asia · thailand · Travel

Part 2 – Mae Hong Son Loop (Northern Thailand). Boasting 1,864 curves, this is biking Mecca! Video inside.

I split this piece into 2 separate posts as it’s quite a long one, so if you didn’t catch the first part and are interested in reading about our journey around the famous Mae Hong Son Loop, you can find it here.  So just a quick recap of what has happened thus far…we left Chiang Mai for Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s tallest mountain), Becky had a small fall on the bike, we fell behind schedule yet still managed to cover 300 kilometres on the first day arriving in the small town of Mae Sariang, the first leg was exhausting and we needed to stay an extra couple of nights just to recuperate.

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Pai river from the WWII Memorial Bridge

Nothing particularly exciting happened in Mae Sariang, we rested mostly on the balcony sipping beers and going out to check out some of the local food.

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My favourite meal in Mae Hong Son.  Pork stir fried with cumin leaves (a seasonal dish).
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Something I have never seen before.  Banana flower salad in spiced coconut sauce.
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This looks pretty good but it was stupidly bland.  Burmese pork and fern leaves, almost no flavour at all.
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Fortunately the Burmese potato cakes were better.

After Mae Sariang the next leg of the journey was to the town of Mae Hong Son and to be honest I was dreading it, I thought that if Becky didn’t have her confidence back and we continued at our previous pace then it would take us another 3 hours over schedule and I was also worried that if Becky wasn’t confident on the bike then that could put her in danger, however as soon as she got on the bike I could tell she had her confidence back as she was riding 10 times better than on the first leg, this in turn gave me confidence and we arrived in Mae Hong Son pretty much on time.

It’s worth pointing out that the roads around the Mae Hong Son loop are almost perfect, they are well sealed and potholes are few and far between, I would just advise that you stay away from the small lanes on the left as although these are intended for motorcycles and bicycles they are often strewn with gravel, I have had a few close calls myself even just from pulling in and gently braking at 20kph.  We spent two days in Mae Hong Son which has a little more going on than Mae Sariang and although there are tourist attractions nearby we didn’t really venture out to see them as we were there for one reason which was to complete to loop and see the natural surroundings on the bikes, occasionally stopping for pictures.  Since we were on the bikes for many hours at a time in the heat, covered in dust, physically and mentally exhausted when we arrived at a destination we just wanted to rest.  We stayed for 2 nights in Mae Hong Son before heading for Pai.

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The road to Pai

The journey from Mae Hong Son to Pai was super easy, it only took a few hours and as per usual the roads were amazing, seriously they’re paved better than a racetrack and more fun to ride on.  We arrived in Pai having only used half a tank of fuel.  For those of you have never heard of Pai, this was once a place you couldn’t simply go to, until relatively recently (1950’s-1970’s) Pai was once a pillar of the ‘golden triangle’, an area of South East Asia comprising parts of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar used to cultivate the poppies used to produce opium and distribute it around the globe – for those who aren’t already aware, opium is the crude material harvested from the Papaver somniferum poppy.  Opium contains the natural opioid ‘morphine’ which has both medical and illicit uses, an additional process involving the morphine and acetic acid can produce diacetylmorphine or as most people know it…heroin.

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Race track grade tarmac on the Mae Hong Son Loop

For a long time, Pai and the surrounding areas of the golden triangle were governed by powerful drug producers, raking in huge sums of money to supply the global demand for opium and heroin – they were pretty much untouchable and almost unreachable due to the areas remoteness.

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During WWII the Japanese saw the British colony of Burma as a threat and sought to destroy this allied stronghold, the paved roads and built bridges through Mae Hong Son province, however the bridges that they built were destroyed after the Japanese surrendered in 1945, this cut off an important lifeline to the people of Pai and they had the bridge rebuilt using wood by the following year.  The bridge that was rebuilt can still be seen today, it is known as the WWII memorial bridge (there is some controversy over the facts regarding the true erection and destruction of the bridges).

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WWII Memorial Bridge

Modern day Pai is much larger and developed than it once was, today it survives mainly on tourism, people flock to Pai for a number of reasons: the many hot-springs in the surrounding area, Pai canyon, rice terraces, food, and for some people it is the party atmosphere and access to locally grown drugs that draws them in.

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I have a bit of a love-hate view of Pai, while the surrounding area is beautiful, the laid back vibe of the town is fantastic and there are a lot of very nice locals and travellers who come to Pai, however, the concentration of white people with dreadlocks wearing nothing but a pair of elephant pants is just too much –  this was a reoccurring theme of Thailand for me; there is a certain type of person that causes me to be filled with an irrational yet very real rage, and this species can be found in abundance in Thailand, you will find them sporting elephant print harem pants with the no t-shirt look, you might find them waffling on about the evils of money and how they are living a more simple life now…probably with mummy and daddy’s money.  Woah, derailed a bit there.

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Moving on from Pai, we needed to head back to Chiang Mai, this is supposedly the most difficult section of the loop, people who came to Pai on busses told us of the staggering amount of turns on the road and how all of the Chinese tourists on the busses were vomiting as they couldn’t handle the motion sickness.

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In all honesty it was a little more difficult than the rest of the loop but nothing that I would call challenging, although it was where the second crash happened, this time it was me who went down and there was nothing I could do about it.  The roads were great, not a pothole in sight, smooth as silk, we were making good time until I came around a corner only to find myself on a patch of road covered in oil, the oil slick on the road stretched approximately 100 metres, there must have been upwards of 10 litres of oil on the road, the bike went down and I slid across the floor, before I even hit the ground a couple of guys who had experienced the same fate earlier on were running over to help me up.  The only damage was a bent foot peg, and a disconnected mirror and only a bruised thigh for me, you can’t see it in the shortened video but for some reason the first thing I did was walk over and pick up the can of baked beans that had fallen from my basket, which Becky found hilarious after watching the video.

After the crash we got back on the bikes and continued on our way back to Chiang Mai without a hitch, no major damage to the bikes and no charge, we both made it home safely.  My advice would be to get a bit of experience on a bike as there are so many turns on this loop, sometimes you will be driving for hours on end, you’re very far from medical attention if you need it and most importantly you need to know how to handle a bike.  As you can see, accidents can happen and sometimes they are completely unavoidable, in my case it was an oil slick on a blind corner.  If you do decide to complete the Mae Hong Son Loop I think you will have the trip of a lifetime, the scenery is outstanding, the food along the way is delicious and you will most likely meet some very nice locals and travellers.

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Pai Canyon
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Sunset at Pai Canyon

We’re currently in Ubud, Bali at the moment on a tour of the island, a little bit cooler here than Sanur.

Until next time

Matt

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2 thoughts on “Part 2 – Mae Hong Son Loop (Northern Thailand). Boasting 1,864 curves, this is biking Mecca! Video inside.

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