The Mae Hong Son loop in northwest Thailand is the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, Mae Hong Son and Doi Inthanon National Park before ending back in Chiang Mai. The majority of the trip is through spectacular mountains; the roads are famed for their breathtaking views and hairpin twists and turns.
It’s simple and easy to rent a bike in Chiang Mai. There are many kinds of bikes to choose from, most of them look almost brand new and the prices are very budget-friendly. I chose the cheapest option, which was a newish Honda Click 125 for THB150 (US$4.50) or VND100,000 a day. Although it only took me five days to complete the trip, it took a lot of hard riding and I had to skip most of the attractions on the way. I recommend taking at least a week or so, to enjoy it more thoroughly.
Images along the way - and there are many, including roadside shrines and even a coffee truck
Chiang Mai to Pai
150km via route 1095
Route 1095 is famous for the 762 twists and turns one must negotiate to get to Pai. This is highly enjoyable, as the roads are mostly empty, the tarmac is in great condition and takes you through some spectacular scenery. Don’t set out too early (after 8am is ideal) because in the early mornings it is very foggy in the mountains. Warm waterproofs are also essential as sporadic downpours are frequent and it can get chilly.
Pai has many accommodation options for every budget, from hostels for around THB180 per night (VND120,000) to upscale resorts at THB3,000 baht per night (VND2million). It’s a bustling backpacker paradise packed with coffee shops, bakeries, bars and souvenir shops.
There is also plenty to see in the surrounding countryside. The Chedi Phra That Mae Yen temple on the outskirts of Pai is home to the giant White Buddha statue, and provides some great panoramic views for those resilient enough to climb the long winding stairs.
Also, the Pai Canyon and the Memorial bridge are a short drive away and a must-see. However, I would not spend more than one night in Pai, even though it’s welcoming and tourist-friendly. It’s a tourist trap with little authenticity.
If you have time, take the 80km detour to Chiang Dao Town.
An abandoned rickshaw or cyclo on a bridge in Pai
A lake in the mountains of Ban Rak Thai
A view of Pai from the road above
Pai to Ban Rak Thai
The stretch of road from Pai to Ban Rak Thai is perhaps the most fun to drive. Dipping into valleys and weaving through the mountains, the road snakes southwest, taking you closer and closer to the Myanmar border. Just before getting into Mae Hong Son there is a nondescript fork in the road, leading to the small Chinese-majority village of Ban Rak Thai.
The road is well maintained and a great detour to make. It was a strain on my little automatic bike, because at times the road climbs at a very steep angle, taking you through rice paddies and tea plantations. Approximately an hour is needed to cover the 25km to the village of Ban Rak Thai where you can relax at a teahouse overlooking the lake that dominates the town. There are a few cafes serving Chinese-style dishes. The locals were friendly and hospitable, however many of them only speak Thai and Chinese. Guesthouses are available starting at 300 baht (VND200,000) per night.
On this stretch of the road my bike got a flat tyre in a downpour, in the middle of nowhere. I drove slowly around 10km to the nearest village, where a few locals were kind enough to help me. One of them had a pickup into which the five of us lifted my bike, and he drove me to the nearest town of Soppong (around 30min away) to get my tyre fixed.
School kids in a village close to Ban Rak Thai
Ban Rak Thai to Mae Hong Son to Mae Chaem
After spending the night in Ban Rak Thai the next destination has to be Mae Hong Son. One of the main points of interest there is Wat Prathat, located on a miniature mountain near the town centre. The fit and brave can attempt to walk to the top, but those who do not wish to hike can easily drive there, although the road is impressively steep. From the top you can see the tiny landing strip of the Mae Hong Son Airport and admire the stupas of the temple itself.
The road becomes more racetrack-like after leaving Mae Hong Son, the hairpin twists become leisurely curves that are great fun and allow for a little more speed. As you get close to Mae Chaem, the impressive outline of Doi Inthanon Mountain starts dominating the horizon.
Accommodation can be found in the town of Mae Chaem or in many of the roadside guesthouses.
On the road...
Sometimes, things just don't go as planned. A truck rescues the motorbike used for the trip
Mae Chaem to Doi Inthanon to Chiang Mai
Doi Inthanon Mountain is located in Doi Inthanon National Park. Packed with waterfalls, traditional craft villages, temples and nature walks, it’s worth spending one or two days there to explore.. The park is clean and well-maintained, and the attractions are all clearly signposted and easy to find. For some attractions a small entrance fee must be paid, but it’s well worth it to wander around the temple grounds of The Great Holy Relics Pagoda Nabhapolbhumisiri and relax in the small, but well-tended garden while taking in the view. To explore the many waterfalls and head to the peak of Doi Inthanon Mountain, head out early. This way you’ll avoid the midday tourist crowds.
Once you leave the national park, the road back to Chiang Mai is a breeze — just 80km along a wide straight highway, offering many opportunities to stop and rest, or to continue on to plan the next big adventure.