I admit, I’m quite lazy when it comes to doing any kind of research whether it’s for school or for travel. I’ve been very fortunate that every place I’ve been this past year, there’s been someone who likes to see the kinds of things I like to so I’ve followed them with very little planning.
When I was skimming through my friend’s Lonely Planet book, there was a section of the top 25 things to see in Thailand and the first suggestion was a writer who wrote about the Mae Hong Son loop and said, “This is one of the best motorcycle rides I’ve ever done.”
Done. I’ve been itching to do a long motorcycle ride for awhile so that immediately was on my bucket list for the north. This mountain loop is a fully paved road with endless sights to see and places to visit, including waterfalls, geysers, hippy towns, farms, quirky places and villages. If I ever did it next time, I would spend a month in the mountains and suggest other people to stay longer as well. You can easily make connections with really open and very well-traveled people in addition to locals with wonderful smiles.
I probably should have planned it a bit more but being in Asia for 10 months has taught me that having open days and the belief that things will work out is the best preparation someone could have. I had good faith from the little research we did that we would find accommodation along the way and ask people where to go.
When you’re traveling, even if you did all the online research, you always find people who have suggestions along the way and it’s best to be open to changing your “plan.” No matter what country I’m in, I can think of many times that the best days I’ve had have been completely unplanned. All we packed were some clothes, cash and our Mae Hong Son map and then we were off.
Our 200 cc Honda Phantom
Because the roads were very windy and there were quite a few hills, we wanted to rent a good bike. By luck, we ran into some tourists who referred us to a store called Tony’s Big Bikes, right in the city square in Chiang Mai.
In case you’re not a rider, most scooters are between 110 cc to 150 cc and more powerful street motorcycles range between 250 cc all the way to 1000 cc. If you’re a beginner rider, most people start with a 250 cc bike. People with bikes between 500 cc to 900+ cc are riding pretty damn fast.
We were amazed how good the price was because most shops were renting out small 125 cc Kawasaki bikes for 600 baht day (about $20 US a day) while Tony’s Big Bikes lent us their new 200 cc Honda Phantom for 550 baht a day. We got their new bike with saddlebags and bungee cords.
We also bought a good Mae Hong Son map at the store for 250 baht and it was well worth it because it was our guide for our entire trip. It’s also laminated so it can’t easily get ripped.
This is the first cruiser bike I’ve ridden for a longer period and it was so comfortable and I see why people like these bikes for long rides. I’ve never done a multi-day motorcycle trip before and it felt amazing to just be cruising on open road on the highway then going through the windy roads of the mountains. We passed beautiful and diverse green landscape along the way.
My only goal for the four days was to just ride the bike for a long time because I haven’t ridden a manual bike for months. Everything else was a bonus.
Organic coffee, waterfalls and geysers
An inspiring two days in Pai
After we finished with the geyser we wanted to get to Tacompai farm that was recommended by our friend. But as the sun slowly started setting down, it was getting cooler and I wanted to just go for the first accommodation we saw because it would have been another 30 km to Pai, which takes a lot longer to drive when the roads are windy.
As we were looking for the farm, some large strawberry displays caught our attention. It was called Love Strawberry, which had a restaurant and accommodation. I checked out the room and it was like a cute cabin with a hot shower (heaven!) a bed and fan. It looked perfect and it was 500 baht ($15 US) to share between the two of us. But since the farm was only a 2 km away, we thought we’d check that out first and then we could use this place as a backup.
I’m glad my friend kept pushing us to keep going and thankfully we found the farm and were kindly greeted by their knowledgeable and humble owner Sandot. He gave us a mini tour of the farm and let us choose which bungalow we would like. For 100 baht ($3.30 US) per person per night, we had the room and access to the hot shower.
When our friend at Mindful Farm recommended Tacomepai to us for our short-term stay, I didn’t realize how many people around the world travel to learn about Sandot’s sustainable and organic farming practices. I felt bad for only staying two nights and I know next time I would stay at least a month to be able to learn, which is actually already completely self-sufficient without workers. I met one volunteer who has already been there for nine months on the farm. You can see my full conversation with Sandot in my previous post.
We chose the room that was above the classroom where Sandot teaches about permaculture, which is basically about creating sustainable ecosystems and uses nature to provide, food, fuel and any other necessities for a community.
We settled in around 6:30 p.m. and Sandot kindly invited us to dinner that was already cooked by the other guests in the wonderful outdoor kitchen. I was completely exhausted after a full day of riding, so after we ate by the fire I just wanted to sleep.
After a few hours, I woke up to the beat of a djembe. The sounds traveled through the trees and into my room and I couldn’t help but walk towards the music by the fire. Two guys were drumming, singing and playing guitar beautifully. I wasn’t planning on going out that night but they invited us to go to an open mic café where people sing and jam together.
We all hopped on our bikes and drove into town. The other guys drove so fast that we lost them and we looked for the place ourselves. One of them was nice and actually drove out to find us and led us to the cafe. The city centre is such a funny place, it’s unfortunate we didn’t have time to look around in the daytime. It was full of hippies from around the world, had a variety of music and interesting products.
It’s always so nice to wake up within a peaceful mountain. My friend and I promised to help guests cook in the morning for everyone. Generally the guests can either participate in the farm’s activities that are pretty much monitored by the people who volunteer there. The only reason Sandot built bungalows is to accommodate his guests who want to learn from him or stay at the farm.
One of my favourite things to do with other people is cook and it’s been a great experience to cook and chat with people on the two farms we’ve visited in Thailand. Especially when everyone does something to help in some way. Guests have to make a fire in order to cook because there are no ovens.
It’s entertaining to watch Westerners trying to make a fire sometimes because most of the kitchen ends up smokey before we can cook anything. The kitchen really is for the guests anyway, not for the local people who live there. I was wondering how my noodles would turn out in the high heat pan but improvising seemed to work.
Nothing is wasted on Tacomepai and plastic is forbidden. It’s really amazing to see Sandot’s knowledge put into practice in so many ways from making a homemade water filter, creating watering systems for plants without wasting any water and making dishes from bamboo. He also uses solar panels which costs about $60 US dollars and produced in Thailand.
On our last night, I was fortunate to have the chance to talk more with Sandot about why he built the farm the way he did and h is history, which was really fascinating. You can read the extensive post about our full conversation.
His family has been in Pai since his grandfather’s generation until he took it over. He has a background in electrical engineering and could have made a lot of money. He had past ambitions to make a lot of money in engineering and travel. But while he was in Dubai, he said “Everyone is chasing money and I realize money doesn’t make people happy. It is not the right way.”
When Sandot returned to the farm, he didn’t used to get good prices for his food so instead of selling his food to make little money to buy other food. So he has since been growing food for himself and his village for the past two decades. He said, “I don’t follow economic times. Whether GDP is up or down, I don’t care, I have food to eat.”
Sandot has learned everything from his father since was a young boy about surviving in the jungle, creating ecosystems, planting and many other things we didn’t have a chance to talk about. “My father was my Google. He was a blacksmith and I learned everything from him,” he said.
Sandot was even able to start planning in the desert in Dubai with the droplets of air conditioning. He has a remarkable imagination that he loves to use to figure out how to plant things and use whatever materials are around him.
One volunteer told me that Sandot used to teach a lot of theory but many of the past guests could barely pick up a shovel. So he focuses a lot less on theory now and does hands on teaching because he believes strongly in practical learning.
Finally, we said our goodbye to our lovely farm family. Sandot told us to stay longer very sincerely.
Ride to the next accommodation
We realized we already went through the hardest roads in the first part of the loop with all the switchbacks and hills. I stalled twice and started rolling backwards in two parts of the hills until I learned how to adjust my gears properly when going up the mountain. Learn by doing.
We rode for 7.5 hours with a two-hour lunch break. It’s very tiring after a few hours of riding so I took a nap after lunch and then we went on. Once I’m riding though, I feel very zen and you can easily get in a trance and just move with the bike and the road.
Our goal was to find accommodation by 5 p.m. but there was not even a village for at least 20 km, let alone a guesthouse. Because it was getting cold riding as the darkness set in and the winds got stronger, we were just going to stay at the first place that looked half decent. I was ready to pay whatever price they said by that point because it was so cold. There was nothing but hills and trees for what seemed like endless kilometers.
Nevertheless, I always felt very safe in northern Thailand. Even though it’s a completely new area for me to explore, there is a peacefulness and sense of community in the areas we visited. You can really get a decent feel for a new place when you first land and get a sense whether you need to learn more about it or play it really safe at first before venturing out. There were always good mountain vibes in Mae Hong Son.
Then finally we arrived at a village and we ecstatically saw a “24-hour guesthouse” sign. When we asked how much, if they said 600 baht I would have paid it, but they said it was 300 baht ($10 US) for both of us so of course we agreed. When we saw the cute wooden guesthouse, we were very happy to see real beds and closed walls, which we haven’t slept much in the two weeks prior. And it even had a TV!
We went out to see the four restaurants that were around and enjoyed a 40 baht fried rice meal before going to sleep.
The highest point in Thailand
We woke up to peaceful silence again in the mountains and I enjoyed a slow walk to the restaurant while watching the sunrise behind the foggy mountains.
The owner was just getting set up and it was so nice to enjoy a fried rice meal and soup to start the day. We waited until about 9:30 a.m. to ride because it was too cold. We only had about 150 km left to ride and my friend wanted to check out Don Inthanon temple if we had time, which is a popular spot for people to visit.
As we rode for an hour, even at 10:00 a.m. it was still cold. We stopped at another restaurant and I relished a hot soup and drink until it started warming up again.
After going on so many windy roads, you come to really appreciate straight roads. I put the bike in top gear to go at its fastest to cover more ground whenever we had a chance. The road to Don Inthanon was easy and beautiful among the trees.
We enjoyed a coffee in the area, which is the highest point in Thailand. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to actually go to the temple, which required a 1.5 hour guided hike to see the temple. There may have been a chance we wouldn’t see it anyway because it was foggy. But I would strongly recommend people take a trip to see it if you have a few days in the north. From Chiang Mai’s city centre, the temple is only about 88 km, which would take about up to 2.5 hours to ride by scooter.
Then finally we rode our last leg to Chiang Mai and return the bike. The last 30 km felt like a long time and it was weird riding with traffic after spending days riding among the quiet mountains.
600 km can be done in three days but to really enjoy the mountains, I recommend at least a week so you can take some time to just enjoy the people, farms, scenery, and nature’s wonders in the mountain.
It was the people, once again, not the places we visited, that made the journey most meaningful.
Cost summary in US dollars
Aside from meals and accommodation, my friend and I divided everything in two.
- 200 cc Honda Phantom rental for four days: $73 (split 2 ways)
- Gas: $20 for 91 fuel in total to travel 600 km (split 2 ways)
- Mae Hong Son Map: $8 (well worth it)
- Entry fee for waterfalls and geysers: $6 (split 2 ways)
- 2 days at Tacomepai farm homestay: $10 per person for accommodation and three meals a day ($3.33 per person per night for accommodation and $1.67 per day for three meals a day)
- One night stay in a village guesthouse: $5 per person including a bottle of water for each of us.
- Meals: $5 to $7 per day
Total cost per person: $96 for four days