The Mae Hong Son Loop was an adventure that Scott had been dreaming of during his tenure abroad in Thailand. The trek involved renting a motorcycle or scooter and travelling through Northern Thailand, beginning at Chiang Mai, and travelling over 700 kilometers. We ended up riding over 400 miles in 4 days.
The loop begins in Chiang Mai, then Pai, Mae Hong Song, Mae Sariang, and back to Chiang Mai. I had initially planned on travelling to Vietnam all by my lonesome during the time I had after my mom left and before Conners arrived. However, I messed up my visa again and decided to join Scott on this venture. I was already in Chiang Mai and had no hurry to get anywhere. Plus, I had never travelled with Scott and this seemed like a great opportunity that was long overdue. Much to my surprise and joy, David (Leche) decided to join at the last minute as well. We were already off to a hot start.
I had spent the last 2 nights hanging with Michelle and Mandy and was excited to see the boys get here. No offense to Mandy and Michelle at all, I deeply enjoyed hanging with them, I had just spent pretty close to a week with my mom and those two and I needed a testosterone filled adventure.
Day 1: The Departure to Pai
The boys arrived around 8am from their overnight train ride and the girls had actually decided to make a spur of the moment decision to join us to Pai. We met up with the bros, rented 5 scooters from POP’s motorbike rental, picked up a map, and were set off to blaze a new trail. One problem, no gas. Make that two problems, Chiang Mai is an incredibly hectic city and we are all beginners on scooters who need to make it to a gas station.
After weaving through cars, breaking rapidly to avoid road rage drivers, and Scott nearly crashing in front of the gas station, we had made it. We filled up on gas, bought some bungee cords, and acquired ponchos. Never know if it is going to rain…LAOS!
Driving through Chiang Mai was a frightening experience. Especially because we had the two women from Europe, who drive scooters on the regular, leading the way. At red lights we would weave through cars and traffic to make it to the front. I looked at David and Scott and could tell in their eyes they had the same thought process as me: “These bitches are crazy”. Scott and I were split up from the group and I remember Scott yelling at me: “Dude, My hands are shaking. My heart is going crazy.” I responded with, “What the hell are we doing?” However, we couldn’t let the women have more balls than us so we pressed on. Foolish pride is to blame for breaking nearly every traffic law enforced in the states.
We finally exit Chiang Mai and were delighted by the scenery and landscape around us. Flat, empty road with rolling hills in the yonder and we headed into the wild frontier. We were flying through these roads and up mountains. It was super hot out and my t-shirt was flapping in the wind as we maneuvered through the curves intertwining the mountains.
Our code for stopping for pictures or any other necessary means were three honks. We were climbing this mountain and all of a sudden, the trees opened its branches to a spectacular view. I didn’t even have to honk the horn, I don’t think anyone honked, we all had the same mindset. This view needed a photo. We paused on the side of the road, took photos together and relaxed for a second. I picked up a large bamboo stick as Scott started soft-tossing rocks for me to hit into the valley below. Granted, I swung and missed until I finally connected with one that rick shaded off the road barrier and back into the road. As vans passed by, the locals waved at us with huge smiles and we greeted them with strong Sawadee’s!
Back on the bike. We reached Pai around 5pm and after a couple minutes wondering the town aimlessly, we finally found the guesthouse we were looking for: Charlie’s. We unanimously determined that we outright deserved a couple beers after our long trek and made our way to 7 Eleven which was located conveniently across the street. We sat around the outside seating and enjoyed a couple cold ones. We decided to go find food and were instantly distracted by a couple left behind Loy Krathong lanterns. We bought two, one massive one and one miniature one. We found a good area where trees were absent and power lines out of sight. We lit our lanterns, watched the float away with all our wishes, and almost as if the voice of God spoke down from the lanterns, we heard a “I haven’t seen lanterns lit by my place before.” The man’s name was John. He had just bought his house, asked us where we were all from, and invited us in for some free tequila shots. Hell yeah.
The man was from South Africa, had just bought this place, renovated it, made it a guesthouse and has now invited us in. We sat around the table, passed the bottle around, spoke a little about life and how drastically plans can change. We spoke about Pai, Northern Thailand, and the immense hospitality this man had shown us. The man was hilarious, nice, and incredibly gracious. If you ever want to stay at an awesome guesthouse in Pai, his place is named Our House. It is incredible and the man is incredible generous.
He recommended a restaurant with fantastic food and we were off. We were so hungry and beer can only fill you up so much. I had an incredible gravy noodle soup with chicken. Unfortunately, it burned my mouth as if I had swallowed coals itself. My mouth was not the same for the next week. We ate dinner, went back to the room and sat around relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. My last night with Mandy and Michelle.
Scott, David, and I set out for a bar that John had recommended. Apparently he used to do a couple musical shows there every now and then so we figured it was a good plan. We began at one bar and stumbled back to our room a significant time later. Apparently we woke the girls up because we were very loud and Scott and I kept yelling “SIgghhnnnnn….SIggghhhhhh!”
Day 2: The Trek
We reached the outskirts of Pai and settled down in a hot spring. After dipping our feet in, probably killing fish downstream from us, we had to say goodbye to Mandy and Michelle. It was hard but not as hard as I expected. I had got to spend time with them over the last few days that I would never trade for anything. It was a proper goodbye and a great send off and I am glad we didn’t have to say goodbye in Bangkok. The girls left to Chiang Rai, very north of Thailand, and the boys set off for Mae Hong Son. I do miss them already.
The boys were on our bikes and off for the adventure ahead. We attempted to find a waterfall outside of Pai but ended up goofing around in sunflower fields. I had decided to try and use the bungee cords to place my backpack on the end of the scooter. I was sick of carrying my entire load on my back. As we cruised down the road, Scott paused for a photo and I took this time to stretch my legs out. Much to my chagrin, one of my bungee cords had managed to wrap itself around the wheel on my bike. Shocked by the fact that I had not crashed and am still alive, I quickly took the bungee cords off my backpack, unraveled the bungee cord from the wheel, and continued to carry my backpack for the rest of the trip. Never test your luck twice.
The roads outside of Pai were spectacular. We were climbing and descending mountains at steep degrees and devastating curves. This was truly a ride for the ages. We had picture perfect weather and the sun provided enough Vitamin D for the rest of the year. We climbed to the top of this hill with an incredible viewpoint. We got off, got water, and relaxed to let nature take us in. The view was expansive and we could see miles upon miles of emerald green mountain landscape. Coming down from the hill was just as exciting as the view from the top. We were braking and sliding in and out of turns, occasionally putting our foot on the ground for an extra bit of stability and balance. This was spectacular and my favorite part of the ride thus far. Once we reached the bottom of the hill a rice patty farm decorated the hillside. Workers were out in their rice hats preparing the ground with their home made tools. At that point, Scott, David, and I all realized simultaneously that this was going to be a trip we would remember. This was only the beginning.
We continued on, weaving through mountains and dissecting the road with our scooters. We saw every motorbiker go by and mocked them, calling them pussies and declaring that real bikers drive scooters. Little jokes that kept us fresh. Around half way in between Pai and Mae Hong Son was a small town called Tham Lod. We decided that it had a cave and we needed to see it. We drove our scooters through this town filled with huts, little kids running around naked, families waving at us as we go by. One small girl was paired with two younger boys and she felt the need to flash us the middle finger. However, she was smiling as the finger was lifted high in the air. We all started laughing and the little kids thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. This was the real Thailand. This was the remote areas we had dreamed of seeing. After exiting the town, we reached a stretch of road, one lane, that raced through tall trees. We were riding in the middle of the jungle, road to ourselves, and breathing in clean air. Finally, clean air.
We reached the cave tourist area and ate. Walking the road down to the cave, we noticed this place had something secretive and very special. Little kids, boys and girls, were being trained for future monkhood. It was very interesting to watch monks speak and demonstrate the monk ways. We were taken aback. We were just talking about our pooping stories and these kids are hearing stories on enlightenment. Puts things into perspective.
The tourist desk kept trying to get us to pay for a tour guide and we walked right past them. We kept saying: “farang, we don’t know anything about nothing…farang sorry”. We are assholes but it worked out for us because we toured the cave ourselves. We walked into the pitch black as our eyes attempted to dilate. The stench was of bat guano and soon the floor became very slippery. Scott was the only one with a flashlight and David and I were stuck to his hip. We saw bats flying around and boats floating by with tourists in it. We laughed at the tourists and how dumb they are. Funny, tourists laughing at tourists.
As we attempted to make our way back, David and I started seeing things. As it become more eerie with every step I slipped. I was going to fall so I put my hand out into straight bat crap. Perfect. We left the cave, I washed my hands, and we were back on the bike.
We reached Mae Hong Son around sunset and parked our bikes in a night market. We walked the night market to enter the center of the town. It was stunning. The middle boasted a small lake with temples surrounding the outskirts on one side and small local bars on the other. Had we reached paradise?
Aching to get my large backpack off, we attempted to find a simple guesthouse that we could stay at for a night. The first one we crossed was an armpit and a poor excuse for a room. Two beds in what seemed like the size of a prison cell. The showers consisted of a large pool of water with a bucket to scoop and pour over yourself. The pool of water also portrayed a dark brown color and it looked like a jar of dip spit from an entire can of mint griz. It was a unanimous no and we were on to find another.
We found a guesthouse that would suit our needs and rushed to search the night market. I still had to buy some souvenirs but I didn’t see anything that tickled my fancy. David came across this t-shirt stand that had the map of the Mae Hong Son loop printed on the front. Was this destiny? All three of us bought one of these shirts. David went Green, Scott went Black, and I went White. White brings out the tan better, that was my thought process. After the night market where I had attempted to buy someone else a gift, I bought myself one and we hurried to get food.
We found an awesome restaurant directly on the lake with a live band. The food was fantastic and Scott and David proclaim that the burger was better than Firehouse. I have to say I think the biking was getting to them, or maybe the beer. After dinner, we searched the city for a small quiet bar. To our surprise, everything was closed. The entire street was ours and we just started running around. We hadn’t seen empty street in God knows when. This was incredible. After our childish running and ranting in the empty town on Mae Hong Son, it was time for bed. I gave Scott my computer to research what to do the next day and I conked asleep instantly.
Day 3: The Border
The alarm went off at 8am, followed by hitting the snooz till 8:30. Our plan was to get up around 8, get some food, and leave by 9. I decided we needed some extra motivation so I grabbed my laptop. I blasted Balada and all of a sudden, the dead asleep Scott turned on his back and started pumping his fist. David, also a mummy in his bed, began humping his bed. The morning had begun and we were dancing in our boxers singing “le le le leche le le le leche leche leche leche”. Best way to start a morning.
Big mistake giving Scott the computer. He talked David and I to reach Mae Searang, take a left outside the city to the border of Thailand and head to the border of Myanmar. Apparently, at this town, there is no need for a visa and we could pay the rebel force to take us to Myanmar by boat. David and I looked at each other and we both had the same thought process “Fuck it. I’m in.” Scott said he read that the road was a little bumpy. I quote “a tad bumpy”.
The ride from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang was again gorgeous and filled with curves that exchanged gorgeous views of mountains, green plains, and flooded rice fields. Once we arrived to Sariang around 3pm, we grabbed a guesthouse and continued on our venture to Myanmar.
We raced through rice fields as their workers eagerly frisked the ground of the greatest cash crop of South East Asia. We entered the hills and I instantly knew this road was more than just a “tad bumpy”. The road was paved but covered in silt and sand. My scooter fishtailed controllably as I attempted to take even the tamest curves. I cautiously maneuvered through these treacherous roads only to find the road continue to worsen.
The silt and sand had now converted to slippery mud and rocks. I manned the anchor of the group because I was by far the slowest. David was an angry driver dying of hunger. He wanted this ride to end quickly so food could soon enter his belly. His crankiness only grew as the trek became more dangerous and timely. The road no longer resembled civilization. The mud and dirt continued to build in areas causing half the tire to sink into the bubbling brown liquid.
I have to admit, I was stressed. I had already survived the Laos experience only to find myself in, yet again, another traumatic event on two wheels. We watched as Toyota Hiluxs’, the most common truck in Asia, drove slowly passed us. If they were going slowly, we were a snail’s pace. The dirt from the road had converted my flawless pearly white t-shirt into a dusty brown rust coloration. Using my shirt to wipe the sweat and dirt off my face seemed useless and I couldn’t help but think I was rubbing more dirt down my pores.
The “road” was now only accessible by a four wheeler and still we pressed on. Interesting how a little motivation to experience and see the unknown pushes three aimless wondering men to continue driving. Pools of water continued to scatter across the road. At every pass, we stopped to assess how we were going to cross this miniature pool of brown water. We had no clue how deep the immense puddles were or if there were large rocks that could vault us from our bikes. David first, Scott second, and I carried the anchor. Watching both David and Scott pass through the obstacle was mighty funny. Both extended their legs upward and outward in an attempt to save their shoes as they hit hidden rocks that sent their bikes into a violent wobble. It was my turn, I slowly hit the ignition and peddled my way through the murky water. I lifted my white converse high in the sky only to catch the giant rooster tail my scooter raised through the puddle. My shoes were coated in mud and now our bikes were muddy catastrophes. The rocks inside the puddle provided an exciting surprise as my bike wobbled left and right only to finally straighten out as I exited the pool. Only about three more of these instances occurred before we finally reached the town.
The town consisted of 80% Burmese refugees. Purely authentic, off the beaten road, and thriving with smiles, we had finally arrived. The huts were built into the mountain overlooking the raging river that separated Thailand and Myanmar. As we drove through the miniature village, small children chased after us waving their tiny hands and displaying the cutest smiles the world has ever seen. We had finally arrived to the river in our attempt to reach the enchanting and mysterious land of Myanmar.
We raced down to the river where there was a small boat community travelling back and forth across the river. One boat was filled with kids who were simply doing donuts in the river for over 10 minutes. The beach was sandy and rocky with no real rhyme or reason to the boating community. We approached a long boat where the man was piling beer, chips, and other convenience goods into his yacht. He had this large mass of black goop in his mouth which I could only imagine was the Burmese version of chewing tobacco. I interrupted him briefly to ask if he could “take us from this side, to that side.” Try and make it as simple as possible because the language barrier was noticeable. He looked at me, laughed and said yeah. I turned to Scott and David and we all had a look of sudden surprise. It was unexpected success. We didn’t know if we would make the road, we weren’t sure if we would actually be able to cross, and now this dream had become reality. Only to be crushed. He turned back around to ask me a simple yet delicate question: “to Myanmar?”. I gave him a tiny smile and said “Yeah!”. He responded by laughing at me followed by a “No, no”. We came, We saw, we were conquered.
Myanmar stood there across the river and we had debated whether or not we should swim across. The sun was setting and we still needed to make the treacherous trip back before dark. I believe it was than when the three of us had realized we had done something incredible. We have already covered hundreds of miles on our bikes, trekked the dangerous road to Myanmar, climbed and descended the enchanting mountains of Northern Thailand, and had become incredible friends in the process. We looked across the river at Myanmar with satisfaction. It wouldn’t be travel if everything goes right. We grabbed 15 Burmese cigars, hopped back on our bikes, and headed back to Mae Sariang.
We survived the long trek back, took a couple mosquitoes to the face flying down the rice fields at dusk, and crashed onto our beds back at the guesthouse. Starving, we crossed the street for by far the best meal of my tenure in Thailand. I ordered three dishes: tuna sandwich, Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce, and the mouth watering fried chicken on a lemongrass stick, wrapped in bacon and dipped in Thai sweet chili sauce. I ate all of it, my mouth is still watering. After enjoying our dinner, we ordered a couple of beers and each lit up a Burmese cigar. We could not have been more relaxed. Not a care or worry in the world. No economical downfall to stress about, no homework, no stress.
We made friends at the bar who told us about the road we had just conquered earlier that day. Apparently, there was a massive landslide that took out the majority of the road. The landslide eroded so much of the road that the village was unreachable by any motor vehicle for over two months. The two months previous we arrived. We had just crossed this road in our Honda Fino scooters. Needless to say, we felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. We felt pretty bad ass.
We brought out the Jagermeister and took a round of shots. The bartender was incredibly nice, gave us a free beer and a shot of Thai local whiskey. Even if it’s free, it is almost never worth taking a shot of Thai whiskey. We again were the only ones walking the streets. I looked up and noticed the moon had been cut in half. Not vertically like the moon in the states but horizontally. The half moon looked half full.
Day 4: The Race back to Chiang Mai
Our last leg of the journey brought us from Mae Sariang, through a city named Hot, and back to Chiang Mai. We began in the morning early because we did not want to pay for another day for our scooters and we needed to get them back to the rental shop by 6pm. Plus, we had a couple of stops we needed to make along the way.
We exited Mae Sariang and headed for Hot. As we began down the road, the landscape began to change drastically. Pine trees began to appear and scatter the grounds where jungle used to dominate. Continuing down the road, pine trees now covered the hills and the road turned into pavement and the asphalt improved drastically. Cars began to appear out of thin air and we were back in traffic. The road no longer winded up, down, and around hills and instead parked itself at the bottom of the valley. All of a sudden, a clear river popped out of nowhere and the road surprisingly followed the river. Was this Oregon, did Thailand finally decide to make sense? I stretched my neck around and couldn’t believe my eyes. The pine trees, river, and rolling hills reminded me of Oregon. At our first stop, I turned to Scott and asked him if this reminded him of Canada. We both agreed that this was no longer Thailand and we were biking through North America. So this is what it is like to have a bike in Oregon.
We arrived in Hot and the place is adequately named because it was a scorcher. We enjoyed a quick bite to eat and headed towards Doi Inthanon. We took a left off the main highway and pressed on to Doi Inthanon. Doi Inthanon is a Thai National Park that boasts the tallest peak in all of Thailand.
The bike up the mountain was not easy and the degree of steepness did work on our bikes. We were flooring our bikes constantly and rarely ever reached higher than 50 kilometers an hour. David’s bike was especially struggling and we weren’t sure if he was going to make it. The drive was gorgeous. Again we were climbing up and around green spiraling mountains to breathtaking views over the vast landscape of Thailand. The road was busier than I would have preferred but no complaints here.
We finally reached the top where two towering monuments stood in memorial. The two temples provided a proper tribute to the peaks of the mountain. Each temple mirrored the other with the exception of their color. Both with tall, jetting peaks that came to a sharp tip. At the temple, overlooking the edge, I raised my Beaver Nation t-shirt. I claimed the ground of Thailand for Beaver Nation. Go Beavs!
We exited the temple area to reach the true mark of the tallest peak. This was far less exciting but it was important to see the sign. David, Scott, and I all stood in front of the sign. I was holding the Beaver Nation shirt, David displayed his Costa Rica Imperial Cevecerria Beer Flag, and Scott stood in the middle, defeated by the fact he had brought nothing to represent Canada.
We hopped back on our bikes which were completely empty with gas and prayed we could make it to a gas station. The climb up had required significant stress on the bike which in turn drank up all the gas. Lucky for us, the road was so steep coming down that we never had to use our gas descending the slope of the mountain.
We stopped at a waterfall on the way down and grabbed some ice cream. The waterfall was incredible. The roaring falls were our last stop before we entered Chiang Mai. David and I reluctantly followed Scott up steep and wobbly stone steps to a viewpoint. We reached the top only to find out that there was no viewpoint. David looked like he wanted to shoot himself or jump off the waterfall. I was a sweaty mess and Scott was just a frustrated Canadian looking for what I am sure would have been an incredible viewpoint. O well, on to the next one.
We raced back to Chiang Mai and the road had turned into a bona fide freeway. For all we knew, this was a racetrack. In the beginning, the scooters were getting the best of us. After 4 days, horrible roads, winding and twisting curves, and close calls, we were professionals on our bikes. We were full throttle the entire highway. Weaving in and out of cars, the Thai highway might as well have been the autobahn. My backpack tassles flickered in the wind creating a harmonic slapping sound against the pack.
As we reached 100 km/ph, 110 km/ph, and finally 115, we truly were speeding. No cops, no problems, no regrets. The confidence on the scooters had been built over time and traffic soon turned into a nuisance. We finally caught up with the Chiang Mai traffic. However, we had found that if your body can fit through a gap, so could the scooter. We weaved through stationary traffic, avoiding no one but other fellow bikers to reach the front of the line. Every light we hit, we raced to the front and cut the line. The weaving we had feared in the beginning following the girls had now become just another adrenaline rush to fuel our need for a testosterone buzz.
We arrived to Chiang Mai and had to hurriedly find the rental shop. Traffic was severe and maneuvering the streets was a test. We made our way through the bustling streets to find POPS motorbike rentals. We dropped our bikes off, checked in just in time, and made our way to burritos. The bikes needed to be returned by 6pm and we checked them back in at 5:50. We jumped and high fived each other and hoots and hollers ensued. We had made it over 350 miles with no crashes, no spills, and nothing but great memories.
I believe in fate, without a doubt. I was supposed to travel to Vietnam by myself during the time I had between Chiang Mai and Conners’ arrival. However, caught up in finals, I forgot to apply for my Vietnam visa. By the time I came to and realized this harsh reality, it was already too late to apply. However, I could care less. I am glad things didn’t work out because if it had, I would have missed out on the highlight of the last 6 months. This trip was incredible. Filled with incredible sights, spontaneous adventure, and brotherly love, this trek was filled with memories preserved for the rest of my life. Throwing caution to the wind, we hopped on our bikes and headed for no man’s land. We performed dangerous passes on unsettling curves, slid over gravel and mud, flew threw highways, and arrived safe and sound. Scott and David, it was an honor riding with you boys. Take care and good luck with the rest of your endeavors. Le le le leche le le le leche, leche leche leche. Much love boys.
P.S. Love you mom and dad!