Mae Hong Son Loop - my version

May 20, 2005
After my run up to Mae Sai on the Honda Phantom and mooching about the city for a few days I decided to go for a short hop. I had kept my eye on the ebb and flow of hire bikes from Mr Mechanic and pounced on a fairly respectable looking CB750 washed up on the pavement the previous evening. Initially, it came sans mirrors but they were transferred from another machine complete with a travelling spanner to overcome their tendency to spin in the breeze. Service, and with a smile!

Bye the way, when I was there last summer, I was helped a lot by a very nice lady who was heavily pregnant. I read on the forum of various people at Mr Mechanic so can any of you put a name to the face I remember?

I drove north on Route 107 out of Chiang Mai with a view to turning west at Mae Malai onto Route 1095, doing a loop around the city and returning from the south. The traffic was busy on the north leg but thinned as I approached the western turn-off. Here, the countryside began to establish itself and I saw signs for interesting features such as a snake farm. Clearly, there were many attractions along this road because there were many pickup trucks with bench seats called sawngthaew. They were packed with trippers who looked to be suffering a bit in the heat but who always threw me a cheery wave when I slipped past. So far, Route 1095 was a good road with enough variation, both in topography and roadside activity, to keep it interesting without being demanding.


I should mention that the detail of this I am writing retrospectively, from notes made at the time, nearly a year after the event. I know I had planned to turn south at some point to begin the backstraight and looking at the map now I’m fairly sure that was Route 1265 just south east of Pai. My original travelogue emails didn’t contain many route numbers or place names simply because they would be meaningless to the recipients. However, it did take roughly two hours to reach my intended turn-off and, at an indicated 110Km on the map from Chiang Mai, that would be about right.

The turnoff road immediately started climbing and was as smooth as silk having been recently surfaced but it stopped after a few klicks and a brown dirt track lay in front of me. As is said, discretion is the better part of valour, and I wasn't about to take this streetfighter machine onto soft earth. I might not find out how heavy it was until I needed to pick it up and miles from anywhere with a sore leg that might be very difficult indeed. I hate turning back and driving the back the way I have just come so I returned to Route 1095, turned west and ended up driving for 12 hours and nearly 500 kilometres. Ah last summer, how I wish I had discovered this forum and David’s book.

Continuing west along Route 1095 the terrain became increasingly tortuous and the driving was superb. Fantastically steep climbs, turns and descents as the road wound its way up huge ridges and then plunged into the valleys on the other side. There was forest everywhere except on the valley floor and lower slopes where the colours turned a softer green reflecting the agriculture. Sometimes water filled rice fields lay in tiers flanking the road as it snaked through the countryside looking for the best point to once again begin its climb and exit. Workers bent double would straighten up and look as I shot past.

I was interested to see how this much bigger machine would fare against the smaller Phantom when confronted with similar terrain on the Mae Sai to Fang run. For an old bike it was remarkably well balanced. It had obviously been dropped a few times (what big bike hasn't) but the frame and forks were still true. The clutch had a definite transition point, albeit at a slightly awkward point in its travel, and the gear change was positive and notched. I didn't like the brakes as much as the front had a tendency to snatch when first applied but the rear foot brake came on-line smoothly without any sponginess. In any case I was a bit wary of excessive use of the front brake because if there was one detrimental aspect of this bike it was its tyres - definitely illegal in the UK. All-in-all things seemed fine as who needs brakes going up hairpin 60-degree slopes and who needs the front wheel locking and sliding when going down them? It was the rear brake and the gears for me -and the power. This bike did have a lot of grunt. Once you got it safely braked and found the apex a quick flick of the wrist had the back tyre bedding down into the road and the machine just accelerated up the slopes as easily as on the flat. Yes, this was much better than the Phantom. No waiting for the revs to hit the power band, performance was on demand.

I saw a few big SUV off-roaders and I followed one of them for miles of hill climbing. The whole time he was probably listening to the CD player and talking to his chick on a mobile phone but to me he was quarry. He drove fast, careering around the bends taking up the whole road with the exhaust belching fumes when he put his put down to pull out of the corners. It seemed to handle well and the big tyres were ideal for the scrappy mountain roads. Every time he hovered at the back of another vehicle for overtaking I just closed up and went for the same gap he did. Eventually, with two cars in front of him I shot past them all and built up a bit of distance. I didn't want just to pull in front of him and have him on my tail as I negotiated the hairpins. Later, if he caught up with me I would concede gracefully and eventually, while examining my map at a prospective turn off, he did shoot past having skipped the traffic.

I know it is really poor driving behaviour to hammer along interesting but unknown roads, testing your judgement and the bike. Kent, in England, has some fine roads and plenty of 'competition' but after a short while I gave it up. Too old? Gotten too sensible? Too scared? Yeah, all of those but there are lapses.

After crossing the mountains still driving west meant I could turn south for the backstraight of the loop – the much chronicled Mae Hon Son loop on this forum. This was the only place in over 2000Km of holiday driving that my heart jumped into my mouth. I had left the side stand down after consulting the map and it dragged on a long left-hander. The only thing to be done was to pull the bike immediately upright and jump on the brakes. I managed to stop just short of the verge and luckily the road was wide and empty.

Continuing the loop after my failed Route 1095 turn-off seemed a good idea at the time and the distances on the map looked reasonable but what I had not factored was that 60 Km of alpine like driving crossing countless ridges and valleys is not the same as cruising down the freeway. My problem was becoming not distance but time. After sometime, the next big sign told me that remaining on Route 108 would leave me with a 350 Km drive back to Chiang Mai. By this time, and it was late afternoon, it would be at least mid-evening before I got back home.

So, another perusal of the map indicated that I could use the easterly Route 1263 at Khun Yuam to cross back over the mountains thus shaving quite a distance off the indicated main route. The road turned out to be very narrow, very steep and in places took me into the low cloud that clung to the peaks. It didn't exactly rain but moisture was everywhere as I had ascended beyond the dew point. The vegetation looked lush and glistening and the roads shiny and slippery. I took great care not to test the front brake and tyre and planned the bike's corner entry and velocity with the gears and rear brake. I would keep the engine light and revvy while changing down through the gearbox and then, with a few dabs on the foot brake, get everything lined up ready to use the engine momentum to power out of the bend.

A few times some serious examination of the map was required to make sure that I kept to indicated paved roads and still headed toward Chiang Mai. The bike odometer had been disconnected (a common feature on rental bikes worldwide) so I was denied mileage information or the trick of integrating my speed. My watch became the most important instrument.

I had made a poor decision in choosing the route and was having to work hard to be safe while maintaining pace but was rewarded by some fantastic driving and spectacular views. A high point came when I passed a pair of elephants lumbering back from their work. These were not tourist animals and balefully examined me as I whispered past lest I startled them. This was not like a dog running out onto the street. Elephants look much smaller on the tv.

My heart sank as I came to a point where the land had slid away carrying the road with it. In its place were two metal wheel ramps a vehicle width apart spanning the breach. I remember them sloping up a meter or two above the void and a good few meters long but time probably has emphasised my distress. Anyway, I do remember feeling very high and exposed on a single tyre ramp trying to drive in a perfect straight line.

Well, it soon got dark and I was still a long way from home on minor roads. Unlike my other trip, I did have a home (hotel) to go to so I was determined to press on. At one point, I got off and bent the headlamp bracket to cast the beam more usefully onto the road in front of me. Soon, I was employing the trick of simply following a car in front of me to light up the route and using their rear brake lights as my cue. This was definitately a fall-back strategy since driving became more reactive than predictive and the road took on a surreal video game quality watching it unwind in front of me bounded by fluorescent markers.

I drove for a long time before the road intersected the main highway, Route 108 leading north to Chiang Mai. After leaving around 10.00am I finally got back to the hotel at 10.00pm.I was absolutely shattered but stupidly elated as I had been a bit crazy, seen and done some wonderful stuff and was still alive. The bike was a complete mess and it received a well-deserved valet wash the next morning.

Again retrospectively, I would say that from Khun Yuam, my route was probably Route 1263 to Mae Chaem and then Route 1192 onto Khun Klang. I eventually reached Chom Thong via Route 1009 and after that navigation, even in the dark, was plain sailing along Route 108.

By way of explanation, many of the original travelogue emails describing the driving experience were written for the benefit of a pal back home. A fellow biker, Polish who, before he came to London, had toured right across Europe from Russia to Marsielles, France and back on a GPZ 750. I have enjoyed digging out the old emails and the map to write this in detail as the memories came flooding back. There were times when I regretted leaving Route 108 at Khun Yuam but the bottom line was I could always just stop at the roadside and wait until the next day but I’m glad I didn’t.
Apr 23, 2005
I just came from up North run in June 2005. I rented the same bike you just rented-CB750 with sans mirrors from Mr. Mechanic. The lady you mentioned have her baby boy-her second child. If you think she is nice, you should meet the owner of the shop. I almost ask her out for a drink! I've similar experience just like you describe, and I would like to do the North trip again, 'cause you never get tired of the mountain view! But next time I might try different rental agency with different bike, and run those mountain's curves again!!

Brihan Woolman