THAILAND: The Mae Hong Son Loop
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This is one of northern Thailand's most famous multi-day excursions. It's a loop that starts and finishes in Chiang Mai, taking in splendid mountain and river scenery along with interesting towns to explore and, of course, great food.
Although the trip can be done in as little as two days, most take at least three days and if you've got the time you could actually spend a couple of weeks meandering your way around the loop. Most do the Mae Hong Son loop by hired motorbike from Chiang Mai, but you can do it by public transport if you prefer -- it will just take you a little longer.
Below we'll take you step by step through each of the key towns along the way, heading in a counter-clockwise direction from Chiang Mai.
So let's get started! First off, when you head out of Chiang Mai, pass through Mae Rim (unless you're diverting first to Mon Cham) and just before you reach Mae Taeng you'll reach the turnoff (on your left) to Pai. Don't turn left!
Instead, head another 30-odd kilometres north to the beautiful town of Chiang Dao. There are some excellent places to stay here along with a massive cave well worth exploring and there's also good trekking potential and some excellent eating. Allow two nights.
While there are back ways from north of Chiang Dao across west to Pai, the more straightforward route is to backtrack past Mae Taeng and take the road to Pai. The scenery is breathtaking along the way and if you wanted to break the ride up there are bungalows and camping facilities at Huai Nam Dong National Park, which is a little over halfway to Pai. Otherwise kick on to Pai.
Chiang Dao scenes
We've mixed feelings on Pai, but many love it. Set in a pretty valley there are a gazillion places to stay, eat and have fun (Pai has quite a good live music scene) and it's also a popular base for trekking, rafting and elephant riding. Allow two nights to a week.
Worth going -- just for the ride.
Another 40 or so kilometres from Pai you'll find Soppong (which also goes by Pangmapha), which is much more to our liking. It has a far more low-key vibe but there are still plenty of places to stay. Famous for Tham Lod, a massive cave you can raft through, this is an area of particular beauty. Cave Lodge is considered the trekking hub for the area. Be sure to pick up a copy of their map -- it really is priceless. Allow one to four nights.
Up a northern spur on the main Pai to Mae Hong Son road, Mae Lana is quieter than Soppong, offering a real escape from the crowds. Good for simple, therapeutic walks, there are also some caves that can be visited. Allow one night.
Mae Hong Son
The provincial capital, with all the trappings of a tourist town including an airport and fancy(ish) hotels. It's somewhat out of flavour with backpackers nowadays, with holidaying Thais making up the mainstay of the business -- if nothing else this has seen the Thai food improve. Like Pai, Mae Hong Son is a trekking and rafting centre, and also like Pai there is considerable potential for just jumping on your bike and going exploring. Allow three nights.
The main north-south road from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang makes for some excellent and lesser trafficked riding. It's not as pretty as the roads around Pai, but is beautiful nevertheless. Many blast straight through to Mae Sariang, but if you have time up your sleeve, allow for a night in Khun Yuam. We've heard you can use it as a base to visit the spectacular Mae Surin waterfall, a feat we never managed due to the appalling state of the road -- that was a long time ago though, so send up a pic if you do it! Allow one night.
Unless you're going to keep heading south all the way to Umphang (which, if you have the time, we highly recommend), this is where you take a hard left and start trucking back towards Chiang Mai. Mae Sariang is well worth a couple of nights, with the riverside Mae Sam Laeb in particular well worth a visit. You can also go trekking from here, but you may have trouble rustling up enough people to do a trip. Allow two nights.
Sunset over the Yuam river, Mae Sariang.
The more traditional route takes you east from Mae Sariang through to Hot and then north to Chiang Mai. If you're travelling under your own steam, there's a more interesting route through Mae Chaem.
Mae Na Chon on Route 1088 brings you to another little-known town with lots of great scenery and trekking potential. As with the other smaller towns, you will however have trouble rustling up a group for trekking. Mae Chaem is also a convenient launching pad for Doi Inthanon -- Thailand's highest peak (no need to climb it, you can ride to the summit). Allow one night.
Mae Na Chon
This blip of a town on Route 1088 can be used both as a trekking and rafting base in its own right, or as a base to visit Ob Luang National Park. Mae Na Chon is a fairly obscure spot, but perhaps that is just what you're looking for. You'll need to backtrack to Mae Chaem to rejoin the typical route. Allow one night.
Back to Chiang Mai
Blaze through Chom Thong, Sanpatong and Hang Dong and before you know it you'll be relaxing on the banks of the Ping River again.
The real attraction of trekking in Thailand.
What to do?
If you've under a week, Pai, Soppong and Mae Hong Son are the must sees. More days? Add Chiang Dao and Mae Sariang. More still? Add the rest.
If you're very new on a motorbike, do the trip clockwise as that will leave the (most challenging) Mae Hong Son to Pai to Chiang Mai section till last.
Check the bike thoroughly before you rent it -- especially wear on the tires, brakes and the horn.
Always wear a helmet -- the road in Thailand is as hard as anywhere else.
Get travel insurance and make sure motorbike riding is covered.
Where to trek?
Which town should you trek in? That's a good question. The overall offerings are fairly similar and generally encompass some hilltribe visits (most likely Karen and Lisu in this part of Thailand), elephant riding and rafting. If cost is your number one criteria, trek from Chiang Mai but be prepared for a mediocre experience. Generally speaking the smaller the town the higher the cost and the more difficulty you'll have raising a group. See this story for general advice on trekking in Thailand and this one which compares trekking in different areas of northern Thailand.
When to trek?
Now! (That would be December 11, 2011!). Weather is coolish and dry. March and April will be very smoky and April in particular very hot. July, August and September, pack a poncho.
Should I visit the "Long Necks"?
I can't ride a motorbike!
Get the bus! All the key towns are served by regular bus and or songthaew services. If you are planning on visiting a lot of the above places, it will take longer, but it can be done.
I want to cycle the Mae Hong Son loop, can I?
Better you than us! It is a very popular route to cycle, but be warned: it is extremely hilly.
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