For those looking to get out of Chiang Mai and venture further afield to explore the wilderness of Northern Thailand - the Mae Hong Son Loop is the perfect antidote.
The loop which is a distance of approximately 600km and needs at least four days to cover is a circular route which starts from Chiang Mai and takes you through the Mae Hong Son Province ending back up at Chiang Mai. The Mae Hong Son Loop can be taken heading south in a clockwise direction or north in an anti-clockwise direction.
Starting from Chiang Mai and assuming a clockwise direction, highways 108 and 1009 will take you to the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon . The windy road up to the peak of Doi Inthanon 2,500m above sea level is also a national park. There are some remarkable waterfalls along this route including Mae Ya and Wachiratharn waterfall, you will also pass plenty of hill tribe market stands along the roadside selling local produce. Just before the summit there is a worthy sightseeing point where two impressive royal chedis stand majestically on the side of the mountain. This spot sometimes offers a good view of the valley below, however most of the time visibility is masked by the clouds due to the high altitude. Standing amongst this veil of clouds at the highest point in Thailand feels quite ethereal as though you are on top of the world.
Back down to the base of Doi Inthanon and onto Mae Chaem, a traditional town home to a mix of hill tribes such as the Lisu, Hmong and Lawa from here you can either head straight to Mae Hong Son via Khun Yuam on the 1088 road or take the off-road route to Mae Sariang. Not so well advertised the quaint town of Mae Sariang retains much of its charm and character remaining relatively unchartered by tourists, it is often overlooked but has plenty to offer. Some say the trekking routes here are the most un-spoilt in the north and are popular amongst travelers seeking a less commercialised trek. Surrounding the town there are many sights to see and day trips to go on, such as Mae Sam Laep the Burmese style village on the banks of the Salawin River where a long tail boat can be hired for the day to cruise down the river, the Salawin National Park and Mae Ngao National Park.
After Mae Sariang the next destination is the capital of this charming province, Mae Hong Son town , which is also the half way point on the loop.
Mae Hong Son town lies at the bottom of a valley amongst the mountain ranges that form the border of Burma and Thailand. Its remote location gives it a secluded and tranquil feel, whilst its proximity to Burma gives rise to the mix of people that reside there such as the Burmese, Shan, Thai and hill tribe groups. This interesting blend of people and cultures gives Mae Hong Son a very distinct feel from other towns in Thailand.
The centre of the town is built around Nong Jong Kham Lake and temple where you will find an array of guesthouses and restaurants. A small evening market is also held here daily where locals and hilltribes come to sell their wares, it’s a great place to pick up handicrafts and souvenirs such as woodcarvings, silverware, precious stones and antiques.
Mae Hong Son town also boasts numerous Burmese and Shan style temples. The most famous of them and a ‘must-see’ attraction is Wat Doi Kong Mu which sits on a hilltop and offers spectacular aerial views of the town below. Other sights and activities include hill tribe treks, Long Neck Karen villages, elephant riding, bamboo rafting and Phu Klon Country Club a health mud spa.
The final leg of the loop on highway 1285 from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai is arguably one of the most scenic drives in the North, but also not for the faint hearted, this mountain road claims to have over 1,864 curves in it. The jolts and bends on this road make it the fun fair ride of the North but the continuously spectacular views will be worth it. The journey can be broken up by stop-off visits to Pha Sua waterfall , Tham Pla fish cave and Tham Lod.
Tham Lod which means ‘coffin cave’ is a favourite amongst tourists and is in the area of Soppong. It is famous for its stalactite and stalagmite formations and ancient wood coffins. A bamboo raft and guide can be hired to explore the cave.
The last destination on the loop, also worth spending an overnight at is the town of Pai, an unexpected find in a remote mountain valley. Twenty years ago the town of Pai used to be a few dirt roads and shops, as tourists soon discovered the natural beauty of the Pai River and it’s surrounding valley, businesses and development followed not long after and it turned into the little backpacker settlement that it is today. Popular amongst hippy and artistic types both Thai and foreign alike, the feel is very much new age.
This small town is filled with bohemian style cafes, restaurants, bookstores and guesthouses. During high season in the months of October until February, the nightlife comes alive and the tunes of Bob Marley can always be heard, during the day visitors take advantage of the hot spring, rafting and trekking opportunities in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
After a relaxing respite in Pai the loop is almost complete. Some 120km back on highway 1285 will transport you out of the rugged mountains of Mae Hong Son and back to the urban sprawl of Chiang Mai.
The Mae Hong Son Loop can be done by taking local buses, hiring a motorbike or car. If you don’t feel comfortable driving yourself you can hire a driver . For added quality experience, why not hire a tour guide who can be an invaluable source of information and help to ensure your trip runs smoothly.