Saturday, December 7, 2013

Motorcycling in northern Thailand - Mae Hong Son Loop

We've been doing a bit of traveling during the past few weeks. The weather is sublime, the roads beckoning to be driven, the scenery begging for oohs and aahs from those lucky enough to be seeing it from the seat of a motorcycle. The dry season is well under way now and this beautiful part of the world is at it's prime.

Nut and I wanted to revisit a well known national park, Thung Bua Tong, southwest of here to see the gorgeous sunflower fields while the blooms were at their peak. We just missed them when we visited there in 2011, arriving after most of the flowers were finished. We decided to ride the famous Mae Hong Son loop as long as we were over that way. We did this trip with an American expat couple we met a few months ago, Bruce and Kathleen. They ride a big Honda Forza, a 300cc automatic cruiser that looks a bit like a scooter on steroids. Its huge seat makes riding 2-up easy and comfy.

We made the 600 km circuit in clockwise fashion: Chiangmai to Mae Hong Son to Pai and back to Chiangmai. The first leg took us from Chiang Mai to Doi Inthanaon and Mae Chaem where we stopped for lunch. The ride up and over Doi Inthanon's spine is always fun and up at that altitude, always cool. We turned off onto the 1192 just before the summit. If you click on the photo below to view it full size you can see the royal pagodas near Inthanon's 8,000 ft summit, the highest in Thailand. Also just discernible in the lower left is Mae Pan Waterfall.

View north to Doi Inthanon from R 1192
The highways beyond Mae Chaem, the 1088 north and the 1263 west to Khun Yuam, are choppy and in some places severely potholed. Although the surroundings are beautiful I couldn't really take my eyes off the road. That's the one drawback about motorcycle touring. It's a bad idea to allow yourself to be distracted in any way, scenery or whatever, and when the roads are bad it's even more important to keep completely focused.

We overnighted in Khun Yuam at a place that's been around for many years, the Ban Farang Guesthouse. The accommodations were adequate but the bungalows tiny with barely enough room for the bed and a TV stand. There are several new guesthouses being built and once they're up and running the choice of hotels will be improved significantly. After a fantastic, farang style breakfast and excellent lattes at the Peekmail Restaurant on R 108 just south of the town center, we were off to see the sunflowers.

Sunflower fields at Thung Bua Tong National Park

Bruce and Kathleen and their Forza
We took a short ride up the มส 4009 beyond the park and I was again struck by the beauty of Thailand's rice fields. Late November is harvest time for rice. The harvesting is still mostly done by hand and we saw many fields with people wielding short hand scythes or gathering sheaves of cut rice stalks which were then carried to the roadside. In some fields we saw workers hand threshing the rice from the stalks by beating the sheaves on a collection mat. It must be hot, dusty work.

Rural homestead - Route มส 4009
On the way back we stopped at an overlook that offered a view of the sunflowers and mountains to the south that I just had to grab.

After gawking at the flower studded hills we headed back to Khun Yuam to pick up the 108 for the short hop north to Mae Hong Son. I drove this stretch of highway years ago during my first visit to Thailand but had forgotten how beautiful it was and what great motorcycling it offered. We cruised right along through the jaw dropping scenery only stopping for coffee about midway, and for this quick snapshot of the heavily forested mountains east of the highway.

The tourist season is underway presently and accommodations in Mae Hong Son were spotty. We hunted around for a while looking for an affordable room (i.e., under $25/night) and ended up staying at a resort that was adequate but nothing special. Of course I was busy in the evenings adding details to the OSM map of northern Thailand. Although this town and Pai, our next stop, are immensely popular tourist destinations there is no aerial imagery coverage with which to help sketch in their roads and residential streets. If I wanted to expand the map I would have to drive every street in town with GPS and camera. I was planning to do that but after a full day on the bike just couldn't summon up the energy. Some other day maybe.

Next day we were off early on our way to Pai. Again, I had quite forgotten how spectacular the mountain scenery is along this stretch of the loop.
The road just traveled - below us the 1095 winds its way upward
Another beautiful day with my beautiful girl

Bruce & Kathleen
 We arrived in Pai towards afternoon and were lucky to get two bungalows at my favorite guesthouse there, Ta Yai. We had time to visit Pai Canyon and the Chinese village west of the town, where we also ate dinner. Pai was crowded with tourists, both Thai and farangs. I made one solo mapping run and was impressed by the sheer number of guest houses, resorts and cafes lining every highway and byway. Even a few short years ago, it was hard to find a decent coffee shop that served quality espressos. Now, they're literally everywhere up north, and not only in Pai. Thailand has a burgeoning coffee growing industry and the delicious, mountain-grown Arabica is driving the spread of these cafes.

At the "Chinese Village" outside of Pai
Next day we were off to Chiang Mai. Although this section of the loop is also very scenic, it's heavily used during the tourist season and that makes it not as much fun. The road is bumpy and has some hellacious switchbacks to negotiate. Numerous mini-vans and other tourist traffic, not to mention hordes of crazy motorcyclists day tripping out of Chiang Mai, increase the risk of an accident. I was glad to leave the hills behind as we jetted along to Pankred Coffee where we lunched and coffee-ed up for the rest of the ride home on the mellow 3009.

Thus ended another fantastic ride in Thailand's Lanna Kingdom.


GPX files :
Day 1 - Chiang Mai to Khun Yuam - 1009, 1152, 1088, 1263
(Note: We had to double back on the 1263 for a short distance to visit the park before going north to Mae Hong Son. I've included two gpx files below, one with the side trip, the other is the direct route to Mae Hong Son along R 108.)
Day 2 - Khun Yuam to Mae Hong Son (direct) - Route 108
Day 2 - Khun Yuam to Mae Hong Son plus Thung Bua Tong sidetrip
Day 3 - Mae Hong Son to Pai - R 1095
Day 4 - Pai to Chiang Mai - R 1095, 3009

Click on the file link and select Download from beneath the cleverly hidden "More" menu (those three blue dots), at the top right of the resulting page, browse to a folder or your desktop where you want to place the file and click on the Save button. You can open them with Google Earth or any other application that can display GPX files.