We have been being in Chiang Mai for a few days now, we already visited the temples inside the walls and had a wonderful experience at an elephant sanctuary. Now we get ready to face this glorious loop in north western Thailand, that officially counts 1864 curves!
To be honest we didn’t know it was known for the number of its curves, we just wanted to go from Chiang Mai to Pai first, as many people we met suggested us to go. Then we wanted to see Doi Inthanon Park and the peak of Thailand too, so we decided to do the entire way around. Actually the complete famous loop goes all the way to Mae Sariang, whilst we chose to cut on the inside and take a less beaten road, maybe with even more curves, maybe not, who knows. We just know we enjoyed it very much, that’s for sure!
LEAVING CHIANG MAI
But let’s go back to the preparation first. Harry the owner of our Dutch Guest House in Chiang Mai got us a little bit scared when we asked him info about the loop, warning us about the roads in poor conditions, even worse when it rains, people having terrible accidents and coming back with broken bones, crazy Thais driving trucks and buses insanely, that we would risk our lifes if we went for it.
As usual, while Ambra was ready to take the advice, Edo’s thought was: challenge accepted! We searched a little bit deeper on the web and didn’t find many opinions discouraging to do it, instead everybody talks great about it.
So it’s on, we are doing it. We rent a more powerful Honda Blade 125cc for 600 baht/3 days (5$ a day) and we head North. Not even the time to leave Chiang Mai, and we are pulled over by a policeman: the officer asks Edo for an international driving license, which we “forgot” home. He says we have to pay a 1000 baht fine or go back to the police station to get the license (?). As Edo takes his wallet with only 300 baht available (good advice from Harry to keep few cash in it), he asks for more and we understand it’s gonna be a bargaining with the cops, too, in typical Thai style. We go away with a 700 baht fine/bribe.
As days go by we won’t even be convinced it was a real policeman (didn’t show any badge, only cared about money, we weren’t stopped anymore not even from the army, we read about fake cops fining tourists busted in Bangkok, etc.), but at that very moment we had not enough experience and no idea on how to behave. So here’s a some advice for you, if you ever get in the same situation: watch your keys or take them off (he bluffed to confiscate them a couple of times), ask for identification, keep low cash in your wallet, get an international license if you are staying more than just a few weeks (even though we are pretty sure we would be fined anyway for some reason…).
Well that’s a good way to start a 3-day motorbike trip! We continue after this first issue, and things improve curve after curve. When we take road 1095 direction Pai, the asphalt becomes perfect, completely opposite to what we expected. It must have been paved recently, it is just smooth, we wish all terrible roads were like that, can’t wait to do all the 762 curves to Pai! Large road, with even 3 lanes sometimes, amazing landscapes and views, great weather.
A shiver returns when we approach police roadblocks signs. We hold our breaths, and pass through with no problems. We will learn that, since we are close to the border with Myanmar, there are many checkpoints, where the Thai army mostly stops trucks and check loads, goods, and possible clandestine immigrants.
We reach Pai after about 3 hours, as we complete the first stage of 133 km. We get to the place we booked, Mountain View Guesthouse: it’s a lovely gem in the middle of nature, we stay in a cosy little bungalow for 6$ a night, with hammock on our porch, mattress on the floor, geckos in our half open-air shower, beautiful!
The British owner instructs us on what to do around, we hop on our bike again and visit all the great sceneries of Pai: Friendship Bridge (dating back to the War), Pai Canyon, elephant camps (more exploiting with the poor animals chained), hot springs, temples and buddhas, a Chinese village with a viewpoint on top. In the evening, the usual Night Market keeps the city alive, there are a lot of tourists, it reminds us of Sa Pa for some aspects, a small mountain side town in a remote area, but with plenty of visitors. Unfortunately we are rushing and can’t stop more than one night.
Next morning we leave at 10 am, we have just 110 km to do today to reach Mae Hong Son. At the petrol station, we have a great unexpected surprise: we randomly meet two friends who stayed with us at Barney’s Hostel in Da Nang back in February! Colby and Beccy are a beautiful Australian couple who decided to sell everything and travel the world, and they have been doing it for almost two years now. They tell us they are currently working here in a hostel in Pai, and today it’s their day off as they’re going to Mae Hong Son too! The world is such a small place.
MAE HONG SON
So we take the beautiful road 1095 again and head uphill. It starts raining heavily but we are well prepared for that with our colourful raincoats. Our plan was to stop at Lod Caves, some well-known grottoes in the area. We don’t know how but we missed them, apparently there was a right turn just after an army roadblock, we were too focused on not being pulled over, and we just went straight.
Not too bad, we are always keen on changing our plans. So we get earlier to Mae Hong Son, and decide to follow a sign saying Bamboo Bridge: unfortunately the road is all mud and puddles, we risk to get stuck in it and decide to leave our bike behind, go on walking under the rain for a while but nothing, we can’t see no bridge, which makes two misses out of two! (We will comfort ourselves watching the photos, the bridge is stunning during hot season, above the multi-coloured fields, less when it rains…).
We go straight to our guesthouse for a hot shower.
We don’t give up and try with another target: Mae Hong Son province borders Myanmar, and has become famous in Thailand for Karen villages, populated by Burma tribes whose women wear big rings to their neck, making them become elongated. Nowadays traditions are getting lost and it’s becoming all about the money, there are some of these villages where you have to pay a 500 baht fee to get in (14$).
VISITING A KAREN VILLAGE
We follow some signs along the road for many many km and end up climbing a valley from the bottom to the top: finally, after weaving through pools and very steep dirt roads, walking the last few km, we reach this blessed Karen village. This is one of the few left, maybe only, were you don’t have to pay to get in, probably because it’s so far and no one comes here anymore (many tribes have even moved close to Chiang Mai just to get more tourists…).
It is a very poor village, probably the most rural we have seen in our entire trip in Southeast Asia, along with the fishermen village in Koh Rong Island, Cambodia: seems to be decades behind in time, it’s all wooden piles and stilt houses, ground muddy pavements, chickens and gooses running here and there, and a few kids playing all together in a small square at the very end of the valley. We see their school, also with no pavement and windows, just some benches under a roof, really striking.
There are 16 families with totally 103 people living here, they need nothing from the outside world. We meet only two of the famous long necked women: as told, they don’t do it for money here, it’s just their tradition, so not all of them are willing to show themselves. We speak a few minutes with this woman and buy a souvenir to support their humble lifestyle. We walk back to our motorbike with many questions in our head, moved by how some people still live in this world.
Before getting back to Mae Hong Son, we go up to Wat Plai Doi, a complex of shrines dominating the city from above. The setting is gorgeous, you have the Burmese influenced architecture on one side and the amazing landscape of valleys and mountains on the other.
At night, we hang out with our friends Colby and Beccy for an unexpected reunion.
The following and last day is going to be the longest on-the-road: 270 km all the way to Chiang Mai. Edo and Ambra fight about the leaving time (we have to leave at 6 am / No I want to sleep!) and eventually agree to wake up at 7.
CHARMING NORTH WESTERN THAILAND
The road southbound to Khun Yuam is simply beautiful, goes along Mae Surin National Park, deep in the woods, and the morning breeze makes it really enjoyable. Then we start to worry a little bit because there is no trace of petrol stations around. We have to leave the main road 108 to take the secondary 1263 and we are afraid we won’t find nothing after Khun Yuam town. So we go more South for a while, leaving our route for more than 10 km. We miraculously drive through a massive police roadblock, and find the only petrol station at the end of the village. That means we have to ride back North now, but Ambra’s GPS skills lead us through country roads to avoid the cops!
Back on our way, we stop at a lake and enjoy the rest of sensational road 1263: bends, airpins and stunning views accompany us. This area has essentially cultivated fields all around, mostly cabbages. To keep the soil fertile, they burn everything down during the hot season: the scenery is apocalyptic!
MOUNT DOI INTHANON – THE PEAK OF THAILAND
Around midday we arrive at Mae Chaem, where we stop for a bite. We can already see the big Doi Inthanon mountain, our goal. We will gain 1500 meters of altitude in 20 km of all paved, smooth road. The landscape transforms from yellow-brown burnt to green forest, we climb uphill in the jungle as the air becomes cooler.
We soon reach the two stupas, the landmarks of the mountain, at 2,100 m. The site is quite busy, many tourists and tours come here daily from Chiang Mai. After two days of riding wildly and lonely in remote areas, we are back to reality. The stupas are two temples that were built in honour of the King and the Queen, they rise one in front of the other. They are surrounded by beautiful gardens and you can get unique views over Northwestern Thailand’s landscapes.
We ride to the top of the mountain at 2,565 m of altitude to get our snapshot at the Thailand’s highest point, but there’s nothing special besides that.
BACK TO CHIANG MAI
So it’s 2 pm and we are ready to go down to Chiang Mai for the last 120 km of our trip. We are so happy everything went fine with our bike, after all the scary words and stories, the police roadblocks, the storms we encountered, the mud we almost got stuck in, the puddles and pools we rode through, the 1864 curves and airpins, and the 750+ km we travelled, that we even stop at a car wash to have our ride washed and bring it back brand-new like to the nice renter (and even because it was in miserable conditions).
The Chiang Mai-Pai-Mae Hong Son loop was definetely a highlight of our trip, we absolutely recommend to do it! If you have specific questions about the itinerary, ask us in the comments below!
ENJOY THE LOOP!
WHERE TO STAY:
- Dutch Guest House, Chiang Mai: 250baht/room, very chilled place, friendly and helpful owner, great food, close to night bazaar;
- Mountain View Backpacker Guesthouse, Pai: 240baht/bungalow, in the middle of nature, sweet owners, perfect relaxing location;
- you can pre book all your accommodation in Thai with free cancellation here.
HOW TO GET AROUND:
- Local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai: from 300 baht, about 3 hours, comfy bus;
- Train from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya, Bangkok: sleeper berth, from 750baht/bed, 9hrs.
- book tickets to travel in Thailand on amt.12go.asia
- Scooter Honda Air Blade, 3 days, 250baht/day;
- Fuel: 100baht/full tank;
- Cops: 700baht fine!
- Doi Inthanon Park entrance fee: 50baht/person;
- Pai Canyon, Karen long-neck village, unforgettable views, all offered by mother nature!
- Never leave home without a reliable travel insurance. Even if you trust yourself, you can’t always trust others. Better safe than sorry! Get your quote here.