Before I had visited Thailand, my immediate association with the country was its famous beaches in the south. Having spent close on 6 weeks in this awesome country, I can confirm that many of these are indeed truly spectacular but I now appreciate how much more the country has to offer and I particularly enjoyed my time exploring the north.
Many travellers do make it up north to Chang Mai, which is an awesome city and a wonderful place to hang out, take a cooking lesson, explore temples and meet fellow backpackers in its host of wicked bars. That shouldn’t be all you see in the north though.
I’d heard from someone somewhere on my travels that the road from Chang Mai to Pai was one you really should do on scooters so that’s exactly what I did. There’s no shortage of bike rental shops around the city so it’s easy to organize and not crazy expensive.
I was joined by Maarten, a Dutch guy I had met a few weeks earlier and who I would spend the next three months with exploring South East Asia, and what I thought would be a three to four day trip ended up being nine as we rode over 500 km’s along the phenomenal ‘Mae Hong Son Loop’.
Having your own transport is a brilliant way to see a country as you’re not bound by transport routes and schedules and you’re completely flexible to stop as and when you like. Riding a bike brings with it wonderful freedom and the windy roads really lent themselves to being explored on two wheels. We enjoyed fantastic weather throughout with hot, cloudless days and a lovely cooling breeze that kept us super comfortable.
Chang Mai to Pai
The first day took us over some 130 kms and around 700 curves through gorgeous scenery of rolling hills and lush forest to Pai, a former quiet ‘hippy’ town that over the years has become incredibly popular and is now extremely busy. The roads were largely in good condition and the windy roads made for a super fun day’s riding.
Aside from the (many) bars and restaurants, there isn’t much to do in Pai itself – the attractions lie outside the city and having our own bikes allowed us to easily explore. We rode out to swim under a waterfall, hiked in a canyon and soaked in hot springs and a particularly special memory is riding home in the dark under a bright full moon.
Pai to Soppong
After a few days in Pai, we continued west along a road that twisted and turned every few hundred metres for some 45 kms to Soppong – a tiny village surrounded by over 200 caves. We stayed in a bamboo hut on the river at the wonderful Cave Lodge and while you could definitely explore some of the caves independently, we went with one of the tours available at the hostel.
There are a number of options and the one we decided on one that took in three caves, including the aptly named water cave where we had to belly crawl in places whilst tilting our heads to keep them above the water! Another cave was over 1.5 kilometres long with a spectacular main chamber, running to a height of 50 metres from floor to ceiling, and incredible formations.
Soppong to Mae Hong Son
From Soppong, we continued west for a further 77 kms to the town of Mae Hong Son, where we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset at the temple on the hill. We also took a day trip west as far as we could, ending up at the closed and patrolled Myanmar border where we had one foot in Thailand and one in Myanmar.
Mae Hong Son to Mae Chang and Don Inthanon
From Mae Hong Son the road began to level out slightly and the sharp hairpin bends gave way to sweeping curves, which were even more fun to ride. We headed up Thailand’s highest mountain, Don Inthanon, and enjoyed a refreshing swim at the Pha Suea waterfall, as we covered just under 200 km’s over the day.
Back to Chang Mai
It’s a simple ride of just over 100kms back to Chiang Mai on the overwhelmingly uninteresting route 108 but it gave us time to reflect on our epic road trip. Northern Thailand really surprised me and if you are planning on visiting, definitely try add some time up north to your time on the beach – you definitely won’t be disappointed.