23 Dec The Mae Hong Son Loop road trip in Northern Thailand
I have been dreaming of this road trip around the Mae Hong Son Loop for weeks! In fact, it was the first time I came to Pai in 2019 when I saw a photo of some tea gardens, Chinese homes and a lake. It instantly captured my heart and I decided that I would come back for that place. This was Mae Hong Son and I will tell you all about it.
So after a year, with the pandemic in its full swing, Thailand was wide open for domestic tourist. It was Loi Krathong and this time it was an opportunity of a lifetime to witness the celebrations without the insane crowd. By the way, Chiang Mai is especially known for its celebration of Loi Krathong. If you can make sure you see it.
From there we decided to travel to far north in Thailand via a route extremely popular amongst bikers. It is called the Mae Hong Son loop but we tweaked it since we had already visited some places in the loop.
Itinerary from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son
We decided to spend more than a week in the area. The plan was to go to Chiang Mai, attend Loi Krathong and head to Pai. After spending a day in Pai and the hot springs around it, we will continue to Mae Hong Son with Tham Lod caves on the way.
From Mae Hong Son, we took a detour to Ban Rak Thai, a village at the Thai-Myanmar border. From there we made our way back to Chiang Mai, again halting in Pai for a day.
This is how our itinerary for 8 days looked like:
Chiang Mai –> Pai –> Tham Lod Caves –> Mae Hong Son –> Pang Oung –> Ban Rak Thai –> Sai Ngam Hot Springs –> Pai –> Chiang Mai
The Mae Hong Son Loop
If you want to finish the Mae Hong Son Loop, this is how your itinerary will look like:
Chiang Mai –> Pai –> Tham Lod Caves –> Ban Rak Thai –> Pang Oung –> Mae Hong Son –> Khun Yuam / Mae Sariang –> Doi Inthanon –> Chiang Mai
You will probably need between 8 -10 days to cover this route comfortably. I will cover all the places in this blog, so read on.
How to Travel along the Mae Hong Son Loop
Now, while I am assuming that you’d want to take a private vehicle for this, you can also do this using public transport.
The reason I will emphasise you to think twice over the choice on your mode of transportation is that there are more than 2,000 bends in the road along the whole loop. On top of that there are dozens of hairpin bends that look like this one the map:
And something like this in real (Although this was taken near Nan, in north Thailand) :
So realistically, if you have covered a few hundred kilometres in Thailand or Southeast Asia, then you are good to go. That will apply for both a two-wheeler and a four-wheeler. Otherwise, if you have an ounce of doubt, go with public transport.
Two-wheeler: We took a two-wheeler. Having driven around long-distance in Thailand from mountains to islands, we were quite confident of this. Although, it was still a challenge looking at those hairpin bends.
Now if you are fond of heavy bikes, you can always get your own or pick up one in Chiang Mai. We rented a click-i 125cc scooter for our journey in Chiang Mai. There are tons of scooter shops in Chiang Mai, but you dearly need to check for fantastic brakes and wheel condition before you finalise.
We rented from Tawan Bike in the city centre in Chiang Mai. They assured us that they regularly take care of the maintenance. So the bikes were in good condition for mountainous roads. It cost us THB 250 per day. Also, they exchanged the usual decorative helmets for more practical ones for safety. You can also check out catmotors.com for their online rental service.
You will need to tell them if you are taking the vehicle out of Chiang Mai. Some renters may not agree to this. So find ones who do. Some shops even ask you for a driving license to issue a bike. But in most places, it’s not a problem. Most shops will keep your passport for security though (or any other important document).
Four-wheeler: If you are in a group, with family or simply want to be more comfortable, you can opt for a four-wheeler. Of course, you will need to have excellent driving skills for this too. You can either get your own for the trip or rent one in Chiang Mai (airport or city).
I think that a car would be great if you want to camp in Thailand. North Thailand especially has world-class national parks and fantastic view. You can take things slow, load up your vehicle with essentials, tent and food and travel around north Thailand for weeks, the nomadic way.
A car is also the way to go if you are travelling during the summers or monsoon. You can also rent a car online in Chiang Mai on kayak.com or chiangmaiwheels.com. A day’s rent will start from THB 1,000 per day or more depending upon the car.
Public transport: Now if you are taking public transport, you have to plan more than usual. While is enough connectivity between the towns, it can still be infrequent. You will have to especially overplan if you wish to stop at a place anywhere in between like Tham Lod or Tham Pla caves.
From Chiang Mai bus station, you can easily get a minivan to both Pai and Mae Hong Son. It takes 3.5 hours to Pai and around 6 hours to Mae Hong Son. Similarly, you can also get a minivan from Pai to Mae Hong Son, from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang and then to Chiang Mai. Public transport is not available in Doi Inthanon. So you better cover it from Chiang Mai on a day trip (read below).
During the peak season, you may have to wait for the next vehicle with a seat. On the other hand, during the off-season, you may have to wait for the next available vehicle. Buses do not run on these routes, therefore you will only find minivans.
For smaller towns like Ban Rak Thai, you can also get a songthaew from the city centre. They may cost a bit and there is no standard cost, but they will keep you safe without the stress of getting lost.
You can get a ticket at the counter, but you can also book them ahead on time on 12go.asia or busonlineticket.com.
Best time to do the Mae Hong Son Loop
This is really important for your trip. A good time will make it a trip of a lifetime. A bad time will be torture. Torture you cannot get out of. If you are renting a vehicle in Chiang Mai, you cannot just give it up halfway, so read on.
Winters (November – mid-February): Winters are absolutely the best time to visit; not just this part but all of Thailand. The skies are clear and the temperature hovers around 18-20°C in the day. The temperature on Doi Inthanon can drop below 5°C at night on some days. It’s the same with Ban Rak Thai.
If you have been in Thailand or Southeast Asia for long and want to experience a bit of cold, this is the best time to go. You will have to pack warm though. A sweatshirt can do in places like Chiang Mai and Pai but you will need warmer clothes with places on higher altitudes.
Monsoons (July – October): I have mixed feelings about monsoons. On one hand, the dense jungles of the north are at its best after a rain. On the other hand, your outdoor plans may take a hit as a lot of places are closed during this time including caves and national parks.
Rainfall is heavy in north Thailand but it usually rains for only a few hours a day. You will have to make sure that you drive when its dry since wet roads drastically increases the chance of a mishap. Also, you don’t want to get caught in a rain.
I will recommend taking public transport or a car if you are travelling during this time. This is the low-season, so the frequency of public transport will be sparser.
Summers (Mid-February – June): I have never seen anyone recommend this season. It is extremely hot and humid. You really should avoid driving a two-wheeler during the noon hours since it’s easy to get a heat stroke.
Forest fires are also rampant in north Thailand during this time, especially till April. To sum it up, avoid this season. But if you are here by chance, stay indoors during the day and stay hydrated.
The Mae Hong Son Loop – Our Journey
It was the second time that we were in Chiang Mai. We had already done quite a few activities and seen the most popular places on our trip before. However, there is so much to do in Chiang Mai that you could keep adding to it.
The most memorable experience in Chiang Mai is that of Loi Krathong. Similar to Diwali in India, people light up their homes and streets with candles and lamps. There are extravagant parades and dance shows across the town that you simply cannot miss.
Yi Peng is another festival only in Chiang Mai that people celebrate exactly the next day of Loi Krathong. Yi Peng includes floating thousands of lanterns in the sky at night and looks something out of a fairy tale. Sadly, the government has been imposing bans on this festival since 2019 since the lanterns often cause accidents in the surrounding areas.
Additional to the popular landmarks (read our detailed guide to Chiang Mai here), we visited Pongyang Jungle Coaster and Zipline. There is quite a bit to do at the amusement park but nothing is extreme. Just ahead of it is Mon Jam, a viewpoint with Hmong tribe settlement that you absolutely cannot miss.
Here are some of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai:
1. Chiang Mai temples: Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chiang Man, Wat Unmong, Wat Phra Dat Koi Kam, Wat Suan Dok
2. Doi Suthep: Wat Doi Suthep, Bhubing Palace, Doi Pui National Park and Hmong Village
3. Chiang Mai Markets: Chiang Mai Night Market, Chiang Mai Saturday Market, Chiang Mai Sunday Market, Ploen Ruedee Night Market
4. Huay Kaew Waterfall
5. Royal Park Rajapurek
6. Monk’s Trail – Wat Pha Lat Hike
7. Mae Ping River Cruise
Again, do refer to our blog post for an extremely detailed itinerary for the best things to do in Chiang Mai.
The journey to Chiang Mai to Pai will make you skip your heartbeat at several points in time. The roads are quite ordinary for the first 45 minutes but as soon as you enter the hills, the bends will get you nervous.
If you are travelling via minivan, make sure you don’t eat before you start. Most people get motion sickness on this route.
The trick is to drive slowly. Drive like a grandpa (or grandma) and you will be fine. In fact, the best way is to follow a car (not a minivan). Locals who drive often on this road have the perfect sense on when to speed up and when to slow down.
If you want to take a break in between, I will suggest stopping at Coffee We / Witch’s House. You can instantly point out it’s stark decoration and is equipped with a restroom and a Wifi.
The last 30 minutes takes you back to the plains towards the town of Pai. The complete drive will take approximately 4 hours. While you can also continue ahead towards Mae Hong Son, I will suggest you keep it relaxed and enjoy the rest of the day. You will suffer from sore bums anyway.
This was our second time in Pai so we did not spend much time. But if you are here for the first time, you should spend at least 2-3 days in this lovely small town.
Here are some of the popular things to do in Pai:
1. Santichon Village
2. Yun Lai Viewpoint
3. Pai Canyon
4. Pai Bamboo Bridge
5. Chedi Phra That Mae Yen
6. Pai Historical Bridge
7. Pai Walking Street
8. Hot Springs in Pai
Here is our detailed blog post for the best things to do in Pai.
Tham Lod Caves
As you move out of Pai, landscapes will change. It will swing mostly from green dense tropical mountains to fresh lime paddy fields. There are quite a few waterfalls, geysers, hot springs and caves in the area too.
In fact, as you drive on the highway, you will see several signs pointing out these landmarks. You can choose to cover as many as you like. But I will suggest that you do not miss Tham Lod Caves.
These are the largest cave system in Thailand and natural wonder to see. The caves are especially popular due to coffins found with human remains in one of the caves dating back 1400 years. The caves also have rare clues of life in Southeast Asia during the pre-historic era.
Tham Lod caves are actually a set of three caves. But during monsoon till November, only one cave is accessible to tourist. Maybe not even that if it rained heavily. The other two (one where the coffins were found) are not accessible if they are filled with water.
As you enter the premises, you can purchase the ticket at the counter and they will assign a tour guide to you. These guides will take you around and explain the cave ecosystem. The tour can range from 45 minutes to 3 hours (if you are visiting all the caves).
You will have to travel around 8 km off the main road to reach this place. You can reach this place by your personal vehicle only. So if you are doing the trip using public transport, I suggest you take a day trip via a tour guide from Pai. There are also a few accommodation options in a village nearby so you can also stay overnight. I just took a nap inside the park grounds.
Check out our blog on Tham Lod Caves for everything you need to know about the visit.
Ban Rak Thai
Before I proceed to Ban Rak Thai I want to mention that there is another cave called Tham Pla Caves right before the turn to Ban Rak Thai. The caves are popular for the size and number of fish it holds. If you are interested you can make a stop there as well.
It takes around 2.5 hours to travel from Pai to Ban Rak Thai and more if you are stopping in between.
Ban Rak Thai is my favourite village in Thailand. It is located right at the Thailand-Myanmar border in northern Thailand. It is actually a Chinese village settled by Yunan immigrants. You can find picture-perfect images of this village even as far as Chiang Mai.
The village is one of the off-the-beaten-path kinds of destination in Thailand. I only saw a handful of day-tourists and hardly anyone stayed the night. The village is so small that there are only a few hotels and restaurants and almost everybody knows everybody.
The downside is that you have to put extra effort to book a room (they are not available online) and people speak limited English. But you can still have a great time. The lake in the middle is the hub to tourist activity. The temperature drops to 3-4°C during the winter months and the valley is covered in mist.
I think this place is great even for long term stay if you can do with Chinese and Thai food and love the countryside. You can go for long morning walks and people are extremely friendly.
Read our blog post on Ban Rak Thai for all the information you need.
Mae Hong Son
It is hardly an hour’s journey from Ban Rak Thai to Mae Hong Son. But there are quite a few stops in between. I feel that you should check at least a few out.
One of the best places to visit on the way is Pang Oung. It is a royal project, a dam and a lake that people often term as ‘Switzerland in Thailand’. Another place to stop is Su Tong Pae Bridge that you will find on the way. It is quite similar to the bamboo bridge in Pai from the paddy fields and leads to a temple up a hill.
There is Mae Surin National Park right outside Mae Hong Son town. You may want to spend some time here. You can do a day trip to this place from Mae Hong Son. It is popular for a waterfall and hiking.
As you reach Mae Hong Son, you will be surprised by its size. Being the centre of a province, I expected it to be of considerable size. But the smaller, the better I believe.
There are just a handful of things to do inside Mae Hong Son. The city centre where the night market is put up is also home to the most popular temples in the town. Another one is up a hill that overlooks the whole valley. You should not miss it, especially during sunset.
There are quite a few places outside the town if you wish to explore. There are several long neck tribe villages in the area. But you can also stop there on your way to the next destination. I think you can cover Mae Hong Son in just two days if you aren’t a slow traveller.
You can also check out our blog post on what to do in Mae Hong Son. However, honestly, I must have covered a lot of them in this article only.
Our journey took us this far and then we decided to go back the same way since we had already been to Doi Inthanon. But here is how you complete the loop.
Mae Sariang/Khun Yuam
From Mae Hong Son, you take the road directly south to Mae Sariang. In fact, there is a town right in the middle called Khun Yuam. If you wish to do a smaller circuit, you can also take a road directly to Doi Inthanon from here.
It takes a little more than an hour to reach Khun Yuam and takes 3 hours to Mae Sairang. It is a 3-hour drive to Doi Inthanon from both the places thereafter.
If you are travelling from Khun Yuam, you can stop at Mae Surin Waterfall and Thung Bua Thong fields for a view. The place is popular for a valley filled with yellow gold flowers for as far as you can see. However, they bloom only during winters.
You will find a lot of viewpoints on the way to Mae Sariang. You can check out Tham Kaeo Komon Forest Park and Mae La Noi (Ban Dong). There are Salwain National Park right next to Mae Sariang town. If you aren’t tired of National Parks yet, you can also do a day trip to it.
Now you can also head directly to Chiang Mai if you choose to. Although the drive to Chiang Mai will be a long one. But if you haven’t been to Doi Inthanon, you should make a stop there.
Doi Inthanon is the highest peak in Thailand. But the national park that encompasses the peak is far more than that. Here are the places that you can visit inside Doi Inthanon National Park.
1. The Great Holy Relics Pagodas
2. Doi Inthanon Summit
3. Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail
4. Ang Ka Nature Trail
5. Ban Mae Klang Luang or Karen Village
6. Royal Agricultural Station
7. Mae Ya Waterfalls
8. Watchirathan Waterfalls
9. Srithan Waterfalls
You can choose to book one of the rooms in the national park, camp on the camping grounds or stay at one of the villages on the way. Doi Inthanon is also quite cold during the winters and the temperature can drop to 1-2°C at night on a few days. So you will need to carry warmer clothes, even for the drive.
If you have been travelling using public transport, then you can head to Chiang Mai. Or take a songthaew to one of the villages at the foothills. From there look for a day guide or hitchhike your way through Doi Inthanon but it will be a bit of an effort.
Read our complete guide to travelling to Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai.
The Last Leg
The drive from Doi Inthanon to Chiang Mai will be your last leg and for the most part, it will be flat. By now you must be exhausted if you have done this loop in a tight timeline. You would have covered at least 600 km by now.
But it will be an experience of a lifetime. Only a handful of people get to see these places in Thailand. Your experiences and the conversation with people will change you as a person.
Things to know
1. Most of the people on this stretch do not speak English. So it is better if you know some Thai phrases or have Thai friends who you can call for an emergency. You can also take the number of your vehicle rental agency and ask them to be of assistance in case you need.
2. You will have to do with Thai food in most towns. Except for Chiang Mai and Pai, most places only serve Thai food. If you are vegan or a vegetarian, take some time and learn phrases to help people direct what you need (and don’t want).
3. Keep some emergency numbers of hospitals, your hotel owners or friends with you. Connectivity is also limited in some parts during your drive but most towns and village receive excellent signals (for remote workers).
4. Always keep your medical insurance card with you.
5. Always share your location with a family member or a friend during the journey. Never let your phone battery die on you. So carry portable chargers.
6. Cover yourself completely. It is easy to get sunburnt even on a winter day in Thailand. It will make the following days extremely uncomfortable to go out.