The Mae Hong Son Loop: A Visual Guidebook

The Mae Hong Son Loop; Monks walking down a rural mountain road
Travel Rating:9.2

This iconic loop, totaling 1,800+ curves, winds through mist-shrouded mountains, quaint villages, and lush landscapes, offering an immersive experience into the region’s pristine wilderness. As you navigate this serpentine road, each curve reveals a new facet of Mae Hong Son’s untamed allure. 

Memorability: 10.0
Landscapes: 9.0
Activities: 9.5
Value: 8.0
X Factor: 9.5

Transportation: Motorbike or car

Total Distance: 600 – 800 kilometers

Time Needed: 3 – 8 days

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Table Of Contents
Day 1: Mae Hong Son Loop

Doi Inthanon, Chiang Mai

Embarking on the Mae Hong Son Loop is a journey that begins in the breathtaking Doi Inthanon National Park, often referred to as the “Roof of Thailand.” 

As dawn breaks over the mist-covered peaks of Doi Inthanon, the starting point of this iconic loop comes alive with a palette of hues painting the sky. The serene and mystical atmosphere sets the stage for an unforgettable adventure. Imagine standing atop the highest point in Thailand, surrounded by verdant landscapes and the crisp mountain air, witnessing a sunrise that bathes the valley below in a warm golden light.

One of the must-experience activities at Doi Inthanon is hiking through the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail. This trail is a visual feast, winding through lush forests and offering panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains. 

At the trailhead, you’ll need to hire a local Hmong guide for just 200 baht (for groups of up to 10 people). These experienced guides provide insights into the trail’s rich ecosystem, pointing out unique flora and fauna. The fee not only ensures a safe and enriched hiking experience but also supports the local Hmong community. 

As you navigate the trail, the interplay of light and shadow creates a mesmerizing spectacle, highlighting the diverse flora and fauna that call Doi Inthanon home. It’s an immersive experience that provides a deep connection with nature and a perfect precursor to the scenic adventure that awaits you, along the loop.

Day 2: Mae Hong Son Loop

Mueang Mae Sariang

The second stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop brings you to the laid-back town of Mae Sariang, offering a welcome contrast to the high-altitude adventure at Doi Inthanon. In Mae Sariang, the pace of life slows down, making it an ideal spot to unwind. While the town doesn’t boast an array of activities, its simplicity will invite you to relax and enjoy a break from the road.

A visit to the morning market, open from 5:30 am to 8:00 am, is something we highly recommended. Here, you can experience the friendly local vibe and grab some fresh produce. 

In our humble opinion, Mae Sariang is all about taking it easy. The simplicity and charm of this town make it an authentic and unassuming retreat, providing a refreshing pause during your exploration of the loop.

As you bid farewell to Mae Sariang, you can extend your journey to explore the unique attractions nearby. Consider visiting the jewellery silversmith village of Ban La Up, a small and remote community belonging to the Lawa hill tribe. Here, you can witness the intricate craftsmanship of local artisans as they create exquisite silver jewelry, offering a glimpse into the traditional techniques passed down through generations.

Alternatively, if you’re driving the loop in November, don’t miss the chance to marvel at the breathtaking Bua Tong Field.

During this time, the hills come alive with the vibrant bloom of wild sunflowers, creating a picturesque landscape that’s truly a sight to behold.

Day 3: Mae Hong Son Loop

Mueang Mae Hong Son

Upon your evening arrival in Mueang Mae Hong Son, marking the third stop on the loop, a blend of cultural richness and natural beauty awaits. While your time might be limited here, we recommend savoring the unique flavors of the region at Bai Fern, where the Burmese, Shan-style dishes (specifically the curries and dips) offer a tantalizing gastronomic experience. 

If time allows, a visit to Wat Phra That Doi Kongmu during sunset is also worth the short drive from town, as it provides a serene and visually stunning way to conclude your day.

The following morning, venture into the unspoiled Karen village of Huay Pu Keng, which is home to warm and welcoming longneck women. Dispel any preconceived notions about this village being a tourist trap; as ii is an opportunity to engage with a genuinely authentic community. 

The longneck women, known for the brass coil rings adorning their necks, provide a captivating glimpse into their unique lifestyle. These women, known for their artisanal skills and colorful attire, carry on a tradition that extends beyond mere aesthetics.

The brass coil rings, worn from an early age, are an integral part of Karen culture. Contrary to common misconceptions, these rings do not actually elongate the neck; rather, they compress the collarbone and upper ribs, giving the illusion of a longer neck. The longneck women take immense pride in this tradition, considering it a symbol of beauty and cultural identity. The intricate designs and patterns of the rings signify different stages in a woman’s life, and the process of adding coils is a rite of passage.

Engaging with the longneck women provides an opportunity to understand their rich cultural heritage, the significance of the brass coil rings, and the challenges they face in preserving their traditions. It’s an authentic and meaningful experience that transcends the typical tourist encounters, offering a deeper appreciation for the diversity and resilience of Mae Hong Son’s indigenous communities.

Before leaving Huay Pu Keng, consider purchasing some of the handcrafted wood items that were meticulously carved by the men (local artisans) of the village.

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Day 4: Mae Hong Son Loop

Ban Rak Thai, Mae Hong Son

As you reach the fourth stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop, Ban Rak Thai is an enchanting destination that deserves more than just a passing glance. Though it may be tempting to skip an overnight stay, we strongly recommend immersing yourself in the charm of this Yunnanese-style village, unlike anything else you’ll find in Thailand. 

The architectural landscape of Ban Rak Thai mirrors Yunnanese influences, featuring distinctive shrines and structures that transport you to a cultural enclave within the loop.

For an unforgettable evening, head to Lee Wine Ruk Thai, where you can savor a mouth-watering dinner and witness the mesmerizing sunset over the village’s central lake.

The restaurant specializes in Yunnanese fare, offering dishes like ginseng chicken soup and mantou, a type of Chinese steamed bun that has a fluffy texture. Also, don’t miss out on the opportunity to indulge in a bottle of locally-produced strawberry wine – trust us, it’ll pair perfectly with your dinner meal. 

Come morning, head back towards the village’s lake to witness a stunning sunrise. To make the experience even more memorable, opt for a ride on a Chinese-style rowboat, a journey that departs from the dock at Lee Wine Coffee shop.

The rhythmic paddling and the gentle swaying of the rowboat is nothing short of divine.

As you bid farewell to the charm of Ban Rak Thai, consider making a brief stop at Tham Pla-Pha Suea National Park. Here, you can experience the fish cave, known as Tham Pla, where a congregation of fresh-water carp dwells. These black-scaled, sizable fish, considered sacred by many, peacefully coexist in shoals, gracefully swimming together with the current. 

Visitors, both locals and tourists alike, often engage with these revered fish, feeding them vegetables or fruits throughout the year.

Further down the road, a stop at the Ban Luk Khao Lam View Point offers not only a scenic panorama but also an opportunity to support local hill tribes. Vendors from these tribes sell a variety of quick bites, including raw wild honey, grilled potatoes or corn, and fresh highland fruit. This stop not only provides a delightful break to savor local flavors but also allows you to contribute to the livelihoods of the indigenous communities along the loop.

Day 5: Mae Hong Son Loop

Pang Mapha, Mae Hong Son

The fifth stop along the Mae Hong Son Loop unveils the hidden gem of Pang Mapha, a destination boasting some of the most dramatic limestone karst formations in northern Thailand. The district of Pang Mapha provides a choice between immersing yourself in the cultural amenities of Ban Jabo, which is home to the Black Lahu ribe, or indulging in the serenity of a glamping resort set amidst nature’s splendor.

Opting for a stay in Ban Jabo allows you to experience the authentic hospitality of the Black Lahu community. This hill tribe, known for their distinct customs and vibrant attire, provides a unique cultural encounter. Even if you decide not to stay in Ban Jabo, a visit to the village’s infamous noodle shop is a must. Here, you can devour a bowl of soup while relishing one of the most breathtaking views in Mae Hong Son.

Alternatively, a stay at a glamping resort in Pang Mapha offers an unparalleled experience.

Witnessing dramatic sunsets over the karst mountains as farmers diligently harvest their rice paddies is a privilege reserved for those staying in this rural setting.

The place seems to comes alive with the rhythmic choreography of farmers diligently tending to their harvest, sickles in hand and warm smiles on their faces. 

As the morning unfolds, the mist, ethereal and delicate, transforms the landscape into a dream-like state where the towering limestone formations are shrouded in an atmospheric veil.

The mist, like a poetic artist’s brushstroke, blurs the sharp edges of the karst mountains, imbuing the scene with an air of mystery and quietude.

The landscape becomes a canvas of subtle contrasts, with the mist playing a central role in weaving together the elements of nature. Within this mist-kissed expanse, wildflowers punctuate the scene with their vibrant hues as leaves adorned with dewdrops glisten in the background.

Farmers begin their day early in Pang Mapha, diligently working on their daily tasks. Amidst their laborious efforts, the interplay of the mist and the emerging sunlight adds an element of stillness to the rural landscape, as a soft glow casts itself over the agricultural fields.

A leisurely morning stroll through the area’s rural farmland reveals a ruggedly beautiful landscape, where dirt roads wind through the undulating terrain, revealing the untamed beauty of the province.

Even locals line the roads in the early hours of the morning, participating in the time-honored tradition of offering alms to monks. This centuries-old practice, deeply rooted in Buddhist culture, unfolds as a procession of saffron-robed monks move gracefully through the village. The locals, with hands clasped in reverence, present offerings of food, symbolizing a communal expression of generosity and spiritual devotion.

Day 6: Mae Hong Son Loop

Pai Town, Mae Hong Son

The sixth stop along the Mae Hong Son Loop brings you to Pai, often regarded as the hippy town of the north. While Pai may not offer an extensive array of activities for those not inclined towards camping or jungle raves where copious amounts of Psilocybin-infused shakes are consumed, it stands out as a convenient pitstop along the loop. 

In Pai, modern conveniences are easily accessible, making it a practical pause for travelers. There’s no need to spend a night here, but if you have the time, we recommend doing so.

One noteworthy attraction in Pai is its Walking Street, which is essentially a large night market where you can immerse yourself in a kaleidoscope of colors, aromas, and sounds. Vendors showcase an array of handmade crafts, local delicacies, and unique souvenirs. The atmosphere is animated, with street performers and musicians contributing to the town’s bohemian vibe.

Day 7: Mae Hong Son Loop

Mae Rim, Chiang Mai

The seventh and terminal stop along the Mae Hong Son Loop is Mae Rim, one of Chiang Mai’s most beautiful districts. This mountainous locale offers another glamping experience where tented accommodations provide unobstructed views of a valley enveloped by rolling hills. 

One of the highlights here is the experience of enjoying Mu Kratha from the balcony of your room. This communal hot pot dining involves a cleverly designed grill that combines a barbecue with a soup pot. Thinly sliced meat is grilled on the dome-shaped top, while a flavorful broth simmers below, infused with vegetables and seafood.

As the day unfolds into evening, the sunsets in Mae Rim take center stage, painting the sky with vivid and dramatic hues of fiery red.

In the mornings, accommodations offer the comforting warmth of Khao Tom, a traditional Thai rice soup. This nourishing bowl, enriched with flavorful herbs, becomes a soothing start to the day. As you savor your soup, the valley’s cool breeze and light mist gradually give way to the gentle touch of the rising sun, revealing the intricate patterns of the rolling hills below.

Mae Rim’s mornings are a visual symphony of beauty, inviting you to savor the tranquility and natural splendor that defines this idyllic district.

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Mae Hong Son Loop Vehicle

How To Drive The Loop

The Mae Hong Son Loop is a journey best initiated by renting a vehicle in Chiang Mai. While the loop can be navigated with either a car or a motorbike, the latter offers a more flexible experience. When opting for a motorbike rental, it’s advisable to choose models with a minimum engine capacity of 160cc, given the challenging mountainous terrain that characterizes the loop. Excellent choices include the Honda Click 160 or PCX, both renowned for their reliability and performance.

Although these bikes may incur a higher rental cost compared to smaller scooters, the investment will prove to be worthwhile. The enhanced engine power becomes indispensable when overtaking slow-moving vehicles or conquering steep hills, ensuring a smoother and more efficient journey. Additionally, bikes like the Click and PCX boast superior braking systems and more comfortable seats, contributing to a safer and more enjoyable riding experience throughout the loop.

Typically, the rental cost for these bikes starts at 400-500 baht per day.

Mae Hong Son Loop Weather

When To Drive The Loop

The best time to drive the Mae Hong Son Loop is during the cool, dry season, which typically spans from November to February. This period offers favorable weather conditions with milder temperatures and minimal rainfall, providing an ideal climate for exploring the loop’s scenic routes and mountainous landscapes. The months of December and January are particularly popular, as the weather is cooler and the skies are clear.

During the cool season, you can expect daytime temperatures ranging from comfortable to slightly chilly, making the journey more enjoyable, especially when riding through elevated regions. The absence of heavy rainfall reduces the likelihood of encountering slippery or muddy road conditions, ensuring safer travel.

In general, it’s recommend to avoid the peak of rainy season (from August to October) as heavy rains can lead to challenging road conditions, landslides, and reduced visibility. 

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Mae Hong Son Loop Route

Alternate Starting Point

If you’re beginning your road trip from Bangkok with your own vehicle, Tak emerges as a strategic and picturesque halfway point between the capital and the majestic Doi Inthanon. For a well-balanced journey, we highly recommend an overnight stay in the border town of Mae Sot, offering not only a comfortable break but also unique experiences.

Mae Sot is home to the breathtaking beauty of Namtok Pha Charoen, a cascading waterfall that adds a touch of natural splendor to your travels. The rhythmic sounds of flowing water and the lush greenery surrounding the falls provides a refreshing respite during your journey.

The town is also home to the Shan-style temple of Wat Thai Wattanaram, a notable cultural gem that reflects the distinctive architectural influences of the Thai Yai ethnic group from Burma. Additionally, no visit to Mae Sot is complete without indulging in the culinary delights of Roti Ong. This traditional shop house has gained acclaim for serving the best roti in Thailand.

Mae Hong Son Loop Guide

Actionable Information

The Mae Hong Son Loop is approximately 600 to 800 kilometers, depending on the specific route taken and any side trips or detours along the way. The loop generally starts and ends in Chiang Mai, leading travelers through a scenic and winding route that passes through towns and attractions such as Pai, Mae Hong Son, and Doi Inthanon. 

The duration to ride the Mae Hong Son Loop can vary based on your travel pace, the number of stops you plan to make, and the mode of transportation. Generally, most travelers take around 5 to 7 days to complete the loop, providing a comfortable balance between exploration and relaxation. However, it’s possible to condense or extend the journey based on individual preferences. Here’s a rough breakdown:

3-4 Days: A condensed itinerary for those with limited time. This may involve longer driving hours and fewer extended stops.

5-7 Days: A well-balanced itinerary that allows for a more leisurely exploration of the loop. This duration provides time to fully appreciate the scenic beauty, cultural attractions, and natural wonders along the way.

8 Days or More: For a more relaxed and immersive experience, allowing extra time for extended stays in certain towns, additional detours, or side trips to less-traveled areas.

Keep in mind that the Mae Hong Son Loop offers a diverse range of attractions, and spending more time allows for a deeper exploration of each destination. 

You can certainly experience the Mae Hong Son Loop without a motorbike. We’ve completed the loop twice with a car and have met people who completed it on bicycles.

A car will provide a comfortable and convenient option, allowing you to enjoy the stunning landscapes and cultural attractions along the way while having the added benefits of more storage space and shelter. It’s a great choice for those who prefer a leisurely road trip with the freedom to explore at their own pace.

Even cyclists will find the Mae Hong Son Loop to be an adventurous and rewarding challenge. While it requires physical stamina, the slower pace on a bicycle allows for a more intimate connection with the surroundings. Cyclists often appreciate the ability to stop frequently, interact with locals, and soak in the details of the picturesque landscapes.

The direction for the Mae Hong Son Loop is often considered a matter of personal preference, and both clockwise and counterclockwise routes have their merits. However, we suggest taking the loop in a clockwise direction for several reasons:

Better Views: Going clockwise allows you to be on the side of the road with better views. As the roads generally hug the mountainsides, being on the right side of the road (clockwise) provides better sightlines to the stunning scenery.

Easier Turns: The loop includes numerous sharp turns and hairpin bends. Going clockwise often means making right turns, which can be more manageable than left turns in traffic, especially for those driving cars or larger vehicles.

Avoiding Traffic: Some argue that going clockwise can help you avoid the bulk of traffic, especially in popular tourist spots. This is because many travelers opt for counterclockwise routes.

Sun Position: In the mornings, the sun is typically at your back when going clockwise, providing better visibility on the road.

While these considerations may influence the choice of direction, it ultimately depends on individual preferences and the specific experiences you seek. Both directions offer breathtaking views and unique encounters along the way, ensuring a memorable journey through the loop.

Yes, there are gas stations along the Mae Hong Son Loop, although there are some rural stretches where there are no stations to be found. Below is some of our insider information regarding fuel options and some considerations for travelers:

Opt for PTT and PT Stations: These are major gas station chains in Thailand and are commonly found along the Mae Hong Son Loop, primarily in small towns. They offer a variety of fuel options, including gasohol 91, 95, and diesel. 

Local Pumps: While there are some small, local pumps available, it’s advised to exercise caution. Prices at these pumps are inflated, and the quality of fuel is a concern (they mix in extra amounts of water and ethanol). We highly recommended sticking to major chains like PTT and PT for a relatively reliable and standardized fueling experience.

Communication Tip: Communicating your fuel needs can be challenging since English is not widely spoken. When at gas stations, point to the sign of the fuel you want and say “thom tank khrab” (for male speakers) or “thom tank kha” (for female speakers). This is a straightforward way to say “fill up the tank.”

 

Absolutely, the Mae Hong Son Loop is unequivocally worth it. Having driven it twice and eagerly anticipating another journey speaks volumes about its enduring charm. This scenic route encapsulates the essence of Northern Thailand, weaving through picturesque landscapes, charming villages, and culturally rich towns.

The Mae Hong Son Loop is not just a road trip; it’s an experience that unveils the heart and soul of the region. From the winding roads of Doi Inthanon to the tranquil beauty of Pai and the cultural gems of Mae Hong Son, each twist and turn brings new discoveries and breathtaking vistas. The loop seamlessly blends natural wonders with cultural treasures, offering a diverse tapestry of experiences.

The allure lies not only in the destination but in the journey itself. Navigating the loop by car or motorbike allows you to embrace the freedom of the open road, explore hidden gems, and connect with the authenticity of Northern Thai life. It’s a venture that transcends the ordinary, creating memories etched against the backdrop of mist-shrouded mountains, vibrant markets, and warm encounters with local communities.

The safety of the Mae Hong Son Loop depends on various factors, and it’s essential to consider both road conditions and driving practices.

Road Conditions: The roads along the Mae Hong Son Loop can be winding, steep, narrow and sometimes filled with potholes. While they offer breathtaking views, it’s important to drive cautiously, especially in areas with challenging terrain. Keep an eye out for road signs, be aware of local traffic rules, and exercise caution on curves and hills.

Vehicular Precautions: Whether you’re driving a car, motorbike, or cycling, ensure that your mode of transportation is in good condition. Regular maintenance checks and adhering to safety guidelines can help reduce the risk of vehicular accidents.

Driving Practices: Exercise defensive driving and be mindful of local driving habits. Pay attention to road conditions, especially during adverse weather. The loop’s popularity means that there can be increased traffic, particularly during peak seasons, so remain vigilant and patient.

Personal Safety: In terms of personal safety from people, the route is generally considered safe for tourists. However, it’s advisable to take standard travel precautions, such as safeguarding your belongings and being aware of your surroundings.

Preparation: Before embarking on the Mae Hong Son Loop, ensure that you are adequately prepared. Familiarize yourself with the route, carry a map or GPS device, and inform someone about your travel plans. Have emergency contact information readily available.

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Alan & May

Welcome to North of Known! We’re Alan and May, a married couple who have embraced digital nomadism while calling Bangkok, Thailand, our current home base. Over the past 7 years, our shared passion for exploration and adventure has fueled our journey across the globe. Join us as we continue to embark on our nomadic adventures, sharing our insights, discoveries, and travel tales along the way.

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