Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop

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First published 1st July, 2005

The vast majority of the roads in northern Thailand are paved and 99 times out of a 100 a Honda Dream will be more than sufficient (as long as you don't mind the occasion sections spent permanently in first gear). A very interesting and little trafficked route is the Chiang Rai Loop -- a fun and beautiful ride with dozens of kilometres of stunning scenery and next to no traffic.


This trip begins and ends in Chiang Rai, and while it could be done in as little as three very long days, a week to ten days is a far better length of trip if you don't want to be riding every day. Beginning in Chiang Rai, head north on Route 1 as far as Mae Chan then take a left onto 1130 for the sweeping climb up to Mae Salong. From Mae Salong take the winding 1234 north to Doi Tung, then continue on past the Royal gardens and palace via the very remote 1149 along the Burmese border for the backway into Mai Sai. From Mai Sai continue east along 1129 to Chiang Khong then down 1155 via Wiang Kaen for the eastern turnoff to the spectacular road to Doi Patang and Phu Chee Fah after which passing through Thoeng to return to Chiang Rai via either 1020 (fast and busy) or 1020 and 1152 for less traffic and smaller roads.

Day One - Chiang Rai to Mae Salong
Leaving Chiang Rai by mid morning, head north up the boring and heavily trafficked Route 1 until you reach Mae Chan, where you take the sign posted left turnoff for Mae Salong. Immediately the riding improves along this winding mountain road. Traffic is light to non-existent and the scenery spectacular. For those with time on their hands there are numerous dirt trails leading off to villages that could be worth visiting. Depending on the weather, the visibility can be as low as 20 metres and the weather cold and clingy, so dress accordingly. Arriving at Mae Salong, check in at the comfortable and cheap Shin Sane Guesthouse, or the Khum Nai Phol Resort for those with more cash. Spend the afternoon riding up to the chedi summit, sampling tea and dried fruits and explore nearby villages. For those with more time, allow an extra day in Mae Salong to do a horse trek to the nearby villages (400B ask at either Shin Sane or Akha Guesthouses).


General scenery enroute to Mae Salong, Chiang Rai

Day Two - Mae Salong to Mai Sai
Leaving Mae Salong after a hot breakfast and loads more piping hot tea, head north from Mae Salong along a back road that runs along deserted mountain top roads, with pleasant views and cool air the whole way. On leaving Mae Salong you'll come to Baan Sam Yeak (three way village) where there is a checkpoint, turn right here and continue until you reach another three-way intersection where the left turn is signposted for Doi Tung -- take this road. Doi Tung is the centre of a number of Royal projects, and while you can also visit the Royal Residence, the Royal Gardens are what should not be missed. Rather than back-tracking down 1149 to Route 1, continue on through Doi Tung for an outstanding ride due north along the Burmese border. There are a bunch of checkpoints along this road, all but one were unmanned when we passed. At times of heightened security, this road could well be closed -- expect to see Burmese flags flying out of villages on the left side of the road. As you near the downhill slide to Mai Sai the views, both of over Mai Sai and Burma are breathtaking. The last downhill part of this road is very steep and slippery -- be careful! Arrive in Mai Sai in time for a late lunch, do some shopping in the market and cross to Burma if you wish. The Mai Sai Guesthouse has the best budget bungalows in town.


General scenery enroute to Mae Salong, Chiang Rai

Day Three - Mai Sai to Chiang Saen
This is the easiest day of riding so far, in fact you could easily push on from Mai Sai if you didn't want to stay there a night. An easy ride of rolling hills, the main attraction en route is the Golden Triangle Tourist Disaster Area where you can waste your money on an outrageously double-priced opium museum and buy overpriced snacks and knick knacks all on the basis of a geographic feature -- we'd suggest not even slowing down. Chiang Saen is a historic town and there are a bunch of ruins that are easily visited from the centre of town. There are also two hill-top temples -- one to the east of town and one to the west, and both are worth visiting.


Looking towards Mai Sai in Chiang Rai

Day Four - Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong
This easy ride has two options -- a riverside stretch or a hilltop route. Personally I prefer the hilltop route as the views are better, but the riverside stretch takes you by a few villages with relaxing rural scenery. Regardless of which route you take, the ride is smooth and easy, with the last stretch into Chiang Khong running along the bank of the Mekong. There are a couple of signposted waterfalls off this road, and while we didn't take a look ourselves, we subsequently heard good things about them in Chiang Khong. Once in Chiang Khong check in at Baan Ta-Mi-La or the Baan Rim Ta Ling Homestay, and be sure to drop into Lomtawan for some surprisingly good Thai spicy salads.

Day Five - Chiang Khong to Phu Chee Fah
This is where the fun really begins. Leave Chiang Khong on 1020 until you reach the left diversion for Wiang Kaen, and begin the trip to Doi Patang and Phu Chee Fah. Eventually you'll reach a t-junction with Phu Chee Fah signposted in both directions, the right road will take you via Thoeng and is a far easier, though longer route and means you'll need to do a long backtrack if you want to see Doi Patang. The left route goes up what begins as a amazingly good and very scenic road then degenerates into a very steep, windy, badly potholed and very muddy mess -- it is worth persevering with though as once you get up to the main north-south running elevated road the biking is excellent. On weekdays expect next to no traffic whatsoever on this road and be warned that if you're riding alone and run out of gas or get a flat, you'll be pushing the bike for a long way! The sign posting in this area isn't too good but most of the junctions have at least a few shops around, so it isn't difficult to get directions.

Once you start heading south, you'll eventually reach the left turnoff to Doi Patang which runs for about 2km, after which there is about a 200 step climb to the summit. The views from here are spectacular and you can see the Mekong in at least two places. Once you're done staring at Laos, backtrack to the main road and continue south to Phu Chee Fah. Long popular with Thai tourists, this place gets barely a trickle of western visitors -- go there mid week in off season and chances are you'll have the entire place to yourself. There are three sets of accommodation, one about 2km north of the Phu Chee Fah turnoff, one 1.5 km north and another 100m south of the turnoff. In the low season the bunch of places south of the turnoff will be your best bet of finding somewhere open. Take the Phu Chee Fah turnoff for a couple of km to the carpark, from where it is a 700m climb to the breathtaking views. Overnight in Phu Chee Fah -- camping is allowed near the summit -- it can be very cold and windy! Visit the viewpoint before dawn -- just be sure to set your alarm for 4.30am rather than 4.30pm.


The view from Phu Chee Fah, CHiang Rai

Day Six - Phu Chee Fah to Chiang Rai
The last leg of the trip, head north from the Phu Chee Fah turnoff till you reach the left hand turn for Thoeng running down 1155. Before you hit Thoeng you'll reach the junction with 1021 which leads onto another great loop via Phu Lang Ka (but that is another story!), instead turn west to Thoeng from where you can then continue straight on via 1020 for the busy road to Chiang Rai or take routes 1020 (north) and 1152 for a more scenic, with the occasional karyst and less-trafficked route back to Chiang Rai.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 15 comment(s)

  • So many people pass by bus and know nothing at all about Phu Chi Fah,.
    It is very known with the thai people but there are rarely any foreigners around there.

    There's many places to stay up in the mountains,.. there's a small hotel in Thoeng and there's a little homestay in the area,..
    Why does nobody check it out a bit more??

    Posted by Laetitia Angelet on 13th January, 2009

  • Is there any other places to ride horses other than in Mae Salong to do a horse trek to the nearby villages. I would prefer to spend most of my days riding horses.

    Posted by darkstar on 30th June, 2009

  • can you reccommend where to rent bikes in chiang rai or chiang mai and not get ripped off?? i've been reading too many entries about scams and am nervous.thanks

    Posted by adamstotland on 6th January, 2010

  • First of all thanks for this story!!

    I just came back from this trip (with some modifications) a few day ago and it was absolutely one of the best experiences I've had in my life! The riding, for the most part, is so good you just want to scream :) I did it in 6 days, which was a bit short, but i had planned to stay for a few days in Phu Chee Fah but couldn't find any descent accommodation (low season) so pushed back to Chiang Rai. Road conditions were mainly very good, and the road mentioned in the text under "day 5" as " -badly potholed and very muddy mess" must have had a good work over and is now as good as any (with the exception a couple of road work sites). The haze was pretty bad though, but scenery is still breathtaking (what you see of it anyway). One can only imagine what it it would be like in good visibility..

    If you thinking of doing this loop, DO IT!
    You won't regret it! Just remember to take it nice and slow..

    Posted by Sampan on 31st March, 2010

  • Wow, i'm really enthousiastic about this trip! Going to do it in a few days. Right now i'm in Chiang Mai, going to get the bus on Monday to Chiang Rai and rent myself a nice two-wheeled engine.. Can't wait! Thanks a lot for dotting out this trip!!

    Greetz

    Posted by Boy Bianchi on 14th May, 2010

  • Yes riding scooters around Thailand is a very good mode of transport. A majority of the roads (soi's) are build for scooters and motor bikes. Just be sure you wear a good helmet as often foreigners, think it is cool to ride around without one. This is not only dangerous it is illegal even in Thailand.

    Posted by Simon Coleman on 3rd December, 2010

  • Hi, my girlfriend and i are seriously thinking of doing this loop some time in the next week. A few questions that i would be very glad to have answers to.

    Firstly.. would it it be ridiculous to both go on the same bike?
    Would a 125 dream style semi-automatic suffice or would we need either a bigger bike or two of the dream style?

    do you know of a reliable rental shop?
    Did anyone take basic tools?

    Very grateful of any answers or additional advice

    Richard

    Posted by richard on 6th December, 2010

  • Hi Richard,

    the loop is amazing, you should really experience it.
    However, i reckon you would enjoy it most by renting two bikes.
    I went alone on a Suzuki D-Tracker (big bike) and it was definately fun, although sometimes you will find yourself riding for more than a few hours. At that point having your own bike will become crucial for enjoying the ride.
    Please don't underestimate the length of the loop; your bottom will start to hurt a bit, your legs will irritate from the exhaust and your back will constantly be put to the test. Not to scare you, but to point out that having your own bike wouldn't take this away, but reduce it to great length.

    last but not least; especially in the mae-salong area you will find very (and i mean very) steep roads (if you want to go wonder about, and you can actually go deep into the forest and explore somewhat native villages, amazing!) and the best way to tackle them is with a big bike like a D-Tracker.

    Finally, there is a shop in Chiang Mai, i think it was called POP Rental. There is this lady who speaks excellent English and the service was incredible. They let me take their road map for free and they were very helpful with plotting out my route.

    I hope my advice can help a bit!

    Enjoy!! (wish i could it again!!)

    Posted by Boy Bianchi on 6th December, 2010

  • Thanks for your help BB, much appreciated. Will let you know how we get on. Richard

    Posted by kitch88 on 6th December, 2010

  • Hi there,
    Am going next month. Can I do the loop by car? Have a hubbie and two kids with me (9 and 13), don't see them sitting on a bike all day....

    Just reading the loop give's me butterfly's!

    Posted by armande64 on 31st May, 2011

  • Hi,

    you can do the loop by car. There is similar traffic all along the way, so it must be possible (and evenly beautiful). It certainly will be more comfy, but once you reach the high grounds, be sure to leave the car somewhere and go explore by foot. Espicially the Mae Selong area is fun to walk around in.

    Hope this helps.

    Posted by boybianchi on 31st May, 2011

  • Hi!

    I am launching a coffee shop tour by motorcycle in Northern Thailand. Please check out my page on Vayable for more info, or contact me directly at Dane.Wetschler@gmail.com

    http://www.vayable.com/experiences/357-explore-cafes-by-motorcycle

    Posted by Dane Wetschler on 1st September, 2011

  • Hi

    I was thinking about possibly doing this route in january next year i was just wanting to know if anyone had done it recently and if most of the conditions/places/motorbike rentals where still the same by anyone who had done it recently

    Posted by mike on 4th November, 2012

  • I'll be taking a northern loop in january in a Honda Civic. I was planning on staying on the main road from Mae Chan to Chiang Khong via Chiang Saen (and on to Thoeng) but now wonder if I should try and include parts of the route described by Stuart.
    Could anyone advise which parts of the route might be more appropriate for driving a regular car? I'll be driving with my wife and booking hotels ahead, so wouldn't like too much unexpected adventure.

    Posted by Erik on 1st December, 2012

  • Hi guys, was just wondering if anyone had done this recently and was looking for info on bike/gear rental any help would be great cheers

    Posted by adam on 6th January, 2013

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