Slumber’s Itinerary for Motorbiking the Mae Hong Son Tour
Back to the Basics
If you haven’t risked your life on a motorbike held together by duct tape and hope, have you really been to Thailand? Most backpackers would say no. We can’t endorse a newbie tackling the Mae Hong Son Loop. But, it’s the best way to explore Thailand’s rural, northern towns.
The almost 600 kilometer loop starts and ends in Chiang Mai. You can tackle it either clockwise or counter-clockwise. While both routes are amazing, we recommend heading clockwise towards Mae Sariang first. Because the road between Chiang Mai and Pai is the most dangerous, it’s best to save it for last.
Regardless of direction, the major stops are: Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon National Park, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, and Pai. Along the way, you can also make pit-stops in smaller areas such as Mae Sot and the Karen villages. You could spend anywhere from five days to two weeks cruising the loop on your motorbike.
Renting a Motorbike
Before you can even think about testing your luck on the Mae Hong Son loop, you’ll need to find the right motorbike. The best place to shop around is Chiang Mai, which is why we recommend beginning and ending your trip in the city. You’ll find shop after shop while walking around. Don’t be hesitant to look at a handful of motorbikes before making your decision.
The general rule of thumb on the loop is that a bigger bike is a better bike (because of endless hills to climb). Semi-automatic or manual transmission give you more control on mountain roads. Keep in mind that anything above 125cc is a bit excessive, and will draw unwanted attention.
Price will vary based on the shop, type of bike, and length of rental. Roughly 200 to 250 baht per day is standard, but do your best to strike up a deal for a longer rental period. Some backpackers opt to buy a bike and resell it at the end of the loop, but we recommend settling for a rental. The trip is too short to risk not being able to resell it or being caught without the proper paperwork.
Read our guide to bike rental in Thailand for more in-depth advice!
Chiang Mai (Three Nights)
Chiang Mai is everything that Bangkok isn’t. You’re surrounded by nature and every seems to go about their day at a slow pace. There’s no hustle and bustle, and it feels like a cultural hotspot in ways the rest of Thailand doesn’t.
A favorite among tourists, Chiang Mai’s old city is where all the action is. Aside from boasting the best food and accommodations, it’s a great launching point for day-tours.
One of our favorite things to do in Chiang Mai is spend countless hours wandering the old city. There’s a great self-guided walking tour that hits the major sites. And when you’re tired of wandering around, you can’t miss out on the elephant sanctuaries or Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Doi Inthanon National Park (One Night)
Having picked up your bike, take the roughly two hour ride over to Doi Inthanon National Park. You could easily spend a week among its waterfalls, hiking paths, and gorgeous scenery. That’s why we recommend leaving Chiang Mai early in the morning so you can pack as much in as possible before sunset. This will need to be the most structured day of your trip, so here’s our recommended itinerary for the day:
6:00am Wake up bright and early (we promise the hangover won’t kill you) and head out of Chiang Mai. You can push the start time to 8:00am if necessary, but it may mean driving in the dark or cutting your time short. Make sure to fill up your tank before leaving, and grab food within the first hour—restaurants all but disappear once you hit route 1009.
8:00am You should arrive in Doi Inthanon National Park around this time. It’s not a problem if you’re a bit early, as the park opens at 5:00am. Be sure that you have a full tank of gas before heading into the park and be prepared to pay a 300 baht entrance fee. Check out the temple/pagoda first so you can beat the crazy crowds.
8:30-9:30am It should take you about thirty minutes to reach Doi Inthanon’s major temple. You’re free to park your bike and explore, either on your own or with a hired tour guide. Make sure to check out the inside of both temples, as well as the nearby gardens.
9:30-11:30AM Doi Inthanon National Park is known as the “roof of Thailand” and its mountain—the highest in all of Thailand—is the reason why. To reach the trail entrance, head back to the highway and hang a left. It’s a great hike, and offers the park’s best views of nearby mountains and temples.
11:30am-12:30pm Considering it’s been quite a while since breakfast (and you just got done hiking Thailand’s highest mountain), a lunch break is in order. There’s a great cafe and food area near the entrance to the trail, and prices aren’t too much higher than normal.
12:30-3:00pm After a quick break, hop back on your motorbike and keep exploring the park. As you drive around, you’ll seen sign after sign for waterfalls and hot springs. Most of them aren’t any more than twenty minutes off the main road, so they’re easy to explore.
3:00pm After a long and exhausting day, it’s time to head to your accomodation for the night! If you like to be one with nature, camping in the park is possible (and gear rental is available). For those who prefer a proper bed, there are homestays in the area. Just be sure to book one on the western side of Doi Inthanon, as you’re heading that direction next.
Mae Sariang (One Night)
Mae Sariang is a small, undeveloped town in rural Thailand. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another tourist there most days, and that’s part of what makes it so amazing. It almost feels lost in time, and the sleepy vibes offer an awesome day of relaxation. The town center is about a three hour drive from Doi Inthanon National Park, so leave early in the morning to have the whole day to explore.
Considering the size and local feel of Mae Sariang, it’s hard to plan a detailed itinerary. Our best advice is to take things easy and sip a beer while staring over the nearby river. But there are some must-see areas while you’re in town.
During the day, take a walk around Mae Sariang to see a handful of old wats, some traditional architecture, and its daily market. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on a Sunday, the Walking Street is an awesome local market to check out. You also can’t go wrong with renting a bicycle to drive around the countryside, or even heading over to the nearby town of Mae Sam Laep on your motorbike.
Mae Hong Son (Two Nights)
Roughly three hours north of Mae Sariang, this next stop is where our famous motorbike loop gets its name. You’ll be just a stone’s throw from Myanmar (aka Burma) and surrounded by Thailand’s hill tribes. It’s not extremely populated, but is significantly busier than Mae Sariang.
The only downside to visiting Mae Hong Son is that the attractions and must-sees aren’t centralized. You’ll be doing quite a few short rides on your bike, but it’s totally worth it.
Our first stop would be Wat Phra That Doi Kon Mu to check out its awesome aerial views of Mae Hong Son. You also can’t miss out on trekking to nearby hill tribe villages (it’s easy to arrange tours) and exploring the Tham Pla-Namtok Pha Suea National Park.
Pha Sua Waterfall and Pang Tong Palace are near each other, and both worth a stop. While you’re in the area, some local villages like Ban Rak Thai and Pang Ung are worth a look as well.
Pai (Three Nights)
Pai is a little more than two hours east of Mae Hong Son, and the ride will be one of the more mountainous ones on the loop. But the extra effort is definitely worth it!
Nearly everyone who visits ends up in what we call a “Pai-Hole”, meaning they stay a lot longer than they intended to. If you’re on a tight schedule, we recommend sticking to our itinerary below. But if you have all the time in the world, three nights will never be enough.
Day 1 – Today, you’re going to be the laziest person in town, because that’s what you come to Pai to do: nothing. Grab a few maps to check out the surrounding area by motorbike. Take a leisurely place, and stop for any food that looks/smells delicious. The key is just getting to know the area. When 5:00pm hits, you can head over to the Walking Street to check out the stalls and grab a few drinks.
Day 2 – You know how we said the whole point of being in Pai is to do nothing? Well, that’s mostly true. But you wouldn’t be a proper backpacker if at least one day wasn’t focussed on being a tourist. This is an awesome one-day motorbike route we highly recommend. Spend sunset at either Pai Canyon or Mae Yen’s White Buddha.
Day 3 – This is the point where you realize just how much there is to do in Pai. We’ll give you a few options, and you can decide which piques your interest. If you missed the caves at Tham Lot on your way to Pai, it’s worth backtracking an hour or two to see them. If that’s not your thing, consider a cooking class, tubing, or bamboo rafting. At the end of the Thai, Pai is all about meeting new people, socializing, and enjoy a few drinks (among other things).
Be careful finishing out the loop the following morning, as the road to Chiang Mai is the most dangerous part of the journey. There’s no shame in leaving extra early to beat some of the traffic and give yourself as many daylight hours as possible. And don’t forget to wear a helmet.
Mae Hong Son Loop Tips and Tricks
- Leave as early in the morning as you can stomach—nothing feels worse than being stuck on a tiny mountain road after the sun has gone down. And aside from safety, there are countless pit stops along the way that you won’t want to miss.
- Carry cash, but keep it secure/hidden—you’ll be heading to some remote villages, and there’s no guarantee of ATMs along the way. If your bike breaks down or you need gas, having cash on you is the only way to get by.
- Buy a Thai sim card and use it—the road signs are few and far between, and they’re in Thai more often than not. Having access to Google Maps (and Google in general) is a life-changer.
- Even though it sounds silly, drive on the left side of the road—you would not believe how many tourists forget this!
- Wear your helmet, even if the locals aren’t—we know you want to seem cool and feel the breeze in your hair, but wrecks are a daily occurence on the Mae Hong Son loop. And aside from keeping your face pretty, Thai police will charge a hefty fine if you’re caught without a helmet.
- Dress appropriately—that means wearing close-toed shoes, long pants, and sleeves. The higher elevations can get cold, and in the event of a crash it’s best to have as much skin covered as possible.
- Be wise about gas—the big chain stations are going to be a lot less expensive than the local ones. Whenever you pass one, just fill up your tank. You’ll need it later.
- Limit what you bring—one bag per person is enough. Bring a few outfits and regularly wash them, along with your camera, phone, wallet, and toiletries. Most hostels in Chiang Mai will let you store your big bags while you tackle the loop.
The Mae Hong Son Loop is An Adventure
Whether you follow your own itinerary or follow ours, we’d love to hear about your journey! Any parts you struggled with? What was your favorite section of the trek? Leave a comment below, let’s chat Mae Hong Son motorbiking! 🙂