Mae Hong Son loop for complete Beginners (NeedForNoSpeed Edition)

Or How I went from “I drove a motorbike only three times” to “I completed the Mae Hong Son Loop in North Thailand.

DO IT. If you are trying to find all the reasons not to do it but your heart is already on the road and your mind is imagining all the beautiful landscapes and people you might meet along the way – don’t think twice. Just DO IT. The Loop is a complete paradise for adventurers or those who like to be challenged big time (aka Me & my partner in crime – Melissa)

We met briefly on her first day in Chiang Mai when she checked in the hostel I just checked out from. We exchanged contacts and went on our separate ways for about ten days. Ten days while I was dreaming to do the loop, waiting for a travel friend to join me so we can do it together. You probably guessed it by now – the friend backed down and I found myself a little disoriented and uncertain of what to do next (the “expected” unexpected side of travel). One thing was sure though- I absolutely didn’t want to take a bus to Pai. There was plenty of time on my hands, my sense of adventure was (almost) intact, and just a day before I was talking about getting out of my comfort zone. Mae Hong Son loop was everything I was searching for in terms of a good challenge but now I was faced with the decision of doing it solo.

In that moment I remembered Melissa expressed her interest of potentially joining me, so I sent a message that went like this:

  • Hey, I’m planning to do the Mae Hong Son loop tomorrow, want to join?
  • Tomorrow?
  • Yes!
  • Do you have an international drivers license?
  • Nope.
  • I’ll get back to you in an hour but I think YES!!

And Yes it was. A little over 24 hours later we were on our bikes cruising on a highway, breaking through our fears and comfort zones to achieve something we thought we couldn’t achieve.

Melissa and I with Jimmy and Purple Issa (Melissa doesn’t know I named my bike after her!)

The morning of our departure wasn’t as smooth as expected. The uncertainty and fear of such a long road ahead of us almost made us both back down. I was having a hard time renting a scooter I felt comfortable with and let’s not forget the fact that we had “I drove a scooter only three times” experience. Another traveler mentioned that “If” we completed this journey, we can virtually drive perfectly on any roads in the world.

If.

International Drivers License? Will get to that later.

What followed after we finally found ourselves on the road was 190km of absolutely amazing paved roads – going on the loop counter – clockwise, so we could build endurance and experience driving for the more difficult roads towards the end of the loop.

First stop was Mae Sariang, where we stayed overnight and where we visited a beautiful temple on top of a hill. We came early in the morning and had the whole place for ourselves. For such a big temple, it was a pleasant surprise to be able to explore in peace and quiet (and freee!)

From there we went an extra 163km to the second big city on the road – Mae Hong Son. Here we stopped for 2 days for sightseeing and for a visit to the Long Neck Karen Village. After another overnight stop in Ban Jabo – the Hilltribe we fell in love with (see previous posts), we went a further 80km to reach Pai.

Welcome to Pai

Pai is a strange place. Seemingly small, with only a main street and heavily oriented towards the backpackers scene, it’s by far one of my favourite places in Thailand. Is it the breathtaking landscape, the nightly street market, the relaxing atmosphere or the music that you hear at every corner? It’s a place where people come and don’t want to leave. We originally planned for a 3-4 days stay and where there for 6.

Sunset at the Pai Canyon

The trip back to Chiang Mai was pure adventure. We went through 726 curves that seemed to be taken straight out of a NeedForSpeed game. I’m pretty sure my bike handles where feeling strangled most of the time and I was just wishing to make it back safe and sound (we made it!)

Almost.

With only 1 minute to go, the breaths of relief flowing through our chest and the scooter rental where we had to drop our bikes just around the corner, the Thai police stops us. Not only us but every foreigner driving a scooter that they could lay eyes on. Somehow we managed to talk them out to let us go and still in a state of shock we drove the last minute and dropped our bikes at the shop. That’s where we realize how much a minute can change everything around us.

We made it!!

Things to consider:

  • Get a face mask or make one out of a scarf. Don’t underestimate the amount of dirt and dust that will want to know you up close and personal.
  • Don’t book accommodation in advance. Walking into the local guesthouses on the spot (especially the ones that don’t have an online profile or if you arrive after sunset) will give you a better deal when you show up in person.
  • Don’t stress out if sunset catches up with you on the road. 3h by car on any maps means 5-6h by motorbike for beginners (if you’re driving like a grandma like us – better safe than sorry:)
  • Celebrate every little milestone. Expect the Unexpected. If you’re getting off the beaten path things can happen. Scratches, broken mirrors, crazy experiences- that’s what this trip left me with and I enjoyed (almost) every moment of it as it taught me a lot of things.
  • Expect to be stopped by police as Thai people love using “farangs” as ATM’s. If we would all stop renting and driving bikes, their businesses will definitely feel a plunge in the finance department. Just drive safe and don’t rush which brings me to…
  • You’re not sharing the road with grandmas even if you’re driving like one. There will be cars passing in your lane, cars overtaking you at curves, drivers that speed and the ones that make you feel uneasy when they get stuck behind you (assuming you’re driving slow). Don’t give in and maintain your pace. Remember, you’d rather arrive late and unscathed than early and in a hospital or even worse.
  • Enjoy the drive. Plug in your earbuds and let yourself cruise against the wind. Sing your heart out and pay attention to your surroundings. It’s a liberating feeling.

After 600km and 1,864 head – spinning curves, after going through heat and cold in a matter of minutes and stumbling in a couple of hiccups along the way, I can say the Mae Hong Son loop has been one of the highlights of my time in Thailand and an experience I will talk about for the rest of my life. Getting out of my Comfort Zone, Challenge, Adventure? You choose it. Unforgettable memories are made at the end of our comfort zones.

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