Northern Thailand on a scooter – part 1: Mae Hong Son loop

Work has been so busy I haven’t even had time to write about a trip to Thailand me and my boyfriend did a bit over a month ago. However, this morning it feels as if I must do something fun first to be able to attack the to-do list later.

My boyfriend had been wanting to re-visit Thailand for some time already, and at the end of last year he finally booked us some cheap flights to Bangkok (departing this June). Never before have we booked any flights more than a couple of months in advance, but apparently he just had a real hankering for some good, cheap Thai food.

Neither of us had ever visited the Northern Thailand before and we were keen on finding out what all the hype was about. Therefore it was decided that we would fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and spend our just short of three weeks exploring the area around the Golden Triangle and not even bother with the beaches.

First of all, Bangkok was pretty much as I remembered from my last visit almost eight years ago: hot and busy, but manageable. However, what I found was that the city has become even more modern and that a lot of the scooters and tuk-tuks have been replaced by cars. This made crossing a road more dangerous than what it used to be: scooters can weave around you so as long as you’re going at a steady speed you’re fine, but with cars it’s a totally different story.

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Food festival inside one of the many malls in Bangkok.

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More cars than scooters.

Thailand 2014 011 Bangkok is infamous for its traffic jams and I was slightly concerned about how long the taxi ride from Silom to the Don Muang airport would take. However, despite us travelling during the morning rush hour (around 8am) it took only a few minutes to get to the expressway and altogether it was a smooth 30 minutes to the airport. (Here I would like to note that, if you’re planning on skipping Bangkok on your way in or out of Thailand and booking a domestic flight back-to-back with your international flight, check carefully which airport the airline operates from. The travelling time between Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi can be three hours by taxi, so you need to leave plenty of time between the flights. We chose to overnight in Bangkok in-between the flights.)

Even though the political situation seems to have scared off some of the tourists (it was pretty quiet), the old town of Chiang Mai nonetheless feels very touristy: there are hundreds of establishments offering accommodation, food, drinks, massages etc. However, there aren’t too many shops selling “junk” (for the lack of a better word), or too many people hassling you, and all in all we found it rather nice. And outside the old town the city is just a normal Thai city; we mostly visited Nimmanhaemin area where there are some nice restaurants and cafes also. Getting around Chiang Mai is very easy either on a bike or a scooter (if you want to go a bit further), or you can take a red “kind-of-like-a-taxi” that takes you where you want to go for a fixed fee but also takes on and drops off other people. To be honest, almost every time we took one we were the only ones on it and so it was like taking a taxi.

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There’s no shortage of guesthouses in Chiang Mai.

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Or temples.

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Amazing coffee at Ristr8to in Nimmanhaem.

The main purpose of our trip was basically to hire a scooter, to do the “Mae Hong Son loop” and then continue to do another “un-named” loop to the Laos border. And so we went to Mr Mechanic (as recommended by many), were told that a 125cc little Honda would be fine for our purposes (“everywhere can go”), got one, drove to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, weren’t happy with the breaks, went back the next morning, got another Dream with better breaks, and took off.

Apparently it is more common to be riding the Mae Hong Son loop counterclockwise. Yet for our purposes it made more sense to be doing it the other way around, and so our first destination was Mae Sariang. However, on our way there we decided to do a detour to visit Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon. All I’m going to say is that it was very hard going with two of us on that small bike (having to “rev” it on the first or second gear was to be a continuing annoyance during the whole trip), even though we had very little luggage, and that the views on the way to the top weren’t particularly impressive. And once at the top, the mist was so thick you couldn’t see a thing. However, based on what we had read earlier our expectations weren’t that high anyway, so it wasn’t really a big deal. There were some nice waterfalls just off the main road though.

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At the peak.

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Tick, done that.

Thailand 2014 116We hadn’t been on a bike for a long time and so I was a bit nervous about getting lost or something happening, so from the peak we decided to back-track to the main highway instead of taking a forest road joining the highway further west. Thinking of it now I’m sure the forest road would’ve been fine also, however, after Hod the highway started following a river and the scenery was beautiful all the way to Mae Sariang. In fact, that part was one of the prettiest sections of the whole loop. (But I was too tired to take photos and also thought the journey would be as pretty the next day too.)

After a night at a guesthouse by the riverside, we left the completely dead town (there were practically no tourists and all these empty guesthouses and quiet streets gave an impression of a ghost town), and continued on the highway towards Mae Hong Son.

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One of the very few restaurants in Mae Sariang (the only one that was open in the evening at least).

I don’t want to sound negative but the ride was pretty average to be honest. The road went through some forests and farmland, but except for a few occasions the views weren’t that great. The condition of the road, however, was amazing, as it had been the previous day as well. (In fact, the road was fantastic all the way to Pie, after which it wasn’t as good, probably due to higher volume of traffic to and from Chiang Mai.) We had considered to stop off at some hot springs on the way, but as it was so hot anyway, and because my boyfriend had left his swimming shorts at home, we decided to skip it and arrived in Mae Hong Son in early afternoon.

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Thais love utes, you can transport all kinds of goods or your whole family on it. At fuel stations they give you a bow and a price list.

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Perfect road.

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This is where I truly realised that my boyfriend no longer is the wild young man he used to be (don’t get me wrong, the change is for the better), as instead of a cheap but very basic box of a room we had a look at his preferred option was to stay in a nice bungalow with air-con and a pool for almost double the price (note: the bungalow still only cost us 700 bath/23 AUD for the night). Seems that the days of continuous negotiations are now over, a fact I couldn’t be more pleased about.

Thailand 2014 227In Mae Hong Son we visited one of the Karen/longneck villages. We were hesitating whether or not we should go, but thought we might as well as this one was only about ten kilometres down the road. A village isn’t really an accurate term to describe the place, as it is in fact a refugee camp comprising of a collection of huts with souvenir stalls at the front. It is located in a small Thai village and we first missed the “entrance”, driving past the steps leading down from the road. The visit in itself isn’t anything remarkable, but it did spark my interest in the refugee issue between Thailand and Myanmar, and I found out that apparently these people have been living in this village for twenty years and that there is a refugee camp south of Mae Sariang with an estimated 60,000 people staying there! Crazy…

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There were so many beautiful butterflies in Thailand.

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Earlier we saw a sign “Elephant ahead, do not use horn”.

From Mae Hong Son we continued on the winding highway (did I mention they claim that the loop has 1864 turns?) towards Pai, stopping at Tham Lot cave near Soppong on the way there. I had never been to a completely unlit cave before and it was a nice experience to go into the cave on a little raft, but the guide we had wasn’t the most helpful one. Towards the end, after we gave the raftman a tip she then suddenly became much more enthusiastic, funny that. (I would like to note here that in general I find the Thai people to be amongst the friendliest and most hospitable people out there.) Anyway, the ride to Pai was reasonable; the views after Soppong were nicer than we had seen the day before.

Thailand 2014 272Thailand 2014 279 Thailand 2014 244Thailand 2014 296Thailand 2014 295Pai in itself was pretty much exactly as I expected it to be: a backpacker town full of young, confident people dropped in the middle of Thai countryside. Again, we stayed in a beautiful bungalow, this time no pool though! Pai wasn’t really for us, however, during the day it was quite nice to ride the scooter around the surrounding area, and the town itself is nice in the evening with people and vendors filling the streets.

Our bungalow with river views.

Our bungalow with river views.

Thailand 2014 328 Thailand 2014 330Thailand 2014 308 Thailand 2014 338 Thailand 2014 345 Thailand 2014 359 Thailand 2014 362After Pai we continued towards Chiang Mai, but instead of turning right on highway 107 (approximately 30 kilometres north of Chiang Mai) we turned left towards Chiang Dao, to start the second half of our scooter trip. It turned out to be the more interesting and beautiful half, more on that in part 2! (Coming soon I hope.)

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