Oh, Thailand. With your crystal clear water, tropical beaches, and delicious food, you are a country that is definitely good for the soul - and add in uber-friendly locals, colorful temples, and cheap transportation, and you are practically heaven on Earth.
More likely than not though, when you imagine (and visit) Thailand three places come to mind: Bangkok, the southern beaches, and Chiang Mai. But as you might expect from a country that is more than twice the size of Wyoming (approximately 514,000 sq. km), there is a lot more to discover. And one of the best ways to do that is by exploring the Mae Hong Son region of Northern Thailand.
If you have a week, and know at least the basics of driving a moped, then we highly recommend taking on the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600 kilometer route that circles around the far northern reaches of Thailand.
We were lucky enough to spend five months in Thailand during our junior year of college. Both of us were studying abroad from our respective universities and we didn’t know one another at all before heading to Chiang Mai. But after knowing each other for about two weeks, we decided to head out on a grand adventure (just the two of us) along the backroads of Northern Thailand. And as many say, the rest is history.
But back to the Mae Hong Son Loop. Here is our adventure log of one of the neatest, prettiest, and most authentic trips we did in our whole five-month stay in Thailand.
Getting Off the Beaten Path
The day was hot. The air was thick. And the backpack just would not stay on the bike very well.
It was early morning on the first day of the Mae Hong Son Loop. We both were excited, and slightly nervous at the thought of traveling 600 kilometers into the backcountry - the “last frontier” of Thailand. Not to mention it would just be us, two people who didn’t know the other existed a month ago. But that is what adventure is all about right? Heading off into the unknown with hopes of everything working out okay.
We headed out of Chiang Mai, the city we had started to call home, and a place we had both already fallen in love with.
While the city is massive (just under 1 million residents in the entire metro district) it is surprisingly easy to get around, especially by bike (or moped if we are being honest). This is due to the fact that besides red trucks, the Thailand form of taxi’s (just waaaaay cheaper), almost everyone rides a moped. And even though there are very little traffic laws, and the ones that are there are not always followed, somehow the traffic flows smoothly, like a murmuration of starlings.
Once you leave the city behind, you are quickly thrown into the wilds of the Northern Thailand landscape: thick, hot jungles, narrow twisty (sometimes paved) roads, and tiny, authentic hill tribe villages that make you question everything you thought about true happiness.
Your first stop (if doing the loop clockwise, which we did) is in the town of Hot. Yes, Hot. And man it really was.
We quickly pulled over at a gas station to refuel the bike and ourselves. We bought a sweet, chia seed-filled juice and some vanilla crackers (which would quickly become our food of choice on this road trip - and the next five months). Then sat in the shade of the gas station for a good 15 minutes - soaking up the views and imagining what lay ahead on this adventure.
That night we decided to camp out in the first national park of the trip: Op Luang. This park is right on the outskirts of Hot, and it offers a nice campground, a couple of hiking trails and a cool bridge to sit on and watch either the rushing Mae Chaem River below, or the brilliant stars above at night.
The next day we set off nice and early from the Op Luang campground. After a terrible night of attempting to sleep in a hammock, we both agreed we would rather risk it on the hard ground or maybe even try to find some hostels/bunkhouses along the way, there on out.
Along the road from Op Luang to the next major town of Mae Sariang we passed the Bo Kaeo Pine Tree Garden. This is a pretty unique photo spot - just lines and lines of tall pine trees. Similarly, right down the road is a Forest Park, another couple of gardens and a few wats (temples). This area of the road reminded us of the Rocky Mountains in a way: lots of pine trees, camping areas and trails.
We arrived in Mae Sariang around 4 o’clock. The town isn’t huge but it has everything you could want or need: restaurants, lodging options, cafes, even a museum. We decided to head for the roadside market and find something quick to eat before making any more plans (it is never a good idea to plan something on an empty stomach).
Once our hunger was satiated, we started to consider our options. We could either keep driving for another hour or so and hope to find a place to stay, or we could call it a day and head up to the national park on the outskirts of town and (hopefully) find a campground or maybe even a cabin.
After deliberating for a couple minutes we decided to check out the park - the road would be there for us tomorrow morning.
Let's Talk About the Wildlife
Now one thing to note about Thailand's National Parks is that they are not like United States' National Parks. While they might be designated a “national park” in truth, they seem more like land put aside that may or may not be developed. Many of the parks have villages and people living in them. Most are free (or very cheap) to enter. Many of the ones we explored had guest houses, cabins and maybe even a campground. And while there might be a few hiking trails (or often short nature trails) there were very little long hikes to explore the backcountry of the parks.
Now we are not saying Thailand's National Parks aren’t nice - most were gorgeous and well-maintained. They just aren’t as developed as the ones in America - there were definitely no Yosemite's to be found. But that is not necessarily a bad thing - in truth that is probably better for the wildlife and plant life that calls the parks home.
Okay, discussion over. Now back to the story.
We pulled up to the entrance station of Salawin National Park, a large swath of dense forest that sits right along the border of Myanmar. The guard (another weird thing about Thai national parks is that they are guarded and run by the military) clearly was surprised to see two Americans pull up on a small moped with big backpacks on their backs. He motioned us over to the desk to get our information and to charge us the entrance fee (something like 2 USD). We then began a conversation with him about whether he had any tents we could use, for we had read somewhere that many national parks in Thailand actually rent out camping gear. Now when we say we started a conversation, we might be overexaggerating. In the end it turned into more hand charades, with us pointing to our translation book for the words “tent”, “camping” and “cabin”. In the end we gave up and decided to just spend the night sleeping on the ground.
After finding a flat spot in the middle of the main park gathering area (surrounded by empty cabins that we were sure we could rent out) we headed out on the nature trail that curved its way up the hillside for a mile or so.
That night we ate crackers for dinner (woo living the dream) and tried to get some sleep. But then something crazy happened.
Okay time for another tangent...
Northern Thailand is known to be a popular place for cobras. And Madalyne is very afraid of snakes (and cobras in particular). And the area we were adventuring in, and that night sleeping in, was a very common cobra habitat. So it is fair to say that Madalyne was a (little) terrified of sleeping on the ground, where it would be too easy for a cobra to slither up to.
But also, Northern Thailand is said to be one of the last remaining tiger habitats. And in Salawin especially, tigers are known to roam the hillsides that make up the western side of the park. Now, as two travelers who hadn’t considered doing research on massive cats that lived in Thailand, we of course didn’t know any of this. So you can imagine our surprise when we hear very heavy footsteps coming from down the hill below us.
Now back to the story.
We both lay there stock-still. Too afraid to move, to speak, even to breathe.
The large “thing” crunched down the leaves below us as it walked by - its heavy paws breaking the silence of the night.
There were a couple cabins down the hill (and by hill we mean a very small rise in the land, maybe 30 feet high), that people were living or staying in. They had pets, or at least one dog that now was barking like crazy.
Then we heard the loud footsteps retreat away from the house. We of course were still laying there dead still, hoping the thing wouldn’t come up the hill and find two campers on the ground. At this point we were both considering what it could be: maybe a water buffalo (we had seen plenty of those), or maybe an elephant, supposedly they lived in the area too.
But then we heard it come back and then the high pitched, heeby-jeeby inducing sound of a cat (or some kind of animal) being attacked. Okay so maybe not a water buffalo.
By now we were pretty convinced it was a tiger - or some large cat. While we had lived in mountain lion country our whole lives, we had never had to imagine what to do in the case of camping with a tiger.
After a brief discussion, we both quickly decided to get up and break into one of the cabins nearby (which turned out to be very easy) and spend the rest of the night in there.
Side note: we never actually found out if it was a tiger. But after doing some research afterwards we learned that there was a known tiger "pod" that lived in the area.
The next morning we woke up early to a thick layer of fog hanging over the valley. We packed up our stuff, loaded up the moped and slowly made our way back to town - the sound of water buffalo bells tolling at us eerily through the thick gray fog.
From Mae Sariang we began the long trek north. The road is well-paved, with hundreds of curves and turns all the way up to the town of Mae La Luang, a small outpost with a few cafes, restaurants, gas and grocery stores. From there, you can head off the main road for a bit of exploring - look for signs to waterfalls (some easy to find, some nearly impossible), wats, and small villages.
As with any road trip, it is not the destination you are heading for that counts, but the journey to get there. That is why it is better to have the time to explore this region more in-depth. So don’t be afraid to take that random dirt road, to head up into the mountains or forest. Heck we followed a road (that was more like a paved bike path) all the way up to a town called “Microwave” that was really just a big cellphone tower.
All we are saying is to not be so focused on getting to whatever town you are heading to, that you forget to check out the amazing scenery and villages along the way.
That night we couldn’t find a decent spot to stay, so we ended up pulling over at a random viewpoint, with a concrete balcony and all, and sleeping there (don’t worry, it was as uncomfortable sleeping on concrete as you’d imagine). The next morning we awoke to more fog and a man squawking like a chicken - he had lost his rooster and was hoping that if he sounded like a chicken the rooster would come back. He did.
Then we began the final stretch into Mae Hong Son, the largest town along the route.
The Beauty of Northern Thailand
Now this region of Thailand is not popular with tourists. Along this road trip we saw maybe four or five other Westerners (a sure sign we had made a good decision heading out on the adventure). Mae Hong Son is beautiful though. The older part of town surrounds Chong Kam Lake, a great spot to find some food and go for a walk.
A couple other can’t-miss stop are checking out Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu, a white temple in the Burmese style that was completed in 1860, the Su Tong Pae Bridge, a bamboo bridge that crosses vibrant green rice fields, and Ban Rak Thai, a small Yunnanese village way up near the border that feels like you have been transported to old-world China. Head up there for a delicious meal of traditional Chinese noodles and tea tastings (the area is surrounded by tea plantations).
That night we stayed at another national park. But this time we were able to secure a room in a cabin - which turned out to be a huge bamboo house with a shower, 8 beds and stunning views of the surrounding mountains. We weren't complaining.
While we would say the whole drive is beautiful - and totally worth doing - the section between Mae Hong Son and Pai is absolutely stunning. The forest thickens, it becomes more jungle-y and lush, and giant stone karsts start to rise from the ground. Plus, the villages here just feel ancient, like modernization has forgotten to consume them.
This area has a lot of neat things to check out: from dozens (maybe even hundreds) of caves, many you can be guided through; to historic Chinese villages, to viewpoints with weird, man-powered Ferris Wheels. If you only have a short time to explore this area of Thailand, this is definitely the place to go.
From here it is a short - but terrifying drive to the town of Pai. Think sharp hairpin turns that never end - but with the landscape being that beautiful you won’t mind going a bit slow.
Soon enough you reach Pai - and are quickly thrown head first back onto the Tourist Trail. While many of the other villages seem untouched by time, Pai is like an Instagram paradise surrounded by stunning jungle. Cafes, restaurants, even guest houses are all turned up to 11 in terms of cuteness. One guesthouse even has “tame” elephants walking around for photos, as well as a wooden swing that shoots you out over picture-perfect rice fiends - which just screams, “Post Me on Instagram”.
Outside the town itself, there are actually some really cool things to explore. Including, more historic Chinese-style villages, a couple hot springs, and tons of back forest roads that cut through the jungle.
The last night was spent similar to the first - at a national park. But this time we decided to forgo sleeping in hammocks (no thank you) and instead rented a small little cabin in the main park area. It was simple, but afforded us the ability to wake up early and watch the sunrise over a glorious green field with views of the surrounding mountains behind it. The perfect way to end the trip.
The End of the Road
Since we knew the drive back to Chiang Mai wouldn’t take us too long, we decided to hang out a bit in the area, stop and get a coffee at one of the (many) roadside cafes, and explore some of the nearby villages and roadside attractions (so a lot of wats and waterfalls).
We made it back to Chiang Mai just in time to head across town for some delicious street food at our favorite market. While it was nice to get off the moped after five days of constantly sitting, we already missed the wide open roads, authentic villages and natural scenery.
There is just something so magical about riding around a new area, with no real plans or set itinerary, and just letting the road and adventure take you. That is probably why we love road trips so much - and have now done our fair share together.
The Mae Hong Son Loop is an amazing way to explore the northern region of Thailand - an area often overlooked by tourists and travelers. So if you are looking to get a feel for “authentic” Thai culture, see some stunning scenery and have a grand adventure, we couldn’t recommend it enough.