The couples guide to the Mae Hong Son Loop
Two bums, 1864 curves, 8 days of adventure
What is the Mae Hong Son Loop?
Driving the Loop as a couple
When driving the Mae Hong Son Loop as a couple, you have two transportation choices: take one motorbike or two. Everything we read said to take two scooters, but after our experience crashing on Bali, we were uncomfortable with the idea of driving separately. After much debate, we decided to drive the loop on one scooter.
–We could take turns driving. 5 hours is a looooooong time to be on a scooter. It can be mentally and physically taxing. Taking one motorbike allowed us to drive in shifts, giving us both opportunities to rest, and enjoy the scenery.
–We always had one driver and one navigator. The driver never had to look at his/her phone for directions.
(they’re all the same thing to us)
Leaving Chiang Mai, you can drive one of two ways to begin your journey. You can either head south towards Mae Sariang, or north towards Pai. Each route has its pros and cons. Here are your route options:
Route A: Chiang Mai-->Mae Sariang-->Mae Hong Son-->Pai-->Chiang Mai
- The road starts out easier and gets progressively more difficult as you drive towards Pai and back to Chiang Mai
- The scenery gets more and more stunning as you go along. The scenery is breathtaking pretty much the whole drive, but is especially incredible driving to and from Pai
- You start in the quietest town (Mae Sariang) and end in the most bustling town (Pai)
Route B: Chiang Mai-->Pai-->Mae Hong Son-->Mae Sariang-->Chiang Mai
- You can get the most difficult driving out of the way first
- The drive to Pai is the one of the shortest drives of the trip, so you can ease yourself into driving, building up to the longer rides later on the loop.
- Pai is an awesome city to hang out for a few days or a few months, so if things go wrong early you can bail on the trip and just hang out there.
We weren’t totally sold on the whole idea of riding on a bike together for 600 kilometers, so we went with route B. That way, if the first day totally sucked, we could scratch our plans for the loop and just hang out in Pai. Looking back, we wish we would have gone with Route A. Pai, and the drives to and from Pai, are some of the highlights of the trip and are best saved for last.
How Long does it take?
What to bring
Our minimalist setup for 8 days on the road
Here’s what we packed for our trip:
Sam’s packing list
- 1 pair tennis shoes
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 2 t-shirts and tank tops
- 2 pairs of shorts and socks
- 4 pairs of underwear
- rain jacket
- 1 pair of Alibaba pants
- 1 long shirt
Ashley’s packing list
- 2 shirts
- 1 raincoat
- 1 scarf
- 2 pairs of shorts
- lounge pants
- light knit sweater
- sneakers & 2 pairs of socks
- flip flops
- swim suit
- Bluetooth speaker
- 2 small day packs
- 2 rain ponchos
- rain cover
Lush rice fields in Pai
It’s inevitable that it will rain at some point during your trip. We strongly advise that you put a pack cover on your bag to keep everything dry when it does eventually rain. If you don’t have one, there is a Decathlon sporting goods store on your way out of town towards Mae Sariang, where you can buy a cover for any size pack for around $10US. This is a better option than covering your pack with a trash bag. Once that trash bag rips (which it will) you’ll have to throw it away. Pack covers are more durable and will last for years of adventures.
Day 1: Chiang Mai-->Pai (149km)
Coffee breaks were some of the best parts of travel days
The drive from Chiang Mai to Pai is composed of 600 legendary curves, winding up and down a mountain range separating the two cities. If you’re an inexperienced driver, its best to save this leg of the trip for last. The drive is challenging in parts; steep, hairpin turns snake up and down the mountain. The payoff for navigating this technical stretch of road is totally worth it as you are rewarded with majestic views of lush mountainsides cloaked in mist. The road is dotted with cute cafés; which make for great places to give your butts a rest and drink some delicious coffee (the coffee in north Thailand is incredible!)
We stopped at a café on top of the pass which had gorgeous views looking out at the surrounding mountains. Shortly after getting back on the road it started raining, HARD. We’re talking full on deluge. It was raining so hard we could barely keep our eyes open as we crawled down the mountain. Our decision to go with a nicer scooter was instantly gratified as we had no problem navigating the slick road conditions. We finally rolled into Pai sopping wet, and happy to be done driving for the day. In all, the trip took about 3 and half hours, but would have taken much less in better weather.
Days 2 and 3: Pai
Misty morning in Pai
Things to do in Pai
- Explore Pai Canyon
- Drive to Pam Bok waterfall
- Hike to Mae Yen waterfalls
- Tubing on Pai river
- Soak in the natural hot springs
- Hike to White Buddha for sunset
- Eat all the food!
- Drink yummy kombucha (Earth Tones Café, Good Life Café, and Rasta House all have the most scooby-licious bucha’)
Where to stay
-Deejay Pai Backpackers
View from Deejay Pai
Day 4: Pai-->Mae Hong Son (107km)
Be prepared for serious curves!
Entrance to Tham Lod caves
Day 5: Mae Hong Son and day trip to Ban Rak
Strolling through tea fields in Ban Rak
About 40km north of Mae Hong Son, nestled on the Thailand/Myanmar border, lies the sleepy village of Ban Rak. It was originally settled by Kuo Min Tang fighters from Yunnan province, China. As you cruise into the small village you are temporarily transported out of Thailand and into China. Many buildings are built using traditional mudbrick construction and in Chinese architectural style. Restaurants serve Chinese food and most of the residents speak a form of Mandarin. The original settlers also brought their tea culture with them from China, and the hills surrounding the village are lined with charming tea plantations. There are countless tea shops to sample the local tea varieties (the region is especially known for its oolong tea)
After a lazy morning in Mae Hong Son, we made the hour drive up to Ban Rak. The afternoon was spent wandering through tea plantations, relishing Chinese food, and sipping on delicious tea. On the way back to Mae Hong Son, we made a stop at the Poo Klon mud spa. The full mud spa experience was a little out of our price range, so we paid 120bht for mud facials. Neither of us had been to a mud spa before and it was definitely a cool experience. Our faces left feeling refreshed and energized. We drove into Mae Hong Son as the sun was setting and made the quick drive up to Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu to watch the sunset. The temple rests on a hill overlooking the town. The more actively inclined can hike to the temple, but there’s a road you can drive to the top. The temple features two beautiful, white chedis, along with 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside; making it a great place to watch sunrise or sunset.
Things to do in Mae Hong Son
- Day trip to Ban Rak
- Visit Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu for sunrise/sunset
- Go to a Mud Spa
- Poo Klon on the road to Ban Rak, but we passed two other mud spas on the drive into MHS the night before that might be cheaper. Just keep an eye out on the right side of the road (coming from Pai) when you’re about 20km outside of Mae Hong Son.
- Jungle/hilltribe trekking (can be organized through The Like View Guesthouse)
- Wat Chong Kham lake temple
- Night walking street
Where to stay
We stayed at The Like View Guesthouse located on Chong Kham lake in the center of town. The location is great, the coffee is good, and the owners are really sweet. You can also set up activities like trekking and hill tribe visits through this guesthouse. Unfortunately, the room was small and hot, and the bug net barely fit over the bed. It felt a bit overpriced (300bht/night) for what we got. Chong Kham lake is lined with guesthouses; if you go there and shop around you can probably find more comfortable or cheaper options.
Day 6: Mae Hong Son-->Mae Sariang (163km)
Day 7: Mae Sariang
We found some unexpected street art in Mae Sariang!
The beginning of Salawin National Park
We spent our day in Mae Sariang exploring Salawin National Park in the morning, then renting bicycles and riding up to the golden Buddha for sunset. After the long drive the day before, we were thankful to be off of the scooter and give our sore butts and backs a break.
Things to do in Mae Sariang
- Explore Salawin National Park
- Camp and raft on the Salawin river
- Trek to local hill tribes
- Rent bicycles (50bht/day at Mitaree Hotel)
- Visit the coffee plantation and sheep farm in Mae La Noi
- Take a refreshing dip at Mae Sawan Noi waterfall
Where to stay
Day 8: Mae Sariang--> Chiang Mai (186km)
The final sunset of our incredible journey.
Our Best Tips for Cruising The Mae Hong Son Loop
- Make sure your scooter comes with insurance. That way if something happens to you or the scooter, you’ll be covered.
- Rent a big bike (150cc or larger) to power you up those mountain roads. Also make sure it has comfortable seating, especially for the passenger. You’re going to be spending a lot of time on whatever scooter you choose: it’s worth the extra money to get a better bike.
- Make sure your speedometer, gas gauge, lights, turn signals, and horn are all working properly and that your tires are fully inflated before leaving Chiang Mai.
- Bring rain jackets/ponchos and put a pack cover on your bag when driving. In all likelihood, it will rain at some point; the last thing you want is to have all your clothes be soaking wet.
- Complete the loop in no less than 7 days. That way you won’t have to drive on consecutive days.
- Get an early start. Try to be on the road by 10am at the latest on driving days. If you’re late getting started, you’ll run out of daylight for stops along the way and find yourself merely driving from point A to point B. This takes away a lot of the fun of travel days and can turn the driving into a grind.
- Take turns driving and give yourself plenty of opportunities to rest. This will make the journey so much more enjoyable for both of you.
- Make sure to fill up on gas, take out cash, and top up your mobile data (if needed) before driving to the next city. Facilities are limited in between the main towns on the loop.
- Pack sunscreen! Driving all day is a long time for your face and arms to be exposed to the sun. You don’t feel the sun as much when you’re driving because of the wind, and if you aren’t careful you’ll find yourself with a crispy nose at the end of the day.
- Have a long shirt, sweater, or jacket easily accessible when driving. It gets chilly driving up the mountain passes in north Thailand. The temperature changes during the day can be dramatic, especially in the winter.
- Your left brake should be the primary brake used when going down hills. It’s the rear brake and generates the most stopping power. Instead of continuously holding the breaks going downhill, use a squeezing motion to apply and release pressure to the breaks in short spurts. This will control your speed while preventing your brakes from overheating.
- If you feel your brakes getting weaker, they may be overheating. Pull over and give them time to cool down. Pouring water on the brakes will help as well.
- Drive on the left side of the road and try to stick to the outside of the lane around blind curves. Van drivers in north Thailand are maniacs. They make liberal use of the opposite lane when passing cars at 80km down steep mountain roads.
- If you feel lost, stop and ask a local. They will be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
- Have the time of your lives and take lots of pictures 🙂
*A note on sustainability*
- We packed light, only bringing one daypack worth of clothes for the both of us. Less weight= increased fuel economy.
- We rented a newer/more fuel-efficient motorbike.
- Our activities on days off included more hiking/walking/bicycling, and less motorbike driving.
- We found places in each city to refill our water bottles instead of buying plastic ones, and brought our own silverware and straws to cut down on plastic waste.
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