Mae Hong Son: Certified for hairpins

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CHIANG RAI, 31 July 2018: After driving through 1864 hairpin bends on the road to Mae Hong Son I felt I had earned recognition, perhaps even a certificate of merit.

Mae Hong Son is probably the only provincial capital in Thailand that awards ‘certificates of conquest’ for those who arrive in one piece and with a sound mind.

The sound mind is important as the brain cells are seriously stressed on the 245 km trip across mountain ridges that separate the far northwest town from Chiang Mai.

Ban Rak Thai, a former KMT (Kuomintang) village in Mae Hong Son.

Chilled travellers usually break the journey in the small village of Pai, a halfway house for backpackers and youthful tourists.

Mae Hong Son’s provincial capital sits in a narrow valley surrounded by forested mountains that are habitually shrouded in mist. Access is limited to just two highways; the longer low-road 108 from Chiang Mai  (349 km) and the meandering of high-road 1095 (245 km).

The Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce issues the certificate that confirms a successful trip on highway 1095 for the grand fee of THB40. Seeking out the chamber’s office opposite the post office is worth the effort.

Most tourists don’t bother to complete the six-hour journey across the ridges preferring to stay put in Pai famed for its nightly food-street bazaar and quaint boutique resorts overlooking the town’s river. They return the way they came back to Chiang Mai.

But Mae Hong Son’s 9,000 odd residents quickly point out that their provincial capital has its own brand of traditions and heritage reflected in its distinct temples and ethnic minority groups that dwell close by.

In truth, the contrasts between Pai and Mae Hong Son are core features of a signature trip unrivalled in North Thailand. It unfolds in a grand circular tour that starts and ends in Chiang Mai travelling on 1095 on the outbound leg and returning on Highway 108.

The circular route through the hill country is best explored by hire-car or motorbike over a leisurely three to five-night itinerary.

On the road to Pai

To enjoy this trip at its best, plan for October through to early December when the sunflowers bloom on hillsides mostly on the highway 108 stage from Mae Hong Son town to the junction village of Khun Yuam.

From December to early March the cooler weather attracts Bangkok residents who head for Pai in their droves to pose in winter woollies and hoodies. Hotels are packed and the village’s small lanes suffer the indignity of gridlock.  Mae Hong Son town in contrast rarely suffers these peak season symptoms.

Driving the route during the monsoon months June to September also has special appeal. You have the roads to yourself, the countryside displays vivid shades of green due to the daily downpours and hotels welcome you with low-season rates.  But it rains and that may dampen the enthusiasm for selfie photo sessions, but never entirely if there is an umbrella handy.

A motorcycle tour authority and founder of GT Rider, David Unkovich, knows the pitfalls and challenges of motorcycle touring on this famous loop.

Highway harmony

He’s probably covered most roads in Thailand and neighbouring countries checking scenic routes for the first-ever guides and maps specifically for motorcycle riders.

On the loop what’s the best bike to ride?

Unkovich says it’s not about bike size, but what makes you comfortable.

“The winding roads don’t allow you to carry much speed… cornering speeds on the tight mountain roads are down and in these circumstances a smaller bike is easier to ride and more fun.”

While the automatic scooter can do the trick simple and easy to ride, he warns that when loaded up it will struggle for power on uphill stretches. More importantly it may have braking issues when going downhill.

“The Honda Wave is a better bike in the mountains for scooter riders,” he recommends. “For big bike riders a 250 cc maybe the quickest and easiest bike to ride on the loop.”

There are bloggers who laugh off encounters with highway police claiming they bluffed passage through checkpoints without having a licence or insurance.

Pick up place for certificate of conquest

“You should have licence. Ride without one and you are breaking the law People do it (in Thailand) because they can, it’s a sense of adventure or freedom; but you would never do this at home?”

He warns that when something goes wrong the absence of a driving licence usually annuls insurance cover.

“Accidents do happen and on a motorbike they are often not your fault, but if you are not covered by insurance because you don’t have a licence you will face serious consequences.”

To be on the safe side carry an international driving permit that is essentially a transcript of your national driving licence.  When stopped by highway police show both your IDP and national licence.

After sightseeing in Chiang Mai, the preferred airline gateway for travellers exploring North Thailand, hire a car or motorbike and head north on Highway 107 for 32 km to the junction with highway 1095 where the 95 km hairpin bend marathon over the ridges to Pai starts in earnest.

If you are not an experienced motor cyclist the task will appear extremely daunting, but three to four hours later and considerably road wiser you will descend to the narrow valley where Pai nestles next to a river.

Pai is halfway house and its tiny guesthouses and boutique hotels offer a retreat from fast-lane urban lifestyles.

The night bazaar that spreads out on the town single main street is the village’ version of ‘night life’ where a mesmerising display of street food snacks tempt passers by and quirky T-shirts that rhyme with Pai remind you to buy souvenirs for friends back home.

It’s cool for two nights and then the road to Mae Hong Son beckons. Unkovich declares that the  “Pai – Soppong – Mae Hong Son section of 1095 has the most spectacular scenery.”

The ride covers 108 km and another 900 odd hairpin bends. Depending on your driving skill the trip could take from two hours and 30 minutes up to four hours if you make a few stops for fruit snacks or a cup of coffee.

Or perhaps you fancy an overnight in Soppong’s Cave Lodge to visit Tham Lod Cave a 10-minute walk from the lodge.

Mae Hong Son sits in a valley that offers spectacular forested mountain ranges that border on neighbouring Myanmar.

Like Pai you really need to stay two nights to explore the town’s temples and the ethnic minority villages. Unlike Pai it has the additional charm of traditional festivals that are a real bonus if you can pair your trip with the festival dates.

Check out a spectacular sunrise or sunset from the vantage point of Wat Doi Kong Mu that stands on the crest of a small mountain overlooking the city.

Wat Chong Kham stands on the banks of the town’s lake and is noted for its Burmese-style pagoda roof. Illuminated at night the scene is postcard perfect for your Facebook selfie.

The bamboo Sutong Pe bridge that transverses a rice field leading to a temple is a popular attraction, just a 10 km motorcycle ride from town, off the main road to Pai.  The walk across the picturesque bamboo structure takes around 45 minutes to the temple and back.

Unkovich claims the “road to Mae Aw or Ban Rak Thai, a former KMT (Kuomintang) village, is one of the steepest on the loop”.  Located near the Myanmar border, 45 km north of town, families of a Kuomintang 93rd army division opposed to communist rule in China settled here next to a lake shortly after World War II. Today, there is a thriving tea plantation, restaurants serving dishes from China’s Yunnan province and a cluster of guesthouses.

Mae Hong Son loop certified.

Heading 65 km southbound from Mae Hong Son to Khun Yuan, highway 108 meanders through valleys covered with orchards, teak forests and sunflower fields.

Khun Yuam is an ideal stop for breakfast, early lunch or a coffee where you can make the decision to continue on 108 to Mae Sariang for an overnight stop and then back to Chiang Mai, or turn left on to highway 1263 for a longer, but interesting diversion to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak at 2,565 metres.

Having come this far it makes sense to strike out for the dramatic scenery and year-round cool weather at Doi Inthanon’s resorts that have sprung up on steep hillsides at 1,500 metres above sea level.

Doi Inthanon National Park is around 100 km from Khun Yuam on a windy climbing route following highways 1263 and 1088 before switching to 1192 at Mae Chaem village.

GT Rider’s founder says “the small town of Mae Chaem, nestled in the valley below Doi Inthanon…is a gem; a classic community that more people should explore.”

Exiting the village on the narrow mountain road 1192 brings you to Doi Inthanon National Park Checkpoint No 2 where the road merges with highway 1009.

From here it just a short 8.3 km drive to the gates of Don Inthanon Royal Project (1009) where there is fine restaurant and comfy accommodation in 14 lodges, the ideal spot for an overnight stay. Here you will cap off an amazing holiday drive in a setting that is awesome not only for its scenery, but also to witness its positive impact on rural communities since it opened in 1979.

The highland research station has successfully introduced cold climate flowers and fruits including apples and strawberries. It has also succeeded in breeding rainbow trout offering a year-round supply to restaurants and hotels.

Caviar was introduced in 2016 selling at THB5,000 for 100 grams. All these ventures have raised the standard of living for ethnic minority groups living in the area.

I might have picked up a certificate of conquest for driving the curves of highway 1095, but it is here that I gained an appreciation of the amazing role of the Royal Projects. They are without doubt unique and a must-see for anyone who yearns to understand what makes Thailand tick.

A short 8.3 km back track on highway 1009 from the gates of the Royal Project to the barrier at the national park checkpoint brings you to the steep 9-km climb through a series of hairpin bends that takes you above cloud cover to the actual summit.

Following the summit selfie next to a sign that tells you this is the highest point in Thailand, the journey back to Chiang Mai begins in earnest with a 47-km downhill drive on 1009 with a few inclines and flat sections in farming valleys to reach the junction with Highway 108 where you make a left turn for the 57-km drive to Chiang Mai.  The circle tour of places less travelled in the far northwest ends with a well-earned massage and hearty meal before boarding a plane for home with fond farewells to the gateway city.

Memorial for the loop’s ‘departed’ riding mates

Postscript

GT Riders, a group of expatriate motorcyclists, constructed a chedi atop of the famous Doi Kong Mou mountain overlooking Mae Hong Son town, to honour ‘departed’ veteran riders of the Mae Hong Son Loop.

The group hosts an annual GTR MHS Memorial ride to Mae Hong Son to pay respects usually on the first or second weekend of November. This year’s ride is on the first weekend of November.

(Photo credits: David Unkovich)

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