The Mae Hong Son Loop 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 (at a bare minimum) 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.
If you are planning on doing this trip by motorbike, wear a helmet at all times and bear in mind that if you do not have a motorcycle licence your travel insurance probably will not cover you in the event of an accident.
Exercise caution riding at night and be wary of trying to ride too far in one day—be aware of your limitations. Some road sections covered in this itinerary will be challenging for novice motorcyclists. Drunk driving is common in Thailand—be prepared to yield to erratic driving at short notice. In other words be careful!
This area has historically been a drugs trans-shipment point and you may encounter police check points where, while unlikely, you may be pulled over and searched. Thailand has extremely strict laws regarding drug possession.
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 (as an option) 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.
November through February weather is coolish and dry—this is the ideal time to do the trip. March and April will be very smoky (as farmers burn back the stubble in their fields) and April in particular is very hot. July, August and September, pack a poncho as this is northern Thailand's monsoon season.
Do your research and make your own decision. You can read more about the situation here. People generally visit one of a few villages outside Mae Hong Son. It is not for everybody.
Get the bus! All the key towns are served by regular bus, minibus and songthaew services. If you are planning on visiting a lot of the above places, it will take longer, but it can be done. If you would prefer to cycle the route, better you than us! Nevertheless, this is a very popular route to cycle, but be warned: it is extremely hilly. Another option is hiring a car—easy and affordable to do in 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, in an extension to the traditional loop, 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.
We’ve mixed feelings on Pai, but there is no denying many love it, especially first time visitors to Thailand. 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 and rafting. Allow two nights to a week.
Another 40 or so kilometres from Pai you’ll find Soppong (also known as 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.
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. You can use it as a base to visit the spectacular Mae Surin waterfall. 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.
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 Chaem 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.
The blip better known as Mae Na Chon 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.
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.
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, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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