Two Loopies tour of the Mae Hong Son Loop

Feb 4, 2007
Paul and myself had been planning this trip to Thailand for around a year. I say planning, but really that was restricted to buying David Unkovich’s excellent book on Motorcycling touring of the Golden Triangle and vague chats about exactly when we could organize ourselves to meet successfully in Bangkok.

I live in Perth Western Australia and Paul in the US , sometimes in San Diego, sometimes in Atlanta and sometimes wherever he and his adorable wife happen to be. This meant that we could have no round table discussions with copious maps spread out over said table for us to study and decide on routes to take. Basically, we thought “just let’s get there, hire some bikes and bugger off.”

So, in early March, I flew into Bangkok and caught a taxi at the magnificent airport into the heart of the red light area known as the Nana Plaza. Paul had already arrived earlier that day, after a 22 hour flight from Atlanta, so I get to blame him for the choice of the dodgy hotel which we were booked into. It wasn’t that dodgy really, just a bit seedy. Lots of ancient, fat, wealthy Caucasians leering at the local girls, who , to be fair ,seemed to be doing their fair share of leering as well.

Having avoided , as much as possible, the obvious tourist traps, we caught the night train the following night to Chiang Mei, where we hoped to catch up with Mr. Unkovich in order to try and milk as much touring knowledge from him over a few beers,so we may have at least a basic idea of initial direction to head off in.

We knew the café to look for to find David was called Kaffe and, as luck would have it, the Kaffe was just across the road from our hotel. He was not there at lunch time ,but the proprietors who knew David well, rolled their eyes a bit at the mention of his name and telling us that he had broken his arm recently in a motorcycle accident but should be in later on that day. Consequently, that evening he was a cinch to recognize as the only one with his arm in a sling. We introduced ourselves, got down to business, and within half an hour had a reasonable idea of where we would head off to tomorrow at least.

We’d arranged hiring a couple of Honda XR 250 ‘s and picked them up the following day from the shop, just five minutes stroll away from the hotel, where we had also left all our excess gear. So just fifteen minutes later, we were trying to blend into the swirling traffic on our way south out of Chiang Mei.

We’d decided to do the Hang Son Loop first of all and aimed to go via Samoeng then hit the dirt sections as much as possible up to Pai. After Samoeng, the place names just seemed to blur into each other for this poor farang. Vague memories of Ang Khai, Mae Wae, etc. Half the trouble was you came zooming into some hamlet lining the dirt track,sending panicking chooks and pigs scurrying for cover, and with no signs saying the name of the place, it was difficult to keep track. Of course the odd place had a sign but that ,inevitably, and naturally enough, was in Thai script, so effectively useless to our ill-informed eyes. We usually decided on which track to take by trying to keep on a compass heading. Not having a compass with us (I’d cleverly left mine in Chiang Mei) slightly complicated this approach, and with the sun in the southern sky , as opposed to the northern sky this Southern hemisphere boy was used to, the whole matter became a bit of inspired guesswork. As Paul frequently pointed out, however, we were there really to get lost anyway. It all added a bit of interest, not really having the slightest clue where we were, and was quite fulfilling when we stumbled on roads that were actually identifiable.

We made it to Pai that first night and stayed in a really pleasant,quite luxurious hotel called the quarter, and after a good sleep and breakfast headed off on the bitumen northwards on the loop to Mae Hong Son.

I had found the combination of full knobby tires and bitumen a bit of a worry at first due to the vague steering feeling that combination caused. As Paul had earlier assured me , however, I would get used to it and by the second day, was feeling quite gung ho about the whole thing. In some mountainous section where the bends were coming fast and furious, I made a fatal error of judgement after going into a right hander a bit too hot, lost the front end as the corner tightened up and slid off into the bush.

I jumped up (that’s a lie –staggered up) and made a quick inspection and all seemed in order. Paul had stopped quite easily adjacent to my off and came over to check me out. He immediately identified a hole in my jeans around the arse region and a further one in my right knee area. I peeked apprehensively through the hole in the fabric and saw a bloody red mess there. Immediate thoughts of “bugger, there goes the holiday you bloody dope!!” etc. flashed through my brain (an observer present might have inquired “what brain?”), but we got the bike upright and pushed it off to the side of the road further down where there was a bit more room away from the traffic to assess things in more detail. I dropped my pants and Paul squatted down in front of me to check out the wound. At that moment, a large truck came past with about 30 Thais in the back all looking down curiously at the what appeared to be the brazen sexual affrontery of farangs on public roads. The speed at which Paul straightened up only made the whole scene appear much worse to the intrigued onlookers.

After this embarrassment, I had my head down low enough to be able to check my own knees and, as the saying goes, it was just a flesh wound. I spent a fair time and a lot of Paul’s medical kit ,cleaning up the mess and getting rid of the bits of road which were just starting to feel at home in my knee, but half an hour later, a big bandage in place beneath my holy jeans, we were on the road again. I was a little more circumspect for the remainder of the day and bumbled along in Paul’s wake, whilst berating myself for coming off.Fortunately, the bike had hardly a scratch to show for my slackness and nothing appeared bent or non-functioning.

For the next few days we wandered round the West side of the country exploring near the Burmese border then headed back East of Mae Hong Son via the smaller tracks off the 3006 road to Huai Tong and then down to the 1263 route. We drove up Thailand’s highest mountain Doi Inthanon then back to the North of Samoeng via Huai Mana,Mai Tung Ting and Pang Ka to return to Chiang Mai from the North.

I realize now that I haven’t commented at all on the roads we road on. They were fantastic. The off road areas were challenging for a number of different reasons and through some great countryside. Elsewhere , on the bitumen , it made us keen to get the trailies back to Chiang Mai and rehire some road bikes. Apart from the towns the traffic in the country areas was non existent and most of the roads were well constructed with beautiful curves though the mountainous areas particularly. We were momentarily held up one day when a truck transporting an elephant slowly ascended the mountain pass. I took a video clip of the this for posterity.

The only down side was the fact that the local farmers had decided the best way for them to increase their productivity was to burn off the scrub growing on the mountain sides. Great for them , but a pain in the arse for us. Throughout the whole of northern Thailand there was a smoke haze which reduced mountain scenery to just the basic outline of the mountain but obscuring all the colours. To be fair , most of the time we were concentrating on the roads and not paying too much attention to the surroundings, but it would be nice to go back sometime to really appreciate the scenery.

When we got back to Chiang Mai, I was a bit paranoid about the owner of the bikes finding out about my off. I wasn’t bothered about the potential cash loss, it was more about seeing the look of contempt flash across his features, which I’m sure he would have felt. At the time of hiring, he’d had a quiet word with Paul, having scanned my ravaged, ancient features, and advised him to keep an eye on me. In other words he doubted my competency. Well, I guess he was proven right, but I didn’t want him to know. As luck would have it , he didn’t notice the tear in my jacket or the hole in the jeans, and the bike looked fine, so had no problem re-hiring us the road bikes. We hired Honda super sports 400’s. I guess they were made around mid ‘90s and are a quite a lively 4 cylinder, putting out maybe 65 BHP .

This time, after a night in Chiang Mai spent organizing laundry and feeding and speaking to rellys, we decided to head north to the Lao/Burma border region known world wide as the “ Golden Triangle.” We set off on the route 107 to Fang, and for the first time experienced what we felt, comparatively ,were crap roads. Lots of traffic, buildings, and flat generally. Just before Fang we turned West on 1249 into the mountains of the Doi Ang Khong region. It was an immediate change for the better road wise, but not so good for the bikes. As soon as we hit any gradient at any sort of altitude, my bike died in the arse. It’d rev fine in neutral, but as soon as it had to take any load, it just wouldn’t do it, other than screaming along at 20 kms./hr in first gear. We backtracked to the main road again and called the bike shop in Chiang Mai. It was a bit difficult communicating but eventually we understood to take the bike to a local bike mechanic in Fang and get it fixed and send the bill to the owners in Chiang Mai. After we’d found the mechanic, however, it was apparent that it would be highly unlikely for us to get anything done inside a week, so we called the hirer again and suggested we return the bike and pick up a substitute,that afternoon. It was about a two and a half hour ride back but it was worth it and the shop owner had prepared a second bike , same as the first, but in good condition. and had filled the tank up, which was a nice thought.

Paul and I had made a pact, that after riding the 107 in the morning,when it looked like all previously beautiful Thai roads had disappeared, that we would never ride the bloody thing again, so we went up the 118 towards, Chiang Rai which was much better.
We turned off at Mai Suai on the 109 towards Fang which was an absolute ball tearer of a road. Beautiful fast curves up mountain passes etc.Bloody great!!
Our second attempt to go into the Doi Ang Khong montains was well rewarded, with more fabulous roads and scenery, and we elected to stay for two nights in this area, whilst exploring the border area.

We then headed off towards the Golden Triangle area and after skirting the nortern border for a time on minor roads ended up at Mae Sai.We took the road through Mai Pol Rong and arrived at the golden triangle where we spent the night at a hotel overlooking the Mekong river, where we were entertained by numerous skulling crews in their dragon boats racing up and down the river.

The next day we made our way down the border area following the Mekong before branching off on the 1155 and 1021 to Chiang Kham
Sometimes during this period, we were riding on really cool, twisty roads without seeing a single vehicle for over an hour and this continued as we made our way South over the next few days going from Song Khwae on 1097 to Thung Chang and round the loop via Huai Kon in the North to Bo Klua where we took the 1256 back westwards to Nan.

It was during this section that the weather let us down for the first time. Up to this time we had had perfect weather. Early in the mornings it was a bit chilly, requiring a windproof jacket over the light cotton jacket I was wearing but warming up later on in the day to where, particularly at lower altitudes, it became slightly too hot around 4 pm. (I should add here that the light cotton jacket I was wearing was also reinforced with Kevlar protection in the shoulders, arms and elbows. This protection worked well in the prang I’d had a few days earlier and had saved my forearms from a bitumen flaying .)

As we started our climb up out of Bo Klua the skies darkened alarmingly and very quickly the rain began to fall. And this rain was serious rain. None of your namby pamby sprinkling shit. This was man’s rain – big heavy drops which quickly became a solid sheet reminiscent of being held under a water fall like Victoria falls, for example.
Paul,by now, had totally disappeared up front due to the following:-

1/. He always did when presented with winding mountain roads.
2/. I couldn’t see further than two metres anyway.

My visor was completely misted up and I was reduced to riding with one hand whilst trying to demist the thing. I gave up quickly and pulled the visor down below my chin. My eyes were immediately assaulted by what appeared to be a dozen hose pipes all going flat out, but it seemed to be the best alternative. I guess I could have stopped, but there was nowhere safe to stop. Anyone coming behind would have just ploughed into the back of me.The whole surface of the road was awash.

The temperature had dropped dramatically and I was completely saturated. I was freezing and began to shiver and shake uncontrollably. This is not a good thing to do when your trying to ride a motorcycle up windy hairpin bends with vision is done more by intuition rather than actual sight. I was just about falling off with legs and arms going in unison, when, through a break in the mists I saw Paul’s silhouette on the side of the road waving like a maniac.He’d managed to find a timber structure just off the road which was used as a roadside market stall and rode his bike over the muddy stretch from the road into the stalls. He pointed out the way , which looked going over a path very similar to a bottomless swamp, and we managed to manouvre my bike into the rudimentary shelter.
For an hour we watched the lightening and listened to the thunder roll around the mountain peaks whilst the rain and huge hailstones tumbled down. During this period, to the amusement of the fellow Thai shelterers, I was constantly engaged in vigorous calisthenics to try and recover a bit of my body heat. I was still cold when we rode out some time later, but as we descended through areas white with hailstones, I gradually warmed up as the air temperature quickly changed for the better.Within half an hour I was back to normal and enjoying riding again. During this period, Paul, who had cunningly equipped himself with far more forethought, had remained comparatively dry, but at least he refrained from asking me why I hadn’t brought some wet weather gear. I had asked myself the same question. A simple plastic suit would have added very little weight to the gear and would have saved me a lot of grief.

As David warns folks doing this sort of thing. Take your time and make notes along the way, because, I must admit, the whole trip after a certain point has blurred into a series of coalescing images without definition of their whereabouts. It was great and we had a ball, but, I’m afraid, I can’t accurately describe the latter portions of the trip.I should check with Paul, to see if his decidedly younger brain has retained any greater and more precise images than mine.

We made it back to Chiang Mai without any problems, dumped the bikes with the hirer and caught the train back to Bangkok.

Fabulous roads, great people, food for the greediest, beer for the most demanding alcoholic--- I’m coming back.