Cycling the Mae Hong Son Loop – Part 1 (Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son)

Day 61: Rest day in Mae Sariang

It’s been a peaceful rest day in this small, quiet town in north-west Thailand. We enjoyed a lazy lie in, fresh fruit juice from a small stall for breakfast, followed quickly by two lunches at two different cafes (because we were hungry and why not?!), a quick cycle around the small town – appreciating the Burmese style temples before checking into our swanky hotel (by our standards!) bang on 1400 so we could make the most of the luxuries!

The hotel building is old and is made almost entirely from teak wood. There’s a spacious reception leading out to an open-air, wooden veranda overlooking the river, where I spent all afternoon catching up with typing this journal (when we camp I just jot down notes into my notebook). It’s a beautiful setting and a relaxing, peaceful place to rest before we continue the arduous but stunning climbs ahead. 

We enjoyed a tasty dinner at the hotel and a few cheeky beers which we don’t often do. We got chatting to a lovely Canadian couple who are motorbiking around Thailand, including the Mae Hong Son loop. It was great to share our stories and we enjoyed conversing with like-minded travellers. Tomorrow we will make the most of the most comfortable bed we have had on this entire trip by enjoying a long lie, before devouring our free breakfast. We have decided to have a short, almost warm-up day tomorrow, just cycling 30km to the next town that should have accommodation. Slow and steady does it 😊.

Day 62: Mae Sariang to Ban Mae La Noi

As we had our luxurious room in the Riverhouse hotel until 12 noon, we decided to make the most of it. We had a long lie in (especially needed after last night’s beers!) and then did some laptop admin from the comfort of our huge, soft bed. Reluctantly rising from our den, we went downstairs to enjoy our free breakfast: as much toast and watermelon that we could consume, unlimited refills of coffee and juice then a breakfast meal – we went for sausage, ham, bacon alongside a freshly cooked omelette. It sure beats our usual breakfast of a sandwich from 7/11! A lovely way to start the day, with pretty views across the river where we sat on the veranda. 

We spent the rest of the morning doing bike admin on the balcony outside our room, again enjoying views across the river as locals herded their cows along the riverbank, their bells jangling at their necks (the necks of the cows – not the locals!). My bike’s gears needed adjusting as they had been playing up, not unusual after cycling over 3,000km. We also attended to the usual cleaning and oiling of the chain and checking the bikes over, ready for the hill climbs ahead which would undoubtedly put some strain on the bikes (and us for that matter!). 

Checking out and setting off for our day of cycling we felt amazingly rested and reinvigorated; happy cycle tourists. Our bikes felt like a dream after their morning of TLC. After a quick stop off at the bank to get some more Thai Baht out plus our usual stop off at 7/11 for snacks for the day, we hit the road.

It was a short day: we only cycled 30km. Sometimes I think there can be this unspoken pressure on cycle tourists to cycle a long distance each day (often fuelled through posts on Facebook and Instagram – one of the reasons we have severely reduced how much time we scroll through those social media outlets each day). It can often feel like there’s an element of boastfulness on one side, and guilt / a feeling of inadequacy on the other. But we always tell ourselves that this is our cycle tour, and everyone has different aims and goals. I loved our slow morning: it was great to start cycling at 1200 and finish by 1500 – having a relaxing, late afternoon. Sometimes these shorter days are needed; if you beast yourself day in, day out for months or even years on end, then you’ll just burn out.

Social media has its positives such as making connections and speaking to others on similar paths. But it also has strong negatives. From now on, we are not buying any data for our phones and are just using them as wifi only devices so that when we are on the road, we can be more “present” in the moment.

Today’s cycle was thoroughly enjoyable. Upon leaving the outskirts of Mae Sariang, the one straight road that led us to our final destination for the day led us through a pleasant forest for pretty much the whole way. We could have been in Europe as the deciduous trees around us were not reminiscent of the usual vegetation we’re used to in Thailand.

Lush green forests in Northern Thailand.

Rolling hills greeted us happily today, but nothing too long or steep. It was completely manageable and enjoyable. As we were crawling up one hill, we had our second encounter with a fellow bicycle tourist! As he approached, cycling down the hill we were ascending, I realised he was ‘like us’, so after I waved, Adam and I cycled over to his side to say hello.  

We learnt that his name is Udo, a German man living in Norway. Travelling much more lightly than us, he had just two back panniers and was cycling through Thailand for a couple of months before returning home. Similarly to us, he was heading to Chiang Mai but in the opposite direction; we realised that it would be likely we would bump into other cycle tourists on this route, especially at this time of year. As he had already done the crazy steep hills in the Mae Hong Son and Pai area, he confirmed my fears of their magnitude. However, it was great to chat to a fellow bicycle tourist – and one so enthusiastic and positive! Udo also mentioned that he extended his Thai visa in Mae Hong Son, completely hassle-free and apparently much quicker than the time it’s rumoured to take in Chiang Mai: so that’s our new plan – thanks Udo!

Udo, the first cycle tourist we’ve met in Mae Hong Son province.

Before we knew it, we had reached our target of Ban Mae La Noi. There are not many hotels in this small town (some may even call it a large village). The one we found and are staying at is called ‘Flying Bird Guesthouse’. It’s very basic. We struggled to communicate with the owners initially; we eventually made progress and paid 500 Baht for a spacious room – we could leave the bikes locked together for security at the back of the hotel, which had a pleasant view of the rolling countryside. To be honest, this is the first hotel we’re quite disappointed with (I think we were spoiled after last night’s accommodation – what a fall from grace!). The room is pretty filthy, there’s no wifi and with the big gaps in the windows and doors, the room is likely going to be a haven for mozzies later on. But hey ho – such is the life of bicycle tourist! I’m sure we will stay in much more dingy hotels in the months to come. It’s just a tad expensive for the quality… but at least we have a hot shower and a comfortable bed for the night. 

Tomorrow we cycle 67km with a fair bit of climb, so we’ll aim to get up early to get some kilometres under our belt in the early morning; it’s always good to do this as it allows us time to have plenty of rest stops if we need to. It feels great to be happy and confident again. 

Day 63: Ban Mae La Noi to Khun Yuam

After setting my alarm for 0630, I rose early and immediately began cooking us some porridge for breakfast on the small, grubby balcony outside our room. Fully proficient now with using the stove, I enjoyed the views of the hills shrouded in the morning mist, whilst preparing the much-needed fuel for the day ahead.

We were packed, ready and set off for the day at 0815. Happy to leave Mae La Noi behind – we weren’t impressed with the place to be honest: a small town with a dishevelled, dirty feel.   

The cycling was really enjoyable today – again at times we felt like we could have been cycling in Europe with the types of trees we were passing. Undulating hills continued all day, but also again, they were manageable. We climbed 1,252m over 73km, which is certainly not to be sniffed at. I think the key thing is how steep the climbs are. I can cycle up hills all day now, as long as they’re not too steep! There were a few cheeky steep hills today, but the vast majority were under 10% gradient, so crawling up in ‘granny gear’ was – dare I say it – actually enjoyable! It seemed to me that there were more downhills today anyway – again not too steep that my brakes took a hammering, but steep enough to have some of those lovely free miles whilst enjoying the beautiful views.

The views aren’t all that bad. I just think we’re starting to be spoilt by beautiful vistas each day.

In my opinion, the views weren’t as epic today as they have been on other days, for example, the road leading north away from Mae Sot, but there was still lots of green and it was still sincerely pleasant (I think I’ve been spoiled with views now!)

We met even more cycle tourists today! You don’t see any for weeks and then 4 come along all at once! Firstly, we met two older Thai men who were cycling the Mae Hong Son loop in the more popular anti-clockwise direction. Whilst talking with them, two more cycle tourists came along: two friends (one from Belgium, the other from Austria) who both lived outside of Bangkok. They were also following the same direction as the two Thai men. Similarly to our encounter yesterday, it was nice to chat and it made us realise that we’re not so crazy after all doing this route on a bicycle! 

We’ve gone weeks without seeing another cycle tourist and then 6 of us turn up to the same random corner in Thailand at once.

On this route, it is a common occurrence to have a pack of noisy motorcyclists thunder past on their huge steeds, big metal panniers either side of the bike. Sometimes we get a thumbs up as if they’re saying, “Well done you crazy cyclists!” Although, as I mentioned when we met Michael the Malaysian motorcyclists from Malaysia, I do envy how seemingly effortless their ride is – not having burning legs from the continuous uphills and feeling like you have a sieve over the top of your windpipe as you struggle to catch your breath. On the other hand, I wonder how they can possibly appreciate the pure, beautiful nature around them as they roar through the peaceful countryside – not to mention the suffocating fumes they belch as they do with their huge engines. 

One of the countless snake roadkills we have seen on our journey. Probably from one of the stinky motorbikes.

ANYWAY! The Thai bicycle tourists we met recommended we visit some hot springs which were about 12km further down the road in the direction we were headed. So taking them up on their advice, we decided to check them out. Just after the right-hand turn to the springs, there was a small cafe on the riverside. We stopped there for lunch: Pad Thai – which is quickly becoming one of our favourite dishes. 

The road to the springs is about 1km and included some steep elevation. When we arrived, we realised that we were the only people there. To be honest, they weren’t anything special. There are only a few springs you can look at without having to pay, and they appeared to be hotter than the sun! There is a hot spring that has been turned into a swimming pool – but you have to pay 100 Baht each to get in. Although in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a lot of money, we’re on a tight budget, and we didn’t fancy it so decided to leave it. (We had an amazing experience in Iceland last year, swimming in a natural hot spring river for free – so nothing will top that really!) 

We found the springs to be that underwhelming that this is the only photo we took.

The afternoon continued in much the same way with lovely views of the rolling hills and pleasant climbs and downhills. We reached our destination of Khun Yuam and set about trying to find a reasonably priced hotel, guesthouse or resort to stay for the night. To cut a long story short – we didn’t! We went to every hotel in town, and they were either full or too expensive for our budget.  The cheapest we found that had availability was 800 Baht – our limit is 500 Baht, although we have paid 600 before but that was a bit of an emergency as Adam wasn’t well. We asked one place that was full if we could camp on a perfect patch of grass outside their building: they said it would cost 300 Baht! No chance! To fuel the fire, Adam was nearly mauled by several aggressive dogs as we were cycling through the back streets looking for guesthouses. Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared at all (probably because Adam was the target and not me!). 

Feeling a bit like Goldilocks with no hotels that were ‘just right’, or that even had room in the inn for that matter, our last resort was to ask at the police station to see if we could camp there for free. After Adam wandered around the empty, deserted building, he eventually found someone to ask permission. They found their boss who rang his boss to see if it was OK… after checking our passports and visas he finally gave us the green light. Luckily, it was still light so we could pitch up our tent on the perfect patch of flat, bouncy grass at the back of the police station, away from the main road. To make matters even better, we were allowed to use the toilet and shower inside the station – winning! Or as my Mum would say, “Bingo. Bango. Bongo.” 

After we had set up our tent and had our showers, we walked through the town on the hunt for some much-needed food. Similarly to the police station, it was pretty deserted! The market we had seen earlier whilst we were searching for accommodation had packed up and finished, but there was still one stall selling hot, sizzling meat: we bought some slices of pork and this amazing, fragrantly spiced pork sausage meat type thing wrapped in banana leaf – so tasty! We finished our dinner with some naughty snacks from 7/11.

We’re now in our tent, snug and warm whilst the gentle patter of rain lulls us to sleep. It’s a good job that we put the waterproof cover on (we practised pitching the tent up as though it was raining – to rehearse for an occasion when we will need to put the tent up in the rain). Tomorrow we cycle 67km to Mae Hong Son, where we will have at least one rest day. Let’s hope we have better luck with accommodation!

Day 64: Khun Yuam to Mae Hong Son

After a comfortable nights sleep outside the police station in Khun Yuam, we were up early (by our standards). At 0600 we started getting ready for the day, and by 0730 we were setting out – fuelled by porridge and Nutella. The policeman who had granted us permission to camp the previous evening wanted a quick photo before we left; we couldn’t say no!

The police in Thailand have been extremely kind and welcoming. I could only imagine the response if we asked the police in the UK if we could camp in their police station.

As we were cycling out of Khun Yuam, we came across a stall selling bananas. We enquired about the price, “Tow rai kah?” “60 baht,” came the reply. Yikes!! However, this is ‘not our first rodeo’ as we like to say, so we politely shook our heads and continued on. A few buildings down there was another stall selling bananas. Again we asked how much – 10 baht. That’s better! A tip for bicycle touring in Thailand – try not to get ripped off when buying fruit!

Our second surprise of the morning whilst leaving Khun Yuam was stumbling across a huge gathering of people, providing offerings to the Buddhist monks. Possibly up to 100 people were sat on the floor in front of a row of orange-clad monks, their shoes neatly placed in rows by the side of the huge cloth that they sat on. Over the loudspeakers, someone muttered chants and prayers in Thai. Many organisers mingled around the perimeters, asking for cash donations from other bystanders (including ourselves). Being inquisitive souls (or perhaps just nosy) we stopped to see what was going on, and Adam took some pictures. I learnt from a Thai photographer that came over to speak to me, that this event happens only once per year. People from all over Thailand come to receive prayers and blessings and give offerings to hundreds of monks who also travel here. This explains why we found it so difficult to find accommodation yesterday evening! 

We finally left Khun Yuam. The 108 towards Mae Sot was really pleasant: initially, through a forest, that again, was reminiscent of European forests. As the road continued, the forest became denser and ‘jungle-like’. Long, green, sinewy vines dangled from the edges of the mountain face we were either climbing or descending – because, for the majority of today, we were doing one of the two. There were only a few places where we had flat ground, the rest of the time we were either enjoying thrilling downhills or crawling uphill. Although we climbed in total 784m, luckily none of the hills was too steep, so it was another manageable day.

As we had set off early, we enjoyed a few stops to either inhale banana and Nutella sandwiches, take photos or drone footage of the amazing views or sit down for a typical, tasty Thai lunch. 12km or so before we reached Mae Hong Son, there was a spectacular viewpoint. We stopped here for a little while, enjoying the breathtaking views of the valley that the leafy hillsides stretched down to, nuzzling a narrow river and waterfall.  

Getting a nice photo at the viewpoint.

Which one of us is crazy?

After our stop at the viewpoint, we had the best downhill of the day; the disc brakes definitely took some more hammering. As we were on the final stretch to Mae Hong Son, we saw signs to the ‘Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe’. We decided to take a left turn onto a more rural quiet road and follow the signs to ‘see what it’s all about’ (one of our favourite sayings). This was quite a steep route – I’m not sure whether it would have been less hilly if we had followed the main road. We realised that visiting the ‘Long Neck Karen Hill Tribe’ would mean a riverboat crossing, and undoubtedly a cost attached to this. As we’re on a budget, we decided to give it a miss (and we’re also not sure about our feelings on the morality of it, reminiscent of a human zoo maybe…). The rural road led us back onto the main road. It was nice to cycle through the rural villages again; it felt like we were back in the heart of Thailand.

This is as close as we will be getting to the “long-neck” Karen tribe in Northern Thailand.

Upon arriving in Mae Hong Son, we set about the rigmarole of cycling from hotel to hotel, looking for one reasonably priced. We were successful with hotel number 3 – ‘Kiang Doi Guesthouse’. 400 baht per night for a room without aircon but with free wifi. (The hotels we had tried before this one were asking for 800 and 1,500). Satisfied with the room, we asked to stay for 3 nights. We have decided to have 2 rest days here in Mae Hong Son. Our legs are feeling understandably tired after climbing 5,384m in 324km in the past week. That’s within 24 hours of cycling (we clearly love our stats!). We have some really, really tough hill climb days ahead as well, so we want to tackle those head-on with fresh legs.

Tomorrow we will, hopefully, extend our Thai visa for an extra 30 days. That gives us until the 27 December in Thailand. As I type this, it’s the 11 November, so we have plenty of time to finish the Mae Hong Son loop and then have some downtime in Pai and Chiang Mai before heading to Laos. 

Day 65 and 66: Two rest days in Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son has been the perfect place to have two peaceful, quiet rest days whilst tackling this challenging route. Our accommodation is in the perfect location to enjoy the vibrant night market where we have feasted each night, with it being literally 30 seconds walk away. The room is definitely different: two of the four walls consist of huge windows – one that looks into the reception of the hotel, the other looks into the cafe next door! Luckily, there are thick curtains to maintain our dignity..! What makes it even better though is that there is another room between the bedroom and bathroom – almost like a hallway – which is the perfect place to store the bikes and our exploded panniers. 

Despite resting and recovering, we have had a productive time in Mae Hong Son. Yesterday (Monday 12th Nov), we headed to the Immigration office to extend our tourist visas. As we were told, it was a very simple and straightforward process. It only took us 5 minutes or so to cycle there from our accommodation in the middle of town (it’s just north of the centre along the main road – easy to find on Google Maps). Word of warning – the building sits atop a stupidly steep hill! With it being a rest day, we didn’t even consider cycling up it. We were not too proud to walk and push on this occasion. We were in and out within 45 minutes or so. Just needing to take our passports and one passport photo, we filled in the extension form in the building (there are some handy help sheets to ensure you fill it in correctly). 1,900 Baht (£44) each later, we had successfully extended our Thai visa! We now have until 27 December in this wonderful country; at the beginning of this trip we did not envisage staying in Thailand for 3 months – but it’s not hard to understand why. This country has stolen our hearts. 

Visa extended and fairly hassle-free.

The staff at the immigration office were kind and helpful. An all-around good experience.

The rest of our time in Mae Hong Son has consisted of: leisurely walks around the picturesque lake; exploring the wats and temples, often inspired by Burmese culture; finding the colourful market, abundant with fresh, vivid vegetables and fruits, making our mouths water; traversing the main high street, inquiring in the cutesy and cool souvenir shops where we purchased some awesome stickers for our bikes – including one of a bicycling Wonder Woman! 

However, my personal highlight of our rest stop in Mae Hong Son has been our Thai oil massage today. On a whim, we ducked into a massage parlour next to 7/11 on the main high street. We have been in Thailand for 6 weeks now and have yet to enjoy a traditional Thai massage – until today! We paid 25o Baht (£5.80!) each for a 1-hour full body massage. It was so worth it! An amazing experience. The Thai ladies who massaged us just seemed to know exactly where our knots and tangles were (and there were a fair few!) in our calves, thighs and even forearms from the recent uphill cycling climbs. My masseuse even commented that I had lots of tension in my calves, enquiring if I was motorcycling the route. Ha! When I told her we were bicycling the route, her eyes grew as large as saucers as she dug her elbow deeper into my calf muscle. 

Feeling as springy as a spring chicken, or an especially bouncy Tigger, we floated away from the massage parlour and spent a few hours in a reclined position, laptops on laps in our room. As we are technically homeless, when we do have a rest day in accommodation it’s also nice to just chill in our room, just as we might do in a living room if we had our own house. 

Adam’s Mae Hong Son highlight is definitely the amazing night market. Dare we say it, the best night market we have been to in the whole of Thailand AND the whole of Malaysia! What makes it so great is that it’s fully pedestrianised – no zooming cars or scooters forcing you to dice with death as is the case in the highly regarded night market in George Town, Malaysia. Additionally, there is an area covered in colourful mats where you can sit on the floor (as is the tradition here) and enjoy your food at small tables, overlooking the beautiful lake which reflects the stunning lights from the Temple. Not to mention the food is So. Dam. Tasty. The food section of the market doesn’t stretch too far, so there actually isn’t a huge variety, but absolutely enough to keep us satisfied three nights in a row with: the best Pad Thai we’ve ever had; roti – need we say more; freshly made smoothies; immense coal-cooked salted fish; fragrantly spiced coiled sausages on a stick as well as many other barbecued meats on sticks; deep-fried anything and everything – from seafood to bugs; freshly made papaya salads; Japanese crepes… the list goes on. And as the food section isn’t too long, you can walk back and forth as many times as you like to eye up your second, third, fourth helping of the delectable delicacies on offer. Along the side of the river in front of the wat, there are stalls selling locally made traditional clothing, bags and other souvenirs I unfortunately couldn’t tempt Adam to purchase. And as well as the market stalls, there are a few bars and restaurants which are there to duck into should the rain smash down (as it did last night). Although it was quiet here over Sunday and Monday, with just a few other Western faces, tonight there seemed to be an influx of tourists (possibly arrived via coach en masse from Chiang Mai? Who knows.).

Mae Hong Son has been the perfect rest stop.

This salted fish is 👌

Mae Hong Son with its temple and lake is beautiful.

So all in all, a delightful stay in Mae Hong Son: we would highly recommend this as a place to stop and rest the weary, pedalled out legs. Tomorrow we cycle to Soppong, which is about 67km. We think the hills will be harder than the last few days of cycling we did, but possibly not as hard as day 59: Ban Tha Song Yang to Ban Mae Ngao, as it seems tomorrow’s gradient isn’t as steep. However, we will see! It’s time to get an early night so we can set off early to enable us to take our time up the steep hills and have plenty of needed rest stops. My bicycling Wonder Woman sticker will take pride of place on my bike: let’s do this! 

6 comments

Michael Lees

Guys, Another wonderful blog Lucia. I have 3 questions, is it possible to barter with the locals? and have you had any punctures? how easy is it to find bike parts, say you needed new disc brake pads? Its nice you have decided to immerse yourselves in Thailand many wonders by extending your visas, like you say no rush, I for one don’t blame you, if it takes 2 or 3 years to get back to the U.K. it will be well worth it. As always take care and happy adventuring.

Hi Mike, thank you. It’s always lovely to hear nice feedback. I’ll be sure to pass on your comments to Lu.

In answer to your questions (Adam here to answer as Lucia is sleeping at the moment). Usually, the prices are pretty cheap that we don’t feel that battering is necessary. The 10 bhat bananas cost the equivalent of 26 pence in GBP and we got a huge bunch of them. We will occasionally barter with hotel prices but usually, they are pretty fixed so we end up walking away if it is out of our price range.

We’ve had 2 punctures so far (both in Malaysia). We carry one spare tube each and have plenty of patches and glue to repair punctures. We try to repair any punctures when possible, Lucia is cycling with an inner tube that has been repaired for well over 1000km now with no problems.

As for brake pads, we have one spare set at the moment which we bought in Malaysia. We just happened to cycle past a Giant distribution centre in the north of the country and they had every part you could imagine. Most of the breaks and cables are made in this region so if you’re in a big town or city, we should have no problems. Other than disk brakes, we have no real specialist bits of kit on the bikes that should need repairing. We are planning to have our bikes serviced in Chiang Mai before we head into Laos. We may also buy a few chain links and spare disk pads for the China leg. Adams tyres are looking a little worn now and may need replacing. We will see.

It’s good to take our time now after cycling pretty hard for the last few months. We always said we would take our time but we haven’t really followed our own advice. Now we have until the 27 Dec, we can really immerse ourselves in the culture as much as possible. However, it’s good to have an aim to keep moving forward. It’s all about finding the balance.

Great blog yet agin Lu. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.
If I may, I’d like to request a pic or two possibly… of the market stalls and that fabulous fruit and veg you mention.
You’re doing great!! Enjoy every minute and good luck with those hills xx xx

Thanks Mum! It’s always a pleasure 😊 I will pass your request onto my personal photographer and see what he can do 😜 xxxx

I really look forward to your updates and reading your stories, so well written, different to other touring blogs. Looking forward to the next update.
Pete

Hi Pete, thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoy the updates 😊 The next update will be published shortly! Lucia

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