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Thailand: Mae Hong Son Loop by motorcycle

Mae Hong Son LoopImage: Jack Southan

Thailand is a uniquely beguiling prospect when experienced from the seat of a motorcycle, says Jack Southan

 

Riding motorcycles in Thailand is one of those ubiquitous tourist experiences. It’s the country’s primary mode of transport and makes getting around town quick and easy. But take the bike out of the city to the rural parts of the country and you’ll find something a little more unique.

Being told about the Mae Hong Son loop motorcycle route seems the perfect opportunity to get out of the hustle and bustle of city life and discover a part of the country few people visit.

I decide to rent a brand new Kawasaki motocross bike, seeing as I don’t quite know what to expect and need to be prepared for anything. Somehow, a scooter doesn’t seem appropriate.

Saddling up, strapping my bag to the rear seat and drinking several bottles of high-power Thai Redbull, I feel ready to hit the 600km road looping around the north-west corner of the country, from Chiang Mai and back, along the border of Myanmar.

The first part of the trail leads me up towards backpacker’s heaven, Pai. The road heads out of town along a wide highway, through farmland and small villages, up into the green jungle-covered hills. The tarmac curves uphill through 762 hairpin bends before descending through brilliant green paddy fields into the smoky, wooded little town.

I lose a few days here, whiling away my time drinking rice whisky and eating all kinds of food on Pai’s famous Walking Street, until the incessant hangover gets the better of me and I move out towards the provincial capital of Mae Hong Son.

I ride through lost tropical villages encircled by towering mountains, discover tiny off-road trails, which lead to ancient lakeside settlements, and sleep in bamboo huts in Karen Hilltribe villages.

The roads are magnificent, slick black tarmac cutting though the dusty red earth typical of the region. Tall, dense forests line the way — dripping in the rain and steaming in the sunshine. The road opens up from time to time to look down on mile upon mile of open countryside, dotted with simple homes built alongside sapphire rivers, which cut through the emerald green of the rice fields.

I pass through Mae Hong Son several days after leaving Pai, via a lost Chinese outpost called Ban Rak Thai, on the border of Myanmar. It’s cool in the hills, with the mornings held in mist until the heat of the sun burns it away as it rises above the treeline. As I hit the plains around the city, the temperature soars.

For the next few days I ride across miles of baking hot open road, snaking my way gradually downhill towards the turn off inland at a place called Khun Yuam. From here the road leads back along the dusty highways towards Chiang Mai, and the end of the line. But thankfully there’s one last adventure to be had before the curtain comes down — the ride to the summit of Thailand’s tallest mountain, the mysterious and wonderful Doi Inthanon.

Shrouded in fog at its base, the mountain has a history intertwined with superstition and Buddhist history. It was named after King Inthawichayanon, one of the last great kings of Chiang Mai, and from its summit you can look out over what would have been his vast and beautiful kingdom. His remains are buried at the top in the hope that in death he’d be able to look out over it for all time.

Climbing back onto my bike I head off to the finish, realising for the first time that this region is one of the last true places left in Thailand to discover something new and untouched. It is unique and incredible at every turn.

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