Mae Hong Son Loop
The Mae Hon Son Loop is a comprehensive way to discover one of Thailand's most authentic provinces. For those wanting to get out of the tourist scene in Chiang Mai, and experience authentic northern Thai & Shan minority culture, the Mae Hong Son Loop is the perfect antidote. Mae Hong Son is the most mountainous province in Thailand and receives few visitors due to its relatively remote location and time needed to reach it.
The loop is approximately 600km long and needs a minimum of 4 days to complete, this excludes time for sightseeing and activities along the way, so adding on an extra few days for this is recommended. The Mae Hong Son Loop 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 clockwise (Chiang Mai-Mae Sariang-Mae Hong Son-Pai-Chiang Mai) or anti-clockwise (Chiang Mai- Pai- Mae Hong Son- Mae Sariang- Chiang Mai).
As with anywhere in Thailand, sunscreen and mosquito repellent are a must. If you're planning to do the loop in the winter months (Nov,Dec,Jan,Feb) bring warm clothing (light jacket,sweater,long trousers) as temperatures can drop at night. This journey can potentially take you to places where English is not spoken so it would be advantageous to learn the names of some of your favourite Thai dishes so you can order food. For those that suffer from car sickness some motion sickness tablets also recommended before the start of the trip.
Day 1 - Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang
Direct route from Chiang Mai take the 108 route southwest, which takes you all the way to Mae Sariang town via Chom Thong and Hod. Distance is approx 180km and journey time approx 4hrs. If you wish to break the journey up with some sightseeing and a bite to eat (almost halfway distance) there are a few attractions not far from the 108 that make worthwhile stops before you get to Chom Thong. This would increase you journey time by 2-3hrs.
Firstly there's the Ganesh Himal Museum; part museum and part temple dedicated to the Elephant Headed God; entry is free and you can probably spend a good 45 minutes here. (About 5km off the 108 just past the River Wang and well sign-posted).
The second recommended attraction is Wat Phra That Doi Noi that can be ascended to by car/bike or by climbing the 241 steps. The temple was built by Queen Jamathewi in 658 AD, and offers a variety of chedis, buildings, Buddha images and other statues however the main attraction is the panoramic view of the Mae Ping River and surrounding hills and valleys. (10km North of Chom Thong just off the 108 between Km. 43 and 44).
Next stop is Wat Phra That Si Chom Thong one of the oldest and most highly revered temples in North Thailand. According to local legend the Buddha once visited the hill where the temple now stands. It's conveniently located alongside the 108 in Chom Thong town so it's an ideal place to stop for lunch too - there's some vendors located at the South end of the car-park.
It's then a straight drive along the 108 towards Mae Sariang.
The town of Mae Sariang retains much of the charm, culture, and character that is often missing in tourist areas. A quaint valley town surrounded by mountains and beautiful scenery, has seen many bars and guesthouses open up along the riverside in recent years. The trekking routes here are arguably the most authentic in the north and are popular with travelers seeking a less commercialised trek.
Just before you reach Mae Sariang there is Mae Um Long Luang Hot Springs (11 kms paved road and 1.5 kms steep rough dirt road up the hill); there are two huge baths that they fill with hot water plus a lovely picnic area, and a few cabins for sleeping. When you reach Mae Sariang town, where the 108 intersects with the 105, there's Mae Sariang Museum (sadly burnt down Oct 2015 but may re-open); across the road is Wat Prahtat Chom Chaeng; and a little more difficult to find but worthwhile because of the beautiful view is Wat Prathat Chom Thong less than 200m down the 105.
Surrounding the town there are many sights to see and day trips to go on, such as Mae Sam Laep, the Burmese style river-side trading village where a long tail boat can be hired for the day to cruise along the Salween river. West of town, across the river, is Salawin National Park; heavily forested with teak and Asian redwood and is home to what is thought to be the second-largest teak tree in Thailand. Further to the south along 105 is Mae Ngao National Park; comprising of high mountain ranges which are the source of many rivers flowing into the Salween River of Myanmar.
Near the local Mae Sariang Boripat Suksa School, there is an open-air Muay Thai Stadium where you can also take Muay Thai classes. Up the road to Mae Hong Son, there is a cultural center with arts and crafts where you can even learn how to carve wood. Mae Sariang is a great place to rent a bicycle and explore the surrounding rice fields.
If you wish to spend the night here there are many guest houses and hotels along the river ranging from about 300bt to 3000bt per night.
Day 2 - Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son
The next destination is the capital of this charming province, Mae Hong Son town, which is also the half way point on the loop. The route takes you through Khun Yuam and offers the opportunity to do some more sightseeing along the way.
Take the 108 North; about 25km out of town there's a nice little coffee shop and viewpoint at a place called Mae La Noi that's worth stopping at for a short break. Nearby are some Hill Tribe Villages and Kaew Komol an ancient calcite crystal cave if you've got the time.
About half way along the route is the small market town of Khun Yuam, that services the local villages situated in the Yuam River valley. Other than the Thai-Japan Friendship Memorial Hall museum there's not really a lot to see here but it does make a good spot to break up the journey as there are a some local cafes where you can get a meal and 2 or 3 hotels if you wish to stay overnight.
From here you can take a detour along the 1263 East to see Thung Bua Tong Fields at Doi Mae U Kho (Fields of wild sun flowers, which bloom for two weeks only in the month of November.) and Mae Surin Waterfall (A single jet of water leaping off a cliff face and plunging gracefully onto the rocks 100 meters below). This detour is about 37Km / 45 minutes each way plus time spent enjoying the sites so will add at least 2-3hrs to you journey to Mae Hong Son and much longer if you do some trekking.
About 10km south of Mae Hong Son you will pass through Pha Bong village that has a well developed hotspring and spa called Pha Bong Hot Spring; here you can soak your feet, take a dip in the pool, hire a private bath and even get a massage at prices ranging from about 20bt to 200bt.
The town of Mae Hong Son 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 town 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 - an ideal place to watch the sunset! The centre of the town is built around Nong Jong Kham Lake where you will find an array of guesthouses and restaurants; this is also the location of Wat Chong Klang that lights up like a Christmas tree after dark. A small Night 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. There's even a little bit of nightlife; bars include Crossroads, Baiyoke Chalet and Plearn.
Other sights and activities in the area include Hill Tribe Treks, Long Neck Karen Villages, Elephant Riding, Bamboo Rafting, and Phu Klon Country Club (a health mud spa).
Day 3 - Mae Hong Son to Pai
The final leg of the loop on highway 1095 from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai via Pai, 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 to Pai offers a full days sightseeing so set off early if you wish to stop at all the main attractions.
About 10km North of Mai Hong Son town, located in the village of Ban Kung Mai Sak just off the 1095, is the little known Su Tong Pae Bridge. This simple Bamboo Bridge over the lush green rice fields leading to the temple at the other end of the village provides one of the most beautiful natural attractions in the area. There are no road-signs but the location on google maps is accurate.
You can backtrack to the 1095 or continue on the minor road North for 5km, the latter having benefit of passing the Pu Khlon Country Club & Mud Spa (spellings vary) that offers a range of beauty treatments and products. Once back on the 1095 you will come to Tham Pla (Fish Cave); although not spectacular this is a pleasant little park with an under-water caved that is filled with fish that you can feed for 20bt.
From here you can carry on along the 1095 to Pai or if you have time for a detour you can backtrack about 1km then head up towards Ban Rak Thai a Kuomintang village near the Myanmar border. This is a very tranquil Chinese village overlooking a beautiful lake. Along the way you will pass Pha Sua Waterfall which is said to be the most beautiful waterfall in Mae Hong Son Province; Pang Tong Palace gardens and royal project for sheep; and Pang Ung a picturesque Shan minority village. Without stops it's about 30-35 minutes each way from the i1095.
On the route to Pai are some more viewpoints and caves, but the next major attraction is Tham Lod which means "coffin cave". It is a favourite amongst tourists and is in the area of Soppong in Pangmapha district. It is famous for its stalactite and stalagmite formations, ancient wood coffins and the thousands of birds and bats flying in and out the cave, respectively, at sunset. If you time you arrival right you can witness that. A bamboo raft and guide can be hired to explore the cave, the guide is 150bt and raft 300bt and each must be hired for every 3 people in a group.
On the final stretch of your journey to Pai you will pass Kiew-Lom Viewpoint.
The last destination on the loop is the town of Pai, an unexpected find in a remote mountain valley. There's so much to see and do around Pai it's worth spending at least 2 nights here. 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.
Some of the most notable attractions include Chinese Village (Santichon) which is on the way to Mo Paeng Waterfall; Wat Klang, one of the more significant temples in Pai as it houses very old and revered Buddha statues; Chedi Phra That Mae Yen, a small temple on a hill 2 km from Pai providing a panoramic view of the city; The Land Split which offers some great hospitality in the form of home-made rosella juice and other products which is on the way to/from Pam Bok Waterfall; and heading out of town there's the breathtaking Pai Canyon (Kong Lan) and WWII Memorial Bridge.
Day 4 - Pai to Chiang Mai
After a relaxing respite in Pai the loop is almost complete but there's still a number of attractions along the 120km route along highway 1095 through the rugged mountains of Mae Hong Son and back to the urban sprawl of Chiang Mai. The first part of this road has a lot of curves and it probably the most demanding drive of the loop but it also offers some impressive sightseeing.
About 25km East of Pai is Huai Nam Dang National Park with some viewpoints that provide a 360 degree view of the panoramic vistas. The second major attraction along this route is Pong Dueat Geyser and Hot Springs; for 300bt entry for farangs you walk through the forest to the geysers themselves and take a soak in the public pools. If you're feeling hungry there's a coach stop about 1km before you reach the turn-off to Pong Dueat.
(Take note that as of December 2015 the last 30km leading to Pai has heavy construction work going on, and doesn't seem to be finishing soon. Scooter/motorbikers should be prepared for dusty road conditions and preparing a scarf and sunglasses would be advised for the journey.)
Eventually the 1095 will join the 107 about 35km North of Chiang Mai town. About halfway along this stretch you will pass Mae Sa Valley (in Mae Rim district) where you will find Elephant Trekking, Snake Farms, Shooting Ranges, Monkey Shows, Orchid Farms, Waterfalls, ATV Adventures etc. Usually 2 or 3 activities can be strung together as a day trip from Chiang Mai but if you've got time you may wish to take a look.
Public buses connect all legs of the loop - Chiang Mai, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Pai. Or you can hire a car or motorbike; North Wheels in Chiang Mai are a reputable firm providing car hire from 1200 baht per day.
For car, driver and guide hire, Thailand Hilltribe Holidays are Mae Hong Son Loop specialists.
Due to the number of curves along the Mae Hong Son loop road, only drivers experienced in navigating windy uphill and downhill mountain roads should attempt this. Drivers should also be experienced in Thai driving style. If you have no experience in Thai traffic and/or mountain roads, taking the loop clockwise is the best option, since the last part is also the hardest. The roads are in very good condition and asphalt covered, and extra caution should be taken during rainy season (May-October) when roads are slippery.