lucky that our next stop, the trendy bohemian town of Pai, was only a couple of hours’ drive away. Winding our way there I found myself debating over whether the clouds were cirrus, cumulus or stratus. (Your mind does strange things whilst driving a motorbike in the sun through very windy roads in the mountains. Maybe all of the bends really were driving me insane?)
Our adventure in Pai varied very little from our last visit: we ate too much street food (don't miss the 50 baht tacos on the main walking street!), drank ridiculously-cheap-and-far-too-alcoholic-cocktails and spent 12 hours sleeping it off before driving the final three-hour leg back to the city limits of Chiang Mai.
And just in case photos aren’t enough to prove that I actually did motorbike this route, I have an actual certificate, the 'Mae Hong Son Loop - Certificate of Conquest' which I bought... ahem... was awarded, by the Chamber of Commerce in Mae Hong Son. And everyone knows that you can’t argue with the validity of a certificate...
Yes, perhaps a certificate doesn’t fit with the sense of ‘cool’ associated with completing this journey. But having returned back to Chiang Mai wearing one broken flip flop (I bet Angelina isn’t hardcore enough to try exploring a 3000-year-old cave in flip flops) and one broken helmet (I got so excited about it being pink that I dropped it), I believe that my sense of uncool is already strong enough to deal with any mockery that these official documents may incur.
The Mae Hong Son Loop Fact File:
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 Mai
Head 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 Chaem
After 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 Son
Heading 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: Soppong
A 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: Pai
Relax 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 Mai
From 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)
Read this article for more information on hiring a bike for the first time in Thailand. If you have never driven a motorbike before, we wouldn't recommend that you undertake the Mae Hong Son Loop as your first journey. Try something easier with fewer curves!
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.
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.
ALWAYS CHECK THE BIKE BEFORE YOU SET OFF
Before 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 HELMET
Don'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.
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.