The Thai province of Mae Hong Son lies in the country’s remote north-west region and is often referred to as the most pristine and culturally authentic area of Thailand. All districts within Mae Hong Son province share a common border with Myanmar, the two countries are separated by natural boundaries including but not limited to the Salween river and the Thongchai mountain range.
The inhabitants of Mae Hong Son are for the most part an isolated people, the majority of the populace are made up of hill tribes including the Hmong and Karen; most people will have at least seen pictures of the Karen hill tribe women who are known as the ‘long necks’ due to the brass rings placed around a self explanatory part of the body, this is traditional attire for Karen women and the prolonged use of these brass rings over time will press down the collar bone and compress the rib cage, the neck itself is not actually lengthened. Dotted around Mae Hong Son you will see signs at the side of the road directing you to ‘Karen Hill Tribes’, we decided not to pay a visit to any of these ‘tribes’ as from my understanding it is now all just a bit of a circus where the more recent generations of Karen women feel obligated to wear the brass rings for the sole purpose of generating an income, so while it would have made for a good photo opportunity and something quite unique to behold, I didn’t fancy giving money to something that would encourage a person to do something they didn’t want to do and something that could perhaps damage their health.
Most people including ourselves venture into the beautiful Mae Hong Son province for the purpose of completing the famous Mae Hong Son Loop, this 600 kilometre loop is most often completed on motorbike as it has become somewhat of a Mecca for bikers. Most people start the loop in Chiang Mai as this is perhaps Thailand’s most major northern city and there are plenty of places to rent motorcycles both big and small. From Chiang Mai you can either take the loop clockwise or counterclockwise, if you take the loop counterclockwise your first destination will be the town of Pai which was once an intrinsic player in the former golden triangle (opium growing and distribution region of SE Asia), if you take the loop clockwise then Pai will be your final destination.
It took us a few days of negotiations with one another to finally come to the decision to tackle the Mae Hong Son loop, neither of us have too much experience on bikes – Becky rode a scooter a lot when she was living in Bali and I have ridden motocross bikes in the past. We decided to give it a go, renting two 125cc semi-automatic motorbikes (no clutch), these proved adequate for the journey, I wouldn’t recommend doing the journey on automatic scooters as you lose the ability to control engine breaking and the torque converter in an automatic transmission saps a decent amount of power making uphill sections a pain in the arse. While I would have preferred a bigger bike the 125cc Honda got the job done and even though it was lacking in power I still had a lot of fun. So how did the trip go…you can see the first section in the video below.
A guy from the motorbike rental company which was working in association with our hostel ‘Vida Guesthouse’ dropped our bikes off in the morning and we paid for 8 days. At around noon we departed Chiang Mai, everything was going smoothly, we had got out of the major traffic and had been riding for maybe an hour, I pulled my bike over to the side of the road to make sure we were on the right track and signalled to Becky to pull in behind me, she did and due to the gravel on the floor her brakes locked and the bike went over albeit at around 10mph, this was still enough to give her a nasty graze on her knee and hand, I am still of the opinion that this spill could have happened to anyone, the side of the roads are strewn with gravel and dust making brakes lock extremely easily. After cleaning Becky up and calming down for a little while we got back on the road heading towards Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain.
On the road up the mountain Becky was a little shaken up after her fall so we were taking it pretty easily, this combined with the steepness of the uphill sections and the lack of power from the 125cc engines we fell quite a bit behind schedule. From Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is the first major stop on the clockwise journey around the Mae Hong Son loop, its not a necessary stop and you will probably save around 2 hours if you cut it out but we decided to make the journey since we were on the doorstep of Thailand’s tallest mountain.
Towards the peak is a buddhist temple with the traditional bell shaped buildings, here you can get an amazing view of the surrounding area and I would also advise using this time to get some food, they sell some pretty good noodles in the small restaurant there and you’ll need plenty of food to fuel the next leg as it’s a long one. At the temple we had to decide whether it was wise continuing to our first planned stop which was Mae Sariang, a district but also the name of a small town very close to the Burmese border. We went with the logic that we were already running late, had paid for our accommodation and that it wouldn’t be so difficult to get back on track, we were kind of wrong…
The journey to Mae Sariang including the detour to Doi Inthanon equated to 300 kilometres, that’s 300 kilometres on mostly twisty roads on low powered bikes, with luggage and one quite shaken fiancee, I was also quite shaken as I was worried about her safety. Needless to say, the journey took a fair bit longer than anticipated at around 9 hours, we drove in the dark through roads with no lighting, took a couple of accidental detours, and it was surprisingly cold once the sun disappeared; each kilometre felt like a lightyear.
We arrived at around 9pm, the first leg of the journey turned out to be pretty stressful so as soon as that kickstand hit the pavement I was cracking open a beer – it had been a long time since I had felt relief like that, my shoulders were aching to the point it was painful and my arse felt like it was made of wood. Fortunately a nearby restaurant was still open and we were able to demolish a load of food in a matter of minutes, that feeling was utter bliss. That night we both slept as though we had been anaesthetised, when we woke up the next we were so stiff we decided to stay an extra couple of nights since we had actually completed almost half of the loop in one day, we thought we had earned the rest. I am going to continue this piece in another part since it’s quite long.
Stay tuned for the second part 🙂