Northern Thailand – The Mae Hong Son Loop

Dec 10, 2015

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I’m always fond of motorbike round trips and never got really disappointed with one. Among the best, was the one from Chiang Mai, to Pai and back in a triangle that took nearly two weeks. This wasn’t even supposed to happen, as the original plan was to get a minivan. However, as I planned to leave after Loi Krathong and  didn’t make a reservation, all minivans were full. After a short walk in central city I managed to found a kind motorbike rental house who didn’t mind renting a brand new 150 cc scooter for the purpose. It wasn’t the cheapest price, but we never had a single problem with it (something far different from the fellows who decided to buy themselves a bike with the intention to sell it at  the end… I found them several times at the mechanicians!! – That can be very adventurous but, for me, not really fun.)

I left Chiang May shortly before lunch, with the  intention to  stop somewhere on the way, and so I did. The fist part (1/2 hour “ish”) is a very uninteresting  crowded, polluted, straight line, road. After route1095, the road starts climbing up, and the 762 famous curves start to pop-up. Don’t let them intimidate you, nor you try to finish them fast. This is a road to be enjoyed. There are mountains and valleys to be climbed, a few cafés and restaurants to stop, with tasty food and drinks. I did  the trip while the road was being rebuilt, which added a bit of mud and respect towards the big trucks. Priority here goes always to the bigger ones. Don’t play fancy!  Still, most of the road was in safe, good condition. Beware of the cold (and misty  weather or rain) in  the higher places.  Also, there may be some areas with no gas on sale, so never let it get way below half tank.   

On arrival to Mae Hong Son district, there was  an intimidating military  check point, but officers ended being friendly and there was absolutely  no problem to cross. Even with no rush and a lunch stop, I arrived to Pai way before 5:00, which gave me time for a rest and shower before heading to the night market for food and a bit of sightseeing. It is nothing of spectacular, but the  laid back atmosphere and the tasty snacks, and  the backpacker fauna is very enjoyable, on such a remote corner of the world.

Pai itself hasn’t much to see, despite the aforementioned night  market, the river and its bridges and the canyon. This one is small, slippery, somehow dangerous and usually crowded at sunsets. It has a few decent sunset views, but it is far more famous than worthwhile. Anyway,  it’s near the centre and free, so  why not  visiting, if you have the  time? 

The memorial bridge is another  overrated view in  the city, with traditional dressed children popping out of nowhere to get some coins in exchange for posing. I passed by and didn’t become a fan. However, it’s  another of the “must do”  things, if  you stop one  day in Pai, which you should, if you’re not superman. 

The  nearest stop, from Pai, was Than Lod Cave, 50 km North. 

Than Lod Cave

If at all possible, plan a whole day trip to this one. The road itself is curvy and scenic, with valleys worth the selfie shot.  On arrival, one must pay for the “guided tour” – a formality meant to  give  the locals  some extra income. Basically you are  put in a bamboo raft with three or four other  people, a  rower and a  woman with a petrol lamp. The raft will go along the subterranean river, stopping in the middle for a series of cave visits and at the other end for some more. The woman  will take the group through  the endless wooden stairs and paths leading to secondary caves are many, some wide, some smaller, some even holding the remaining of teak coffins of ancient tribes.  When I visited the whole area was accessible on  foot, so after the “guided trip” I did another “self guided” one, by land, with plenty of time to re-explore the most interesting areas (and there are many). I had brought a submersible strong torch and so should you, if wanting to see the whole dimension of it. If you are able to stay until sunset, find the narrow path that circles around the cave and get to the other exit. Find yourself a sheltered place and observe two impressive phenomena: the swallows return  and the bats departure. There are millions of both, filling the air with putrid smell, and their singing, describing waves and  patterns  in the sky as they fly.  We were maybe half a dozen of “daredevils” who dared to explore and  wait until that time (knowing that we would return through a semi-unknown mountain path in total  darkness), but it was one of those unforgettable, life-time experiences.  

Mae Hong  Son and its vicinities

Then, you either drive back to Pai, stay in one of the home stays on the cross-road with Route 1095 (9 km), or head straight to Mae Hong Son (65 Km, 1.5h).

I did stop on that crossroad and did the trip on the next morning. Somewhere on the way there was a wildlife park where I decided to stop and take some landscape and insect shots. Plans changed when a gibbon decided to be over friendly and climb on my back, spooking away  all the little critters. Its nails on my scalp weren’t the best experience, though it ended up being fun interacting with this  unknown primate.

From Mae Hong Son itself I only remember the lake, the two twin temples (Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang) alight in the evenings and the nearby night market, offering some local clothing and sweets. I heard there is another one, plus a few more  temples but didn’t visit them. Another good memory was Salween River Restaurant, with plenty of local and western dishes on a lively atmosphere and generous portions. There was nothing unique about it nor anything to criticise, being  like home away from home, for the evenings. 

Heading  North, there is Su Tong Pae Bridge  (17 min / 11 km). It’s a long bamboo made bridge, (supposedly the longest one in Thailand) built by villagers to serve the monks of Wat Tham Poo Sa Ma and locals of Ban Gung Mai Sak. The view is lovely and peaceful, and so is the temple. Watch their images below.

Further north (1h / 43 km, from Mae Hong Son), near the border with Myanmar, Ban Rak Thai, also known as Mae Awa, can also be  worth the visit.

It is also built around  a lake, charming and peaceful, with many lake side restaurants and tea shops. Chinese food in there was slightly  disappointing, meaning not at all bad, but not justifying such a long trip. On the contrary, the views around the lake were really nice,  something completely different than the remaining Thailand I  was used too. Some say it is  possible to cross the border on foot without visa, but I didn’t try it.

Mae Hong Son is also a departure point for  visiting the  refugee camps where the  long neck woman can be found. I visited Na Soi  (17 Km  / half an  hour to NordWest). Find the detailed post in here.  Huay Pu Keng  (20km / 29 min southwest) was recommended by one  of the villagers and seem to be another  popular spot, though one must hire a boat. For that reason, and being  a bit short on schedule, I didn’t visit. 

For those staying in Chiang Mai, and not willing to travel  that far, there is Baan Tong Luang (40 min, 27 km  away), which is something  between a tourist  trap souvenir mall and  a refugee zoo.  As they  charge  tickets and they weren’t  that cheap, I chose to  stay  outside  and didn’t visit. 

Doi Inthanon

After a few daily trips  from Mae Hong  Son, I started the way back  to Chiang Mai. The  plan was an ambitious 200 km / 4 hour ride, which  proved to be… Too ambitious! The rain started pouring soon, and the mountains were freezing. It was mid afternoon and there was still nearly 100  km  to go (I confess  I didn’t leave very early). The wisest option, considering I had to drive  real slowly and there weren’t  many gas stations on sight, was to stop and stay for the night, somewhere on the road. It shouldn’t had been so far from Khun Yuam, but I don’t remember the name of the place, as I cannot read Thai characters. It was a region with vibrant agriculture – strawberries, if I’m not mistaken. There was a small hostel with triangle shaped wooden huts. A lovely elderly couple was at home  / reception and  offered  me  some warm tea and  showed me the spot which wasn’t, at all, luxurious, but suitable, under the  circumstances.

After drying a bit and resting my back, I went back to the main road and found myself a pair of China made trousers (had only brought shorts) on a street stall. There were no real restaurants around, but a sort of barn where locals were having stewed beef and vegetables – nothing like the fancy street food in Bangkok – it was real farmer everyday food. I self invited me in  and  had a warm, inexpensive comfort meal, among the curious eyes of the locals who came also for food and groceries. No verbal communication, but a lot o kind friendliness, made this stop a great memory. 

Next morning I arrived at Doi Inthanon, which the 2,565-metre holds the title of the highest point in Thailand. People went there with the purpose of feeling cold and taking  selfies near a thermometer marking 5 or 6 degrees. It was funny to watch their enthusiasm which, obviously, I didn’t share – had enough of that in my homeland! On the same road, a few metres below, there  was a beautiful garden with two pagodas, (the Great Holy relics and  the King’s), which are recently made monuments, but impressive,  nonetheless. The garden had different coloured ornamental cabbages, very funny to watch, and a huge variety of birds.  

Watch the images, below:

 I regretted not to have brought a longer tele, as there were many posing flying subjects. Later I was told that birdwatching was one of the main interests in the area.

The remaining of the day was spent in Khun Klang. It has extensive, immaculate gardens, totally worth the visit. The Hmong market was slightly disappointing. Big in size, but an overall tourist trap selling fresh  and preserved fruit and an almost inedible, sweetened, beverage they ambitiously call wine. I was foolish enough to buy it and eventually drunk it (still  wondering how…).  There was a gigantic tourist restaurant nearby, selling (among other well cooked dishes)  a totally new recipe of fried frog with herbs which was just delicious – though maybe a bit spooky for some.

Camping  happens  almost everywhere, among plastic vegetable garden tunnels. At night, both lit up, creating a unique view. I found myself a simple, family owned home-stay with homemade food and plenty  of advice on  where to go,  to watch the  famous birds, which  I did, the following morning, before heading back to Chiang Mai.

Before arriving and returning the motorbike (which, I must confess, was sounding a bit like a diesel engine, at that time) there was still the chance to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (watch the images in here). 

Overall, I totally loved the trail, and hope to do it again, in  a warmer season (it was December, back then) with a bit more time.

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