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The Mae Hong Son Loop, Northern Thailand

Why Thailand? - It's different.

Thailand

Different to Europe, different to the United States and it's a change from the world dominant western way of life. Northern Thailand has pleasant scenery, an accommodating & fascinating culture and it's off the conventional tourist trail. It is also a warm dry place to go when the UK & the Northern States of the USA are suffering a miserable & cold winter.

It's not expensive once your flights are paid for, and your Thai Baht will buy you ample quantities of delicious food & drink, plus a selection of interesting souvenirs to bring home.

Thailand was always a place I had wanted to visit, and when my friend John went to live over there for two years, his invitation to go and do some biking in 1999 was too much to resist. On this first occasion we had pregnant partners and even small children with us, so did the "loop" for the first time in a convoy of a couple of motorcycles plus a jeep to carry kids & kit.

This little adventure set a precedent, and I've been back riding the dirt trails of northern Thailand 5 or 6 more times since then.

If I were to grade the great biking trips I've done, on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was so easy it wasn't worth doing (think CB125 in a school playground, or South East England perhaps?) and 5 was something extreme and severely challenging, then the ranking would go like this. The 1 to 5 score would rate the difficulty of riding, plus the "adventure" factor. 1 low, 5 high.

Grade 1. I don't do grade 1.

Grade 2

Langkawi, Malaysia. Easy, level, low speed cruising on a hired Modenas 175 "low rider". Great beach holiday, where biking is secondary. The same would also apply to Goa. It's one of my favourite places to go and hire an Enfield, but would only rank it 2.5 in terms of biking challenge. It's a potter-around-in-the-sun kind of place.

Grade 3

The UK National Parks. Twisty back roads of Derbyshire, the Yorkshire Dales, The Lake District and Western Scotland. Great riding, sometimes testing road conditions.

Grade 4

The Alps. Great roads and scenery, and although not particularly difficult riding, the sheer enormity of the mountain passes, and mile after mile of twists and turns can take it's toll.

Thailand would be Grade 4.5

It doesn't warrant a 5. What would? Maybe a Nick Sanders World Tour, or Charley & Ewan's efforts if they didn't have the support crews.

Thailand is challenging and highly rewarding because it's best done partially on dirt roads. These in themselves are less technically demanding than most English Green Lanes, but they go on forever and can be in very remote locations. Us Brits aren't used to riding maybe 100 kilometres in one go without seeing Tarmac. There is no real rescue or support system. No 999 number to phone in case of accident or emergency, no AA to call if a bike breaks down. If we have an incident, we have to self-rescue, if a bike breaks down we fix it or tow it. This is the nature of adventure.

The Mae Hong Son loop, is a widely recognised paved route around Chiang Mai Province, comprehensively described in the likes of the Rough Guide and similar travel books. Depending upon which exact roads you use, it's roughly a 700 kilometre circuit, starting and finishing in Chiang Mai.

There's a fairly straightforward road route to follow via, Chomthong, Hot, Mae Sarieng, Khun Yuam, Mae Hong Son, Sop Pong, Pai & back to Chiang Mai. This is OK and worth doing in a little hire car perhaps. But you'll find as soon as you leave the main highway, the roads become dirt, and even in a 4x4, progress can be difficult and certainly slow going.

This is where an Enduro bike comes into play. It allows you to tackle dirt roads, leading up to remote hill tribe villages or cascading waterfalls, where even a pukka Jeep would struggle to go. Typically, I use something like a Honda XR250 Enduro machine, which holds it's own on the road, and can gobble up the hundreds of hairpins on the mountain passes, but can also tackle mud, gravel, sandy or hard-packed trails, rutted tracks and even river crossings. Assuming a base grounding in off-road riding skills, you can manage 30 to 60 kilometres per hour off-road on one of these bikes (more if you're a real expert!). You'd be thrown out of your seats at these speeds in a 4x4.

Using the right tool for the mixed terrain, enables the more adventurous traveller to cut corners on the "loop", add extra sections or access places rarely seen by most other visitors.

I like to start off by riding to the summit of Doi Inthanon, which is an easy enough paved road. However be warned that it can it can actually be quite cold up there at 2200 metres, and the simple 250cc single cylinder engines run really badly in the rarified air. A tip is to open up the airbox, and this makes an enormous difference. Strangely enough, I've found the Honda XR250s cope much better with the climb than the Yamaha TTR 250s do. A visit to the twin temples is worth doing before heading on to Mae Chaem. The descent to this town is certainly a ride to remember, into the setting sun at the end of the day. One needs to exercise extreme caution though, as the drop down is very steep and twisty, and the knobbly tyres afford little traction on a polished road surface that hasn't seen a drop of rain in 3 months.

After a day's practice on the local trails around Mae Chaem and Melu, I like to tackle the 160km ride to Khun Yuam. This is almost all off road, and took a number of attempts with a compass, wrong turns and very patient mates to get the navigation sorted. The trouble is, although the map of the area is extremely useful; indispensable in fact, it's not 100% accurate and many trails are simply not marked on it. On arrival at junctions, or rather, mere splits in the trail, there will be no signposts or markings. On the rare occasion there is a sign, it will usually be in Thai script of course, so not much help to the uninitiated. It's a very rewarding day, although very tiring, and a couple of "offs" throughout the day are not uncommon.

In November 2004, completely by chance, we were lucky to arrive in Khun Yuam to coincide with the festival of Loi Krathong. A time when people launch home-made rafts, complete with offerings of food and burning candles onto any river or body of open water. Huge paper lanterns are also released into the skies, powered simply by the lifting effect of hot air generated by the paraffin soaked rags burning inside them. These things are truly amazing, cheap to buy and great fun to launch into the night. Especially the ones with strings of fireworks attached!

It's interesting to go and do the Tourist thing, just once, and go and see the ladies in the Long Neck villages, whose necks have been "stretched" by the application of half a dozen brass rings over the years. It's a bizarre experience leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that you've just paid to visit a human zoo.

The highlight of this trip for me, is revisiting Cave Lodge, near Soppong, where John, the most laid back Aussie you've ever met, has set up a serene lodging house high in the jungle. It's becoming a little too well known for its own good now, but still a superb, relaxing place to spend a few days. Relaxation? Pardon? We don't do much of that. As we have the dirt bikes, we ride high up to ridge top settlements like Eyla, where we become the circus act to people who've scarcely strayed from their own village in their entire lives. Places with no electricity or much connection with outside world. They have little concept of what a city is like, and sometimes prod and poke our armoured motorcycle clothing, and stare incredulously at anyone with blond hair.

Despite returning many times to the same part of Thailand, there's always something new to discovery or a different route to try. My latest experiment was to try a night's camping at Pong Deud hot springs. During the day, it tries to be a bit of a tourist attraction, but at night, for the time being at least, there is no-one there at all. Our plan, was to camp close by, then bathe in the hot springs at midnight under a full moon. This turned out to be exquisite. We persuaded the staff of the tiny restaurant to stay open late, feed us the usual tasty Thai dishes and sell us some beer. We then relaxed under the stars, in the steaming hot pools with just ourselves, a few cans of cold Chang beer, and a bottle of Mekong whiskey for company.

It doesn't get much better than that.

A roller coaster ride back to the lively city of Chiang Mai completed my latest trip there. It certainly won't be my last.

Further information;

www.gt-rider.com Great resource for motorcycle travellers in the Golden Triangle.

This story was kindly provided by Bike Tours UK website, www.biketours-uk.com

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