One of the most eye-opening, empowering and fulfilling things you can do when you travel overseas is to get your own form of transport and get out and explore! For some, it’s a zippy little motorbike with questionable safety standards, for others an old-school bicycle to meander amongst the larger vehicles and seek out hidden laneways. For us, it was a car. Mainly because we have no experience riding motorbikes and no desire to become road kill. The Mae Hong Son Loop is a beautiful and not so touristy place to drive around.
To read more about hiring a car in Thailand, you can check out Driving In Thailand.
If you have the time and the inclination, the Mae Hong Son loop through Pai is a stunning route through the rice fields and hills of a more untouched part of the country.
The route starts in Chiang Mai and takes you to the industrial outskirts of the city. There are lots of fruit stalls here, especially those selling durian, so it’s a great place to stock up on road-trip snacks. This part of the journey only lasts for about 20 minutes, and you soon turn left off the highway and start one of the most picturesque routes of northern Thailand.
The scenery changes almost instantly and you are quickly surrounded by nature on all sides. Trees, hills and fields in various shades of green, from avocado to lime, fringe the road, and the occasional coffee house or restaurant pops up amongst the overgrowth.
The road is in fantastic condition and the surrounding nature is pristine. Being Thailand, there is also an abundance of wats dotted along this route which make for a pleasing sight – bold red and yellow spire jutting out above the emerald canopy.
Driving along this road is pleasant enough but you can also add some variety to your journey by stopping at the various viewpoints and waterfalls along the way.
One of the first that you will come across is Mork Fa Waterfall which is awe-inspiringly powerful, so much so that you can’t walk within 20 meters of it without taking a light shower.
The national park is in pristine condition and a comfortable spot to stop for morning tea. Entry costs 200 baht and parking another 100 which you pay to the ranger after you park the car.
The grounds have toilets, showers, feet-washing facilities and picnic benches and it’s clear that it’s well-maintained so the 300 is put to good use. Be careful, though, as we spied a pretty brown snake sunning itself in a pile of leaves by the track!
Soon after this the meandering road will begin and you will wind your way through some spectacular views of misty mountains and lush green valleys. There are heaps of viewpoints here but make sure you slow right down for them as the entrances can be hard to spot and if you drive past, there is nowhere to do a U-turn. One particular nice spot is even home to some friendly bell-wearing cows and some dogs and chickens. Keep an eye out for the butterflies too!
There is not a boring part in this leg of the trip and the four hours fly by!
Pai is a small, rural town that we only stopped in for lunch. There is lots to explore around here including the white buddha on the hill but we motored on to Mae Hong Son as we were limited for time…
Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is a small town located not far a misty mountain range in northern Thailand. Despite boasting a large selection of wats and a large lake in the center, the town itself is quite small and unassuming.
We arrived here on a rainy September afternoon and were immediately struck by the calmness and tranquility of the place. The central street was a bit busy with traffic but the backstreets were mainly silent with the odd put-put of a scooter driving past.
Each house was slowly being taken over by some kind of vine or bush and many of them had banana trees, pawpaws or mangoes growing in their tiny backyards. We could hear the frogs croaking, birds chirping and something else that was strangely pleasant – nothing. The silence was golden.
We strolled through the main, white wat in the center of town and barely saw another soul. The area around the lake grew slightly busier at around 17.00pm when the friendly locals, young and old, joined together to feed bread to the enormous fish that lurked in the murky water.
Just before dusk, we hiked our way up the small hill around which the city was built to the magnificent wat at the top. The staircase is guarded by two fiery red dragons and the climb is steep but quick. At the top we were also met with silence. Only the soft wind blowing as night fell and the light tinkling of wind chimes that adorned the wat’s spires. The small town below began to light up for the night and we watched it in almost complete silence, surrounded by ancient lions.
Mae Hon Song Son Night Market
For dinner, we ate at the Night Market which is a collection of about 10 stalls stood on a gravely piece of land under a big tent. They all offered fresh Thai food, from spring rolls to roast fish. I got a lovely homemade papaya salad that the beautiful lady made right before my eyes and she also gave me several taste tests so I could adjust the sugar-chilli ratio to my liking.
The next morning, we explored the rest of the wats in the town. They were stunning. Giant dogs, golden staircases, grey pillars. And the best bit – no tourists. We walked through each one in total silence.
Leaving this place was hard. It had such an energy of peacefulness and there was a range of enticing treks and homestays on offer for those who were planning to stay long term.
The bamboo bridge is located on the outskirts of Mae Hong Son (coming from Pai) and is a hidden piece of paradise. We thought Mae Hong Son was the epitome of calmness und we pulled up not far from this rickety structure that stretched out into the rice fields. As the name suggests, it’s simple a bridge through the rice fields that leads up to a group of temples on a hill. Oh yes. And it’s made from bamboo.
The bridge itself can be found in a small, out-of-the-way village with roads just wide enough for a car and lots of red dirt. It’s actually quite a sturdy structure, despite its appearance, and offers strollers expansive views across the immaculate rice fields and out to the misty mountains. The view is full of emerald and olive greens, towering crops and no man-made sound whatsoever. It’s the perfect spot to kick off your shoes, sit/lie down and stare out into the wilderness.
Drive Back to Chiang Mai
The drive from Mae Hong Son back to Chiang Mai is only slightly less spectacular than the first leg of the loop. It’s a fair bit longer and although there is slightly less of the never-ending green rice fields and palm tree covered hills, there is a whole lot more driving along mountain ridges and staring down into expansive valleys which is not for the faint-hearted.
In retrospect, this part would be better broken up into two days with an overnight stay somewhere along the way. After six hours of sharp turns, ups and downs and dodgy overtakings, you still need to travel through some more build-up areas of the country that are home to a whole lot more scooters and thus potential dangers. Don’t do this part at night.
All we can say about this loop is that it’s a superbly scenic piece of our planet that deserves at least 3 full days but could easily keep you in awe for a whole week or more.
Also, travels go hand in hand with photography – who doesn’t take a lot of photos when they travel? If you are one of those people (like we are), check out our Art Photography page and let us know what you think!