Road Trip! Chiang Mai & the Mai Hong Son Loop
There is perhaps no other place as gushed about by the blogging and location independent traveler than Chiang Mai. So we had high expectations before arriving–we even considered scoping the place out as a future potential temporary home. It was a good thing we didn’t make any major decisions before visiting.
We weren’t blown away by Chiang Mai.
Don’t get me wrong there were plenty of cool things about the city–killer night markets, cool cafes and restaurants, and intricate Buddhist temples. But it also was rather busy, dirty and hectic. And we saw loads of foreign tourists everywhere we went. Another reason why it’s never good to have high expectations when traveling.
We flew into Chiang Mai from Mandalay, Myanmar and had high hopes of renting a motorbike and exploring Northern Thailand. We hadn’t done a ton of research, and ended up going to Mr Mechanic, a rather well-known Chiang Mai establishment, because we knew they offered a range of bikes and the option of purchasing insurance.
After reading up a bit on the famous Mai Hong Son Loop, we decided to hire separate 125 cc Honda Clicks at 300 baht, or about $9.25 each (including insurance) per day. With myself, Jim, at 6’3, and our backpacks, we thought it’d be wise to take separate bikes on the notoriously hilly, loopy route–worried that we may not make some of the switchbacks. Though there were definitely much cheaper options; despite the extra expenses, we were pretty happy with this decision. Luckily we never had to test the insurance or Mr Mechanics guarantee to pick us up should our bikes break down anywhere on the road–but it was nice to know we had that assurance.
There was also one rental company we learned after the fact which offered to take your luggage to your final destination. This would be ideal for travelers only interested in traveling from Chiang Mai to Pai and back. We had a slightly more extensive route planned.
We began our journey by driving our freshly rented bikes to the South Western outskirts of Doi Suthep National Park to stay for two nights in a peaceful bed and breakfast. This stop, which was actually a mistake, we booked thinking it was another guesthouse located within the Chiang Mai city limits. Lucky for us, this turned out to be a great mistake. We ended up the ONLY guests at an incredibly lovely place about 20 kilometers from the city.
After recharging in nature for a couple days, we hopped on our Clicks and made the winding trip to Pai. The 130 Kilometer journey from Chiang Mai to Pai is famous in the backpacker world. I had read a few horror stories about the very curvy 3+ hour, drive along highway 1095. I read how we should expect to be dodging cars and trucks as we made the 762 hairpin curves.
Apparently 13 months of motorbike “training” in the streets of Ho Chi Minh prepared me well, because I found the drive enjoyable rather than stressful or difficult. Sure we had to drive alertly and carefully; but by now we are both well used to those kinds of conditions. After making necessary refreshment or viewpoint stops along the way, we arrived in Pai shortly before sunset and found a random guesthouse to park our bikes for a few days.
Pai was yet another place we had many of traveler rave about. It has the reputation as a bit of a backpacker haven. What we found was a tiny Thai town in the picturesque mountains mostly overrun by young wannabe-hippie backpackers.
We kept to ourselves, indulging in pretty amazing western food –pizza, baked goods, gyros, and mega-brunches (give us a break–we have been in Asia for a long time). While in Pai we spent one afternoon at a nearby swimming pool, ending with a sunset at Pai Canyon. Ignore the claims that this is “Pai’s answer to the Grand Canyon,” or you’ll be disappointed by the lovely, though slightly underwhelming rocky cliffs overlooking the nearby highlands. Still, a great spot for a sunset.
Our last night in Pai was spent at Thom’s Elephant Camp. Having missed our chance, when the ethical and well rated elephant park we planned to visit near Chiang Mai was booked, we thought we’d get our fill of elephants at Thom’s. We booked a very reasonable priced package which included a stay in a cabin at the camp, plus a long bareback ride, a chance to bathe with the elephants, and “bamboo raft” ride.
Our ride on the elephants was very cool, though slightly anticlimactic. Again–high expectations. We were able to share the back of an elephant, as a Thai mahout, or trainer, walked alongside, chain-smoking and talking loudly in Thai to his family on speaker phone. Perhaps the highlight of our ride was the bathing portion, where we were tossed around like rag dolls off the back of the elephant and into the chilly river. All in all, it was an experience I was thankful for the chance to have.The ride on the bamboo raft was relaxing, though marginally interesting.
After another elephant ride through the countryside, we left for Cave Lodge. Located about 2 hours by motorbike from Pai, Cave lodge is in the picturesque countryside near Sappong and the Myanmar border. This was a place which we were highly recommended that succeeded in meeting our high expectations. Read more here.
Mai Hong Son
We made the tough decision to leave the amazing Cave Lodge after just three nights in order to try to fit in a few more stops on our loop back to Chiang Mai. Knowing nothing at all about the place, other than that some travelers we met said it was a good chill spot for a day, we made the long drive to Mai Hong Son. We stopped along the way for a cheap though perfectly prepared meal of Pad Thai and pork belly with greens at a roadside stand.
Upon arriving, I was immediately surprised by the small town, which was more charming and pleasant than expected. We stayed in a nice little guesthouse near the small though scenic Chong Kham lake. We wandered the lake and watched street venders emerge and set up a little night market as the sun set over the nearby mountains. We ate a dinner of local Thai specialties at a nearby restaurant and ended the night with a couple beers at a bar with a balcony overlooking the little lake, observing the tame though active street life below us.
Mae Chaem District
We woke up the next morning, hopped on our bikes and took off again. This time our destination was a place called Hot Coffee Resort north of Mae Chaem. Located in an area not frequented by tourists, we were drawn to the place by the name (Hot Coffee!) and the cause. The resort supports a childrens home and school, which is attached to the back end of the property. The children, who have no parents, are given a comfortable place to live, an education and practical job training (learning to work in the resort). In addition the resort helps support the Rain Tree Foundation which helps with education, community and clean water projects around Northern Thailand. It didn’t hurt that the place had serious jungly charm with bamboo structures, tropical flora and a peaceful view of a clean, swimmable river.
But first, we’d have to drive our longest stretch yet. Luckily, it was also our most scenic. The road wound out in front of us revealing around each bend a new scene–farmers fields carved into the base of friendly mountains, bougainvillea trees, tiny villages, and much greener hillsides than previously seen during our time in Northern Thailand.
We were happy to arrive at Hot Coffee, and nourish ourselves with a hot meal and…a coffee. The rest of our day was spent lounging on our bungalow porch, reading, resting and indulging in normal vacation activities.
For our final stop before heading back to Chiang Mai, we decided to spend a night in Mae Chaem town near Doi Inthanon National Park. We had no plans for accommodation and after cruising the vicinity, we eventually settled on a substandard, though inexpensive, roadside collection of musky concrete cabins, that, too be fair, had a lovely view of nearby rice paddies. We used our unappealing lodging as a happy excuse to get out and enjoy the nearby scenery. Hearing rumors of incredible waterfalls in the National Park, we hopped on a click and headed for the hills. What we found did not disappoint. A cluster of waterfalls completely void of tourists, connected by a jungly path, ending in the tallest in Thailand–Mae Pan Waterfall. We spent all afternoon testing out the frigid, spring fresh water of each waterfall, warming ourselves in the hot sun, until the afternoon tour buses from Chiang Mai arrived, bringing with them a flock of local and foreign tourists.
After a light dinner including some random spicy Thai food, we had a sophisticated evening, spent consumingThailand’s finest junk food and beer (found at the ubiquitous Seven Eleven) and watching BoJack Horseman on Jim’s laptop. Travel can be so glamorous.
The next morning, we left our grungy dwelling and headed toward Chiang Mai, but not without one more stop in the national park, this time at the highest point in Thailand. Perched nearby is a monument erected in honor of the current King and Queen of Thailand. Elaborate gardens and two temples possessing stunning views of the surrounding valleys below comprise this memorial which commemorates the King and Queen’s 60th birthday. Next, it was on the the highest point, which was made up of a highly anti-climactic sign with no views.
Finally it was time to make the last leg of our journey back to Chiang Mai on the progressively less scenic Highway 108. Before our flight back on Monday, we spent the weekend enjoying the best of Chiang Mai’s festivities. One night was spent watching a thrilling Muay Thai boxing match; another experiencing the equally riveting Lady Boy Cabaret. We wandered through both the Saturday and Sunday walking street night markets, buying cheap, hand-made souvenirs and munching on plenty of street treats. We indulged in Chiang Mai’s plethora of International as well as local culinary delights. And we spent sweltering afternoons at our hotel pool or in our air-conditioned room.
On our final morning, after one more over-indulgent brunch, we hopped on one more rickety tuk-tuk and boarded one more flight back to Ho Chi Minh City.