I stole a week of free time in September to enjoy a scenic drive along the Mae Hong Son loop in northern Thailand.
This is a route well-known as a meandering highway of over 2000 bends (with matching potholes in the higher regions), passing through vivid green rice paddies on the lower stretches, then up, over and around the Thai highlands (the highlands reach over 2500m at Doi Inthanon – Thailand’s highest mountain) under towering cumulonimbus skies.
We took an overnight bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with Sombat Tours (whose in-coach service was excellent) and hired a car with Budget for the trip (a small car which survived well).
Chiang Mai was the start and end point of the loop but we spent little time exploring the city on this trip. We’re here for the mountain roads.
I’ve provided a selection of images from this amazing week up near the Myanmar/Thai border. You’ll notice the Shan and Burmese influence in the region expressed in clothing and temple design.
Some of my highlights include:
- Seat-of-your-pants driving in the higher stretches of the loop (including hairpin bends), endless scenic stopovers providing time for recuperation.
- An opportunity to learn from and contribute to the colourful hill tribe people of Lisu, Akha and Kayan (below) in Huay Sua Thao, an hour’s drive from Mae Hong Son.
- Blue sky, towering cloud formations, mountains and mist.
- Temple architecture
- Quaint accommodation available.
- Towns of Mae Chaem and Pai and lesser known (to farang) the village of Pang Oung enhanced under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit with it’s forested road and tranquil reservoir.
- The fresh air (after Bangkok).
- Route taken: Chiang Mai-Mae Chaem-Mae Hong Son-Pang Oung-Pai-Chiang Mai (see Budget map link at end of blog)
The monsoonal rain only halts your progress for an hour or so, even providing the perfect conditions for a spectacular rainbow.
The driving is long and winding but the never-ending views dissipate the discomfort to a considerable extent. As a photographer you’ll be jumping out to get the shot at every bend (warn your friends).
Driving to the Kayan village of Huay Sua Thao meant five easy river crossings and a an entry fee of 400 Thai Baht for foreigners.
We encountered little traffic at this time of year and went where our hearts desired, exploring intriguing side roads that led to revealing lookouts.
At one of our stops, Rachel from England, strode in from the surrounding hillside for groceries. She was as a volunteer in a nearby village helping in the local school and working with elephants.
Travelling in September/October enables you to take advantage of the low season rates at some good quality hotels and guest houses along the way.
- 600km route. Allow 3/4 days.
- Can be travelled in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.
- Overnight in Mae Chaem, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son and Pai.
- Travel by motorbike for the ‘real’ deal. I’ve seen backpackers struggling on 125cc scooters, so try something bigger.
- Travel in November and see the blooming Mexican sunflowers at Doi Mae Ukho.
- Stopover at many waterfalls, photograph the rice paddies.
- Hot Springs and elephant riding in Pai.
- Trekking agencies in Mae Chaem, Mae Hong Son and Pai and Pang Oung.
- Keep your fuel tank topped up. In addition to the full tank at outset we spent an additional THB800-1000 to get us round the loop (in a small car – more for saloons). Remember, you have to return the tank in the hire car full at Chiang Mai.
One last thing. Customise your trip and make it your own.
Budget Car Rental’s own Mae Hong Son Loop map (© Oliver Hargreaves)
Sombat Tours (excellent overnight bus)
© Warren Field 2012
Taken on OLYMPUS E-System Cameras and Zuiko lenses.