Heart to Beat #26 Mae Hong Son Loop (Thailand 1)

Published at February 6, 2019 at 3:00 AM

Thailand is not completely unknown to us. We have already gone twice before to find the sun in the Dutch winter time. For the third time, in March 2015, the airline tickets and accommodation were booked but we canceled. Instead of lying at the beach, Harry was lying in the hospital for his open heart surgery. The holidays after the surgery got a more sporty bicycle character, a hobby that seems to have gotten out of control. It has become a way of living. Now, three years later, we finally set foot on Thai soil again. Not by plane from Schiphol, this time we roll from home (or as we call it since our departure: ‘the house formerly known as our house’) on our faithful two-wheelers into the Thai country. Our bicycle plan does not (yet) focus on the sea and beaches of the famous Thai islands. We head north and enter the Thai mountains and forests.

The exit from Myanmar and entrance in Thailand takes place in the border town called Mae Sot. The add another half an hour at the clock and move back to the left side of the road, like in Nepal and India. The mirrors on our handlebar are still on the left side and therefore the wrong side and at such a moment you realize how often you use the mirrors. Not that the traffic requires it. We cycle on a wide lane of a 2×4 lane road and there is hardly any traffic.

We check in to a guest house that was tipped by cyclists Frouke & Kerin earlier that morning and then pay a visit to Ton Baars. Ton is a Warmshowers host and stranded in Mae Sot 19 years ago on his world bike tour. Currently he can not host any guests but he can meet up in the Borderline café of which he is one of the initiators. In the evening we eat with Ton at one of the many eateries on the night market. Many Thai towns seem to have a day and a night market. On the day market you can buy really everything, on the night market you mainly see food stalls.

The next morning, Ton asks us to come to the Borderline café again. Two French brothers arrived and would like some information about Myanmar. We meet the guys that are on a special mission. From Vietnam they cycle back to France and in ten countries they plant a total of 10,000 fruit trees. The ones in Thailand are planted at a school that is built in Mae Sot with exclusively natural building materials. The brothers stay here for a week and then cycle into Myanmar on their way to Yangon, where a next project is waiting. Nice initiative and we hope that the trees will be taking care of in the future.

We follow the border river between Myanmar and Thailand for a while towards the north. We take the road (the 105) to cycle to Chiang Mai via the legendary and famous Mae Hong Son Loop. It is a beautiful wide new asphalt road with impeccable lines, even better than the roads in Myanmar. And what is even better: no more honking at all. It is striking that Thailand is a lot further developed compared to Myanmar: better quality buildings, shops, cars, trucks etc. Reverse side of the better roads is that cars, trucks and motorcycles drive much faster. Ton has told us that many Burmese people live in this region, but we do not see the men in a knitted skirt and less ladies wear the Thanaka on their faces.

Part of the population in this region is the Karen, a mountain tribe originally from Eastern Myanmar that, after the Second World War and the departure of the British, declared their independence and had to flee for the Burmese army by the ensuing civil war. They live in refugee camps in Thailand, some of which have existed for more than 60 years. The story of the Karen is to a certain extent comparable to the recent flee of the Rohingya to Bangladesh. The Thai have agreed with Myanmar that the Karen can return, but there are some “push and pull” factors in the considerations of wanting to stay in the Thai camps or to return. At the moment, there is mainly “pushed” from Thailand (for example, less food and higher costs for education), while from Myanmar there is hardly any “pulling” (in subsistence). From the road we see the refugee shelter area Mae La. There is no big wall build around it but a fence with many holes. There is no strict surveillance but at the entrance gates there is a manned guardhouse and a gate can be closed. It is visible that the people lived here for decades and try to make the best of it: so no tents but houses.

We spend the night after 85 kilometers at the Thasongyang Hill Resort. The name resort, guest house or hotel says little or nothing about the type of accommodation. A guest house can be an expensive and chic thing and a resort, like this one, could in our opinion be best typified as a budget motel. In Thailand accommodations are cheaper than in Myanmar, but food and drinks are more expensive. And the best thing is that camping is aloud! National Parks often even have official campgrounds.

The next day we continue to cycle along the border river and after 30 km we have breakfast in Mae Salit. The accommodations are cheaper but usually without breakfast (and with coffee and that is to us more important than a breakfast). Yesterday the stage was quite flat. After breakfast we go into the mountains. It becomes heavy, very heavy. There are repeatedly long pieces between 15 and 20%. We love climbing, we love challenges in the mountains, but this is no fun, certainly not exposed to the tropical heat. Roelie even has to get off the bike for a short time and walk and push until the road becomes just doable again. She is pushed up by a road worker. “You look so tired“, he says; about to boil would be a better typing … After a few of these stages it is clear to us that we won’t make it to our initial goal for today: the campground in a national park after 110 km.

We look around for potential camping spots. A good ‘wild camping spot’ is basically out of sight of the main road and preferably on a reasonably sheltered but also open space near a stream. However, the tropical vegetation around us is very close. Another possibility is to ask a monk, farmer or a shop owner, if we can camp on their property. The latter seems the most real for us right now. At a local store we ask about the possibilities of setting up our tent somewhere near. They refer us to a former helipad half a kilometer away. We can not find it however and ask a family who seems to earn money in all kinds of ways: the son has a scooter repair shop, the mother and daughter drive a mini shop and the father is a farmer. The son points us to an open space behind the shops and next to the cows; nothing indicates that this has ever been a helipad, but we can pitch our tent and the view around us – we are already well over 1.000 meters – is beautiful. When the tent stands the nice family points at the possibility to use the toilet and bucket shower. We stink due to a maximum of sweat all day and use the bucket gratefully and then prepare a one-pan meal at our tent under the beautiful starry sky. We feel intensely happy: we are camping again!!! We only now realize how much we missed it traveling through Nepal, India and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, we get a message from Jaap and Alie, the cycling couple from The Netherlands that we met earlier in Myanmar. Jaap and Alie will take a bus to Mae Sariang from the border town tomorrow. That is about 70 km away and we think we will be able to get there as well. So we will see them again tomorrow!

We wake up above the clouds and despite the stunning view we are already early on the bike. We stay at height and it keeps going up and down. After 30 km a short steep descent follows and we are back in the valley. In a village we have rice and omelette for breakfast. Back on the pedals we see the entree to the national park and the campground (our intended spot for yesterday). A visitors center, a wide river and information boards with the tent sign, makes us suspect that it is a well-organized and beautiful place, but we pass it. It is still early and we have a date with Jaap and Alie. A little later we meet Benjamin and Florence from France. They started their trip in Turkey and cycled through China, among other countries. They are now on their way to Myanmar and their journey ends there. They fly back to France from Mandalay.

A little later we are overtaken by the bus with Jaap and Alie. Their bikes are on the roof and they are waving to us from the open box behind the cab. Of course, we wave back and cheerfully call “tot straks!”. Shortly after we meet Robert and Lynn also from the Netherlands. They have not encountered any Dutch people for a long time and recognize us and our bikes from Instagram. Many long distance cyclists follow each other on Instagram and it turns out that we also follow them (#rolynaround) and now we meet each other ‘live’. How nice is that! They tell us that they want to continue cycling and recently doubting which way to go: Malaysia or India? We can only give them one advice and that is no help to them on the longer term but for today: go to that campground in the national park. It is too hot and too late to start that steep climb.

The road to Mae Sariang is not as flat as we thought and the 70 km is still a big effort. Alie rings us and reports that a number of accommodations in Mae Sariang are already fully booked. They found a room and asked if we want them to reserve a room in the same accommodation. Of course! Gezellig! On a day like this  you want to arrive and crash. Another 20 km hard kilometers to go. Tired but satisfied we arrive at the Riverbank Hotel. It is already late in the afternoon and we happily accept the invitation from Jaap and Alie to have a drink on their balcony (with a great view) and chat with them.

At Mae Sariang we enter the Mae Hong Son Loop. We thought we would cycle the Loop anti clockwise and turn to the right here to go to Chiang Mai, but earlier today the French and the Dutch couple tipped us to cycle clockwise to the north and do the other and much longer part of the Loop. Jaap and Alie tell us that this is also their plan. This means 3x positive advice to do the top of the Loop and 0x the bottom. A clear victory and again the adjustment of the plans (and again a promising detour, haha).

Mae Hong Son Loop 

North-west Thailand is home to one of the most spectacular sealed road loops in the world: the Mae Hong Son. It’s especially well-known amongst motorcycle tourers as it features over 4000 bends, taking you up and over mountains, through forests and across bridges for its entire 660km length. By the loops end you’ll have climbed the equivalent of Mt Everest one-and-a-half times – perhaps that’s why it’s lesser-known amongst cyclists!

Let’s get this straight: the Mae Hong Son is no walk in the park. If you’re thinking of doing it, make sure you are an experienced cyclist who is partial to some long mountain climbs because those roads, well… they really push the gradient limits. You’ll constantly be rewarded with stunning vistas and natural features if you’re happy to work hard on the 20% grades all day.

Source: Mae Hong Son Loop-guide

From Mae Sariang we have three options for the next day stage: 50, 75 or 100 km. Roelie finds thanks to maps.me a detour for the first 20 km with a bit less altitude and on some back roads. After a long time we have to watch out for dogs again. There are not only stray dogs here but also herding dogs. They incline the need to defend and to attack cyclists. In a country where dogs are generally neglected we are save. In a country where dogs are taken care of we have to watch out for our calves not to be bitten. We cycle on unpaved roads along a rubber plantation and a crematorium and along fields in the valley. It is a beautiful detour.

Then we get on the main road (the 108) and thus arrive on the route of ‘de Loop’. We stop because there is a nice coffee shop and a good cup of coffee entices us. On the menu we also see spaghetti and that seems like excellent bicycle food (after a fairly scanty breakfast) and we end up at half past nine in the morning in the jungle of Thailand with a plate of spaghetti bolognese.

At the time we reach the first option to finish the stage (at 50 km) we know we can continue on a bit. We find a typical Thai tent and, by pointing to the displayed dishes, we order a classic Thai lunch: noodle soup. Once back on the bike we meet Andy from Switzerland. He has an impressing torso: broad and muscular and the well-known ‘on-world travel’ beard. He and his girlfriend began their world trip in a canoe down the Danube and then continued on bicycles. Unfortunately, his girlfriend is suffering from knee-hurt lately and took a bus today. Like us, they want to cycle the Americas from south to north. Andy tells us they went through Iran and we ask if he is not afraid of not getting a visa for the US. Andy thinks it is still possible, but that they might ask questions and put them through a more difficult procedure to get the visa. With a big smile he says he will shave his (indeed full) beard in due time.

With our next ‘stop-option’ at 75 km, it’s done for today. We have to find a camp spot and think we might get lucky near a hot spring, but it turns out not to be eggs-air but a spot with the delicious smell of coffee beans. Just before the village with the hot spring is a coffee bar with a nice view. We use Google translate to ask if there is a tent spot around. The sign language as a response makes us quite happy: the tent can be set on the terrace with the beautiful view and we can use toilet and shower.

The owner presses us a phone in the hand and on the other end appears to be his son-in-law who speaks English. He tells us that his father-in-law wants to cook for us: fried rice and curry. He also brings us an extension cord, blankets and a flashlight and he shows us a magazine in which he is interviewed about the hot spring in the village. The text is Thai and even with Google translate we do not get very far. We assume that he has (had) something to do with the hot spring and the thermal event around it. He also shows us an internet page with a photo of him at the top of a kind of hierarchical organizational structure. He is dressed in a tight white uniform and many distinctions are spelled on his chest. Without English it is unfortunately difficult to communicate. We would have liked to talk to this man … The next morning he spoils us with a delicious breakfast, coffee and water and then he leaves to go home on his scooter. What a kind and hospitable man!

In the morning we pick up a tent that is drenched by the tropical dew and cycle 25 km into the village of Khun Yuam. It seems again not to be a too heavy day. Maybe the road from Mae Sot to Mae Sariang is now our reference and that part was ridiculously heavy and therefore everything seems easier. The hated sign with truck that grabs the slope now no longer stands for> 15% but for acceptable slopes of 8%.

One of the first buildings in Khun Yuam is a gas station with a 7-Eleven, the oh so fine supermarket chain here in Thailand. We are not the only fans of 7-Eleven. The American Scott has just had his (microwave) breakfast and is ready to cycle towards Mae Sariang. Scott has lived in Cambodia for three years and has been traveling in Southeast Asia for a while. It is a spontaneous and enthusiastic man and we would have liked to cycle in the same direction, but unfortunately our roads cross. Who knows, maybe we’ll see him somewhere else again. He certainly will not stop cycling soon. Besides China, Malaysia and Australia, Africa and (yes he too) north to south Americas are on his wish list.

When we say goodbye to Scott, it’s about time for lunch. In Khun Yuam we find a restaurant for a noodle soup, a tested and approved recipe for a Thai cyclist lunch. We do some shopping and head out of town to a camping at Sor Tue Lake. The lake counts several dead trees and next to it is a camp area with basic facilities. On an information board is signed that there is a second camp area further along the lake and we decide to take a look before setting up the tent. Along the lakefront some Thai men are fishing and they are all happy (we see a couple of bottles of ‘Hong Thong’-rum with them) and greet us with Sawadi khap (hello). However, we can not find the other camping spot (or do not feel like walking any further) and return to the campground next to the rangers office, where higher up are the rangers’ stays. The shower does not work, but the toilets have such a butt wash hose and that works fine for us to wash.

We enjoy the spot at the lake while a black and a white rabbit walk around and a peacock. The peacock likes to jump on the saddles of the scooters of the fishermen and we keep an eye on him as he roams around our tent, bikes and cooking spot. He does not like bell peper, but the white cabbage goes in nicely. If there is a sign that asked not to feed the peacock … well the Thai alphabet… we really can not read it. At night we hear the (real) wild animals around us and nothing else.

The next morning the tent is again very wet of dew. We sit down next to the lake to have breakfast and enjoy the scenery of vapor that rises from the lake. Roelie cuts Harry’s hair while the tent is drying in the first rays of the sun. What a unique place for a haircut and how nice to postpone departure. Then we cycle to Mea Hong Son, the town where the Loop is named after. Along the way we are occasionally overtaken by motorcyclists and invariably get a big thumb up. Very different than in the Alps in Europe.

Because Jaap said something about the nice night market at the small lake in Mae Hong Son, we are looking for a place close by to stay. Unfortunately no camping in the heart of this village where there are significantly more tourists. At the Sarm Mork Guest House we meet two motorcyclists from Singapore, nice guys that we will meet again later. The night market is not too big and, as elsewhere, mainly focused on food. We have diner with Jaap and Alie at 77 House Café, a nice decorated restaurant with waiters that barely speak English, have little hospitality experience, but really do try their best.

After a rest day the climbing starts again. We cycle a total of only 60 kilometers, but the 1440 altimeters are tough. There are (again) percentages up to 20% and we are super proud that we cycle all the ascends. We also notice that the reward is a bit disappointing in the amount of stunning vistas. We cycle through the jungle and on both sides of the road that means quite a bit of planting. On the sparse points that there is a view on the distant mountains, it turns out to be so hazy that only nearby mountains are visible and the rest is shrouded in shades of gray. Cycling the Mea Hong Son Loop is a sporting challenge rather than a picturesque mecca. Meeting other cyclists who do the Loop anti clockwise is still fun. Today we meet two hungry and tough dressed Thai gentlemen by age and the Italian Gianni on a folding bike.

In Pang Mapha we opt on previous advice from the Singapore motorcyclists for the Little Eden Guesthouse and get the key of a cute little bungalow of 5 m2 to sleep in; for one evening we call each other Hans and Gretel…

The next day we have a short 40-kilometer leg with an ascent and descent to Pai. We have heard a lot about it: Pai is touristy, Pai is laid-back, Pai is chill, a place where one goes for a night and sticks for a week. Somewhere in our veins an aversion creeps against these now übertoeristic places. When we are on top of the mountain and see a heap of tourists on rented scooters, we summarize the nefarious plan to simply ignore Pai and continue cycling. There seems to be a stunning campground on the mountain on the other side of Pai. At lunchtime we get into Pai and realize that the campground for today is a hurdle too far (and too high). On the way we encounter the inevitable ‘IamPAI’ and we tag it with some of our hearttobeat stickers. We shall undergo Pai and mix ourselves in the beating heart of the tourist center of Pai: the so-called walking street. Well it might not be a surprise: if you don’t feel like it, it is not too bad. Well, it is not bad at all: we love Pai!

Pai counts numerous hotels, guest houses and resorts and therefore it is remarkable that the room next to ours at the Pai Country Home is occupied by the two motorcyclists from Singapore, our old neighbors from Mae Hong Son. The walking street in Pai is great fun! Everywhere are stalls where you can snack, drink or eat extensively, live music and luckily not just tourists. The stalls are interspersed with restaurants and shops that are all aimed at the public strolling through the streets. There is a wonderful atmosphere that is hard to describe: touristy and authentic at the same time.

We understand all too well that Pai is a place where people stick, but with that camping spot on top of the high mountain in prospect, we manage to check out the next day and start a short but very challenging stage. Again it is possible to keep on cycling while the slope often exceeds 10%. Only when, just after the pass at 1350 m, we turn left of the Loop and enter the National Park, we finally have to get off and push the bike a bit. The narrow road from 6 kilometers to the top at 1720 meters has a gradient of around 20% on several pieces. Today it is a lot brighter than the last couple of days and on top of the mountain we are pleasantly surprised with a panoramic 360 degree view. The ascent is not the most difficult thing of today, choosing a spot for the tent turns out to be the hardest. The choice between the five different green terraces, each with a perfect view is really impossible. Do we opt for sunrise or sunset? It will be the last. The terrace has space for up to a hundred tents, but we have the realm for us alone.

It is the perfect place with a perfect sunset a perfect temperature and the next morning the tent is perfectly dry, so we can easily break up. It is of course not easy, because if there had been a supermarket we certainly had an extra day tied to it, although there is little to do besides enjoying the view. The down blanket of white clouds lie far below us in the deep valley and on the other side of the summit in the direction of Myanmar in the north the highest mountain of Thailand shines in the early morning sun. Looks like all other campers have chosen for the sunrise.

To get back on the main road we have to bully our legs again with two ridiculously steep climbs and once back on the road the descent is not yet setting in. It continues to go up and down for a while, and after a descent, another kind of uphill climb follows. Despite all the jungle around you, all turns and speed changes it is a true paradise and a great route. When we leave the 1095 and enter the 3009 we leave the mountains and arrive in the valley where Chiang Mai is located. That 3009 appears to be a nice quiet road where we occasionally come across speed racing cyclist. The last 25 kilometers we cycle on the highway to Chiang Mai where it is busy and where the fatigue strikes. With a weird sense of feeling we crash at a cafe in the walled part of Chiang Mai.

We both have a sickening feeling like after holiday when you have to go back home or something. But we are not going home yet, not for a long time, because our home is our tent and it is on Harry’s bicycle that is parked about five meters behind the beer that stands in front of us . As if we wake up from a bad dream, we toast together. To be continued!