Lun Yai viewpoint in Pai Thailand, with wild flowers

A Spin on the Mae Hong Son Loop

The cool mountain breeze was laced with the scent of pine trees. At the water’s edge, campers played music, pitched tents and put up deck chairs as black swans glided past. Somehow, we’d stumbled upon a slice of European summer during a Christmas break in Northern Thailand. Our road trip around the Mae Hong Son loop was full of surprises like this, from monks controlling drones to selfies with policemen and the twistiest roads we’ve ever navigated.

Lun Yai viewpoint in Pai Thailand, with wild flowers

The Mae Hong Son loop tour

Our Christmas gift to ourselves this year was a mini road trip in Thailand. The plan was to tackle the Mae Hong Son loop by car, a 600km stretch of road that winds through the most mountainous province in the country. Mae Hong Son province lies on the Burmese border and is covered with thick jungle, waterfalls, hot springs and towering mountain ranges. The landscape is dotted with towns and tiny villages which are home to highland communities, often referred to as hill tribes. These include the Hmong, Karen and Shan groups whose ancestors hailed from Burma and China; each community has its own unique culture, language and history.

Scenery on the Mae Hong Son Loop in northern Thailand

A typical Mae Hong Son loop itinerary takes you on highway 108 from Chiang Mai to sleepy Mae Sariang and onwards to Mae Hong Son town. From there, follow the 1095 to the hippy mecca Pai back to Chiang Mai. If time is on your side, detour off the main loop to discover ornate temples, vast lakes, mud spas, fields of wild flowers, panoramic viewpoints and caves. Popular stops include Salawin National Park, Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon, and Huai Nam Dang National Park.

Mae Hong Son loop map

Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son

On Boxing Day we gratefully folded our laptops away, picked up a rental car and drove from our home in Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang. The journey was slow-going along boring flat highway until the last stretch, which wound through green forest-lined roads speckled with late-afternoon sunlight. Darkness fell as we arrived in Mae Sariang and we wandered an eerily-quiet stretch of shops, houses and restaurants along the river bank searching for Pad Thai before collapsing, road-weary, into bed.

Viewpoint at Mae La Noi in Thailand

The next day dawned bright and we drove to a road-side coffee shop in . As we sipped potent coffee overlooking a valley carpeted with rice fields and surrounded by furry peaks, two police men in tight, army-green uniforms approached us. “Where are you from,” one asked with a broad smile, as Andrew and I exchanged wary looks. “I’m a police officer, I catch the bad guys,” he explained with another striking grin before whipping out his phone and asking: “Can I take a photo with you?” Bemused by this unexpected encounter, we continued our journey along spiralling roads to Mae Hong Son.

The Mae Hong Son loop Pinterest poster

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Arriving in Mae Hong Son Thailand

Termed the City of Three Mists, Mae Hong Son town lies nestled beneath hulking mountains. At the centre of town there’s a tranquil lake that reflects the triangular peaks of two white-and-gold temples which sit beside the water, Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang.  In the evenings, a street market with stalls selling noodle dishes, pancakes, crafts and souvenirs springs up on the banks of the lake and the temples glow with light.

Temples on the lake in Mae Hong Son town, Thailand

For lunch, we stopped at the wooden-roofed Salween restaurant to sample a bowl of steaming Khao Soy, a northern, Burmese inspired curry, before driving out to discover more Mae Hong Son attractions.

Khao Soy from Salween restaurant, Mae Hong Son

Groups of Thai tourists, many still dressed in black to honour the death of the King, filled nearby Thampla National Park. We took a late-afternoon stroll across a wooden bridge through green lawns to the Fish Cave, a pond where hundreds of carp circled the water waiting for visitors to sprinkle fish food from above. On our way back I was stopped by a group of Thai girls who wanted a selfie with me, another sign that we’d strayed slightly off the main tourist track.

River in Thampla National Park, northern Thailand

Shrine at the Fish Cave in Mae Hong Son

In that special hour of golden, afternoon sunlight we stumbled upon a sign leading to what turned out to be the longest bamboo bridge in Thailand. Next to a temple surrounded by golden Buddha statues, a flight of rickety wooden stairs led down to the bridge, which stretched across fields bordered by mountains. At the edge of the bridge a group of Thai kids were practising a dance performance dressed in what looked like giant butterfly wings, while others played instruments. A monk in orange robes sat supervising nearby while unbelievably, another monk flew a drone overhead.

Photo with Thai Tourists

The longest bamboo bridge in Thailand

Mae Hong Son to Pai, the hippy heartland

Roosters woke us the next day for a hot, steep climb up hundreds of steps to Wat Phra Doi Kong Mu, a temple that sits atop Kong Mu Hill. By the time we reached the top the sunlight had burnt off the morning mist, illuminating the view spread beneath us. The grassy runway of Mae Hong Son airport stretched alongside the cluster of rooftops set against a backdrop of misty mountains. Behind us, Thai people circled the temple with flowers. Each person stopped at a statue labelled with the day of the week they were born on and laid their flowers and incense as an offering.

Buddha statue at the bamboo bridge in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

View of Mae Hong Son town from Kong Mu Hill

On our way to Pai we strayed an hour off the loop along never-ending hairpin curves that spiralled up to ear-popping heights. We passed stalls selling punnets of freshly-picked strawberries and gritted our teeth as we watched Thai drivers dangerously overtake on blind corners.

Pang Ung reservoir, northern Thailand

At this height we found ourselves in a forest of pine trees which led to Pang Ung reservoir, which is said to be the Switzerland of northern Thailand. The area is also part of a royal initiative for highland development and lies close to a Shan village, which has benefited from modern agricultural projects. The park was full of Thai campers rowing boats, laying on blankets by the water and cooking on camp fires.

Pang Ung reservoir, 'The Switzerland of Northern Thailand'

By the time we reached Pai we were just in time to watch the sunset behind the mountains from our cute mini villa in the @ Pai Resort. It was the most idyllic place we stayed on the Mae Hong Son loop, but this slice of serenity didn’t last long. We drove into the centre of Pai for dinner, a former rural town that has now become a major tourist destination and hippy hangout for dreadlocked, bare-foot western tourists. Although we’ve visited Pai several times before, we were shocked by how crowded it was and after some food and a massage, we retreated back to our peaceful guesthouse.

Sunset view from @Pai resort in Thailand

From Pai to Chiang Mai

The next day we faced the final stretch of the Mae Hong Son loop, the snaking downwards road from Pai back to Chiang Mai. On our way out of town we stopped at Pai Canyon, so-called because it vaguely resembles the USA’s Grand Canyon but is really a small series of dusty orange outcrops that stretch into the forested countryside.

Pai Canyon, Thailand

Chinese Tea at the Yun Lai viewpoint in Pai, Thailand

Our spin on the Mae Hong Son loop ended with some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire journey at the Yun Lai viewpoint, which sits above a Chinese village. With a steaming pot of herbal tea by our side we took in the mountain views laced with wild flowers and rice fields and marvelled at how the trip had taken us through some of Thailand’s most beautiful, yet lesser-visited treasures.

  • Gilda Baxter
    Posted at 21:53h, 06 January Reply

    I have never heard of the Mae Hong Son loop before, it looks so lovely, green and peaceful. You were like celebrities there being asked to pose for photos? Did you find people speak English in places that are a bit less touristic? I would love to go back to Thailand and explore more. A road trip is a great way of seeing places at your own pace. Loved this post?

    • Amy
      Posted at 06:02h, 07 January Reply

      Hi Gilda, yes, it was strange to meet Thai people who weren’t used to seeing westerners, we’ve experienced that in Indonesia and Burma but never Thailand before. We didn’t realise that Mae Hong Son itself would be a bit off the main track. We really love the freedom of renting a car in Thailand now, it’s so cheap and easy!

  • James
    Posted at 00:57h, 10 January Reply

    Road trip! What a cool thing to do as a Christmas present to each other. This sounds amazing, some spots on there that I’d love to see. Hope you had a great Christmas & New Year! X

    • Andrew
      Posted at 07:45h, 10 January Reply

      Thanks James, we had a great time, nothing better than a road trip! You’ll have to come back to Chiang Mai to do the loop yourselves! 🙂

  • Victoria @The British Berliner
    Posted at 07:35h, 19 January Reply

    ‘Love it!

    We really wanted to go to Pai when we were last in Chiang Mai, but my husband ended up ill, and we ran out of time.

    ‘Nice one!

    • Amy
      Posted at 07:47h, 19 January Reply

      It’s a shame you missed Pai, it’s a lovely little stop. Hope you make it there next time you’re in Thailand 🙂

  • Michael Batko
    Posted at 03:05h, 15 February Reply

    It was incredible 🙂 Here is our summary of the trip + pics:

    • Amy
      Posted at 16:04h, 16 February Reply

      Glad you had a great trip!

  • Melannie
    Posted at 11:55h, 08 December Reply

    Hello! I am planning to do the self-drive from Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Pai – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sae Riang – Chiang Mai. Your driving route seems to be the other way round of mine.. do you have any thoughts on which one is better? And how do you think of the drive itself? I am used to driving through the mountainous area since i did a lot of national parks in the US, but wasn’t sure about the drive in MHS loop since everyone said don’t drive on our own. Just in case, i drive both right and left side 🙂

    Also – do you have recommendation for NYE in Chiang Mai?

    Thanks in advance!

    • Amy
      Posted at 11:46h, 11 December Reply

      Hi Melannie,thanks for your comment, it’s great that your also planning to drive the Mae Hong Son Loop! I wouldn’t say either way is better than the other, so long as you give yourself enough time to stop off and see everything. Andrew had no issues driving the roads, but we did see at least one accident, so you will need to be careful, if you saw our YouTube videos, you’ll have more of an idea of what the roads are like. I think driving it by car is much safer than by bike, I think that’s when most people have problems. So long as you’re careful you should be OK.

      As for NYE, take a look at our Facebook video: this was NYE 2016. It was all in the centre of Chiang Mai, I’m sure there will be similar things going on this year.

      Have a great time on the loop and NYE!

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