The easy life in Chiang Mai is hard to leave, but after 6 days in and around the city we figured it was time to strike out and see the countryside, and a motorcycle seemed like the best way to do it. With some self-awareness and assertiveness the roads and traffic are reasonably easy to navigate in Thailand, especially when bikes and scooters flow like pebbles around boulders to the front of the line at a traffic light, assuring a safe start in front of the larger vehicles on the road. Our steed of choice for the trip was a 200cc Honda Phantom, a popular bike styled after the more muscular cruiser bikes of America. A decent bike, it was no problem for getting around the flat city streets, although we did find it to be slightly overloaded and underpowered for the remainder of the trip. But if time is on your side, who cares?
They claim there are 762 curves over the 140km distance from Chaing Mai to Pai, which sounds like a dream on 2 wheels unless those 762 curves are under construction. The road from Dong Palan (where you leave the main road) and Pai was an absolute disaster. Without warning two lanes turn to one, huge potholes appeared, gravel was everywhere, construction occurred without traffic control…you name it and we rode around, or through it. Stopping half way we questioned our sanity and judgment, but kept quiet any suggestion of terminating the trip. Three hours later we pulled into Pai, a small town in the middle of a broad lush green valley with a lazy river snaking its way through town and a large white Buddha statue sitting on the mountain side, presiding over it all. After the ride we’d just been through, it was a very peaceful place to pull into. We found a little guesthouse along the river and sat down to relax with a well earned drink. Pai has become a very popular destination with the backpacker crowd as of recent, and many of those who found it have never left. The town has a developed a very hippy feeling to it, unfortunately it’s a bit of a western one.
We both weren’t ready to get back on the motorbike given the previous day’s experience, so we decided to hang around town and explore. The area around Pai is dotted with farms, rural guesthouses and best of all, waterfalls. We rode the Phantom out to a popular waterfall where the cascading water has smoothed out the rocks, creating a great natural set of waterslides. The cool crisp water was a refreshing break as we splashed with the locals and visitors alike, soaking up the afternoon sun, playing and relaxing all afternoon.
The next day, relaxed and refreshed, we hit the road. Thankfully we had made it through the majority of construction on the road, and the rest of the trip would see us alone on beautiful smooth blacktop. After some time on the road we stopped to explore a series of caves which have been carved into the limestone mountains, many of them popular tourist destinations, while others lie hidden, yet to be found. The largest and most accessible cave in the region is called Nam Lod, where a river has carved a path straight through the side of the mountain, leaving kilometres of caverns to be explored. A local guide (manditory) and a bamboo raft are the best way to explore this large cave, and for $18 you can spend several hours being guided both on foot and by boat. The main chamber of the cave is an impressive 100 feet high and features numerous stalactites and stalagmites, as well as hundreds of swallows and bats swooping and shrieking their way about the darkness, high above you. The third cavern we were shown by our guide was both fascinating and eerie; the remains of several teak coffins have been discovered and left on display for visitors, thought to be carved by the Lawa tribespeople some two thousand years ago.
After leaving the cave complex we headed south, paralleling the mountain range that makes up the Thai – Burmese border. Two very scenic hours later we reached our destination for the night and the namesake of our loop, Mae Hong Son. A tranquil village centred around a large lake, our guesthouse overlooked a temple and the evening market which surrounded the calm waters. We relaxed in the shade and then headed out for an authentic Thai dining experience, collecting dishes to try by pointing and laughing with the various food cart operators as the rural/tourist language gap was too large to bridge. Bellies full, we fell soundly asleep in the quiet peace of rural Thailand.
Continuing south the following day we bombed down rural roads, flying through shady forests and past endless green rice paddies. There are two different options to complete the loop to Chiang Mai once you leave Mae Hong Son; the longer route continues south until Mae Sarieng before heading east, while the shorter but less travelled route takes you east through Mae Chaem and over Thailand’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon. As is our nature, we chose the latter route
Up and down, up and down would be the theme for the days of travel through small farming villages and past fields of banana, rice and corn. Our third day was an amazing one on the bike where we felt entirely alone in the world, only passing the occasional overloaded pickup truck delivering produce to market. After we passed the small village of Mae Na Chon, we stumbled into the Hot Coffee guesthouse, a great little spot which offers quiet private bungalows beside the river. it was only 2pm, but the temptation of a cool swim in the river and a cold beer on the deck was all we need to stop for the night. Our night at Hot Coffee will go down as the most comfortable so far in Thailand; you couldn’t ask for better accommodations or a more welcoming host. As it turns out we weren’t the only ones who thought so, and found ourselves confronted with familiar faces from the downhill mountain bike race we had been at only days before. A father/son duo from the US who now live in Hong Kong were completing the same loop as us only on dirt bikes and the backroads, but after some navigational difficulties with the other members of their group and a flat tire, they found themselves at Hot Coffee for the night. We laughed to think how small this big world truly is, and spent the evening with their group swapping road stories and tales.
Friday morning marked out our last day on the road, and return to the Chiang Mai. Just a easy trip over the highest peak in the land, and hey, we’d be drinking beer by the moat in no time. The day started out cool, and while the bike struggled a bit with the altitude, it was nothing more than we had made it suffer through for the past four days. At the top, we joined the locals in donning our jackets, where 16 degree felt practically chilly after several weeks of much warmer weather. The ride down the other side was a breeze; the road widened out as we rejoined traffic on the freeway and the throttle was opened up, the familiar heat of the valley surrounding us yet again. About 50km out of Chaing Mai we stopped for a cold drink in the shade and a stretch of our legs, the end of our journey in sight.
Now I’ve previously failed to mention in the story so far the issues with the Phantom, our trusty steed that it turned out wasn’t actually all that trusty. We quickly discovered that she refused to start everyday once it got hot; I refused to take issue with it though as there was usually a hill or stretch of road around, and I could pull a fast one on her and get her going every time in second gear, circling back around to pick up Alison after the bike had stubbornly roared to life. So when we mounted the bike for the final ride into town, we were not surprised when it failed to turnover. A push start was initiated with negative results. More push starts were attempted with the same results. The Phantom unfortunately, had appeared to have given up the ghost. We tried and tried to get it going, but to no avail. Our final attempts were made in exasperation in the parking lot of a service station, where a group of employees soon gathered to help us in our quest, pushing me around the parking lot in a futile attempt at motorcycle resuscitation. Now even the Thais were sweating, and Alison and I were a hot mess, our situation beginning to look bad. I rolled the bike into the shade, and we contemplated what to do. While we were cooling down the Thais continued to try and help solve our problem. Soon, some rudimentary tools were located, and every man present to the situation had gathered around, offering advice, already contemplating which piece of the bike to pull apart first. With the group gathered around, the spark plug was checked, the oil was checked, and a few people even scoped out the gas tank situation. All of this still left the phantom spiritless. After a phone call to the rental shop and some use of Google translate, it was settled that we’d take the bike down the road to the local repair shop. After the spark plugs, the oil, and gas were again checked, further discussion with our rental shop decided a truck would take the bike and ourselves to town, where we would be relieved of the beast and their mechanics would be left to solve the riddle of her demise.
As we sat in a shady corner of the shop on some old car seats it became apparent that the truck that would take us to town was currently beside us on the hoist, a Songthaew, which was being frantically repaired before our eyes. A couple hours passed, and after returning from a successful test drive we and the disabled bike were loaded into the freshly repaired truck, heading for town. There are many forms of transport in Thailand, and the Songthaew is one of the many brilliant options of a modern-day vehicle converted for local transportation needs. With two bench seats in the back and a cover for shade, these colourful little trucks rip around town, delivering riders and their loads to and from destinations with enthusiastic efficiency.
The breeze felt good as we rolled towards town and the driver (and shop mechanic) seemed happy to make an extra buck off of our delivery, in the truck we couldn’t be quite sure was his, or just a customer of his shop’s which he was moonlighting for our purpose. Suddenly the truck slowed, and as it sputtered to a halt on the side of the highway, it became apparent that their quick fix in the shop might not have done the trick. We were now 0 for 2 on transporation. With the hood up, our driver worked to figure and fix. Not surprisingly a crowd gathered, and soon tools were brought out, and everyone went to work. This time however, the result of the communal effort was a success; with a puff of black smoke our truck rumbled to life, and we were off again. We flew into town, and were greeted by a crowd at Mr. Mechanic, our rental agency who through all of this mess had done everything they could to get us back to town at no expense of our own. They were indeed very helpful and apologetic, and after some laughs and reassurance that we weren’t mad, we retired back to the old town of Chiang Mai to sit and laugh over the day, passports and cold beer back in hand.
Our plan for now is to spend the remainder of the weekend relaxing in Chiang Mai, and catch the bus to Laos on Monday. once we arrive in Laos we will take the slow boat down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang, and from there, who knows!
Byron and Alison
Tips for Mae Hong Son Loop by bike:
Rent from Mr Mechanic or a shop with insurance. Although our bike did break down, their response and help was excellent and didn’t cost us extra. They were great to deal with
Get the map ‘The Mae Hong Son Loop’ by Golden Triangle Rider, it’s very helpful and detailed for the journey..
Tour around the towns for guesthouses and shop around for best price; most towns have a lot of options and the prices vary for basically the same thing.
In Pai we stayed at Golden Hut, in Mae Hong Son we stayed at Johnny guesthouse and outside Mae Na Chon Hot Coffee guesthouse. I recommend all of these places as they are all clean, comfortable and quiet.
Fuel is plentiful along the trip.
The road between Dong Palan and Pai is awful, but when construction is complete it will be an amazing journey.
There is a cool guest house beside the Nam Lod cave called Cave House, we didn’t stay there because of timing but I would recommend it rather than staying two nights in Pai.