We like loops — loops are good; no A to B and straight back to B again, no backtracking, no repetition, but departing your destination in one direction, travelling in a loop, circle, oval or trapezoid and returning from a different direction. As far as Northern Thai loops go, this is a particularly good one: Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao, Fang, Tha Ton, Mae Salong, Chiang Rai and back to Chiang Mai. Here’s how to do it.
Now loops by nature can be done in either direction but, maybe it’s because we’re still in the northern hemisphere or perhaps living in a Buddhist country, we feel inclined to do this one in a clockwise direction; if for whatever reason you decide to do it in the opposite direction, simply read this post backwards.
Our loop can be completed in a hurry – say three days – or at a leisurely pace to take in each of the varied and fascinating stop-offs in a week or so. It can be broken up into convenient sections for a motorbike trip but can also be easily undertaken by public transport.
If you’re in the latter case, depart from Chang Puak bus station and kick off your trip with the 80 kilometre drive to Chiang Dao district. The most famous and conveniently visited site at Chiang Dao is the caves. If arriving by bus you’ll require a moto taxi from the bus station to get out there, while if on a bike, take the town ring road instead of heading into the centre and look for signposts to the caves. The cave complex can be done in an hour or two with a dash back to the bus station to wait for the next northbound bus. Otherwise Chiang Dao is a very pleasant place to overnight with some great eating and sleeping options.
Continuing north, your next potential stop is the district town of Fang. Although a historic town, Fang itself doesn’t present many attractions these days but interesting excursions can be done outside the town, and again there are decent eating and lodging possibilities.
A few kilometers past Fang is another district capital, Mae Ai, with a bustling market and busy, albeit small, bus station (though note that much of the local transport in these parts is by songthaew rather than bus.) Mae Ai, incidentally, was made famous, or infamous, among Thais after the song “Mae Ai is Crying” by well known Thai rock band Carabao was popularised. Traditionally considered one of the poorest districts in a poor region, the Carabao song explains how a large proportion of the district’s young women are forced by poverty and lack of job prospects to work in the massage parlours and bars of larger cities like Bangkok, Pattaya and so on.
Again Mae Ai itself doesn’t offer much and ideally you may have 30 minutes to wander the market while waiting to change “bus”. Thirty more minutes down the road and you’ll find yourself in the more attractive provincial border town of Tha Ton where Chiang Mai ends on the west bank of the Kok River and Chiang Rai province begins on the east; it’s also only a stone’s throw from the Burmese border.
For those travelling by bike, the route as far as Tha Ton is largely flat and easygoing; but from Tha Ton onwards things get seriously windy and rather steep. If you’re travelling under your own steam then it’s well worth stopping off between Tha Ton and Mae Salong at the Akha village of Ban Lorcha – if you’re on the public songthaew, then just hold tight and enjoy the views.
Mae Salong, the loop’s halfway point, is a fascinating and picturesque destination.
This unusual, mountaintop, Yunnanese-style Thai town is well worth at least a night or two before heading off east to continue the second leg of your loop. Certainly there are enough things to do and see in and around town to keep you occupied for a day or two, such as exploring the market, tasting some of the locally grown tea, hiking to nearby hilltribe villages or tea plantations or just sitting back with a local coffee or chilled beer and admiring the spectacular vistas.
Leaving Mae Salong to the east it’s a long windy climb by songthaew — buses won’t go up here — to the foot of the mountain and the junction with the main Chiang Rai to Mae Sai highway. If you are on a bike then please take care — this is a difficult and potentially hazardous section. By public transport, there aren’t usually direct links to Chiang Rai, so upon hitting the highway carefully cross the busy road and wait for any southbound bus, which will deliver you to Chiang Rai bus station. It’s around a 45-minute ride, or allow at least an hour on a small bike on the straight wide highway.
Plenty of Chiang Rai accommodation options are available if you’re overnighting and it’s a fun town for an evening, otherwise if you don’t arrive too late there are numerous departures for the four-hour or so ride back to Chiang Mai from the bus station. If you’re on a bike then things get a bit trickier, since it’s a long old drive back to Chiang Mai — 150 kilometres to be precise — which may not sound a lot, but the route alternates between a series of long straight boring and busy four-lane affairs in the valleys and more windy, steep and scenic sections in between.
There aren’t too many options to break up the journey, though Wiang Pa Pao may be your best bet, with a few simple hotels on offer though we’d hesitate to recommend any particular one. What we would recommend if you don’t mind splashing out a little is the excellent Suan Charin Resort in Mae Suay district.
This means you could stop off at the photogenic Wat Rong Khun on your way out of town and you’ll have cut the following day’s drive down to a comfortable distance. (Mae Suay is around 40 kilometres from Chiang Rai city.)
So there’s your loop!
By Mark Ord.