The cool mountain breeze was laced with the scent of pine trees. At the water’s edge, campers played music, pitched tents and put up deck chairs as black swans glided past. Somehow, we’d stumbled upon a slice of European summer during a Christmas break in Northern Thailand. Our road trip around the Mae Hong Son loop was full of surprises like this, from monks controlling drones to selfies with policemen and the twistiest roads we’ve ever navigated.
The Mae Hong Son loop tour
Our Christmas gift to ourselves this year was a mini road trip in Thailand. The plan was to tackle the Mae Hong Son loop by car, a 600km stretch of road that winds through the most mountainous province in the country. Mae Hong Son province lies on the Burmese border and is covered with thick jungle, waterfalls, hot springs and towering mountain ranges. The landscape is dotted with towns and tiny villages which are home to highland communities, often referred to as hill tribes. These include the Hmong, Karen and Shan groups whose ancestors hailed from Burma and China; each community has its own unique culture, language and history.
A typical Mae Hong Son loop itinerary takes you on highway 108 from Chiang Mai to sleepy Mae Sariang and onwards to Mae Hong Son town. From there, follow the 1095 to the hippy mecca Pai back to Chiang Mai. If time is on your side, detour off the main loop to discover ornate temples, vast lakes, mud spas, fields of wild flowers, panoramic viewpoints and caves. Popular stops include Salawin National Park, Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon, and Huai Nam Dang National Park.
Mae Hong Son loop map
Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son
On Boxing Day we gratefully folded our laptops away, picked up a rental car and drove from our home in Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang. The journey was slow-going along boring flat highway until the last stretch, which wound through green forest-lined roads speckled with late-afternoon sunlight. Darkness fell as we arrived in Mae Sariang and we wandered an eerily-quiet stretch of shops, houses and restaurants along the river bank searching for Pad Thai before collapsing, road-weary, into bed.
The next day dawned bright and we drove to a road-side coffee shop in . As we sipped potent coffee overlooking a valley carpeted with rice fields and surrounded by furry peaks, two police men in tight, army-green uniforms approached us. “Where are you from,” one asked with a broad smile, as Andrew and I exchanged wary looks. “I’m a police officer, I catch the bad guys,” he explained with another striking grin before whipping out his phone and asking: “Can I take a photo with you?” Bemused by this unexpected encounter, we continued our journey along spiralling roads to Mae Hong Son.
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Arriving in Mae Hong Son Thailand
Termed the City of Three Mists, Mae Hong Son town lies nestled beneath hulking mountains. At the centre of town there’s a tranquil lake that reflects the triangular peaks of two white-and-gold temples which sit beside the water, Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang. In the evenings, a street market with stalls selling noodle dishes, pancakes, crafts and souvenirs springs up on the banks of the lake and the temples glow with light.
For lunch, we stopped at the wooden-roofed Salween restaurant to sample a bowl of steaming Khao Soy, a northern, Burmese inspired curry, before driving out to discover more Mae Hong Son attractions.
Groups of Thai tourists, many still dressed in black to honour the death of the King, filled nearby Thampla National Park. We took a late-afternoon stroll across a wooden bridge through green lawns to the Fish Cave, a pond where hundreds of carp circled the water waiting for visitors to sprinkle fish food from above. On our way back I was stopped by a group of Thai girls who wanted a selfie with me, another sign that we’d strayed slightly off the main tourist track.
In that special hour of golden, afternoon sunlight we stumbled upon a sign leading to what turned out to be the longest bamboo bridge in Thailand. Next to a temple surrounded by golden Buddha statues, a flight of rickety wooden stairs led down to the bridge, which stretched across fields bordered by mountains. At the edge of the bridge a group of Thai kids were practising a dance performance dressed in what looked like giant butterfly wings, while others played instruments. A monk in orange robes sat supervising nearby while unbelievably, another monk flew a drone overhead.
Mae Hong Son to Pai, the hippy heartland
Roosters woke us the next day for a hot, steep climb up hundreds of steps to Wat Phra Doi Kong Mu, a temple that sits atop Kong Mu Hill. By the time we reached the top the sunlight had burnt off the morning mist, illuminating the view spread beneath us. The grassy runway of Mae Hong Son airport stretched alongside the cluster of rooftops set against a backdrop of misty mountains. Behind us, Thai people circled the temple with flowers. Each person stopped at a statue labelled with the day of the week they were born on and laid their flowers and incense as an offering.
On our way to Pai we strayed an hour off the loop along never-ending hairpin curves that spiralled up to ear-popping heights. We passed stalls selling punnets of freshly-picked strawberries and gritted our teeth as we watched Thai drivers dangerously overtake on blind corners.
At this height we found ourselves in a forest of pine trees which led to Pang Ung reservoir, which is said to be the Switzerland of northern Thailand. The area is also part of a royal initiative for highland development and lies close to a Shan village, which has benefited from modern agricultural projects. The park was full of Thai campers rowing boats, laying on blankets by the water and cooking on camp fires.
By the time we reached Pai we were just in time to watch the sunset behind the mountains from our cute mini villa in the @ Pai Resort. It was the most idyllic place we stayed on the Mae Hong Son loop, but this slice of serenity didn’t last long. We drove into the centre of Pai for dinner, a former rural town that has now become a major tourist destination and hippy hangout for dreadlocked, bare-foot western tourists. Although we’ve visited Pai several times before, we were shocked by how crowded it was and after some food and a massage, we retreated back to our peaceful guesthouse.
From Pai to Chiang Mai
The next day we faced the final stretch of the Mae Hong Son loop, the snaking downwards road from Pai back to Chiang Mai. On our way out of town we stopped at Pai Canyon, so-called because it vaguely resembles the USA’s Grand Canyon but is really a small series of dusty orange outcrops that stretch into the forested countryside.
Our spin on the Mae Hong Son loop ended with some of the most beautiful scenery of the entire journey at the Yun Lai viewpoint, which sits above a Chinese village. With a steaming pot of herbal tea by our side we took in the mountain views laced with wild flowers and rice fields and marvelled at how the trip had taken us through some of Thailand’s most beautiful, yet lesser-visited treasures.