Wind your way through one of Thailand’s most enchanting provinces
The Mae Hong Son Loop Thailand is a 600km round trip which takes you through the Mae Hong Son Province, an area of Thailand still relatively unaffected by mass tourism. While it is certainly not untouched, and can see an influx of Thai tour groups in cool season, the route offers myriad chances to get away from the crowds and see the kind of stunning rural scenery evocative of Thailand’s past. The Mae Hong Son Loop Thailand can be taken in either direction, clockwise or anti-clockwise. If you’re inexperienced on mountain roads and driving the route yourself, by Chiang Mai rental car or motorbike, the trip is best made clockwise, as the latter section has the lion’s share of hair-raising twists and turns. Here however, I describe the trip anti-clockwise, as that’s the direction I took when traveling the Mae Hong Son Loop Thailand.
Whether you spend time in Chiang Mai at the beginning or end of your trip is up to you but, whatever you do, be sure to dedicate at least a few days to the city. It’s a charming place with bustling markets, wonderful temples, a decent zoo – that houses Thailand’s beloved panda, Lin Ping – a flourishing café culture and some of the best massage parlors in the country. There’s an abundance of excellent guesthouses and boutique hotels, for extremely reasonable prices, and it’s also a great place to do a Thai cookery course. In addition to this, Chiang Mai is by far the best place to enjoy the Thai festivals at their exuberant best.
At Songkran Water Festival, Thai New Year, the city descends into a chaotic mass of locals and foreign tourists taking to the streets for what has to be the world’s largest water fight. Loy Krattong, in Novemeber, is another great time to be in the city, when fireworks and lanterns are let off into the skies and floats, adorned with flowers and candles, are sent off down the Ping River. It’s also a great place to welcome in the New Year.
Equally charming, but also much more relaxed, Pai is the next stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop Thailand and about four hours from Chiang Mai. This small riverside town is an almost compulsory stop and to be honest most people don’t go on any further. Take a couple of days to visit the natural hot springs, Pai Canyon and the temples in the area. There’s also a decent night market and more than enough cafes and restaurants, Thai and International, to keep you busy, as well as a pleasantly relaxed bar scene, in the evenings.
Sop Pong, Pang Mapha
The town of Sop Pong is really nothing more than a collection of dusty roadside buildings and, if not for the fascinating, ancient caves of the area, it really wouldn’t warrant much more than a passing glance. With the caves however it certainly deserves an over-night stop and, although there is a limited choice of places to stay, the guesthouse on offer have their charms.
For most travellers a day, to get a bamboo raft through the main cave, Tham Lot, is enough but, for those with a little more time, there are plenty more caves and fantastic trekking, cycling and kayaking opportunities – most people head to Cave Lodge for information on these. Also try to time your trip to Tham Lot so you’re leaving the cave around dusk, to witness the swirl of birds and bats at the caves entrance.
Mae Hong Son Loop Thailand
In terms of distance, Mae Hong Son comes at the halfway point of the loop. This is the provincial capital and in its isolated setting, with its mix of Burmese, Thai and Shan people, it is unique amongst Thai cities. The town itself is centred around a charming lake and temple. The night market, where people from surrounding villages come to buy and sell goods, is worth checking out and there are plenty of restaurants serving local cuisine and Burmese food.
The area surrounding Mae Hong Son is best explored with your own transportation and offers exactly the kind of picturesque scenery most people dream of when they think of northern Thailand. There are some pretty waterfalls and excellent treks in the area but it’s also just great driving round amongst the rural landscape, paddy fields and mountains.
This is where I left the loop and flew back down to Chiang Mai, from Mae Hong Son’s tiny airport. You can, however, carry on along the road to Mae Sariang, another pleasant town little affected but still accommodating of tourists, and beautiful Doi Inthanon, which at 2500m is Thailand’s highest peak and offers spectacular waterfalls and breathtaking views of the northern provinces, when not shrouded in mist. From there you can head back to Chiang Mai or onwards elsewhere.
When to visit northern Thailand
The best time to visit the north of Thailand is in the cooler winter seasons, November to January, although the bigger cities are busiest around this time of year and you’ll definitely need a couple of thick jumpers, as the nights get chilly. Without many stops the loop can be completed in a few days but it’s best to give yourself at least a week, if not a couple, to get the most out of it.