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Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop

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After completing my first scooter trip in Bali, I knew I had to embark on another in Thailand. After spontaneously booking a ticket to Chiang Mai in early 2023, I began researching for popular road trips in northern Thailand.

Initially, I planned for the Chiang Rai loop, which had steep and winding roads leading up and down the mountains close to the border with Myanmar. But my insecurity about lacking navigation skills across seemingly challenging terrains got the better of me.

The Mae Hong Son loop, renowned for passing through Pai and Doi Inthanon, emerged as a more well-known route, attracting numerous tourists. While I typically avoided such destinations, encouragement from the hostel owner persuaded me to attempt the journey. It would serve as a gateway for me to discovering more off-the-beaten-path destinations in the future.

Preparation

I began my journey from The Islander Hostel in Chiang Mai, a hostel that quickly became my favourite due to its welcoming owners and incredible social atmosphere. In fact, I was so enamoured with it that I decided to extend my stay for an additional night before setting out on my adventure.

Renting my first 125cc Honda Click from the hostel, I anticipated the challenge of navigating mountainous roads ahead. While it was the heaviest scooter I had ridden at that point of time, my recent experience with bicycles had bolstered my confidence, prompting me to choose it for my journey.

The highlight of the Mae Hong Son Loop was its numerous sharp curves that could pose a challenge to the inexperienced riders. However, with each curve I navigated, I eventually got the hang of it. In fact, these winding roads not only kept me alert but also treated me to scenic views along the way. I even encountered some charming cafes along the route to Pai, including one with a whimsical witch theme that beckoned me to stop and indulge.

Traveling to North Thailand during the dry season, particularly in March and April, presents a notable downside: the thick haze that blankets the region due to crop burning and the easy spread of flames. Inhaling the combination of smoke and dust was far from pleasant, and I had to equip myself with a KN94 mask to stay relatively safe. The reduced visibility obscured the stunning views were obscured, dampening the experience of even majestic spots like Pai Canyon, which couldn’t be fully appreciated.

First Stop: Pai

Truth be told, Pai didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It felt as if I was transported back to Bali with the throngs of tourists along the walking street, detracting from the charm I had hoped to find. Nonetheless, I managed to salvage the experience by exploring some of the local food spots and attending a class at Charn Chai Muay Thai, where I struck up a friendship with a fellow traveller.

I found the real charm lay in exploring the areas beyond Pai, whether en route from Chiang Mai or further afield. With only a morning to spare, I discovered hidden gems like a serene temple devoid of tourists and a quaint cafe perfect for leisurely lounging.

Cafe and homestay near Pai, Thailand
Second Stop: Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son marked a turning point in my journey, as the air quality soared to at least 400 US AQI, far exceeding the satisfactory level below 100. I was exhausted from navigating through multiple instances of thick smoke en route from Pai.

 I decided to forgo visiting several beautiful sightseeing spots and instead sought refuge at Crossroad Guesthouse. The hostel proved to be one of the friendliest in the region, offering a warm welcome and even inviting guests to join in cooking dinner with the owners—for a fee, of course. Here, I also found solace in the company of fellow adventurers on the same scooter route, reaffirming that I wasn’t alone in this endeavour.

I See Fire

That evening, we were confronted by a startling sight: distant mountain blazes, clearly visible from the hostel. The hostel owner’s response to our alarm was nonchalant, assuring us that the fires would not reach us. His apparent familiarity with the situation was more concerning that comforting, but there wasn’t much we could do but hope for the best.

The night was difficult as the smell of smoke permeated our room, despite efforts to mitigate it with a fan. By morning, visibility was at its poorest yet, a stark reminder of the aftermath of the mountain fire. Still, we had to be grateful that it was put out by then.

Undeterred, we ventured to the local market to immerse ourselves in the flavours of Mae Hong Son, before ascending to the temple on the hill. The latter marked our triumph over the challenging curves of the loop, signaling the start of a smoother journey ahead.

Market in Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Third stop: Mae Sariang

Mae Sariang may be a less frequented stop on the loop, but to me, it exuded the most charm. The local ambiance and simplicity of life here provided a welcome respite, especially after three days of riding.

I was grateful to have a fellow rider with me at this point, ensuring that I didn’t succumb to my lazy tendencies stay indoors all day upon arrival. We explored the back gardens of the village on our scooters, observing children playing in the river and ascending a hill to yet another temple for a panoramic view.

Despite being the southernmost point on our route, we couldn’t escape the haze completely, obscuring what could have been a wonderful sight of distant mountains. For now, we enjoyed a classic mookata dinner and eagerly anticipated another day in the tranquil side of Thailand.

Final stop: Doi Inthanon

I was determined to visit the highest peak in Thailand during this trip, even planning to stay a night there. I brought along a jacket, fully preparing for the chill at 2,565 metres above sea level, but I underestimated the strength of the wind when riding the scooter. Nonetheless, the cleaner air provided a much-needed relief after days of inhaling smoke.

Doi Inthanon, Thailand

Taking a guided hike along Kew Mae Pan nature trail was a definite highlight of the day, matched only by the serenity of the night spent at Motho Homestay—a place deserving of endless compliments. The breathtaking views and the profound sense of peace I experienced were surreal, making it the perfect concluding stop of this scooter journey before my return to Chiang Mai.

After an epic 5-day journey on the loop, I came to a realization that there was still so much more to explore. The more I saw, the deeper my love grew for North Thailand’s charm, making it feel like a place I truly belong. While the South’s seas may be stunning, it’s the allure of North Thailand that has captured my heart. This certainly won’t be my last visit, and who knows, maybe I’ll have even more exciting tales to share on my next adventure here.

Behind the trip

I’m Angie, a traveller, web developer and blogger behind A Head Full of Travel. I’m here to document my adventures through words and photography, kindling a love for life. You can trust that all content and advice shared here is genuine and from my own experiences.

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