Cycling the Mae Hong Son Loop – Part 3 (Pai to Chiang Mai)

Day 70 and 71: Two rest days in Pai

Well, Pai is a whole other world compared to the rest of Thailand. It’s hard to sum it up concisely: touristy, trendy, busy, vibrant, colourful, hipsters and hippys. A huge variety of western tourists: Americans, Spanish, French, Dutch, Germans, Brits, Slovaks and Canadians are just some of the nationalities we’ve met so far. 

The main street comes alive at night as the road becomes closed off to cars (although inevitably some motorbikes and scooters still try to squeeze their way through the hoards of crowds). The past two nights we have enjoyed strolling along the street, marvelling at the range of delicious street food on offer. It is pricey compared to the costs we are used to in rural Thailand, but that is to be expected in a touristy area (and apparently it’s not as expensive as Chiang Mai). After we got over the initial shock of the prices, we embraced it and decided not to worry too much that we were going over budget. We have earned it after those hills! It is possible to find ‘normal priced’ meals in the more basic budget Thai cafes along the side streets. 

During the evening we soak up the hustle and bustle in the main town, making random friends and enjoying a few beers. We even arranged to meet one of Adam’s old work colleagues, Simon, who Adam worked with 12 years ago, who is also bicycle touring through Thailand. Simon had made friends with another bicycle tourist on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai. Chris is Canadian but lives in Malaysia and is a keen bicycle tourist. So we really enjoyed catching up with them last night, sharing stories over delicious Thai food washed down with ice cold beers. Wandering around the main area, we found the mega-busy bar street, with hundreds of westerners of all ages filling up the bars. One bar even had a brilliant 10 piece reggae band from Norway which played music I just couldn’t help jumping up and down to: they were just awesome. Unfortunately, we only caught the last two songs of their set, but everyone seemed to be having such a great time. It’s a very happy place to be.

From left to right, Big Si from Beverley, Lucia, Adam and Chris from Canada.

The busy market in Pai. Here are some people from the Hmong tribe performing a dance for the tourists in the hope of some money.

During the day, we spend the morning chilling out in the ‘Easy Cafe’ opposite our guesthouse: enjoying the amazing smoothies, coffee and freshly baked bread. In the afternoon, we continue to chill in the main town. Yesterday we enjoyed a few cheeky day-time beers and mojitos after meeting a lovely traveller, Ember, who is from Australia. For our final night in Pai we have booked into a different guesthouse, nearer the centre and slightly cheaper. So shortly we will go to check into our new accommodation and enjoy another chilled afternoon in the town, without the day-time beers this time, in preparation for our hard day of cycling tomorrow.

Tomorrow we set off on the road to Chiang Mai; we have decided to break the road into two halves as it’s about 135km with another big uphill climb. The plan is to camp at the top of the mountain, so the following day we can enjoy the downhill and then flat road into Chiang Mai. But first, we have another chilled afternoon and evening in Pai to enjoy. Life is good. 

Day 72: Pai to Ban Mae Lao 

Yesterday, our chilled afternoon in Pai led to another lovely evening enjoying the company of friends and eating delicious street food at the night market. On our walk back to our hotel, despite our plan to get an early night before our tough cycling day tomorrow, we ended up following the sound of live music down a side street. We found a very cool, hippy bar. It was called something like ‘The Jazz Bar’, however, it seemed to be hosting a sort of open mic night. As the music was so great and the atmosphere really joyful, we decided one cheeky mojito wouldn’t harm us! So we enjoyed one drink and the lively atmosphere for a little while. 

Our last night in Pai at the Jazz bar,

Therefore, the following morning our early morning alarm got put on snooze a few times. We weren’t too worried though, we knew that we had no definite destination today. Our plan was to cycle sort of halfway to Chiang Mai, attempting to tackle most of the hills and camp somewhere at the top to enable us to enjoy a nice day of mostly downhill the following day. So we set off from Mr. Jan’s guesthouse after a big bowl of porridge, banana and honey at about 0930, not before a stop off at 7/11 (surprise surprise!).

Adam navigated us along a quieter road initially upon leaving Pai, rather than following the busier 1095 (which we had to move onto a little later). It was a beautiful road so I’m grateful Adam led us that way. Hippy, trendy and quirky guesthouses continued to sprawl out beyond Pai, catering for those who want to experience the town but a little more quietly. They looked very cool. For too cool for us! Male and female ferangs clad in elephant print trousers continued to cruise past us as they sped to their accommodations out of the town, or further afield to explore the wonders of the surrounding countryside. Vegetarian and vegan cafes were dotted here and there, nestled into the forested landscape. This particular road leaving Pai was very pretty: the rural road was vibrantly green and copious amounts of blooming flowers decorated the roadside. It was a lovely start to our morning.

As we rounded a corner, we finally saw what I had been hoping to see at some point since leaving Singapore 72 days ago… an elephant! The elegant, enormous and beautiful animal was about 100m ahead of us, slowly rambling along the side of the road with a local Thai man astride its back. A huge smile erupted across my face; I almost felt emotional – I have never seen an elephant in real life, never mind one so close! We caught up with the elephant and slowly cycled past: it was a truly magnificent creature. Unfortunately however, my immense joy soon turned to sadness when I how they were being kept: makeshift pens had been constructed on the side of the road (in prime view of passing tourists) made from huge wooden tree trunks blocking them into a small space with a tin roof over their heads. Some had chains around one ankle, holding them in place. The man who had been riding the elephant steered him/her into an empty pen.

Stumbling across these magnificent animals but it was sad to see them being ridden by tourists.

After stopping to marvel at the two elephants in the pen there, we continued cycling in contemplative quiet. This is not how we would have preferred to experience these beautiful animals. Further along the road, we saw two or three more elephant camps, each hosting two elephants contained in the same condition. Outside ‘Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp Tours’ I propped my bike up and walked slowly up to one elephant, stroking its trunk gently. The elephant next to her was led out by a local, so the elephant left behind began to bang her head against a horizontal, wooden trunk that separated her from freedom and the other elephant as it walked away. I’m not an elephant expert, but she didn’t look happy. It was really quite sad to see. The elephant that was led out of its pen presently had a tourist thrust onto its back before he was led down the road, most likely towards a pool where the tourist can unnaturally bath with the elephant or something equally demoralising for the poor creature. The local people working at the camps were all smiles and “Sa-wa-dee-kaaa” but we were not interested. Poor, poor elephants. šŸ˜„

Tourists riding the elephants. With attractions like this, it is really about supply and demand. If the tourists demand it, the locals will provide. Tourists should be made aware that this is not how a wild animal should be treated.

But the place has been recommended by Facebook and Lonely Planet so it “must” be good (meant in a sarcastic tone).

As we continued along the road, the views continued to be beautiful: wide open spaces exposed those colourful, vivid fields, with sporadic woods blessing us with shade from the already too hot sun. We glimpsed the popular attraction, the ‘White Buddha’ atop of a lush, green hill, mist shrouding the summit. We also cycled past a herd of stunning buffalo, their female shepherd calling harsh commands to keep them inline. 

Eventually, those big uphill climbs we knew were coming began. They weren’t the worst or the most difficult climbs we’ve had on this route, but they were far from easy. Attempting to zigzag was difficult because as we were now on the busier road (the main route between Pai and Chiang Mai), copious amounts of tourist buses flew past us, ferrying ferangs from one popular tourist place to another. The hills brought us through more lush jungle forests on both sides. As always, we took our time – stopping when I needed to, to catch my breath or rest my weary legs. Adam – as always – seemed to breeze up the hills in his continuously optimistic style. 

We enjoyed a longer stop for lunch at about 1330 and I made us tuna and pesto sandwiches which tasted so good! (Once out of the outskirts of Pai, there’s no villages, cafes or food stalls for a good 40/50km). Placing our spare black groundsheet onto the ground in the shade of the trees, we both indulged in a quick nap to reset our batteries (perhaps those mojitos were not such a good idea after all!). In the short respite from the continuous traffic, we were rewarded with lovely peace and quiet: just the sound of nature around us. The odd wispy, white cloud moved slowly across the backdrop of vivid blue sky above us. 

Farewell Pai āœ‹

Up we got – those hills were not going to climb themselves! Not too long afterwards we passed through a police checkpoint between the provinces of Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. Disappointingly, they wouldn’t allow us to refill our water bottles which had been depleted on the hot uphill climbs. So instead, Adam filtered some tap water from the sink outside the toilets: the water filtration system we brought with us is invaluable!

Those pesky, steep hills continued a while longer. Luckily, in places we continued to be saved by the shade of the trees. Eventually, we were once again rewarded with some awesome downhills. Woooohooooo!

At 1700, we came across a grassy area of space on the side of the road with toilets and some picnic tables. We made the good decision to stop here and cook our dinner, using the last hour of daylight and the convenient tables at our disposal. We cooked up a storm: I poured some water into our pan and added the two cartons of coconut milk I have been carrying with me since the market in Mae Sot, adding a sachet of Thai green curry powder and a full pack of noodles (which probably feeds four!). We also added a tin of tuna (oil and all) which topped it off brilliantly. The result: a huge portion of a delicious, creamy Thai green tuna noodle dish – just what we needed! As we were cooking, three French guys stopped in their car to use the facilities. They enquired about where we had cycled from, and after some polite discussion, we told them our plan to cycle back to the UK. One guys eyeballs nearly left his sockets! Their reaction was one of the funniest we have had so far! Pretty in awe of us, they gave us some lovely words of encouragement. 

We had considered continuing to cycle a little bit further as we had only cycled 42km and our original plan was at the very least to cycle 50km, but as the sun disappeared lower and lower, we decided it was best to camp here. The convenience of the toilets was also too good to pass up. The daylight fled quicker than we anticipated, so we quickly erected our tent and climbed in. As we were at a fairly high altitude, it was chilly for the first time. Our jungle sleeping bags just about did the trick though. Tomorrow we will cycle the rest of the way to Chiang Mai, about 90km. However, the majority of the route tomorrow is downhill or flat (although I’m not too naive to think there won’t be some cheeky hills thrown in for good measure!), so combined with an inevitable early start as we’re camping, we should make it to our hostel in Chiang Mai in good time. 

Day 73: Ban Mae Lao to Chiang Mai 

After a mostly good sleep (mostly due to the fact my air mattress must have a puncture as it kept deflating every few hours resulting in me having to reflate it half asleep!), the alarm sounded at 0500. We couldn’t quite bring ourselves to get up immediately, but we did pretty well to be packed up, fuelled with porridge and on the road by 0715. 

We felt refreshed after a surprisingly good nights sleep, considering the aforementioned problematic air mattress and our close proximity to the road. Despite only cycling 41km yesterday, we were extremely glad we camped where we did. Our early start meant that we were able to marvel at the golden, morning light filtering through the trees, illuminating the forest and plants like we’ve never seen before. It was magical. Within minutes, we began descending and were blessed with the most A.MAZING views on the most EPIC downhill. As we rounded one of the many bends on this route, the valley below us opened up and exposed an outstanding cloud inversion in the valley. Audible gasps were heard as we took in the milky beauty of the clouds below us, a sea of glorious, spellbinding white. Photos were taken and the drone was flown to capture this momentous view. As we continued to descend down the sublime downhill, we entered the enchanting cloud. Everything was covered with a thin film of moist cloud: we needed miniature windscreen wipers for our glasses! Far too soon, we were below the cloud and the eventful hills on this Mae Hong Son loop were almost, almost, done with us. 

The cloud inversion went on for miles. If we had continued cycling further the day before, we would have probably been under these clouds and would have missed this view.

And here is a quick shot from the drone.

We stopped for an early lunch of Pad Thai at a charming vegetarian cafe, owned by a Scottish guy. He informed us that we only had another two fairly big hills before reaching some fruit and veg stalls, and it would be downhill and then flat from there to Chiang Mai. He was right! Those final few hills were pretty insignificant compared to the big Momma hills we had already conquered. We reached those fruit and veg stalls and Adam treated himself to some coconut sticky rice which is served inside a sugar cane. 

The fruit at the stalls are so vibrant and tempting.

The rest of the route was really pleasant until we reached the outskirts of the city. Adam navigated us through the rural, quiet roads for as long as possible, which was thoroughly enjoyable. After 10 days of either uphill or downhill, it felt strange to cycle for many kilometres on flat roads! The temperature had risen by a good few degrees after coming from the hills and mountains, but we sincerely enjoyed being back in rural Thailand – cycling through the quiet villages and towns, past fields of paddy and sugar cane. 

Small, quiet villages turned into towns as we neared the big city of Chiang Mai. We noticed the detached houses became grander and seemingly more expensive, with fancy walls or gates separating manicured lawns from the road. Elegant restaurants and hotels began appearing as we got closer to the outskirts. Before we knew it, the quiet road inevitably led us onto the loud, bustling and hectic main roads that we had endeavoured to avoid for so long. The traffic was crazy – something we have not had to experience, intentionally, for a long while. 

Biting our tongues and only swearing once or twice at inconsiderate drivers, we made it to our hostel. Due to the extremely popular lantern festival happening this week in Chiang Mai, finding affordable accommodation fairly central proved to be a challenge. However, Adam had found us two beds in a dorm room at a hotel called, ‘Champion 2’. Owned by two Spaniards, the place is clean and the people mostly friendly. We usually book private rooms, but this was the most affordable and central accommodation we could find in the centre of Chiang Mai.

So! We are now in Chiang Mai and we have successfully cycled the Mae Hong Son Loop! Success! We have already made several arrangements to meet people who have been following our journey who are in Chiang Mai, and other people who we have met along the way. We are going to be quite sociable it seems! Our bikes are booked in for a much-needed service at the highly recommended ‘Triple Cats’ bike shop. As we have our visa until 27 December, we have plenty of time to explore this vibrant and busy city: we are considering finding some accommodation to stay here for a couple of weeks to really make the most of our Thai visa. It will also be nice to stay in one place for a little while before we set off again, heading east towards China through Lao and Vietnam. 

So I’m signing off for a little while – I will write a blog post all about our experience in Chiang Mai which I’ll publish just before we leave. As we don’t know how long we will be here just yet, I don’t know when I’ll be posting it. 

If you are still reading, thank you! I’ll be back soon, 

Much love

Lucia xx

3 comments

Michael Lees

Lucia, I read every last word, it is a pleasure to indulge myself in your well written, informative description of your travels, I enjoy the blogs just as much as the vlogs. Enjoy your rest days in Chiang Mai, you both deserve it.

Hi Mike – thank you very much indeed! Your kind comments inspire me to keep writing. We have enjoyed one week off the bikes in Chiang Mai and have another week ahead of us – we’re already itching to get back on the bikes but this rest is much needed. All the best, Lucia.

So very eloquent and informative Lu. You should be extremely proud of conquering those big Momma hills !

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