Elephant Trail - Chiang Mai - Mae Hong Son offroad

Discussion in 'Northern Thailand - Road Trip Reports' started by Pikey, Dec 2, 2006.

  1. Pikey

    Pikey Ol'Timer

    Over a couple of beers at the Kafe last week, SilverHawk proposed a trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son taking in as much dirt as possible. It was decided to take a 2 night/3 day trip to explore as many trails as possible between CM, MHS and beyond…….

    SilverHawk informed us that the route originated as the “Elephant Trail”. Named so because a long time ago, MHS was a breeding centre for elephants who would subsequently be walked to Chiang Mai to be sold at market – hence the title for this post.

    Date: 29/11 – 1/12
    Riders/Bikes: SilverHawk (Dave Early) – Suzuki 250 Djebel, Big & Tall (Justin) – XR250, Pikey (Jeff) – XR400
    Weather: 30 deg C and beautiful sunshine all the way.

    Day 1: 29/11 – Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son

    We decided on an early start as we were told that we had some 170km between Samoeng & MHS to cover, a mix of tarmac and offroad but we were unsure of the ratio and opinions differed as to whether we could do it in one day or that we would have to divert to Pai for an overnight. To get a decent start, we met at 8am at Ian Bungy’s X-Centre (rte 1096/Mae Sa valley) for a hearty breakfast and with the aid of DavidFL’s excellent “Mae Hong Son – The Loop” map, plotted a course which SilverHawk fed into his GPS. Mention must go to the work that “Fearless Leader” puts into all his maps (MHS, Laos & Samoeng Loop) as the detail and accuracy is unsurpassed, with the majority of roads being GPS’d. Definitely worth the 200 baht (or less) price - don't leave home without one!

    So, stomachs full, we had a gentle tarmac meander to Sameong (rte 1096) where we topped up with gas and reset the tripmeters for the start of the journey at approx 10am. After a few km out of Samoeng, we hit relatively gentle dirt and climbed over mountain ranges with beautiful scenery. It was a fairly easy dirt section and pretty long – some 70km until we reached the village of Wat Chan where we stopped for lunch at around 12:30.


    When you get to the T-Junction in Wat Chan, take a right and go a couple of hundred metres towards the temple. On the left is the restaurant pictured above. Basic & tasty grub!

    Here you have a choice of a 65km road trip to Pai or a dirt trip to MHS – we chose the dirt. So we backtracked a few hundred metres to the main T-junction and went straight into the dirt (past the army post). The trail started off gently but soon became steep in places. Again, as with most trails/roads in this part of Thailand, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. SilverHawk has posted elsewhere about a recent trip to Khun Yuam and the sunflowers, but rounding a bend in the trail, we found ourselves amongst them. I thought that they were cultivated for sale at markets, but they just grow wild.


    The trail steadily got steeper and more cut up and difficult, with a lot of ascents/descents of hills strewn with loose rock and rain grooves where you (or me at least) had to depend on engine braking and ginger use of the back break to get down sagely. Uphills were no probs as it was relatively easy to just gas it and hang on where gravity is your friend, but on one particularly steep, long and nasty downhill, I managed to stall the engine with the back brake on and, out of control with no engine braking, dumped it. Starting it on the gradient wasn’t an option as the XR400 has a pretty high seat and there was nowhere for me to put it on the sidestand to mount up so I walked it a few hundred metres to flatter ground, got my breath back and we cracked on.

    By this time, we were 2 hours north west of Wat Chan and 5 hours into our journey (from Samoeng). Whilst on one of the nasty rocky bits, we came across a couple of French guys on rented XR250s going the opposite direction. They told us that they had taken 6 hours to arrive at that point after leaving MHS at 9am and were aiming for CM and had a friend “a few minutes” behind them. This was 3:15 in the afternoon and we were reckoning on 2 hours to MHS, after already travelling for 5 hours to get to thst point from Samoeng, so no way they were going to make CM and it was doubtful (based upon their progress, or lack of) that they would reach Wat Chan in daylight. Wonder where they spent the night……..?

    20 mins down the trail, the 3rd French guy appeared, legs flailing, wearing a bright yellow piss-pot helmet and a neck-scarf. We slowed to talk but with a death-grip on the bars, he wobbled passed yelling “zorry, eye cannot stop!!!” Hope he made it.

    The Wat Chan to MHS leg was a right old mix of heavy going steep rocky stuff and pine forested trails where you could open it up a bit. Max speed was only about 60km (for me) and subject to SilverHawk’s GPS confirmation, I think we averaged about 40km/h from Samoeng, arriving in MHS at 5pm and tallying up 180km in 7 hours of which I think, 100km was dirt.

    We stayed in the “Palm Guesthouse” at 500THB/night and was clean and basic and ate at the Lakeside restaurant which had good grub at reasonable prices.

    Day 2: 30/11 MHS to Mae Chaem

    Set off from MHS after brekkie (can’t remember the name but excellent toast) and did about 20km south on rte 108 before hanging a left towards the village of Pang Ung where again we picked up a dirt trail. This was a loop taking in some villages and apexing at Mae Ruam where we headed south east to Mae Sa (pronounced “Mae Cha” by the locals). This day the terrain mostly consisted of sun-baked mud with big ruts formed by the passage of 4x4 vehicles – some of which were almost ½ metre deep.

    Justin bumping through the baked ruts

    We had pretty good conditions for the trip – dusty where the sun had hit but some slick stuff under the jungle canopy. If you were to try the trip in the wet season, it would definitely be a completely different proposition with very slick downhills/uphills and loads of deep, deep mud and would certainly take a lot longer and a lot more energy! There was a great stretch of forest trail between Huai Pa and Mae Sa with a few little stream crossings where we cracked on a bit, sliding around corners in bulldust and generally having a laugh.

    After Mae Sa we encountred what can only be described as radically changing road surfaces – we broke out of dirt, onto crappy tarmac, onto excellent tarmac (all the time climbing and dropping over mountain ranges with Doi Inthanon in the background), then, weyhey, round a bend and the surface changes again – cut up/dissolved tarmac, to dirt, to crap and then to tarmac – all within the space of a few km! Finally into Mae Chaem with 200km under our belts about of which 80 were dirt and into a small but comfortable resort complex called “Pongsarn” (I think) – 300THB/night and pretty good.

    Day 3: 1/12 – Mae Chaem to Chaing Mai

    After a pretty shite brekki at Pongsarn, we left about 10am and headed south for 20km on rte 1088 and banged a left on an unnumbered road to Mong Luang. This was tarmac for a bit then dissolved into gravel where they were making plans to pave the road. At one point we saw a typical Thai f*ck up where a caterpiiller had sunk above its tracks into the stream that it was supposed to be digging out to make the road! The guys seemed happy enough chipping away at the mud whilst a Thai version of “Love Potion number 9” blared from their radio!

    Onwards and upwards, up and down the ranges with some traverses, reasonably easy going with loose shale and some damper stuff under the trees with some steep narrow rutted climbs thrown in for good measure. Reading this post back, it sounds pretty hardcore, and without blowing it up, it certainly wasn’t easy in many places but we were humbled on one section by a couple of young hilltribe boys two-up on a Honda Wave and their mate on a Sonic bumbling along, albeit slower than us, but negotiating the trail with as much, if not more confidence than us. These guys are just born to it and it’s just part of their lifestyle to commute between villages along trails in all weathers that we class as “challenging”. We stopped and talked to the young lads who armed with a catapult, had been out to shoot birds and they said they were going back to their village. After them letting us past, we rocked up to a village called Pa Kluai high in the hills and stopped for lunch. 5 minutes later the guys on the Wave & Sonic turned up and greeted us like friends. We were relatively in the middle of nowhere, where life is simple at best, and we were made to feel very welcome – not unique and a wonderful thing about rural Thailand (in my limited experience).

    Restaurant/store at Pa Kluai

    We were pointed to the village restaurant/store where we ate minced pork and noodles and bathed in the cool mountain breeze. SilverHawk was to remark later, after we decended and headed back to CM, just how much purer the air is up there than it is down in CM due to the topology of the landscape and the pollution caused by the vehicles. I stand to be corrected, but by my reckoning, we encountred less than 20 vehicles (bikes/cars) during the 3 days we spent offroad.

    The final offroad leg of the journey consisted mainly of dirt downhill towards the town on Chomthong on rte 108 which was a mix of pure dirt forest trails and a lot of 2 track concrete. By that I mean it’s like a cart track but where the wheels go is about 15 inches wide concrete. You need to concentrate to keep straight and true on this and sometimes it narrows and breaks up and othertimes just disintegrates into dirt again. After we hit the valley floor, we stopped for petrol and a drink south of Chomthong and got back to CM for about 3:30. Total distance was approx 160km with about 60 offroad.


    Brilliant trip, great company from Silverhawk & Big&Tall – couldn’t have wished for more considerate riding partners or better dinner buddies. I’m not an expert rider on or offroad but the terrain was variable and in places pretty tough. Justin (Big&Tall) has a considerable number of Enduros under his belt and he classed some of the steeper rock strewn sections as “pretty technical”. I’d say, it’s not for the absolute novice but can be done by anyone with a reasonable amout of offroad experience IN THE DRY SEASON. Lots of dust in the dry sections which meant a staggered riding pattern so that you could let the dust settle and see what was ahead (normally rocks, ruts and big drop-offs to one side or the other!).

    Each day was pretty much a full days riding with a 10am start into the dirt and a 5pm exit with approx 45mins lunch break and 3 or 4 10 minute stops along the way.

    Me, I thoroughly enjoyed it, felt out of my depth at times but would certainly do it again. Sorry if this post is a bit long winded but I was elected to provide the detail so I’ll leave it up to Dave (SilverHawk) and Justin (Big&Tall) to regale you with stories of daring-do, more pics, and no doubt, some p*ss taking comments aimed in my direction! [;)]


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  3. StanGayuski

    StanGayuski Ol'Timer

    Excellent Post! I have long looked at the map of this area and roads and wondered how negotiable they were. I would not attempt this trip with my light cruiser however obviously but now I know the way is doable.
    Ko Samui
  4. BignTall

    BignTall Ol'Timer

    Well I have been living in Thailand now for six months and racking some miles up on bikes, this trip has to be one of my favorites. Originally I had intended on doing some off road exploring but knee surgery threw a wrench into that plan. Luckily as it slowly healed Silverhawk came up with a treat to make the wait worthwhile. A dirt trip to Mae Hong Son was planned with Silverhawk, Pikey and myself. Others were invited but they had other more important matters at hand…like instsalling cabinets hahahaha.

    [​IMG]Silverhawk and Pikey looking fresh and clean. Not for long though as this is the last time they will look so clean for 3 days.

    The trip started out on familiar ground up the 1096 to Samoeng. Early in the morning (hey 9:00 a.m. is early for the GT riders) along the 1096 was perfect since we beat all the songtaews heading up the valley. No cars at all to pass so we had the winding tarmac all to ourselves, the three of us frieghtraining up and over to Samoeng. This trip was unfolding well so far.

    We put Silverhawk on point since his GT rider name instills confidence in direction finding ability whilst Pikey and I are only along to please the ladies. Silverhawk dutifully grabbed a handful of brake where the road turned to dirt to mark the spot on his GPS. The problem here is that I was right behind him and chose to grab a handful of throttle at the pavement/dirt transition to lighten the front end over it. Needless to say the bird of prey almost had a Big & Tall XR enema as I yanked on the bars enough to come whistleing by his elbow to the exclamation of “I know you didn’t almost hit me!!”. Hmmmm 6 feet of dirt and almost took out my riding buddy, only another 500 KM’s to go, we’re off to a good start.

    [​IMG] The scrubhills of the first dirt section from Samoeng to Wat Chan.

    The dirt from Samoeng to Wat Chan is very friendly graded fireroad, with not much stuff at this time of year to cause any grief. A nice introduction to dirt riding if you‘ve not much experience off road. A nice non technical 1 day loop might be this dirt road to Wat Chan then turn right onto pavement heading to Pai and then looping back to Chiang Mai. When you roll into Wat Chan the road comes to a “T” intersection. Make a left to go to Mae Hong Son (there is an army checkpoint here) or if you need some vittles hang a right and go about 100 yards to the only restaurant we saw on the left hand side. Believe it or not the menu even had English for us Farang.

    [​IMG]Pikey and Silverhawk getting directions at the Army checkpoint in Wat Chan

    [​IMG]Pikey and Silverhawk forgetting what the Army gent told them as can be witnessed by the theatrical and conflicting gesticulations of where we are on the map. Lord help us now.

    Bellies full we continued on. This leg of the loop for me was the best part. The scenery began to change from dry scrub brush hillsides into the mountains and lush jungle. Keep in mind with the transitioning scenery also comes changing riding conditions. This leg contains the most technical dirt riding of this whole loop. There are some sections of steep ruts (uphill and downhill) and a few loose rocky downhill’s. I came into an uphill rutted section in 3rd gear that should have been taken in 2nd or 1st. Soon I was imitating a rock skipping across the water bouncing from rut to rut in a demented ping pong fashion that soon enough had me upside down with the front wheel poking over the edge of the trail and looming 300 foot drop. Buddha must have been smiling on me though as I didn’t continue over the edge. Good thing I was Caboose in this train as nobody was around to capture the drama on film. In the wet this segment would be a real challenge. As Pikey posted the French threesome we saw were in a really bad place for their limited skill sets and I’m sure they had a night out in the jungle given their progress and location. No problem they were French and there were plenty of frogs for them to eat.

    [​IMG] Silverhawk and I enjoying getting into to the jungle sections.

    [​IMG]What the Thais call sunflowers. Also notice Silverhawks Ghetto style baggy riding pants. Who thinks he needs a thick gold chain with a Mercedes benz emblem around his neck to complete the look? Could be his GF Thims influence on him, eh?

    [​IMG]As the terrain difficulty increased Pikey checks to see if he has what it takes to handle things.

    [​IMG] Some scenery on the way to Mae Hong son

    [​IMG] The terrain got more difficult at this point and the crew pulls on their gonads to prepare for the terrain. Pikey seems to enjoy this more than most for some reason. We should have a chat with his wife Kat.

    As we descended into the Mae Hong Son valley we were all getting tired. The road turned to pavement and we were happy to be nearing the end. Or so we thought. Much like an adolescent trying to get his finger on his first female nipple this road teased and frustrated us turning from nice tarmac into ruts and bulldust and back into tarmac over and over. Bulldust is that fine talcum powder like dust that flies off your front wheel like a bow wave on a boat. This created vision problems for the 2nd and 3rd riders especially with the setting sun in our eyes.

    [​IMG] Views approaching Mae Hong Son

    [​IMG]Dropping into Mae Hong Son valley.

    We landed in Mae Hong Son and had a celebratory brew over the lake before checking into the Palm Guest house. Word to the wise, make sure your room is away from the road otherwise you awakened at 6:00am with traffic. All three of us indulged in a massage and we resembled 3 pigs in a poke lying there getting prodded by Thai lasses to the moans of our 3 aching bodies. It felt so good that after dinner Pikey and I went back for another 1 ½ hour treatment. We worked it out that for every 2 ½ hours of riding we had an hour of massage work. A decent ratio in any mans book and keeps the smiles big and wide.

    [​IMG] The three muskateers arrive at the lake in MHS for a celebratory brew

    The next day we headed out of Mae Hong Son towards Kun Yuam(sp?) on the tarmac. Twice before I had felt like a stood up prom date on this stretch of road. I first did it on the NSR 150 and when I hit Kun Yuam on my way to Mae Hong Son monsoon rains opened up from the heavens and kept me plodding along at an old ladies pace through the curves. Frustrating. I came back on a GSXR 400 a month later only to have the ignition system throw a hizzy fit outside Kun Yuam so had to do the stretch to Mae Hong Son in the back of a pickup. Frustration again. This time the sun was shining bright, and the XR was purring along like your girlfriend post orgasm. Finally the road opened up her blouse for me to enjoy the curves and scenery in all its glory. Good stuff. Silverhawk mentioned to me when we pulled over for a photo “so much for a mellow riding pace today” indicating I had gone back on my word. The funny thing is the next section of curves I looked over my shoulder only to see his 250 suzuki with hard case and windscreen adroitly nipping at my heels. Loads of fun and good to get the blood flowing for the day.

    Before we left Mae Hong Son Pikey had wanted to have his chain lubed and adjusted. We stopped at a repair shop and all three of us had our chains lubed and adjusted. We all felt wonderfully responsible being proactive on bike maintenance. While we gassed up at Kun Yuam Silverhawk looked at his chain and noted it was too tight. We all checked our chains and came to the same conclusion. Tight, while a fitting word for your girlfriend is not as complementary for your driveline. So the spanners were broken out and to undo the Thai adjustments.

    [​IMG] David undoing the Thai chain adjustment fiasco.

    This section of the trip from Kun Yuam to Mae Chaem had legs of road that had Pikey on his new XR 400 smiling like a 14 year old boy finding his fathers porn collection. He was able to open the beast up and let’s just say that from first hand experience I know that thing can throw rocks. Some sections were smooth and flowing through the jungle that just begged for right wrist WFO out of every corner and opposite lock slides. A bit hairy going into and out of the corner using the whole road because of the odd truck that could appear. But we couldn’t contain ourselves lavishing in the world of the main jet and throwing roost and rocks everywhere. As they say, sanuk mak mak.

    [​IMG]These are the images you don't come across staying on the tarmac. this lady looked older than my 85 year old granny yet she is out and about collecting what the mountains have to offer, dirty ragged clothes, bare feet, etc.. Since the elderly hill people tend to shy away from cameras i pretended to take a photo of myself and tried to include her in it.

    [​IMG] David taking a break amongst some ruts on the trails. I can only imagine how this terrain changes when its wet.

    We bungled into Mae Chaem about 5:00 after a full day of dirt riding. We stayed at the Pongsara (300 baht a night) in our own bungalows for a good value. The guy running the joint tried to charge Silverhawk 60 baht for soap and shampoo that is usually free (small minded). The breakfast is to be avoided at the dining place right next to the check in counter for Pongsara, but the restaurant next to that cooks up fantastic food and heaping portions. A great value.

    [​IMG]David learning not to eat breakfast at the Pongsara. this is their version of french toast, and yes that is ketchup that they served with it, no honey or maple syrup anywhere. Yummmy.

    The 3rd day was pleasant scenery wondering around the hills and through rural villages. Asking directions from the locals can be entertaining to say the least. Hats off to Silverhawk for wading through the quagmire of conversing with mountain Thais. They often try and point you in the direction that is most easy to get to your destination. However on the dirt bikes we are looking for a bit of a challenge which can lead to conflicting ideas of appropriate routes to be taken. Keep in mind in the jungle there is also more than one way to a destination a lot of times which adds to the mayhem.

    I laugh when people say what we are doing is daring or adventurous. When for the villages we ride through it is an every day existence. We ride up on our expensive, sophisticated dirt bikes, adorned in the latest protection wear, only to be passed by two kids two up on a clapped out Honda dream, bald tires, no helmets and 50 baht sandals. An awesome reality check.

    [​IMG] Schoolchildren in a hillside village came out screaming, yelling, and waving at us as we passed. i stopped for a photo and it threw them a curve as they all fell silent and nervous.

    To summarize, this trip was a great combination of roads and dirt connecting interesting towns with rural villages. Only the leg from Chomtong back to Chiang Mai was a boring plod. All the rest of the tarmac was twisting sport bike type roads through mountains. The dirt was a fantastic window to peer into rural life. Having lunches in rural villages always attracted attention and an opportunity to interact with locals not yet jaded by tourism.

    Combine the scenery and riding with like minded riders like Silverhawk and Pikey and a good time is guaranteed. Hats off to you both for sharing the good times, and spreading the Thailand GT rider camaraderie.

  5. Peter Hooper

    Peter Hooper Ol'Timer

    Dave I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my saddle bags which look great but hold next to nothing and fitting a top box.
    The two reservations I have are;
    1. Are they top heavy and 2. Are they strong enough to stay together, and stay on the bike.
    You have just tested both of those areas with your X country bash and I would be interested in your assessment.
    Cheers ,
  6. SilverhawkUSA

    SilverhawkUSA Ol'Timer

    Big & Tall, where do you come up with these? I think you may be a journalist or novelist in disguise. Great reports from you guys and I don't see where I could add more. We have had some good rides and some good fun with Big & Tall over the past months and I hate to see him return home this week. One of the problems with living here, you do make many good friends but they soon go on their way. See you when you get back!!!!!

    I have a Givi top box on my TDM850 that took quite a lot of abuse in Laos but held up well. The box on my Suzuki 250 is just a cheap Chinese knock off that were popular and sold in Chiang Mai a year or two ago. I haven't seen any for a while, when I was trying to find one for a friend they said they were sold out.

    The box on the 250 rattled it's mounting mechanism to pieces in Laos, fortunately before that I had run some self tapping screws through the bottom of the box and into the plastic base plate as it did have a tendency to pop loose if twisted the right way. When I travel now I just put my clothes in a bag and throw that in the top box.

    I like the box as it is a fairly secure place to store things such as rain gear and tools or when making shopping trips around town. Really convenient.

    As for top heavy, I guess that all depends on what you put in it. I really think it would be pretty dificult to put enough in to affect the handling. The only bad thing I have heard about is some "round the world" travelers with large boxes on their bikes cracking their mounts or frames from the excess weight. But I think that is under extreme conditions and loads. Personally, I wouldn't be without it now.

    Oh yeah, on a couple occassions when the bike has fallen over the box takes the blow and pretty much protects the rear of the bike.
  7. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Ah yes, the massage....

    All three of us indulged in a massage and we resembled 3 pigs in a poke lying there getting prodded by Thai lasses to the moans of our 3 aching bodies. It felt so good that after dinner Pikey and I went back for another 1 ½ hour treatment. We worked it out that for every 2 ½ hours of riding we had an hour of massage work.

    Now I know you guys went to the Ban Thai massage in MHS, & one of you got But, the best masseuse in North Thailand! On my last trip to MHS delivering heavy maps I ended up wining & dining with a certain group of gals, one of whom included the wife of the head of the Tourist Police in MHS. She observed that But was at the table & asked me if was I one of her customers. Yes I certainly was came the reply, to which she replied that she too was a "member of the But fan club" (her words in English!). Most folks in MHS know that But is number one for a massage.
    So if any of you guys riding to MHS get a wee bit weary, then do yourself a favour & join the "But member club" for a top massage. You wont be disappointed.
    Just pop along to the Ban Thai massage & say David sent you to join the But Member Club.
  8. daewoo

    daewoo Ol'Timer

    Thanks for the trip reports gents... I am really looking forward to doing some offroad trails in November...


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