It's one of the most popular road trips in Thailand, particularly for motorcycle enthusiasts - The Mae Hong Son Northern Loop and its infamous road of almost two thousand curves.
I had read about the loop numerous times but never experienced it. Time to put that right. Just me, my wife and our trusty hire car.
The plan was to spend a night in Chiang Mai before setting off early on day one to cover the 200-odd kilometres to Mae La Noi and our first night's accommodation. The second day would hopefully see us get as far as the sleepy town of Mae Hong Son. From there it would be a relatively short drive to the buzzing backpacker enclave of Pai, before returning to Chiang Mai on day four.
So here we go - a journey of about 600 kilometres and approximately 12 hours of driving (plus stops en route) - my wife behind the wheel and me in charge of the navigational duties. Enjoy the ride!
Day 1 - Chiang Mai to Mae La Noi - 3 hours 45 minutes (plus stops) - total distance 214 kilometres
We hit the road early having flown into Chiang Mai the night before on the usual knees-around-your-chin, low-cost airline. By the time we had collected our baggage and sorted out the hire car formalities, it was almost midnight. We had booked a room at The Better Hostel, which at that time of night was barely a minute's drive from Chiang Mai Airport.
Normally, anything with the word 'hostel' associated with it has me trembling in fear but our private room on the third floor was surprisingly comfortable with a modern bathroom and even a small outdoor terrace for smokers. And it certainly got two thumbs up for the arctic air-conditioning (not something you often find in cheaper Thai hotels and guest houses)
At less than a thousand baht a night, we felt it reasonable for somewhere so convenient for the airport.
But back to the start of the road-trip. We weaved our way through Chiang Mai's early morning rush hour in search of a hearty breakfast (no breakfast menu at the hostel by the way) It didn't take long to find our first of many roadside coffee shops. This part of the world is simply a coffee lover's paradise. At times, there can seem like a quirky and welcoming coffee shop at every single bend in the road. With caffeine inside us, we felt ready for the journey ahead.
My wife (God bless her) had researched the trip thoroughly and listed a number of stops and attractions for each day but our first diversion was completely unscheduled. The Opluang National Park looked too good to miss. In fact this was to become a recurring theme over the next few days. Attractions that we had read about and chalked up as 'must-sees' were sometimes a bit of a let down, whereas places we would pull into spontaneously were actually far more interesting. Then again, that's one of the unwritten laws of travel isn't it?
Needless to say, The Opluang National Park had a dual-pricing tariff in operation - 20 Baht for Thais (written in Thai script) and 200 Baht for the likes of me. I politely asked the lady at the ticket office for the Thai price and she shook her head and said 'no'. I don't know about you but I find that much more preferable to engaging in one of those embarrassing conversations where the foreigner pleads his case and ends up getting angrier and angrier and making a complete twat of himself.
I paid the 200 Baht and it was worth every single penny. Rarely have I seen a national park so beautifully preserved and maintained. Everywhere you looked there were uniformed staff sweeping leaves, re-painting signposts and generally making the place more agreeable.
Being the height of the rainy season, we had clearly chosen the right time to visit. A mighty river raged its way through canyons and gorges, which you could view from above by standing on narrow bridges that gave you the feeling of being in an Indiana Jones movie. It was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. I wouldn't have missed this place for the world. We noticed a sign that indicated a hiking trail of some two kilometres in length but unfortunately our itinerary didn't allow for it. But hopefully we might be back some day.
Our next (and this time scheduled) pit-stop was the Bo Kaeo Pine Forest, which I suppose was interesting enough if you'd never ever seen a pine tree before because that's pretty much all there was - lots and lots of pine trees. I guess the clue is in the name.
My wife informed me that pine trees rarely grow in other parts of Thailand so to see a whole forest of them is something of a rarity. I'm sure the place whips botanists into a frenzy but a ten-minute walk into the woods and back again meant you were pretty much done, however, Thais seem to enjoy Bo Kaeo for the photo opportunities it presents more than anything else.
Time for lunch and we made a stop at one of those wonderful ramshackle roadside restaurants fashioned out of wood and gecko spit. The kind of place that knows how to fill a plate for 30 baht. We ordered a couple of chicken and garlic over rice and checked our e-mails while the friendly proprietor got busy with the wok.
I plucked a soft drink from the self-service refrigerator and a young helper asked me if I would like a glass of ice to accompany it. When I nodded my approval, the young girl scurried off in the direction of the kitchen and was never seen again. You kind of get used to that in Northern Thailand. The pace of life is slower and there's just not the same sense of urgency that you find in Bangkok. So I drank it straight from the can.
No road trip in Thailand is complete without stopping off at a temple or three and Wat Phra That Chom Mon was the next 'attraction' on the list. Getting to it required a white-knuckle drive up a ridiculously steep hill so our expectations were high. Disappointingly, our first impressions of the temple were not great. It looked rather run-down; as though no one had been up there for weeks, but the amazing views over Mae Hong Son Province more than made up for it.
With the afternoon wearing on, it was time to find our digs for the night. We had pre-booked a bungalow at The Herntai Resort in Mae La Noi, a small town in the south of Mae Hong Son Province. Like so many Northern Thais, the resort staff were smiley and friendly and couldn't do enough for us, but their Northern bonhomie did little to mask the poor quality of the rooms. Our bungalow was small and cramped and the air-conditioner did little to combat the heat and general 'mustiness'.
After checking-in, we were eager to see what Mae La Noi had to offer. It looked a perfect little town, ideal for a late afternoon stroll. The resort manager advised us to go and see the local market and offered us a couple of bicycles but we decided to stretch our legs.
The market was splendid as small-town Thai markets very often are. There were only a few vendors selling their wares on one small street, but what they lacked in number, they made up for with interesting foods and that unmistakable northern charm.
We returned to our bungalow for an evening meal and an early night. There seemed little else to do in a place as peaceful as Mae La Noi.
The following morning, after a fitful night's sleep, we explored the rest of the Herntai Resort and it quickly became clear that we had been given probably the worst bungalow on the site. Other bungalows had spacious terraces to sit on, hammocks to snooze in and were generally in better locations, well away from the hustle and bustle of the reception and restaurant area.
That said, the whole resort had fallen into a state of disrepair. A forlorn-looking exercise area offered nothing but a couple of rusting multi-gym machines and a hopelessly warped ping-pong table. Everywhere needed a good lick of paint. You often see this with these bungalow resorts out in the sticks. Not enough guests bringing in not enough money to keep the complex well-maintained and inviting.
We didn't even hope for much when it came to the resort breakfast - but even that was poor.
My wife made a good point actually. When you book with a third party portal like Booking dot com or Agoda, the property can fob you off with any old room. When you book directly with the receptionist at the accommodation (as my wife often does) you can grill them over the phone, ask a thousand questions - and make sure you are given the pick of the rooms. You might end up paying a little more (not always) but you do get better accommodation.
Day 2 - Mae La Noi to Mae Hong Son Town - 3 hours (plus stops) - total distance 131 kilometres
Just outside Mae La Noi was yet another coffee shop with its own breathtaking viewpoints. We stopped here not just for the coffee and scenery but to dress up and take some fun photographs.
For a token donation towards hill-tribe charities, you could try on all the hill-tribe gear your heart desired. The friendly lady in charge of making coffee also doubled up as wardrobe supervisor to make sure you got the look just right.
We passed a very pleasant hour conducting our very own hill-tribe fashion shoot and the best part was that we had the whole place to ourselves. I've no doubt that on Saturdays and particularly Sundays, you wouldn't have got near the place for hordes of Thai day-trippers but travelling in Thailand on weekdays, while everyone else is hard at work, is always a joy.
It was rapidly turning into something of a hill-tribe day because our next stop was Wat Huay Sua Tao, a small temple and an area best known for its village of long-necked people (the Kayan tribe) I'd read from various internet sources that this was about as genuine as hill-tribe villages get - but that was not the case.
Things started well as we parked the car in front of the temple and ambled along dusty streets with our very own temple dog escort, who incredibly stayed by our sides every step of the way. There wasn't a soul around. But turn a corner and you came face-to-face with a ticket office and a rather steep 250 baht entrance fee (same for Thais) just for the privilege of browsing hill tribe souvenir stalls. The Kayans didn't mind you posing for photos with them as long as you at least showed a passing interest in buying something.
For me this was voyeuristic tourism at its very worst and I quickly became uncomfortable and couldn't wait to leave. I bought our faithful four-legged companion some well-earned snacks and we made our way back to the car.
We pulled into another one of those roadside shacks for a spot of lunch and were warmly greeted by an old boy who you felt hadn't spoken to an English-speaking foreigner for weeks. It turned out that his modest eatery was part of a complex that included a handful of wooden bungalows situated on 20 rai of prime forest. He gave us a tour of the accommodation, showed us his guest book and an album of photographs, and told us about his wife who was away in Bangkok visiting relatives. For twenty minutes, he never paused for breath.
I often notice this about Northern Thais. Many of them are supremely confident when it comes to using English but there is a very fine line between confident and over-confident and eventually the one-sided conversation can become rather overbearing. This old fellow was a prime example. He prattled on about everything and nothing and I found myself instinctively nodding my head as my brain shut down and my eyes glazed over.
We drove on to the Su Tong Pae Bridge and one of the highlights of our road trip - an absolute gem! A rickety bamboo bridge that started at the temple and wound its way into the neighboring rice fields literally as far as the eye could see. The bridge was built by the local community in order to help monks gain easy access to the local villages. All I can say is don't miss it!
Our overnight accommodation was at the superb Fern Resort just outside Mae Hong Son town. It's hard to believe that we got such luxury for just 600 baht more than we had paid for the Herntai Resort the previous night because frankly, they were polar opposites. The first thing you noticed as you checked in was a large framed photograph of the proud-looking resort owner flanked by none other than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. We later found out that the mega-celebrity couple have stayed there four times. When Angelina is messing about in Myanmar and doing whatever she does, The Fern Resort is one of her favorite bolt-holes. Well, if it's good enough for Brad and Angie, it was good enough for us - and so it proved. Everything about the joint was first-class from the bungalow itself down to the service-minded staff and even a free shuttle bus to ferry guests into nearby Mae Hong Son and back.
Mae Hong Son was the perfect little town. Large enough to keep you occupied for an evening but small and 'unexciting' enough to keep it off the tourist trail and retain its 'Thainess' at the same time. I think I saw one other foreigner the whole evening.
We strolled around the ubiquitous night market but it was a somewhat pathetic affair with no more than a dozen sellers peddling their wares. We asked a charming, middle-aged lady selling t-shirts why the market was so peaceful and she told us this was the first night in weeks that it hadn't rained. "The vendors don't come during the rainy season because they get tired of having to display their goods and then pack up again when the heavens open. But now the rainy season looks to be over, they'll start returning in greater numbers"
We bought a couple of Mae Hong Son t-shirts from her because sales were obviously few and far between but most of all, because she was so sweet.
We then rounded off the evening at the excellent 77 House Restaurant on the town's main high street. A quirky, fun place to linger unhurried and it served up a delicious khao soi. One simply has to order khao soi when one is in this part of Thailand.
Day 3 - Mae Hong Son Town to Pai - 2 hours 20 minutes (plus stops) - total distance 107 kilometres
We would love to have stayed at The Fern Resort for longer but we said our goodbyes and set off again shortly after breakfast. Our final destination today would be Pai, and although the town was little over a hundred kilometres away, the twisting, turning road of 1,864 curves would make for slower-than-usual progress.
We covered most of the journey with only two stops for coffee. Or maybe it was three. I laugh at this now but its so difficult to just drive past when each coffee shop has its own unique character and its own magnificent vistas. You find yourself instinctively pulling in even though you've got so many coffee and fruit smoothies sloshing around inside your stomach, you're almost fit to burst. It's amazing that we were getting any sleep at night!
It almost reached the stage where you wanted to park the car, reel off a few photos without actually buying a drink and then making a sharp getaway - tyres screeching as the coffee shop owner shakes her fist in the rear-view mirror.
Next up was Santichon Village, a village lived in and maintained by the Yunnan people from China. You can sample traditional Yunnan foods in several open-air restaurants, hire a costume to walk around dressed as a Chinaman, practice your archery skills, ride a horse and buy hand-made souvenirs to take home. Yes, it was all incredibly touristy but some folks seem to like that sort of thing.
The whole entertainment complex (if I can call it that) looked rather down on its luck. There were few tourists around and it felt like the Yunnans who managed the place were just going through the motions. There wasn't much of a spring in their step. We dined in an enormous restaurant where we were the only two customers - but the pig's leg and steamed buns (two Yunnan specialties apparently) were both delicious.
About 20 kilometres from Pai, I started to get an uncomfortable inkling of what probably lay ahead. Numerous backpacker / world traveler types came at us in the opposite direction, wobbling on their rented motorcycles (motorcycles more suited for a local shopping trip) and pausing every couple of miles to adjust their ill-fitting crash helmets. Clad in the obligatory vest and shorts, they looked like accidents waiting to happen.
We parked up at a viewpoint and were pestered by grubby hill-tribe kids from the second we got out of the car. I tried to make light of the situation by telling the kids I was poor or that all my money had gone, but hill-tribe children hustling tourists to take photos don't do that kind of humor. They merely scowled and walked off to look for other foreign targets.
Backpackers and hill-tribe hustlers, this was another world to the calmness and serenity that we'd left behind just a few hours ago. This suddenly felt like full-on 'tourist Thailand' and having spent a lovely 24 hours up and around Mae Hong Son, it was all a bit dispiriting and hard to take. But truth be told, things were about to get even worse.
We crawled into Pai town and our jaws hit the floor. You are of course familiar with Khao San Road, Bangkok's well-known backpacker enclave.
First impressions alone, I remarked to my wife that Pai looked like 'Khao San Road on steroids'. My wife described it as 'a tatty version of Hua Hin'. I knew pretty much straight away that I wasn't going to enjoy my time here.
We checked into our digs at the extremely upmarket (by Pai's standards) Hotel Des Artistes, dumped our bags and took a stroll up Pai's long main drag. I knew that Pai appealed to a certain kind of holidaymaker. I knew that travelers and 'hippy types' often came here and stayed for months on end. I expected little pockets of 'backpackery' but nothing this intense or concentrated.
Every single business on Pai's main street catered for backpackers in some shape or form. There were hamburger joints next to pizza parlours, shops that would happily wash your dirty laundry by the kilogram, and I lost count of the number of places where you could book a hill-tribe trek, a water rafting experience or get a tattoo or have your hair braided.
Foreigners must have outnumbered Thais by at least twenty to one. This just wasn't my scene. This wasn't Thailand; it was a stage show put on by Thais who think all this stuff is what foreigners actually want or need.
Nightfall only served to ramp things up to another level. We walked past a beer-bar advertising booze buckets and inside they were playing an Eagles CD, while in front of the bar, a Thai rastafarian type with Bob Marley vest and shark-tooth necklace was whipping up pad thai with tofu for hungry passers-by. The whole scenario went beyond the cliche.
We sat in a restaurant and watched the passing parade. If I had a dollar for every grubby singlet, pair of elephant pants, ethnic ankle bracelet or woven bag, put it this way, I would have easily covered the cost of our hotel for the night. Some people label it as individuality. So why then does everyone look as if they're squeezed from the same tube?
What happened to Pai and when? Who's to blame - is it the foreigners, the Thais or are both as guilty? Are all the services on offer genuinely what the younger generation crave? So many questions. But I do know one thing - come sunrise, I couldn't get out of town fast enough.
The Hotel Des Artistes was great by the way.
Day 4 - Pai to Chiang Mai - 2 hours 45 minutes (plus stops) - total distance 130 kilometres
Our final day of the road trip and I'll confess that my enthusiasm was beginning to evaporate. The last leg of the journey before our 7.30pm flight home, would take us from Pai down to Chiang Mai along the most winding of roads. One of my friends on social media did the same road trip several years back and described the drive to me as 'as dull as ditchwater' and while that's not the expression I would use myself, I do appreciate where he's coming from.
The constant twisting and turning does get monotonous, but the biggest downside is that along the majority of the route, you are hemmed in by tall trees on both sides. You only grab occasional glimpses of the wondrous scenery beyond. And of course this was Sunday, when all the Thai day-trippers would be out in force. However, let's make the most of it because we had several scheduled stops penciled in.
Yes, there were of course a couple of coffee stops en route and this time, a pair of real instagram heavyweights - Coffee in Love and The Witch's House. Lots of photography potential at both establishments.
After a short stop at a hill-tribe market affair so my wife could buy some nic-nacs for colleagues at work and I could sample the delights of some grilled sweet potato (sold to me by a very talented salesperson I might add) we ventured on to the first of our scheduled stops - The Pai Memorial Bridge, a pleasant 20-minute diversion provided you didn't mind sharing the experience with hordes of Chinese tourists who spilled out of their minivans on what must have been organised tours.
The original bridge was made of wood and built in 1941 by The Japanese Army to improve the route from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai and give them a better chance of clobbering the Burmese. The steel bridge you can walk across nowadays is not the original but impressive all the same. Watch where you're going though ladies! - the wooden flooring had rotted away in parts and one wrong step could see you hurtling down into the river below.
Just a few minutes drive from the bridge is The Pai Canyon, known as 'Kong Lan' in Thai and touted as one of Pai's most awesome natural attractions. It's a steep and tiring climb to the top, especially in the heat of the day, and I think opinion would be divided on whether it's worth the effort, especially if you are one of those lucky people who has visited THE Grand Canyon in America. However, climb to the top we did, spent ten minutes admiring the view, and that was pretty much it.
Our final stop of the road trip was one I had secretly looked forward to most of all - Huay Tung Tao Reservoir, an expansive public park where Chiang Mai Thais like to go picnicing, boating or just to sit under a shady tree. However, we weren't there for any of that nonsense. No sir! We had come to see monkeys. The Tourism Promotion Office had spent thousands of Baht building three six-metre high King Kong figures made entirely from straw.
I had seen photos of the straw gorillas on the internet and oh boy, did they look impressive. I just had to see them! The only problem was that on a Sunday in early October, half of Thailand's population wanted to see them too! It took us quite a while to gain entry to the park with such a long line of traffic and then to find a parking spot. It was worth it though. I mean how often do you get to see one six-metre straw King Kong, let alone three of 'em! Again, it was a terrific photo op if you didn't mind pushing small children out of the way.
Looking back at what I've written here, I'm worried I may have come across as a tad negative but then again, I only deal in honest accounts. These travel blogs are trips seen through my own eyes and no one else's.
The road trip was definitely a mixed bag. For instance, I wouldn't have missed The Opluang National Park, The Sung Tong Pae Bridge or a night at The Fern Resort. However, a number of the attractions like The Pai Canyon, The Bo Kaeo Pine Forest and the hill-tribe village of Wat Huay Sua Tao were very much of the take-or-leave variety. And I absolutely hated Pai.
My wife and I both agreed that if we ever returned to the region (and truthfully we're in no great hurry) we would fly directly to Mae Hong Son, enjoy a few nights at The Fern Resort and plan several day trips. I wouldn't want anything to do with Chiang Mai or Pai next time.
Did I enjoy the road trip? Yes, because four-day breaks are always welcome. Would I do the Mae Hong Son Loop again? No. Do I think that if you are going to spend time in North Thailand, you are better off checking out Nan or Chiang Rai Province? Absolutely yes!