Travelling to northern Thailand you may well have heard of the Mae Hong Son or even Mae Salong loops but here’s a new one to try: the Khun Tan Loop, with spectacular scenery and interesting sights guaranteed.
You need your own transport — car or motorbike — for this one-day round trip and while at a pinch and with an early start you could just about do it out of Chiang Mai, this mountain tour’s best done with an overnight stay in Lampang or Lamphun. The total distance covered is around 120, 150 or 180 kilometres out of Lampang, Lamphun or Chiang Mai respectively, and includes both sections of smooth four-lane freeway and steep, winding mountain roads. Stretches of the latter are quite demanding and best not attempted by inexperienced riders.
We’ll begin our route from Lampang, with alternative endings for Lamphun and Chiang Mai. Furthermore, though in a Buddhist country, we’ll take the less auspicious anti-clockwise circuit for reasons to be revealed later.
Head out of Lampang on Route 1039, (or 1034 depending upon the map), Hang Chat Road. It’s a new four-lane highway but with little traffic and great views across a lush valley. Hang Chat district lies to the north of Lampang city on the Chiang Mai highway and shortly after hitting the #11 look for a turning to the right indicating Khun Tan National Park. Now you’re on a narrow back road which winds its way some 30 kilometres up to the national park itself following the route of the railway. The first 20 or so follows an orchard- and plantation-filled valley before beginning a steep ascent to the park entrance. The good news is the surface, as of 2015, was brand new and smooth; the bad news is this is a steep climb and two persons on a Honda Dream is going to be arduous. Make sure both your bike and yourself are up this and don’t bite off more than you can chew. If all’s okay, then it’s a great ride with awesome views across the mountains and practically not another vehicle on the road.
Khun Tan has a famous railway station and a tunnel as well as its national park, plus even a half decent cafe, so it’s worth lingering a bit. If you have time and the inclination to stretch your legs there are hiking trails to explore. There’s only one road in and out of the park, so continuing down the other side of the mountain you’ll reach, after eight kilometres, Route 1227 leading to Mae Tha district.
Mae Tha is at a crossroads point on main highway 11 leading off north to Chiang Mai (45 kilometres), south to Lampang (50 kilometres) while the country road 1033 continues on to the west and Lamphun town, 30 kilometres distant. For this loop we need the left turn and though this takes you down the main highway, the scenery is picturesque as the highway winds spectacularly between forested hills and orchard-filled valleys.
A short hop takes us to our first stop, the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, while immediately next door, by the same turn off from the highway, is the famous Lampang Elephant Hospital, so take your pick or do both. We reckon the latter is certainly worth a stop while the former, well run as these affairs go, depends upon your feelings on elephant camps since, despite its name and good intentions, it does make its money through shows and rides. (Note the hospital is donations only.)
After your elephant break, a few more kilometres down the highway sees you arrive at the busy Ban Thung Kwiang Market. Formerly notorious as a ‘jungle market’, the emphasis these days is happily more on local produce than endangered species. Large and bustling, this is a great spot to wander and enjoy some exotic north Thai specialties like fried worms and insects, northern sausages, buffalo or pork skin and chilli dips. There are plenty of coffee shops and simple eateries too.
Note these sights are all on the eastern side of the highway so avoiding complicated (especially in the case of the market), long winded and potentially dangerous U-turns we suggest doing this stretch in a southwards direction — hence our anti-clockwise orientation. Another 15 kilometres or so on the highway takes you back to Hang Chat and into Lampang.
Alternatively, you can do a U-turn when feasible and head back to Mae Tha where scenic Route 1033 takes you the 30 kilometres into Lamphun. Mae Tha was originally settled by Karen migrants and while their villages still line the route and you may see a few Karen shoulder bags for sale, the houses and residents dress is the same as the local Thais. From Hang Chat you’re looking at a long drive back on the highway to Chiang Mai. It’s do-able but we suggest an overnight in Lampang or Lamphun for a more comfortable trip.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
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