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Adventure travelers are in for a treat in northern Thailand with the multi-day excursion along the 1,864 curves of the Mae Hong Son Loop. Beginning and ending in Chiang Mai, this wild ride takes in some of the most stunning scenery in the entire country. The MHS loop is doable by public transport, but be forewarned that you’ll be sharing a small, cramped bus with plenty of people who can’t handle the curves and continuously lose their lunch throughout the ride. If you’re an experienced, careful rider, then renting a motorbike is a much better alternative. Every shop in Chiang Mai knows about the loop, and most can provide you with a detailed map. Don’t skimp on the bike – it’s a tough ride and you want a solid set of wheels under you. Although the trip can be done in as little as four days, it’s much better if you can stretch it to at least a week. We spent a whole ten days doing the loop, and it was quite possibly the highlight of our two months in Thailand. Here’s a rundown of our route and some of the places we hit:
Heading south from Chiang Mai, we rode for a few hours before stopping at Doi Inthanon. At over 2,500 meters, the temperature was much cooler than down in the city. This national park boasts many spectacular waterfalls, a few trails, and the highest point in Thailand. Our morning was spent climbing up the royal chedis and enjoying the views of the surrounding hills. After filling up on a big lunch, we powered on to the summit to reach the peak. The view isn’t much up there, but it does allow you to say you’ve been to the highest spot in Thailand. Rather than drive all the way to Mae Sariang, which a lot of people do on day one, we stopped in the small town of Mae Chaem for the night.
The second day was a long one spent mostly on the bikes. Thankfully there are quite a few rest areas and viewpoints along the way, making it easy to take multiple rests, stretch, and snap some photos of this beautiful part of Thailand. We stopped in a tiny town for lunch, and walked around a bit to check out the local temple.
After a few more hours on the bike, we finally made it to Mae Hong Son – capital of the province of the same name and namesake of the loop. With a room for the night secured, we strolled around the small town and visited the temples around a small lake. We investigated our options for the next day and decided it was better to keep on rolling so as to spend more time in Pai.
While we debated getting up to a hilltop temple for sunrise, we decided to actually get some sleep and just head there in the morning. Wat Doi Kong Mu Temple isn’t remarkable, but the views are well worth the trip up. We had all day and not very far to go, so we planned a few stops for the third day. First up, we visited the “fish cave.” For some reason there are tons of fish back in a cave, which you can walk to along a nice nature trail. It’s mostly a tourist trap, but it was nice to get off the bike, walk a bit, and have some lunch.
There are lots of scenic points to stop off at a long the way, including plenty of waterfalls. We visited one and spent a little while climbing around and enjoying the time off the bike. As we did the trip in the dry season, none of the waterfalls were particularly strong, but it was still a great place to stop. After some deliberation on whether or not to find a mud spa, we decided to go for it. With mud masks on, we soaked our feet in hot springs and relaxed.
Our next destination was Soppong, also known as Pangmapha. We stayed at the Cave Lodge, the first guest house to open in the area back in 1984. The Australian owner, John, has discovered countless caves in the area with the help of professionals who have come from all over the world to explore these fascinating caves that locals want nothing to do with. It’s most famous for the many wood coffins that have been found in the caves, and the eyeless fish that were even featured on “Planet Earth.” With two nights in Sopping, we were able to do some hiking, visit a few caves (including the bat cave), and do a day-long trek.
Multi-day treks can also be arranged in Soppong if you have more time. It’s definitely worth it to put forth the extra effort and visit more remote villages – the one we visited was very modern and not as interesting as some of the places you can go if you just have an extra day or two.
We had heard from countless friends and other travelers how much we would love Pai. This northern Thai town is famous for its beautiful scenery, relaxed pace of life, and vibrant arts and music scene. Not surprisingly, we did in fact fall in love with Pai. It had been a long and tiring trip to get there, so we decided to stick around for five nights and really enjoy the place. With a rented motorbike, we were able to explore the surrounding area by day and then enjoy the night market and bars by night.
Having spent the past few years living in China, I was excited to find a small Chinese village up in the hills of Pai. While it was for the most part a cheesy tourist attraction, it was nice to sit down to a plate of Chinese dumplings, which I love dearly.
Another day, we rode out to take a short hike in the Pai Canyon followed by a dip in the hot springs. With so much to do in and out of the town, we were happy with our decision to do the loop the way that we did by ending with a nice long stay in Pai.
When we found out that there was tubing in Pai, we naturally signed up. Who doesn’t love tubing – the Homer Simpson of water sports? With a few Chang beers in tow, we floated down the river and enjoyed a lazy afternoon. Well, my sister didn’t enjoy it so much – she kept getting stuck on the rocks due to the low level of the river. As for us Gypsies, we’re pro tubers.
After quite a few nights of partying, we decided to spend an afternoon getting some culture and visiting some of the temples around Pai. There may be an abundance of farang along with Chinese and Korean tourists trying to recreate the movie “Pai in Love,” but this is still a Thai town and Buddhism reigns supreme.
Our loop came to an end with the 120 km ride from Pai back to Chiang Mai. While there are a few other places you can stop on the way back, we were running out of time and had to move our trip in Thailand along. We had completed the MHS Loop, one of the most famous excursions in Thailand, and we checked another item off the backpacker bucket list.