The Mae Hong Son Loop by car: cool times in the northern Thai mountains

December in Northern Thailand is among the best times to take in the spectacular mountain scenery – and what better way to do it than via the famous Mae Hong Son Loop.

We’ve previously done the Mae Salong Loop at a similar time of year and loved it, so we were very much looking forward to the Mae Hong Son Loop, with some 600km of winding mountain roads to navigate, starting and ending in Chiang Mai.

There are a million and one good resources for planning the Mae Hong Son Loop online, and many ways to tackle it depending on your budget and preferences. So for this piece, I’ll run through some of the highlights and a few tips per place rather than writing a full guide – one of the joys of the Mae Salong Loop is having many options and playing things by ear.

Whether you’re looking for adventure, relaxation or a bit of both, it’s all in reach on the Mae Hong Son Loop. As road trips go, it has to be up there with any in Thailand and possibly in the world. It’s also a lot of driving, so this is a trip best done slowly and with plenty of stops! Here’s an overview of our attempt at the Mae Hong Son Loop over 9 days in December 2021.

Mae Hong Son Loop Stage 1: Chiang Mai to Pai

After taking a favourite mode of transport – the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai – we arrived bright and early to a cool December morning at Chiang Mai station. There’s something unique about a northern Thai winter’s morning; some potent brew of sun, crisp air and woodsmoke on the breeze that we’ve yet to find anywhere else.

As the historic Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok is closing in December 2021, this was the last opportunity to take this particular journey. Trains will still depart from the giant new Bang Sue terminal and it’s an experience well worth having.

Whilst many choose to hit the Mae Salong loop on a scooter or motorbike, we can’t ride them and if we could there’s no way in hell we’d be up and down these roads on a sputtering old bike. If you’re an experienced biker, the Mae Hong Son Loop will be heaven. If you’re not, don’t. All the roads you’ll need to travel are fine by car or even better by something more heavy duty.

We opted for the comparative security of four wheels, renting once again from the excellent Budgetcatcher agency.

The Budgetcatcher rep met us at the train station and was quick to apologise that the car we had booked was unavailable, so they hoped we wouldn’t mind the replacement.

The replacement

The replacement, henceforth ‘The Beast’, was a brand new pickup truck that they had only purchased a day earlier with a total of 27km on the clock. We told them the replacement would do just fine.

After gingerly testing out the capabilities of The Beast on a quick breakfast stop in Chiang Mai (at the irresistible Butter is Better), we made for the Mae Hong Son Loop proper.

After a dull 60km drag north out of Chiang Mai, the route proper began with a hard left onto a road that would become a constant companion over the coming days: route 1095.

One set of traffic lights right at the start aside, 1095 is an unbroken spool of buttery smooth tarmac that meanders through some 742 turns between Chiang Mai and Pai, and then beyond down to Mae Hong Son itself. I’m no driving fanatic but these are surely some of the most fun roads to drive on, in Thailand or anywhere.

While other great Thai road trips like the Mae Salong Loop are about the destinations, the Mae Hong Son Loop is as much about the journey as the town’s you’ll visit.

The 1095 road from Chiang Mai to Pai wastes little time in getting straight to business, quickly pitching up to steep inclines and sharp hairpins winding through farmland and forests, strangely and pleasantly reminiscent of the Alps at times.

The driving is challenging but not particularly difficult, however we needed to keep our wits about us mainly for the usual quota of suicidal drivers leapfrogging through the traffic no matter how blind the corner or oncoming the vehicles.

We did and you will see accidents on this road, especially on some of the tightest and steepest bends. We thankfully didn’t see anything too serious, just some scrapes and prangs.

The majority of drivers though were perfectly sensible and we were happy to sit at our own pace and enjoy the ride, rarely needing to overtake or be overtaken – this gives the chance to see the best of the scenes too.

There aren’t a huge number of rest stops on the Chiang Mai to Pai road – a few strawberry farms and restaurants aside – but there is a good one signposted as Deenan Coffee at about halfway or maybe just beyond.

It had become quite evident by this early point that having a car with a fair amount of grunt was a very good thing. Despite every sign indicating a suspiciously uniform gradient of 8%, there are sizable sections of double digit climbing (and descent) that favour the heartier engine.

Having laboured worryingly up some of the steeper parts of the Mae Salong Loop in a 1.2l Vios, The Beast positively gobbled up the hills with ease and made the whole trip a lot more enjoyable.

After a couple of fun hours swooping up and down the mountains, we dropped into the wide valley which was home to our first stop, Pai.



Pai

Barring Chiang Mai, Pai is easily the most lively stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop with the widest choices of almost everything from accommodation to food and activities.

The town itself is compact with most of the bars, restaurants and guesthouses clustered around a couple of main streets.

After a seemingly endless pandemic-driven hiatus it was novel to see the return of backpackers and sunburnt gap year kids trotting around the place. Coupled with a fairly large contingent of westerners who seemed to have come here on holiday 30 years ago and forgotten to leave, Pai ends up with a vibe not dissimilar from Koh Phangan.

Unlike Koh Phangan, it’s bloody freezing (relatively) at this time of year. While day temperatures were in the usual 30s, at night and in the mornings we were hitting 12 degrees. Even the dogs were wrapped up warm. This made an excellent excuse though to sit outside and drink hot coffee, with actual visible steam coming off it, at Khoatha Coffee Roaster a short and pleasant walk from the main action.

While Pai’s strong tourist appeal means you’ll be low on actual Thai stuff, it does leave some good eating and drinking opportunities – we particularly liked the Blue Ox for its bafflingly low-priced but high quality steaks and wine.

There will also always be a place in my heart for the 69 baht banh mi sandwiches being served up at the Banh Banh Pun Pai on the main street – pound for pound possibly the finest sandwich I’ve ever had, and I’ve had more than my share.

The night market was a good attraction to check out too, particularly on the Saturday night. Busy and extensive, we particularly enjoyed the curry puffs sold from a stall near the centre.

But the best bits of Pai probably aren’t found in the middle of town – we had more fun about 15 minutes away at Pai Canyon, a typically under-promoted natural attraction that you would barely know existed from the roadside.

Bringing The Beast to a halt in a dusty car park next to some neglected stalls, a short hop up the steps brought us to another world – all arid canyons and rocky ridges to walk along and sheer-sided drops to hyperventilate over.

Fearfully narrow in patches and with nowt in the way of safety, this is probably not the best place to bring small kids, although there were a few there when we visited.

Much more genteel were the surroundings of 2 Huts Pai out across the valley and up a winding, quiet road just a 10min drive from central Pai.

This was a particularly pleasant spot to stop for a cold drink and to look down over the fields below, the occasional putter of a farm tractor the only real sound on the breeze. This is also a top spot for sunset apparently.

Mae Hong Son Loop Stage 2: Pai to Mae Hong Son (via Ban Ja Bo)

Trucking South out of Pai the next morning, after an unfortunate delay involving all of Frankie’s contact lenses being thrown away by the hotel, we quickly came across more of the dreamy mountain roads that characterise the northern part of the Mae Hong Son Loop.

Better still, there are a number of dedicated viewing areas with dedicated parking and facilities, with ample opportunity to stop, grab a few snaps of the breathtaking surroundings and take on board vital caffeine. At this time of year – from November to perhaps January – the annual burning is yet to truly get underway, so the views are good, the air is fresh and the hills are still green from rainy season. It’s a fabulous time to do the Mae Hong Son Loop.

We had planned to visit the Tham Lod cave en route, but contact lens snafu put paid to that idea. Instead, we turned off the main road at Soppong/Pang Mapha and headed up the stupidly steep and windy road to Ban Ja Bo.

Otherwise a pleasant but nondescript village in the hills, Ban Ja Bo is remarkable for having a noodle and coffee shop perched right on the edge of what is effectively a cliff.

At Ban Ja Bo Hill Noodle, which you cannot miss for the heaving crowds, you can enjoy a good bowl of pork noodle soup and a Thai coffee for just a few baht, and have your feet dangle into thin air while you eat it, gazing in awe at the incredible landscape all around and wondering about the structural soundness of the rickety building.

Ban Ja Bo was a real highlight of our trip and we’d thoroughly recommend it – of you are early birds and can get up there by say 8 or 9am, you’ll also likely see the clouds rise out of the valley. This place really is quite something.

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After Ban Ja Bo it was a relatively easy drop into the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son, with a few more excellent viewpoints. This was the best day on the road, with lots to see and do throughout!

Mae Hong Son

After Pai, Mae Hong Son is sleepy but charming in comparison. Centred around a lake and ringed by mountains in all directions, there are a number of really beautiful temples to see and also some fine food on offer.

Sadly for us the lake had – well – disappeared when we visited, it looked like it was being dredged. But this didn’t detract too much from the quiet charms of Mae Hong Son.

You’re very close to the Burmese border at this point and that’s notable in the design of the temples in town, resplendent in gold.

For food and drink options we liked the relax feel of Coffee Morning, a wood-forward affair close to the centre of town.

In keeping with the fun-yet-relaxed atmosphere of Mae Hong Son, we had an excellent Vietnamese breakfast at Ban Nin Tra on the same street, which was both delicious and arrived in fits and starts over the best part of an hour.

By far the best evening eats we encountered were at Bai Fern restaurant, apparently an institution in Mae Hong Son as it was jam packed when we visited.

Every dish was a smash hit here though, from delectable fried chicken in pandan leaf through to a beautiful pork and aubergine red curry and some Shan dishes heavy on turmeric and general tastiness.

While there’s not much in Mae Hong Son to keep visitors entertained 24/7, there are some great things to see in the surrounding area.

We loved the Bamboo Bridge around 20mins drive from town – it is, as you might imagine, a bridge made of bamboo running over the rice fields to a pretty temple and coffee shop. It’s a simple but effective attraction which shows off Thailand’s natural northern splendour with aplomb.

It’s also free, though there is a donation box that you should probably leave some baht in to keep the thing going.

Carrying on a long, long way up the same road bought us to the spectacular mountain village of Ban Rak Thai, one of the many Yunnanese enclaves dotted around the northern Thai borders and similar in some respects to Mae Salong further east.

Hard up on the Burmese border, it’s quite a stretch to get up to Ban Rak Thai but is worth the journey. Guesthouses, tea shops and plantations spread around a mountain lake, with Yunnanese food aplenty and a large number of tea shops doing free tastings.

We enjoyed some teas which I would describe as ‘very nice’ (tea is not my forte), next to the lake.

Many people were choosing to stay up at Ban Rak Thai, with plenty of guesthouses and campsites available. While we couldn’t find accommodation to book online, this would definitely be a great place to just rock up and find somewhere, and would probably make for an excellent night’s stay.

As it was, we trotted back down the mountain in fading afternoon light – this was the hardest drive of all so that was an experience – before heading on the next morning towards our last major town on the Mae Hong Son Loop, Mae Sariang.

Mae Hong Son Loop Stage 3: Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang

The part of the Mae Hong Son Loop from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang was the longest and dullest drive, with little to note on the way. It starts to feel very remote by this point with little in the way of towns, villages, even traffic, just greenery and the occasional plantation.

We had planned to stop off at Khun Yuam for lunch, but found nothing that looked particularly appetising or worth stopping for.

Instead we found a bit of a gem at the nearby Mae La Luang viewpoint. Hopping out of The Beast we were greeted by a very friendly chap in a Barcelona top who ushered us into his tiny, open roadside restaurant set into the hill – a mini Ban Ja Bo of sorts.

His wife in the kitchen whipped up some excellent smoothies, fried rice and kale with crispy pork while we sat and watched the world go by below and chatted with our host. He was pleased because he’d started to see tourists heading back to the Mae Hong Son Loop in recent weeks, the tentative beginning of a recovery.

On that day it was just us and a couple of bikers from Isaan who ordered their food ‘ped ped’ or ‘please try to kill me with spice’, and boy did chef oblige, all of us coughing from a cloud of chilli smoke that burst from the kitchen. The bikers wolfed if down without so much as a blink.

After a nice stop and chat, we headed the final 50km into Mae Sariang, our final stop before Chiang Mai.

Mae Sariang

Mae Sariang was the sleepiest of the sleepy towns on the Mae Hong Son Loop, with a pretty riverside location and a few good eating options. We stayed for two nights although you would get away with one unless you took on some trekking at the nearby Salawin national park.

In town, the riverside walk is nice for an evening stroll, and to marvel at the sheer lack of upkeep on the riverfront. The rest of town isn’t like this, the fronts of these same buildings are not like this.

Through the day herds of buffalo occasionally lumber into the river for a cool down, which is obviously a lot of fun to witness.

Our first evening at the hotel was immensely livened up by about 40 motorcycle club members doing the Mae Hong Son Loop together and doing their damnedest to drink the hotel out of big Changs and coming very close to achieving that.

Having learned about motorcycle clubs exclusively from Sons of Anarchy I was a little nervous about them ransacking Mae Sariang or forcing the remaining hotel guests to table dance while having small baht coins thrown at us, but in reality they were friendly, cheerful, of a slightly more mature vintage and all tucked up in bed by about 9. I hope they had a nice trip.

Of culinary note in Mae Sariang was Halima Khao Soi, where a bowl of unctuous curry noodles of the highest quality set us back just 40 baht. Halima was extremely popular with locals and justifiably so – even if you only stop by in Mae Sariang make sure you stop in for Khao Soi or biryani. Or both.

Mae Hong Son Loop Stage 4: Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai

The final long drive was back to Chiang Mai – some 3 and a half hours drive from Mae Sariang. The main road passes through Ob Luang national park which would be worth exploring, unfortunately we, er, accidentally missed it. Or you could alternatively extend the trip a bit and head up to Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon.

Without the luxury of time we headed straight back to Chiang Mai, with a little longer we probably would have done Doi Inthanon as well.

Of course, Chiang Mai is well worth at least a couple of days if you’re a first time visitor, maybe more. We spent two days in Chiang Mai just to unwind after a long road trip, even though we’ve visited plenty before. The temples and food alone can keep you occupied for a few days, and we saw an encouraging number of tourists gallivanting around even if it’s still very quiet in late 2021 compared to pre-pandemic.

I’ll leave the Chiang Mai guide to others, but some quick food tips in the old city are Khao Soi Khun Yai (picture below), SP Chicken, Cru Wine Bar, Drop in Restaurant and for a taste of fine dining on a shoestring head for B Samcook Home 16 outside of the old city.

Akha Ama coffee will keep you well stocked in brews too, although you’re spoilt for choice in Chiang Mai.

And so with 723km on our trip clock, quite a distance in 9 days of mainly mountain driving, that was it for the Mae Hong Son Loop for us, and it was back to Bangkok.

We enjoyed this trip a lot. Thai road trips are immense fun in general and the Mae Hong Son Loop is the grandaddy of Thai road trips for a reason. Here are a few tips based on our experiences in late 2021.

Tips for the Mae Hong Son Loop 2021 and beyond

  • Both directions are good for the Mae Hong Son Loop, but we’d probably recommend the opposite to what we did, so heading straight for Mae Sariang. This gets the longer, duller stretches out of the way early
  • One night is long enough for Mae Sariang at present unless you stop to trek at Salawin national park
  • We did the trip in 9 days, probably 12-14 would be better for a full adventure holiday, with stops at Doi Inthanon and some trips out to trek etc plus longer breaks between big drives
  • The winter months are the nicest – dry, green, but cold! Pack warm clothes
  • Don’t overplan – one of the joys of the Mae Hong Son Loop is to stop at places that look interesting and go with the flow. Especially post-pandemic, some of the older guides are no longer up to date, so be prepared to be flexible.

For a shorter loop in less time, check out the Mae Salong Loop.

Happy travels on the Mae Hong Son Loop – it’s an unforgettable experience that’s unlike most anything we’ve experienced in Thailand. Take your time to enjoy it and you’ll be rewarded with a huge range of sights, food and experiences on this stellar road trip.



5 thoughts on “The Mae Hong Son Loop by car: cool times in the northern Thai mountains”

  1. The drive from Mae Sariang to Hod on the way back to Chiang Mai is beautiful,and if you have a couple extra days take the turn off to Omkoi and discover Northern Thailand’s best kept secret.

    Reply

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