Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop: Part 1

How to do the Mae Hong Son Loop
The Mae Hong Son Loop: 1864 curves ahead!

The Mae Hong Son Loop is a 600km road trip that travelers can do to explore the Northwestern parts of Thailand. Usually starting in Chiang Mai, it can be done either in a clockwise (begin by heading south) or counter clockwise (begin by heading north) direction, and will take about 4 or 5 days to complete. The trip will take you through 3 towns of note, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, and Pai (each a logical overnight rest stop), and will offer the potential to visit long neck tribal villages, the Doi Ithanon National Park and its many waterfalls, summit the highest point in all of Thailand, and so much more. If you are into road trips, picturesque scenery, countrysides, or culture outside of the city centers, this a great trip for you.

Prepping to drive the Mae Hong Son Loop

Before we started “the Loop”, we had to decide how we were going to do it; by motorcycle or by car. Since there were three of us doing the trip (Arienne and I were joined by Heather from Ginger Nomads) it made the most sense to rent a car. With the car, we could bring all of our bags with us (instead of leaving our big bags at a guesthouse in Chiang Mai), and could alternate drivers as well.

Note: If I were to do the road trip again, I would absolutely go with the motorcycle option. The motorcycle would be much more fun to experience the thousands of turns in the Mae Hong Son Loop, and its much cheaper on gas, not to mention to rent as well. Also, there is less chance of getting motion sickness on the motorcycle, while weaving around the lakes, mountains, and pot holes along the way.

Northern Thailand
A taste of what you can expect to see on the Mae Hong Son Loop.

The other major decision we had to make before we hit the road was whether to do the route clockwise or counter-clockwise. It really made no difference. The southern area is more flat, with lakes and straighter roads, whereas the north is very mountainous with lots of curves, peaks and valleys. We decided to go clockwise with the idea of saving the best part (Pai) for last.


Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop

The biggest challenge for me while driving the Mae Hong Son Loop was driving on the other side of the road. In Canada we drive on the right side, and while I lived in Korea it was the same way too. This was the first time I had ever driven on the left side and it really took some getting used to on my part. I kept reaching over my left shoulder for the seat belt (not there!), and almost always flipped on the windshield wipers when I wanted to signal (much to Heather’s delight). Every time I started the car, I had to say a little mantra to remind myself how to turn when driving on the left side: “wide to the right, tight to the left.” Fortunately it worked, and I only ever found myself driving on the wrong side of the road while in parking lots, but really, who ever drives properly in parking lots anyways? I mean, am I right people?

The next biggest issue was getting used to the way driving is done in Thailand. Lanes are merely a suggestion, and often cars will occupy two at a time. Motorcycles create their own lanes, and you can often find 2 motorcycles and even a car riding side by side while sharing one lane. Passing on two lane highways is a particularly hair-raising event, as I often rounded a curve to find a passing car in the opposite direction heading straight at me. This happened all the time, since straight-aways aren’t very common on the Mae Hong Son loop.

Doi Inthanon National Park

The Mae Hong Son Loop
Mae Klang Waterfall in Doi Inthanon National Park

The first stop on our trip was at Doi Inthanon National Park, home of the highest spot in Thailand (2,565 meters above sea level). The surrounding national park was a treasure trove of flora and fauna, and also home to 7 beautiful waterfalls. The entry to the park was a little steep for us, 200 Baht each for foreigners, 5 times the price locals pay. Once inside the park, we had to drive from site to site, as the various waterfalls, food stalls and markets were often kilometers apart.

The actual peak of the mountain was rammed with lots of sightseers, both foreign and Thai alike. There were a number of signs confirming that this was indeed the highest point in Thailand, which of course everyone and their mother had to have a picture beside. For us, as well as some other blogs we’ve read, the actual peak of Doi Inthanon was a pretty overrated attraction that didn’t live up to the billing it’s given. The pamphlet we had for the National Park showed a pretty spectacular sunrise, so perhaps that’s out there… somewhere.

The highest point in Thailand
The obligatory photo at the highest spot in Thailand.

Mae Sariang

After visiting Doi Inthanon National Park, it was time to make our way to our first overnight rest stop in Mae Sariang. Located 200km southwest of Chiang Mai, Mae Sariang is relatively small, and not very lively, but it is rumoured to be the site of some of the best, and least traveled treks in the country. Other than that though, there really isn’t too much to say about the place after staying there. The city isn’t very touristy, and many places of lodging are either old and run down, or overpriced and run down. (Shop around for the former if you’re there).

Mystery meat
It’s anyone’s guess as to what exactly we’re cooking here.

Note: If you are into eating mystery meat, I recommend an all you can eat buffet called 109 (that’s how much it costs in Baht) where you cook your meat yourself on a coal heated BBQ bowl. There are plenty of different cuts to choose from, but it’s anyone’s guess where the meat has actually been cut from.  From the look of it, I’d say “I haven’t the foggiest clue” and from the taste of it, I’d say, “never ate this before!” However, you can eat as much as you can stomach, so have at it if you’re feeling hungry and adventurous.


Mae Hong Son

After staying the night in Mae Sariang we drove about 160km north to Mae Hong Son, which is a great place to spend a night or two. The town is relatively small, but has many cozy guesthouses and inns built up around a picture worthy pond. The town atmosphere is soothing and relaxed, and the night market that opens by the pond at dusk is a great place to do a little shopping and grab a bite to eat amidst the easygoing locals.  Mae Hong Son is also a popular location from which you can go and visit some of the nearby tribal villages, including the famed Karen tribe (long neck tribe). There are also plenty of caves, waterfalls, and a hot spring or two if you are interested, so staying an extra night in Mae Hong Son might not be a bad idea if you want to “see it all”.

Mae Hong Son Loop, Thailand
Reflections of the temple beside the pond in Mae Hong Son.

Unfortunately for us, we only had enough time for one night. Our tight budget didn’t allow us the opportunity to go to the caves or hot springs, so if you’ve been there, let us know how they were in the comments section below.

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of  “Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop”, I’ll talk about how we visited a Karen (long neck) tribal village, the (former) hippie town Pai, the mountainous road back to Chiang Mai, and finish it all off with a list of tips to help you do the loop yourself.

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