Motorcycle enthusiasts who plan on visiting Northern Thailand should definitely have the Mae Hong Son Loop on their bucket list. This roughly 600 km loop starting and finishing in Chiang Mai boasts breathtaking mountain passes, exhilarating hairpin turns and serene straight runs. In general, the roads are in fantastic condition and the riding is safe – making it an awesome journey for solos, couples, friends and even families.
I just completed this trip with my partner and parents on two 300cc auto motorcycles (rented out of Chiang Mai), but of course serious bikers might want to hire something with a little more grunt to conquer the twists and turns with greater ease. We decided to take the anticlockwise route and booked four nights’ accommodation in advance – two nights in Pai, one night just out of Mae Hong Son City and another night in Mae Chaem.
Since we didn’t have time to do the full loop, we turned off at Khun Yaem on the 1263 route on our way to Mae Chaem. This made the trip shorter but no less exciting. We were truly off-the-beaten-path on our way to Mae Chaem, located close to Doi Inthanon. I recommend taking this turn off if you can only allocate three or four nights for the Mae Hong Son Loop. The villages we passed on this section oozed charm and the views were epic.
That day was only surpassed by the 1095 route (the stretch of road on the turn off to Pai from Chiang Mai) where over 700 bends really challenged our riding abilities. The curves were tight and the traffic we encountered up to the mountain lookout at the top meant we had to stay super focused. Trucks took up both lanes when turning, and bikes and cars jostled for space. Once we descended down to Pai though the riding was magical.
The traffic disappeared and we cruised along a series of leisurely roads shaded by canopies of trees. It was like skiing on powder as opposed to ice. We could see paddy fields and rivers nestled in the Pai valley. Even my dad who has ridden Harley’s on Route 66 said it was some of the best riding he has ever done. We arrived in Pai full of adrenaline. That was a moment I will never forget – one of many on this extraordinary motorbike trip.
Best Routes on the Mae Hong Son Loop
Most travelers head clockwise on the Mae Hong Son Loop, finishing with a bang in Pai before heading back to their starting point in Chiang Mai. There are various detours you can take on the main 108 route such as visiting Doi Inthanon and stopping by the Chinese/Thai village of Ban Rak Thai. These are two popular places to visit that aren’t technically on the loop. Hidden villages and waterfalls can also be found by taking small detours.
Three or four nights would be the bare minimum for the Mae Hong Son Loop but it could extend out to as long as seven nights. The great thing about this bike adventure is that you can customize it to suit your preferences. There is no right or wrong way to experience the loop. Another key thing to remember is that the highlight of each day is the riding itself. So don’t worry if you don’t include every possible stop-off on your itinerary.
Leave room for spontaneous moments like pulling up to a roadside restaurant for a plate of delicious pad kra pao (stir-fry basil with pork) or an unmarked lookout point with sweeping views over a village. The main things to organize before you go are the bike rentals and accommodation. Knowing you have a place to rest your head every night gives you peace of mind, as some areas are remote and have limited availability.
I thoroughly enjoyed doing the Mae Hong Son Loop in an anticlockwise fashion. Having two nights in Pai was also amazing because it’s a major attraction in its own right. We started our trip on a real high and the high never went away. Cutting across the loop on the 1263 route back to Chiang Mai was a pleasant surprise too. We barely saw another tourist on these backroads and the locals seemed to warm to us, which was nice.
In short, the best itinerary for the Mae Hong Son Loop is up to you. You might want to begin with a “baptism of fire” through the traffic of Chiang Mai and up to the mountain lookout on the 1095 route, before cruising down to Pai. Or you could end in Pai with an extended stay of three nights. Whichever way you choose, be sure to pay a visit to Ban Rak Thai for lovely lakeside views and to admire traditional Yunnanese architecture.
Where to Stay on the Mae Hong Son Loop
I used booking.com to find accommodation on the Mae Hong Son Loop and managed to find a couple of gems. Some were cheap stays while others were a little more expensive but worth it for the comfy beds. In Chiang Mai we stayed at a cozy guesthouse called Sabuy Chiang Mai. For about 800 Baht ($25 USD) a night per room, we booked ourselves private rooms. The owner also happily looked after our bags while we did the loop.
We left Chiang Mai with a little day-bag packed with only the essentials, and returned with our belongings safe and sound. The location of Sabuy Chiang Mai is ideal – within walking distance to bustling markets, cool cafes and majestic temples. It’s a good idea to give yourself at least two nights either side of the Mae Hong Son Loop to enjoy all that Chiang Mai has to offer and to rest after finishing. All in all, we had a superb stay at Sabuy.
Then in Pai we booked Pai Smile House. They have these beautiful huts and gardens located only a stone’s throw away from Pai Walking Street (where all the action is). We enjoyed relaxing on the hammocks outside our huts, and the breakfast consisting of omelets and fruit. Pai is one of those places where you could spend weeks on end soaking up the tranquil surroundings and hip vibe – and no doubt plenty of foreigners do that.
My original plan was to spend a night in Ban Rak Thai but months prior to the trip (when I was in full planning mode) the accommodation was all booked. For this reason, I booked a place 30 km outside of the village called Sang Poy Cottage. This turned out to be a great find. Sang Poy offers a little slice of luxury on your motorbike journey. The views from the restaurant are stunning. We had a few drinks while the sun set over workers in the field.
Our final night was at Ban Rai Jai Chaem. The ride there was wonderful but as we drove to the outskirts of town, we realized we were staying in the countryside. That night we woke up at 5 am to birds, cats, cows, roosters and more creating a cacophony of sound. At first it was annoying as we lost a few hours of sleep. Soon after though, all of us burst out laughing. I had never heard so many animals making noise at the same time!
Highlights of the Mae Hong Son Loop
For me, the highlight of the Mae Hong Son Loop was the motorbike riding. Each day was a new adventure as we weaved our way up and down hills, cranked up the speed on the occasional straight, and saw locals go about their daily lives in the villages. We kept each day of riding short and sweet because the roads tire you – our longest distance in a day was 170 km. Most days involved three or four hours of riding (not including stops).
In terms of towns, my favorite was Pai. On our one free day there I thought it would be a good idea to stretch the legs and explore the jungle. We found the Mae Yen Waterfall online and gave it a shot. We were hoping for a four hour hike (two hours each way) and to go swimming at the waterfall. After two hours of trekking, we only managed to get two thirds of the way there and had another hour to go. So we turned around and came back.
The trek follows a river and you need to get your feet wet by crossing the river dozens of times. Don’t get me wrong, the jungle is impressive but a lot of the info online is flat out wrong. If you decide to do it, I suggest planning for a full day instead of a half day. That was the main activity we did in Pai and in hindsight I wished we had gone to Pai Canyon or the Bamboo Bridge. Nevertheless, this just gives me an excuse to return to Pai one day.
During our two nights in Pai we would walk over this bamboo bridge to the start of Walking Street and get massages, eat burgers, try the street food, have a drink or two and take photos. That stretch from Pai Smile House to the beginning of Walking Street was delightful. It got busy the further you ventured down Walking Street, so we preferred to stay in our little comfort zone. Pai has a phenomenal energy to it. I’m sure you will love it.
I also had high hopes for Ban Rak Thai and it didn’t disappoint. The 45 minute detour along the 4001 route is worth the effort. The road narrows and gets perilous in parts but it’s nothing an experienced motorcyclist can’t handle. We set aside an afternoon to explore the village. This included lunch, taking photos of the architecture and walking around the lake. It’s hard to secure a hotel here, yet I think a morning or afternoon is enough.
What you Need to Know Before you Go
Chiang Mai has endless options for hiring motorbikes and we even saw people doing the road to Pai on 150cc scooters. In my opinion, you need at least 300cc to remain comfortable throughout the trip – especially if you have someone on the back. We rented bikes from Toon’s and they were perfect. Just make sure your rental company offers insurance because in our search for bikes we came across companies that didn’t offer insurance.
It’s also common practice among travelers to take videos of the bikes prior to going on the Mae Hong Son Loop, just to ensure the company doesn’t unfairly try to claim you damaged the bike upon its return. We read several negative reviews online that warned about that. You do need to have an International Motorbike License to ride legally in Thailand but none of the rental companies ask you for a license – just a deposit to secure the bike.
If you get caught by the police without a license, the most likely outcome is that you will need to pay an on-the-spot fine. It’s your call whether you want to risk it or not. One thing that took me by surprise on the Mae Hong Son Loop was the condition of the roads. They are in tip-top condition and make riding a breeze. You shouldn’t have any safety concerns in regards to the roads. Just ride carefully and make sure you keep left on highways.
Another tip is to pick a suitable time of year to go. I went in December which provided clear skies, as the farmers don’t start their burnings until February. If you go in between February and April you run the risk of having your views interrupted by haze and smog. As well as not being visually very appealing, the smoke can be hazardous to your health. We enjoyed sunny weather most of the time apart from when we rode up to Doi Inthanon.
Here we were greeted by fog and a decrease in temperature. If you want to visit Doi Inthanon, I suggest packing a thick jumper or puffer to keep you warm. Last but not least, when in Mae Hong Son City, swing by Padonc Shop and pick up a couple of t-shirts. They have designs and sizes for both men and women. If you arrive in Mae Hong Son City early in the morning, like we did, just give the owner a call – he will open up exclusively for you.