The ultimate thrill-seekers honeymoon, motorbiking the Mae Hong Son loop will disappoint only in that you will undoubtedly wish you had more time to explore. Caves and waterfalls, hill tribes and mountain villages, locally grown coffee and tea and mountain vistas that leave you breathless await each of the 1,864 bends in the road. My personal experience with the loop began last week on Wednesday. I had hoped to depart Chiang Mai on Sunday, but just as I finished signing the rental form for my scooter the sky darkened and a few tentative rain drops began to fall. By the time my backpack was packed and I was ready to scoot away we were in the midst of a full-blown thunder storm. I decided to wait to leave until the next day, which turned into the next day as the rain continued to fall and temperatures dropped thirty degrees. On Wednesday morning, three days after I had hoped to begin my adventure but had been foiled by the weather, I made the decision to go. I put on every layer of clothing I had packed – three t-shirts and a rain jacket on top, three pairs of capris and rain pants on the bottom. I even put a pair of socks on before slipping into my sandals. I was as warm and waterproof as I was going to get. I took one terrified look at oncoming traffic, held my breath and twisted the throttle. There’s only one way to learn how to go with the flow of Thai traffic and live to tell the story: do it! It doesn’t help that there are quite a few other foreigners on the road, too, and many with little or no previous experience on two wheels. When I rented my 125cc scooter I had to show my passport and sign a paper that I couldn’t read which I assume said I’d do my best not to get into a crash and if I did I wouldn’t blame the scooter company. I didn’t have to show a driver’s license or an international driving permit, both of which I came prepared to use. As the man who rented me the scooter handed me the keys and walked away he cast a quick glance over his shoulder and said: “You know how to drive?” I assured him I did, although I’m curious as to what he would have done had I said I didn’t. It certainly wouldn’t have deterred him from renting me the scooter, as can be seen in the number of heavily-bandaged foreigners you see wandering the streets on their two feet after collisions or wipe outs on rented scooters.
I acclimated to Thailand’s traffic quickly. The key is to stay focused, do whatever it takes to get you to your destination as quickly as possible, and ignore anything that looks like a traffic light, stop sign or yellow line on the road. Those must just be there for decoration.
I only allotted myself four days to complete the Mae Hong Son loop, which circumnavigates Northwestern Thailand and skirts the Myanmar border for most of its 600 km. I chose it because I was in need of a solo adventure, having been overwhelmed by fellow backpackers in Chiang Mai. I also wanted to go somewhere that the tour buses wouldn’t; a place where I could feel “off the beaten track”. The loop was perfect for that.
Day 1: Chiang Mae to Mae Sariang 180 km
The first ten kilometers of my journey were the most thrilling. I felt completely free to move as I pleased, and most importantly: I could get out of Chiang Mai. Although I had many wonderful experiences there, the pollution was awful: incessant, noisy traffic and street lights everywhere. I felt like I hadn’t taken a deep breath in five days. The scooter changed that. Traffic was wild for a few kilometers outside of the city and then slowly tapered off as major roads branched off towards other cities and tourist destinations. I passed many scooters with three or four riders, sometimes students on their way to school, other times whole families with a toddler in front and a baby sandwiched between driver and parent on the back. I wasn’t brave enough to take my hand off the handlebars and wave, but all of my smiles were greeted with equally big smiles and I felt like I was a part of something bigger than just my little adventure – the thrill of life on two wheels. I rode for about an hour before the cool air made me shiver and my legs were sore from sitting. I saw a sign for Wat Doi Noi (a Bhuddist temple) and pulled off. It was a lovely temple! The 246 steps to the top were perfect for warming up my chilled body and stretching my legs.
From there I headed towards Chom Thong, where I found a bowl of pork and noodles; spicy and delicious. Fueled for the climb, I began my ascent up Thailand’s highest peak: Doi Inthanon. At the entrance to the National Park which encompasses the peak I experienced for the first time the difference in entry fees for Thai citizens and foreigners. The entrance fee for the park was 20 Baht (about 75 cents) for Thai citizens and 350 Baht (about $10) for foreigners. It reminded me of the conversation I’d had with a hostel receptionist earlier that day. She told me that she was saving up money to fly to the United States, and that it would take her five years to have enough money to pay for the plane ticket. It was a powerful reminder of how privileged I am to be healthy enough, wealthy enough and free enough to be able to make a trip like this.
As I neared the peak of the mountain the temperature dropped and fog rolled in. The fog was so thick I had to use my finger like a windshield wiper on my glasses. I saw a sign which showed sixteen more kilometers to the peak and I gave up. I was cold, low on gas, and even if I made it to the top I would be shrouded in fog so thick I might not be able to see more than a few feet in any direction. I hadn’t chosen the best day to visit Doi Inthanon. At least the descent was fun, with its winding s-curves and slowly increasing temperature. Each wave of warmth kept me going until I’d made it back down to Chom Thong.
It cost me 80 Baht to fill up with gas (that’s just under $3.00), and I was on the rode again, heading towards my destination at Mae Sariang. I knew sunset was around 6:15pm, and if I timed it just right I’d get there before dark. As I cruised through Ob Luang and Mae Tho National Parks I immediately began to regret my decision to only rent my scooter for four days. There was so much to see and do! The views were incredible, and the tiny villages I passed through held irresistible fruit and vegetable vendors with piles of squash, watermelons, bananas, papaya and coconuts. I couldn’t stop, not if I wanted to make it to Mae Sariang before dark. So I pushed on, and coasted down into the little valley that holds Mae Sariang just as the sun was setting. It was lovely, and I was so glad to be able to stand up and walk around after six hours on the scooter. I quickly found the “tourist” street in town, with a half a dozen hostels and guesthouses and a slew of restaurants overlooking the Mae Sariang River. For the first time since arriving in Thailand I found a hostel which provided a private room, with a private bathroom. It was luxurious, and cost me the same as a shared dorm in Chiang Mai. I tried to take a shower, but the power cut out every time I turned up the water temperature, so I washed the grime off my face with cold water and headed out the door to find a place to eat. I bumped into Ian along the way. This is what I mean about solo travel having nothing to do with being alone: solo travelers are like magnets for other solo travelers! Ian was sitting at a hostel working on his laptop. We made eye contact and within thirty seconds were making plans to have supper together at the restaurant across the street. The other thing about solo traveling is that you never know what you’re going to get when you befriend a backpacker. I was lucky with Ian. He had lived in the area previously while working for an NGO that supported schools in Karen villages throughout Thailand and Myanmar. He was incredibly knowledgeable about the surrounding area, and shared with me a great deal of information about the history of the struggle between Karen State and the Burmese military. I was so glad to learn about the history of the struggle and also the current state of affairs. The only exposure I had had so far were the fliers advertising “Hill Tribe Treks” and “Longneck Karen Village Tours”. If there’s money to be made, someone’s going to be capitalizing on the opportunity, even if it means exploiting refugees. I hadn’t found a positive outlet for my interest in Karen hill tribes, but Ian encouraged me to hire a knowledgeable, local guide and embark on a trek.
It was an early night. I had discovered the feeling of “scooter butt” and was eager to rest before another big day on the road.
Day 2: Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son 163 km
I left Mae Sariang early, hoping to catch a few waterfalls on my way North to Mae Hong Son. Although the weather remained chilly, the journey was beautiful. There weren’t many vehicles on the road and the views were spectactular. I took my time, took some better photos, and had a memorable adventure. After visiting Mae Surin waterfall I noticed a possible shortcut on my map. The shortcut road was labelled “Dirt Road, Wet Season 4WD”. It was the dry season, so I figured a scooter might be able to make it. I was right, mostly. Getting lost on foot paths in the middle of a dense Thai forest was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. I was lucky enough to find a farm at the bottom of a valley where a young woman spoke English. I was crossing my fingers she’d tell me to continue down the road to get to town, and not that I had to turn around and go back up what was the steepest descent I’d encountered yet. I wasn’t so lucky. She pointed back up the mountain and said: “Go back up, take a left.” The road was so steep at times that the scooter wouldn’t carry me up and I had to simultaneously twist the throttle and run alongside to keep up. I was so happy when I found myself back on the main highway to Mae Hong Son. I arrived at dusk. The first hostel I asked for accommodation at informed that they were full, but that I was welcome to sleep on the floor of the kitchen for 100 Baht. Perfect. I met two fellow scooter-bound backpackers and we went out to supper together. Mae Hong Son was a lovely little town, with a beautiful lake at its center, a majestic temple-clad mountain to the East and a lively night market around it’s perimeter. I could see why there were a handful of long-term foreign visitors. I got a map of the area and realized just how much there was to see. It would be ideal to find a nice hostel and base out of Mae Hong Son for a few days, taking day trips to the many caves, villages, waterfalls and hot springs during the day and relaxing in Mae Hong Son at night. I only had one day, but I was determined to make the most of it.
Day 3: Mae Hong Son to Pai 107 km
When I left Mae Hong Son I had a plan. I was determined to head North, visiting two villages along the Thai/Myanmar border that were well-known for their ethnic diversity and local coffee and tea production. The winding mountain roads to Ban Rak Thai and Ban Ruam Thai were the best yet. I stopped at a waterfall along the way to stretch my legs and arrived in Ban Rak Thai just in time for lunch. Ban Rak Thai is a Yunan village, with many Yunan restaurants and tea houses in town. I had one of the best meals of my trip there. I ordered a tea leaf salad and a bowl of noodles with season vegetables. It was so spicy and so delicious. While I was eating, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant sat with me and we shared tea together. The tea grown locally is all oolong, but there are many variations. I tried traditional oolong, oolong with ginseng, and sticky rice oolong. All were delicious, and had my pack been any bigger I would have boughten some to bring home. As it is, I’m appreciative for the experience and hope I can taste that tea again someday.
Just a short jaunt down the road was the Shun village of Ban Ruam Thai, known for its coffee production. I stopped at Uncle Pa La’s Cafe and had an amazing cup of coffee with a brownie. It was my first taste of chocolate since arriving in Thailand, and well worth the wait. I learned at Uncle Pa La’s that the town had only recently been established, and that he and his wife’s dedication to shade-grown coffee is what originally brought tourists to the area. Without tourists, locals would have cut down much of the surrounding forest in order to grow crops for sale to survive. Uncle Pa La never advertised, but as word spread of his hard work and dedication to conversation the area began to thrive. There still isn’t an overwhelming number of tourists, but Uncle Pa La’s guesthouse remains full for much of the November – March tourist season.
I was able to make one more stop on my journey before arriving in Pai. I had heard a great deal about Thom Lod Cave and made a last minute decision to stop as I was passing late in the day. For 450 Baht (about $13.50) I received a tour guide and bamboo raft for navigating the cave. It was beautiful. The best part was probably the lack of electricity. The only way to see the cave was by the light of my guide’s gas lamp. I wish I had proficiency in Thai, but as it is I was able to communicate with my guide only by her saying: “This one looks like a turtle. That one looks like Donald Trump.” My response was always: “Wow! Ri mak mak! (That’s very good!)” It’s been difficult getting used to not speaking the language here. Most of the time I feel completely removed from local Thai culture.
I caught the sunset just as I was descending into Pai, a small mountain village turned hippie enclave in the 70’s and now one of the biggest destinations for foreigners interested in yoga, meditation, organic food, live music and a relaxed atmosphere.
Day 4: Pai to Chiang Mai 149 km
I was only in Pai long enough to see that it was a place I could fall in love with – small yet full of possibilities for meeting like-minded people, delicious food, mountainous surroundings, and endless opportunities to explore your spiritual side. I left town early and headed to Pai Canyon for a morning retreat.
On my way out of town I took a back road that passed the local collection of elephant-based tourist destinations. Some allow riding, others focus on caring for and learning about the elephants.
The remainder of the journey to Chiang Mai was rough. Road construction littered the highway in the most unexpected places. Everyone was driving slow as tiny scooters skirted around massive trucks hauling rock on steep inclines.
I made it back to Chiang Mai in the afternoon and found myself a bit relieved to be back in a familiar area. I felt a fondness towards Chiang Mai as I zig-zagged through narrow streets to my favorite part of town and got a room at the Peppermaint Cafe and Hostel. I met a man named Thomas and we ventured out to a vegetarian cafe I’d become fond of. He was an inspiration, and readily acquiesced to my interview:
“I’m a Dutch guy, 23 years old. I finished my studies in Innovation Management. I really like groovy music and I’m in love with adventure.”
Q: Why do you travel?
To experience more spontaneous things. To meet people from different cultures. Just to experience life on a higher and more adventurous level.
Q: When and how did you catch the travel bug?
After five weeks in Bali when I was fourteen when I went on holiday with my family. The people on that island, it was like a different world. So gentle and caring, and just so chilled out.
Q: What’s your biggest dream?
To share a lot of groovy music with a lot of people as a DJ. I’ve already done it once in Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I just love to raise the vibe in that way; inspiring people with that music to raise their vibration.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on your travels that you’d like to share with the world?
To accept the world around me. Having less control over things that I’m constantly thinking about.
I wanted to take a picture of him to share as well, but when I awoke the next morning at 5:45am to catch the sunrise he was fast asleep.