The Mae Hong Son Loop has achieved almost mythical status amongst motorbike riders, cyclists and more recently Tuk Tuk Club adventurers. Stretching over 600km through the most majestic mountain scenery in Thailand and featuring more than 4,000 curves, in many ways this stretch of road sums up everything that is awesome about Northern Thailand.
Taking in fantastic towns and villages, including jaw dropping views, giving a huge number of random side trips and covering some of the coolest hairpin bends you’ll have ever seen, the Mae Hong Son loop is a must for everyone looking for a proper Northern Thailand adventure.
What is the Mae Hong Son Loop
Simply put, the Mae Hong Son loop is the greatest ‘road’ in Thailand and, in our view, the best way to experience the mountains, culture, forest and wonderful people of ‘The North’. If you get the opportunity to ‘do’ the Mae Hong Son loop, grab it with both hands and go for it, you won’t be disappointed!
The Mae Hong Son loop itself starts and ends in Chiang Mai and runs for 600-700km (depending on the exact route you take – there are more than a few options and side routes worth exploring) – through the rugged mountains, forests and valleys of the far North West of the country. With over 4,000 bends (we haven’t counted them but are assured this is the number) on the ‘loop’ you can tell it’s a wonderful winding series of roads and a million miles from the busy ‘highways’ you’ll come across elsewhere in Thailand. And, something that surprises pretty much every visitor, the quality of the roads are incredible. The smooth surfaces are in many places good enough to play pool on!
The traditional route – and you can head clockwise or anti-clockwise – heads from Chiang Mai, West to Mae Sariang. Then North to Mae Hong Son town and on around the ‘top’ of the loop through Pang Mapha to Pai. And then over one final mountain range back down to Chiang Mai. Or of course the same but in reverse. There are plenty of long cuts and short cuts along the way but this is the ‘traditional’ route and a superb adventure before you add any other elements into it. NOTE – see our ‘What to do in Mae Hong Son’ for our suggested side trips / different potential routes to add into your Mae Hong Son loop adventure.
How to travel the Mae Hong Son Loop
A very sensible question and there are of course a number of ways to explore the Mae Hong Son loop. The only option we’re not considering is ‘on foot’ as, whilst it’s possible of course, we’re not sure many people have the time to walk 700km on foot through the mountains of Thailand and interesting haven’t as yet head of anyone doing this (a great challenge for an intrepid walker we think…)
The most popular way for Thai travellers to explore the Mae Hong Son loop is by car and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t rent a car – relatively cheap and easy to sort out in Chiang Mai with all the major car rental brands represented – and head off to do the loop. If you do choose to travel by car we’d recommend you rent an SUV or similar. Whilst any car can cope with the roads, it’s much more comfortable in an SUV and as you’re sitting higher up you get even better views. And some of the side road options can be very steep indeed and beyond the cheapest of small cars.
- It’s always fun to have the freedom of your own car and the Mae Hong Son Loop is no exception. However, take it easy as there are lots of bends and plenty of downhills stretches – remember, it’s not a race.
- When driving yourself you can be a bit cut off from the region your passing through and the trip might suddenly become about the end of day destinations. Whilst all the main towns on the loop are great places, the real joy of ‘doing’ the Mae Hong Son Loop is the journey itself
Probably the most popular way to explore the Mae Hong Son Loop and in the winter it’s not uncommon to see great convoys of ‘big bikes’ winding their way through the mountains. A fantastic way to experience all that the Loop offers and if you enjoy riding a motorbike these are some of the best roads you’ll ever ride on. Hairpin bends, winding mountain climbs, superb views – the loop has the lot.
You can rent a ‘big bike’ in Chiang Mai and explore the loop on your own or join one of the organised group motorbike tours which are always huge fun and very sociable affairs with high quality Thai biking guides.
- The classic way to enjoy the Mae Hong Son Loop and some of the best biking roads anywhere in South East Asia. You’ll find it hard not to keep smiling for the whole trip – and that’s the idea isn’t it!
- This isn’t the road for novice motorbike riders and definitely not the place to learn to ride a motorbike. The roads take it out of you and require a good level bike handling skills. If you’re not an experience biker, please choose a different option!
- If it rains you’re going to get wet, and if you get wet you’ll start to get cold. It’s cool up in the mountains and during a storm you’ll look on enviously at everyone else…
In our view one of the very best ways to get the full experience of a Mae Hong Son Loop adventure, but, be warned…the distances might not be much but you’re in for some serious climbing each day with in many places ramps of road up to and beyond 25% inclines. Not for the faint hearted or those averse to a bit of pain. Having said that, cycling the Mae Hong Son loop is a right of passage for may Thai cycling fans and it really is one of the best multi-day rides anywhere in the world. Huge ascents up into the mountains, fantastic winding descents to get your breath back, wonderful roadside food and fruit and the enjoyment of pushing yourself, hard, in some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the world. If you’re into cycling and you’re not put off by going uphill then you simply have to ride the Mae Hong Son loop. Just make sure you’re prepared, that you have the right gearing on your bike (don’t be shy to stick a granny gear on your rear cassette) and carry some spare brake pads, you’ll be needing them!
- One of the great rides of the world, do-able in 5 days but more fun over 7 – 9 days and a wonderful combination of challenge and enjoyment. A must for all cyclists at least once
- You’re in the heart of the loop every second of every day. There’s nothing between you and all the sights, smells and sounds of the Loop and you’ll find that local communities and other Thai travellers are incredible supportive – from encouraging you up the climbs to making sure you’ve got enough food and water to keep going.
- It’s not an easy potter on a bike and, if you’re not used to cycling uphill for lengthy periods of time, it’s likely to be quite painful (it’s not easy even if you are used to cycling up mountains!)
- You have to be prepared and know what you’re doing. Hydration and eating are vital – there’s nothing worst than running out of energy at the foot of a 15km climb before you get to your next destination.
Although very possibly this is probably the least popular choice for people exploring the Mae Hong Son Loop. There are a number of different options for Public Transport and the ‘loop’ and you may well end up using a variety of different modes of transport.
Minivans run between all the major towns of the Mae Hong Son loop multiple times throughout the day (and into the night) meaning you can get from a) to b) cheaply and quickly. However, these minivans are very much for local travellers to get from a) to b) – don’t expect stops at viewpoints and do expect drivers to be heading as fast as they can so they can fit in another run, a bit disconcerting at times
Large buses / coaches do travel between major towns – so Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son – but are probably the least enjoyable way to travel on the Mae Hong Son loop. Although the drivers are specialists the loop loses some of it’s magic when you’re stuck behind the tinted windows of a coach with music blaring and the air-condition set to sub-freezing levels
Songtaews. Effectively local buses throughout Thailand and the Mae Hong Son loop is no different. Think of a pick up truck with bench seats in the back, usually with a roof, and that’s a songtaew. A great way to travel from village to village, town to town and perhaps the best public transport option if you’ve got the time to take things slow and are keen to explore smaller villages along the route. The disadvantage is that the seats all face inwards so you’re going to miss the spectacular scenery.
- One of the cheapest options and a great way to meet local people
- A good way to explore if you’ve got lots of time and are keen to stop off and explore many local villages along the way
- Some public transport drivers can be incentivised to fit in as many trips as possible each day – this means that whilst they’re superb drivers and know the roads very well – you may find your heart rate racing on some of the roads!
- Lots of Thai people seem to suffer from travel sickness – be prepared to sit with a pungent smell for some of the journey
Yes, that’s right, Tuk Tuk. And surprisingly, as we’re The Tuk Tuk Club, we think this is the very best way to ‘do’ the Mae Hong Son Loop. In our specially built Tuk Tuks developed just for these mountain roads, travelling by Tuk Tuk keeps you in the heart of the action every second of every day. All the sights, sounds and smells of the Loop are right with you. You travel nice and slowly – and average of around 35kmh on most days – meaning that you have the time to take in absolutely everything along the route (and of course we have our favourite side routes to explore too). And, whilst our adventures are small group trips, when you’re in your Tuk Tuk it’s just you and your family, partner, friends – unless you’re travelling solo in which case we’ll match you up with another solo traveller to enjoy the experience. Finally, if the local communities are supportive towards people cycling the Loop, they are positively delighted when seeing a convoy of Tuk Tuks high in the mountains. An immediate talking point giving you a great ‘in’ to sharing stories and tales with local villagers along the way and you’ll be stunned at how many people stop and want to get a selfie with you – celebrity status guaranteed.
- The most exciting and unique way to experience Thailand’s greatest stretch of mountain roads
- You’re in the heart of everything ever second of the day – and that’s what real travel is all about isn’t it
- None! We would say that if you can’t drive but as we now have our chauffeur driven options available too…….
How many days to ‘do’ the Mae Hong Son Loop?
This very much depends on how you’re travelling and what you’re looking from you your Mae Hong Son Loop adventure. You ‘could’ drive it in a day – but that would be pretty pointless although it would be better than sitting in your hotel room doing nothing! In an ideal world you’d take anywhere between 5 and 10/11 days enjoying and exploring the Mae Hong Son loop. There’s no rush (hopefully) and whilst the loop itself is fantastic, it’s also great to take time to enjoy different locations, explore the forest, hike in the mountains, explore remote villages and even just kick back and enjoy some down time in a lovely hotel.
So we’d say 5 days is the absolute minimum to do justice to the ‘loop’ but 10 days or more means you’ll really get the most out of this amazing part of Thailand and have a relaxing adventure (if that’s not an oxymoron) too.
A special note for those cycling the loop – yes, some do it in 5 (or sometime 4) days but that’s really pushing it. If you plan for 7 days you can take a day off somewhere like Fern Resort in Mae Hong Son and put the bike to one side for a day. Trust us, that one day of (or more) will make the whole ride so much more enjoyable.
Highlights of the Mae Hong Son Loop – and the odd recommendation not on everyone’s list!
Doi Inthanon – do include a trip up to the top of Doi Inthanon in your itinerary. You’re going to be close to it so why not and the views are superb. And if you’ve got the time, on your way down to Mae Chaem (or up if you’re heading anti-clockwise) take a side trip to Pa Pong Pieng, a stunning valley with rice terraces and picturesque small villages, and Mae Pan waterfall
Mae Sariang – a really ‘cool’ town to hang out, enjoy a cold beer by the river and explore a proper morning market.
Think about taking a slightly different route on your loop, miss out Mae Sariang and take the mountain back road from Mae Chaem to Khun Yuam. 100km of up and down (it feels like there’s almost no flat parts to this road), stunning views, very remote Hill Tribe villages and the sense that you are in the middle of nowhere. A superb day of driving, cycling or Tuk Tuk’ing!
The mountains above Mae La Noi – most people rush past Mae La Noi in their haste to get to Mae Hong Son. Don’t! Just before the bridge (heading North) there’s a road that winds it’s way up through spectacular scenery to what feel like villages from centuries ago. The roads get steeper and steeper the further you go but hang in there – it’s worth it. And if you’re feeling adventurous spend the night in a homestay in the super village of Ban Lay Oop.
Mae Hong Son town – everything that makes Northern Thailand great. Laid back, great food, lovely people and just the sort of atmosphere you want for an adventure. Enjoy the superb street food around the lake at night, stay at the marvellous Fern Resort, watch the sunset from Wat Doi Kong Mu – the list goes on…
A side visit to Ban Rak Thai and Pang Oung – if you’re cycling then this is a real challenge (as if the loop itself wasn’t). Super steep winding roads head up above the clouds to yet more spectacular villages along the border with Burma. Pang Oung is a very simple one street settlement but the highlight is the lake and surrounding forest and the opportunity to camp there. Be warned – it gets very very cold up here in winter. Ban Rak Thai is just a few km’s away – the road between the two is amazing – and a fascinating village populated by Kuomintang Chinese fleeing the Communist takeover in China. Great tea shops all around the lake, some fantastic food and just a brilliant atmosphere. Try to get a room a Lee Wine Rak Thai with their rooms dotted around a tea plantation!
The coffee shop on the side of the road 30km or so out of Mae Hong Son on the way to Pai – a slightly strange recommendation but the views from the coffee shop are just incredible. Looking along the rice fields with towering mountains on either side. Pretty much the perfect South East Asian scene – great coffee too!
Lod Caves – just outside Pang Mapha, in between Mae Hong Son and Pai. This huge cave system is well known and rightly so. Explore with a local guide and enjoy a gentle float out of the cave on bamboo rafts. The grilled chicken at the entrance to the cave is top notch too!
Pai – perhaps the most famous travellers spot in Mae Hong Son province and whilst it’s not as ‘authentic’ as the rest of the loop, it’s fun, there are some great places to stay and it still has a resident wizard still here from back in the 1980’s and what’s not to like about that!
The back road back to Chiang Mai – 99% of people head back to Chiang Mai on the ‘main’ road. It’s beautiful, winding it’s way through forests and up and over the mountains, but if you take the back road back to Chiang Mai it’s about 100 times more spectacular – and only around 30-40km further. Turn off the main road towards Wat Chan and then head towards Samoeng. One of the greatest stretches of road in Thailand awaits. Up and over mountains, through thick forest, past yet more stunning villages, along valley floors. Its. Stunning. If you’re cycling be ready – many very fit cyclists say it’s the toughest day they’ve ever had on a bike, but they all say it with a smile
Be adventurous – there are so many small roads off the main route to explore. Try your luck and just take some random turnings. At worst you’ll find yourself deep in the stunning mountains, at best you’ll come across the most beautiful villages you can imagine!
Keen to learn more about Mae Hong Son? Have a look at all our travel articles on Mae Hong Son covering everything you need to know and more about this stunning part of Northern Thailand
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