Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop

What we say: 3.5 stars

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.

Last updated: 27th May, 2015

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded 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, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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