02 November 2016

Thailand, Part 3 — Riding the Mae Hong Son Loop

As I mentioned in my previous post, in mid-January 2016, I rented a Honda CB500X from Pop's Motorcycle Rental for a week of riding the legendary roads of NW Thailand.

My original plan was to leave on Monday and return on Sunday. After about a day in Chiang Mai, I decided to shift my plans by one day. There was no concrete reason for waiting, just a feeling I had. So I waited.

Saturday morning I went to Pop's and met with the guy through whom I booked the week-long Honda CBX500 rental to check out the bike and verify the details. When I asked about luggage, he included hard luggage for the original price (~US$40/day) and promised that "my" bike would have the 50/50 tires I requested in case I needed them (I did). On Day One I filled their hard luggage and also used my 40L Ortlieb Moto dry bag. The shop kept the remainder of the luggage I had with me and didn't need for the motorcycle journey.

Tuesday morning and I'm off!

Day One—Chiang Mai to Mae Sarieng via Doi Inthanon National Park.
Highway 108, the first part of the ride (click here for the day's route) was straight and boring. I rode past the right turn to road 1009 and filled up with fuel before backtracking 50 meters to head up 1009.

Now we're talkin'!

Hwy 1009 is a well-paved road with a LOT of curves, beautiful scenery, and on the day I rode it, very little traffic.

What traffic there was consisted mostly of motorcycles and a few cars and trucks. The driver of one small truck seriously misjudged a downhill sweeper and went turtle just prior to my arrival.

They drive on the left, so he went across the on-coming lane to arrive at his final position.Thank goodness, and the government, for guardrails, huh?

The only non-fuel stops of the day were at Doi Inthanon National Park and and two chedis (stupas) dedicated to the King's and Queen's 60th birthday anniversaries.

That evening in Mae Sarieng, as I filled up at the gas station for Day Two, I re-encountered Julian Stirling at the gas station, whom I'd originally met at the Horizons Unlimited meeting in Chiang Mai Friday evening. He'd told me he was leaving on Monday and heading north, so I was surprised to see him west on Tuesday. We rode together in search of a reasonable hotel and, after finding one, had dinner together. Over dinner, with a nice view of the river and surrounding area,

we decided to ride the Loop together for the next few days. It's nice to have a short-term riding partner...

Day Two—Mae Sarieng to Mae Hong Son via Mae Surin waterfall. Click here for today's route.

Julian and I rode well together—he preferred that I lead most of the time, so checked with him a few times to ensure I was setting a comfortable pace and then did my best to keep to it. Looking at the map, we found what looked to be the optimal route to the Mae Surin waterfall and were well-rewarded with beautiful scenery along the way.

Please ignore Julian's stare in the photo above. He's quite happy. I know 'cause he said so when he saw the photo :-)

When we arrived at the entrance to the waterfall park, we paid a small (I recall that is was the equivalent of ~US$0.50) entrance fee, parked the bikes,

and immediately inquired about where we might find a bite to eat. There is NOTHING at or around the park, so a few locals who were camping out by the entrance offered to share their food with us.

I am NOT a fan of instant noodles, but I ate/drank every morsel and every drop. They were hesitant to accept our offering of a few bhat for the food, though after a little back-and-forth seemed grateful for the overly generous Westerners. At least I hope they were, rather than resentful that we insisted on paying for their generosity. It's often hard to tell where the line is in non-Western societies.

The walk to the waterfall viewing point was a bit longer than we'd anticipated, though mostly downhill, so relatively easy. As we arrived to the first of three (or was it four) viewpoints, I started thinking of how much fun the walk back up the hill wouldn't be. Fortunately, young Julian prevailed on me to continue to our reward:

Before leaving the waterfall, we inquired (best we could) about the road we'd seen on the map that might get us back to Highway 108 without backtracking. It looked a little dicey on the paper map with notes about needing true off-road capabilities in one particularly vertical section. We were warned without reservation that it would be much better for us to backtrack. So we did and reaped both penalty and reward.

On the way up to the waterfall, the road was comfortable and inviting, with a number of tight turns, the worst of which were very thoughtfully marked with bright red painted pavement so that you have plenty of warning to

Unfortunately, there's no way to warn riders that a local landowner is watering something; that the water is carrying a shit-ton of mud down the hill to bathe the road below; AND that said mud bath is just out of sight around a 90 degree downhill non red-painted bend just as you're straightening out the handlebars. Since turning a motorcycle just as the tires' ability to grip reduces drastically is NOT something you want to do...

This is the "after" shot, complete with my contribution
DOWN I went!

Fortunately, Julian was far enough behind me that he saw me go down and was able to slow significantly, remaining rubber-side-down. Also fortunately, I was intact and un-scathed (thanks, in part to subscribing to the riding school of All The Gear, All The Time—ATGATT), though the plastic Givi luggage, underneath the new accent color, was a bit scratched up on the right side.

The first part of the reward was more curvy roads and beautiful scenery (even the road we'd already ridden north looked different as we rode it south) as we made our way to the town of Mae Hong Son...

I'm sure the road un-taken is equally beautiful; maybe next time I'll rent a Honda XR instead and find out.

Part 2 of the reward was that we arrived at road 1263 at the same time as a group of three BMW riders from Malaysia. We stopped and talked to them for quite a while—literally in the middle of the intersection.

They were also on their way to Mae Hong Son and we half-jokingly said, "maybe we'll see you there..."

Mae Hong Son is a nice, quiet town with a lake, Wat Chong Klang, and a night market that wraps around more than half the lake.

After Julian and I found and checked into a guest house, we wandered 100 meters or so down to their night market and found quite a selection of offerings from which we pieced together our dinner. Then, just after I bought my Mae Hong Son Loop "3934 curves with 2071 to go" (I think they may've missed two) t-shirt from the artist who designed it,

we again ran into and chatted with our new BMW-riding acquaintances from Malaysia (the guy in the hat actually rides a Ducati, and they let him come along anyway)...

Go figure!

Day Three—Mae Hong Son and 1864 curves to Pai
Click here for today's route.

Today was GREAT curves on very well-maintained roads.

Including a LOT of decreasing radius red-painted curves...

It was the most enjoyable riding day in a long time.

We got to Pai, found accommodations, and I went off on my own to find The Pai Pub, an Aussie-owned establishment written up in many, many places as THE place to be in Pai, if not in all of northwestern Thailand. Unfortunately, it absolutely does NOT live up to the hype and was unworthy of photographic inclusion. Maybe it's different after dark, but what I found was just another bar featuring grumbling ex-pats and over-priced beer. I didn't even finish my beer before I left to find Julian and explore Pai's quite large night market.

For some reason, I've never been able to bear wearing thong sandals/flip-flops. The thing in-between my great and second toes always bugged me too much. Now, after more than a year in Asia, I'd found a way to get used to them and they've become my go-to non-riding footwear. Since arriving in Thailand, I'd seen a few with interesting designs, so I'd gotten into the habit of stopping at every night market vendor in every town looking interesting ones big enough for my size 47 (US13) feet. In almost every case, I was told that 43 or maybe 45 was as big as they get.

This "pick your own color for each piece" place didn't have anything in my size, though they do get the award for most clever marketing tool I've seen in a long time:

Just spin the wheel until your fancy is struck...

As Julian and I hopscotched (though not literally) through the market, I found the pair for which I'd been looking:

They were of a very clever design and, as a bonus, very comfortable. Rather than wear them immediately, I chose to carry them. As it turns out, it was a very good decision because not 15 minutes later an old local woman apparently thought I was walking too slowly in front of her motorbike and ran right up the back of my right foot as I was starting to lift it. This force broke the strap of the sandal I'd bought just two days earlier without harming me at all,
though it did give both us and a few of the people around us quite a start.

The "best" part of the entire episode, though, arrived when, before I could even turn and ask, "What the hell are you doing?", the woman went into 'the best defense is a good offense', getting all pissy with and yelling at me. Since her ire was expressed in Thai, I am clueless as to what she actually said, though I'm pretty sure she asked me why I hadn't gotten the hell out of her way (on a pedestrian walkway with hers the only motorbike anywhere in sight). Then she abruptly rode off down an alley and was gone.

WTF??? was my reaction. Julian's, and that of the surrounding crowd, both Thai and Westerner, was amusement. Better a ruined pair of sandals than a ruined leg (as I was to find out the very hard way 9+ months later). I took the new sandals out of the bag, tossed the ruined ones in so that I could photograph them later for your amusement, and kept walking.

A few minutes later, all thoughts of ruined sandals completely disappeared as we tucked into the best chocolate croissants ever!

As I recall, we each immediately bought more to eat both after dinner and the next morning... I can still close my eyes and taste them...

Dinner consisted of numerous dishes from various street vendors and this woman's mixed vegetables (offered in a banana leaf bowl) were filled with incredibly delicious bits.

If you are in Pai and see her cooking, queue up and dig in. You'll thank me!

We finally called it a night and went back to our respective accommodations (Julian was on a more limited budget than I and is still young enough to tolerate a hostel's dorm room) and I was greeted by a friend I'd made earlier who decided to spend the night with me...

A great end to an eclectic day!

Day Four—Pai to Chiang Mai
Click here for today's route.

Today should have been a relatively short and uneventful half-day ride back to Chiang Mai, the last 1/3 of which was on a boring highway... BUT the universe and one STOOPID DAMN TRUCK DRIVER decided to make it otherwise.

Leaving Pai, the road was curvy (good) and often covered with a gray clay (bad) that fell from the dozens of earth movers and dump trucks that we slalomed around as we wove our way south and mostly downhill toward Chiang Mai. Then, as we got to a flat stretch, the road was suddenly covered in WET clay that looked like this after I went through it:

Note that the only tire track NOT going straight belonged to my CBX500, and yes, if you follow the track just a little bit further in this photo taken by Julian, you can see the impact and slide marks. SHIT!

My second "off" in three days, this one resulting in a friction burn through the first layer of my jacket and my elbow.

No big deal, this is why I ride ATGATT... though it also bruised my ego a bit in front of my riding partner who stayed upright.

The BFD came when I saw the FUCKING TRUCK DRIVER who was re-watering the clay-covered road

making it so snot-on-glass slick that we saw a number of cars and BIG trucks sliding toward us at uncomfortable angles as I recovered and prepared to ride on. It's amazing anything on two wheels could stay rubber-side-down. 

Well-done, Julian!

The low-side crash also scratched up the other (left) pannier, so now I had two damaged bags, one in red and the other in gray.

Until the second off, I'd been planning on parting ways with Julian when we hit the highway and heading north toward the Golden Triangle. Instead, I decided to forego the Golden Triangle for this trip and take a day off to rest in Chiang Mai (see Part 4 here). It would also give me a chance to find some 120, 180, and 240 grit sandpaper to try to take down the scratches a bit and minimize the damage charges when I returned the bike.

Damned watering truck!

Next up: Part 5 — Riding the Samoeng Loop


  1. An excellent travel report! By the way, I very often meet in Thailand cars that have been in an accident on the oncoming lane. Very often Thai drivers do not follow the elementary rules of safety. Nobody can do anything about it. It is sad.

    When I first traveled along the Mae Hong Son loop, I used this route. It's a bit out of the ordinary route, but I really enjoyed it. I also like reports on GTRider forum, you are registered there? There you can find a lot of useful articles.