If there’s one thing that northern Thailand has a lot of, its long winding roads. They twist and turn, coiling around hills, with steep drops and steeper rises. The terrain changes from minute to minute, with unexpected vistas just begging to be photographed around every turn. For those that find riding a steel horse for long miles, this is paradise.
Recently my girlfriend and I traveled to the small mountain town of Pai high in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Here, the mountains surround a large valley, enclosing and protecting Pai from the vagaries of the weather. This location and the scenery all around provide plenty enough magnificent views for any nature enthusiast.
The long way home
Choosing to take the long scenic way home, we set out to drive the famous Mae Hong Son Loop. The normal route from Chiang Mai, where we live, to Pai is fairly straightforward and can be done in about two to three hours on a motorcycle.
That said, when taking the Mae Hong Son Loop, it is recommended that you prepare to be on a trip that may span up to three to four days. This allows you to take advantage of the many amazing detours available on the way; not to mention avoiding the sore posterior from riding for hours on end.
Starting the journey
Setting out form Pai, high in the mountains, the journey is a long and not for the inexperienced road hog. For those who feel comfortable, the journey offers spectacular scenery that changes rapidly from high mountain pines to the deep jungle, rice paddy valleys, and the occasional village to break it up. The journey ranges from chilly valleys to hot mountain tops, and then the other way around.
Upon leaving the town of Pai, you first have to cross the valley. This short ride in itself is spectacular as you drive through the endless greenery of the valley.
On your left rise the mountains home to the hill tribes, while on your right spread out like patchwork lie small farms interspersed with forests. Threading slowly through all of this greenery, a slow-moving river meanders roughly following the road.
The Mae Hong Son Pass
At the far end of the valley, the road rises, winding back and forth, coiling on itself. As you slowly made our way up the mountain, you can’t help but notice the temperature drop noticeably. Furthermore, the change in vegetation became more obvious, with dark leafy trees taking the place of the lighter green of the plants in the valley.
Cresting the top of the mountain pass, we were greeted by the sight of the mountain falling away from us. The spectacular view is a remarkable foreshadowing of the incredible beauty of the journey ahead.
A land of diverse terrain
One of the most captivating aspects of northern Thailand, and for a large extent the whole of Northern South East Asia, is the variety of environments that are concentrated in the area. When riding the Mae Hong Son Loop, this diverse landscape flows steadily around you.
One minute you are high in a mountain pass, the chilly air nipping at your cheeks, and the next you are flying through a valley, with a hot dry breeze blowing through your hair. You could be driving through lush and wet jungle, the canopy dense overhead, only to round a bend and find fields of corn, drying and yellowing in the sun.
Much of the route threads its way through several of the many national parks that dot the area. In these enclaves, you witness nature in its raw form, with only the road to remind you of the civilization that lies outside these green walls. The occasional passing motorist only serves to remind you of the isolation of the road, creating a temporary bond with each passing car and cyclist.
Besides the majesty of the natural environment, an additional curiosity that makes this route stand out is its proximity to Myanmar. As a matter of fact, large portions of the signs are written in both Burmese and Thai.
In these areas, one can spot the unique aspects of Burmese culture only found at these border towns. From unique dishes to culturally unique clothing, one witness what Thailand’s eastern neighbor has to offer the adventurous traveler.
Detours worth staying for
Along the loop, there is a myriad of detours waiting to lead you astray. From magnificent waterfalls to majestic temples, and a river system in a cave with fish only found in that particular location. With so many points of interest along the way, it is difficult to just stay the course.
Moreover, there are seasonal wonders waiting to be discovered. On our particular trip, a spur of the moment decision led to a field of wild sunflowers blanketing a hill. The effect was as though a painter had dipped their brush into yellow paint and then proceeded to color in the landscape. This magnificent sight was well worth the entire trip.