Chiang Mai is a great spot to launch a motorbike tour of Thailand’s most remote province, Mae Hong Son. There are several routes to take through this region but the one we did seemed to be the most popular. We searched Chiang Mai for a reliable motorbike rental stand and eventually found Pops Motorcycle Rentals. They’re located on the east side of the moat and have several motorbike and motorcycle models to choose from. We opted for the Yamaha Spark 125cc motorbikes. We paid 170B per day and there certainly are other rental companies offering cheaper rates than that but we felt the motorbikes they had were well maintained.
We headed north out of the city and just a few miles out on the main highway we were stopped by a police check point. We had no idea this check point existed and it only seemed to be geared at hitting up foreigners for money. First the officer handed me a laminated sheet of paper with some unintelligible Thai written on it and then asked for my international drivers license. I handed him my Wisconsin drivers license and he laughed and told me the fine was 500B. I would have argued the point further but Rachel had already paid and I was suddenly in no position to fight his demands. They let us through and we kept going. We never received a receipt for our payment and I’m positive this just went to the bribery division of the Chiang Mai Police Department. My advise would be to just refuse to talk to them and refuse to pay if you take the main highway out of Chiang Mai or, better yet, take the alternate highway 1001 to the east of highway 1095. I’ve heard if you do in fact have an international drivers license they just make something else up such as speeding. Throughout our tour of the Mae Hong Son we became increasingly suspicious of the police and discovered most of the people who came up from Chiang Mai encountered the same traffic stop. Some were fined up to 1000B and some were stopped more than once.
After 20 miles we turned off highway 1095 and onto highway 107. It wasn’t long until we were winding our way through the jungle covered mountains. The scenery was beautiful and the highway was in great condition. Buses filled with other foreigners passed us along the way which made me really happy we were on our own set of wheels. It’s hard to appreciate the countryside while looking through the window of a cramped bus. Most of the people who head up to this region go to the backpacker haven of Pai. It’s about 80 miles by road from Chiang Mai and took up most of the day with all of our stops.
When we rolled into town we checked into Pai Modern House, which borders a small farm field for 400B. It was a nice spot on the far side of the Bamboo Bridge. There are tons of places to stay in Pai and they all vary greatly in quality. From what we’ve heard, Pai has changed a lot over the years and has become some sort of mecca in the north for backpackers looking to lose themselves. The night market along the main street served up lasagne, bruchetta, burgers, crepes, falafel, and many other dishes you normally wouldn’t see in Thailand. There were more foreigners roaming the night market than Thais and we had several fun conversations with random backpackers we will most likely never see again. In the evening we fell asleep not to the sounds of the surrounding jungle, but to the thumping of bass coming from a guesthouse on top of the hill.
We took a full day to explore Pai but opted to beat the crowds by going on a 10 mile hike to the Mae Yen Waterfall. It was nice to get into the jungle and this was by no means an easy hike. It took us most of the day and included a long climb at the end. We left the guesthouse at 8 am and didn’t return till 3 pm. There are a lot of stream crossings, I mean a LOT. Sandals would be the best footwear for the trek and I would imagine this trip would be nearly impossible during the wet season. Unfortunately the pool at the waterfall wasn’t big enough to swim in but the falls were nice and we had the whole place to our selves while we ate lunch. On the way back we passed about 15 people also making their way to the waterfall which makes it a sight in Pai few people bother to visit. The trailhead starts by going up a stream to the left of Valhalla Guesthouse at the end of the gravel road.
After a full day of hiking we were ready to hit the road again and made our way to the village of Sappong, a short 26 miles away from Pai. The town isn’t much to look at and the near by caves are the real attraction. We checked into the Jungle Guesthouse, which is owned by possibly the sweetest old lady in all of Thailand. Though the place is loaded with spiders and snakes, the toilets are squatters, and the showers cold, Da, the owner, made us feel right at home. The food was the best we’ve had in Thailand and the guesthouse was far from the highway so we didn’t have to breath the dust and hear the noise.
The first cave we checked out was Coffin Cave just over a mile from Sappong. There are several “coffin caves” in this region and they get the name from the teak coffins inside. They aren’t much to look at and the remains of whoever was placed in them are long gone. According to the information we could find they are between 1000-2000 years old, which really doesn’t narrow it down in the least. We also visited the very popular Lod Cave, 6 miles away from Sappong. We had to hire a guide for a tour who carried a gas lantern through the cave for us. It’s just over a mile long and even includes a boat ride at the end. It’s a massive cave and while we walked through it we could see other lanterns bouncing along like fire flies. Our guide also pointed out cave paintings and the teak coffins. The last cave we saw was coral cave near the village of Me La Na and much like the cave suggests the stalagmites and stalactites look much like coral. We had to hire a guide for this cave too but because of its more remote location we had a much more personalized tour. Me La Na Cave and Diamond Cave are also near by but due to the size and sensitive wildlife found in Me La Na Cave it is closed to the public.
After two nights in Sappong we rode to the city of Mae Hong Son to see the Karen long neck hilltribe people. We had mixed feelings about going to one of these villages and have read reports of them being like human zoos. The Karen are refugees from Myanmar that have been living in Thailand since the 1960s. Since many of them have been living in Thailand illegally they have been easy targets for those wanting to exploit them. As a child I even remember seeing them in National Geographic so I was a bit curious to see them in real life. The first village we went to was Huai Seua Thao. When we pulled up there were bus loads of Thai tourists descending into the market where these women were supposed to be set up. Immediately a Thai man approached me, handed me a piece of paper talking about the Karen, and asked us for 250B. Apparently that was the only way to see them. I asked him why they weren’t walking around town and he said they were all down in the “market”. I couldn’t help but feel like I was paying to see human zoo and after much discussion we opted not to pay. We instead rode to a less popular village called Kayan Tayar. It was a rough ride to get there but in the end worth it. We were greeted by one of the Karen and weren’t solicited for money. Rachel did buy a souvenir but we both felt better about the place and that the money was actually going to that woman’s family. We took some time to see the peaceful village and observed their daily life. At the time we were the only foreigners there.
The next day was the longest ride we had to make. It was only about 100 miles but still managed to take up most of the day winding down the back roads towards Mae Chaem. The road brought us through jungles, farmland, and small villages. It was perhaps the most scenic day of the ride with the least amount of traffic. There was a lot more farm machinery on the road and corn and strawberries seemed to be the crop of choice. Mae Chaem isn’t much to look at but it does make for a convenient starting point for driving up to Thailand’s tallest peak, Doi Inthanon.
The last day of our motorbike ride was to only last about 70 miles, 82 if we went up to Doi Inthanon. The road grew narrower after leaving Mae Chaem and the jungle enclosed around us. The road up to the turn off of Doi Inthanon was again very scenic. We passed several turn offs for waterfalls and when I got to the turn off for Doi Inthanon I stopped to wait for Rachel. After a short discussion with a man wearing camo at the gate leading up to Doi Inthanon, we opted not to pay the 600B to ride to the top. On our way down the mountain we passed bus loads of Thai tourists. We passed a few waterfalls on the way back to Chiang Mai and then hit the hellish highway for the last 35 miles.
The Mae Hong Son Loop is one of the most scenic rides in Thailand and takes you through some of the more remote regions of the country. Over the years it’s become a very popular tourist destination with Pai being the most touted. As a result many people, including the government, have found ways to make money off foreigners, both fair and unfair. If you’re looking to get off the main tourist trail in this region it is possible. We certainly didn’t have the time, or the vehicles, to explore everything. If you have a good map and off road experience there are several sights worth visiting such as the abandoned helicopter north of Sappong and the Hermit Cave west of Pai. If you’re willing to take the time to get there you’ll be rewarded by getting away from the crowds of tourists and seeing something few foreigners get to see.