Karen has the t-shirt already and now she just needed to ride the fabled Mae Hong Son Loop to earn the right to wear it – so on Monday 23rd November we (and I include Aad & Mike in that ‘we’) left Chiang Mai headed for Mae Hong Son via Pai – i.e. via the anticlockwise approach to the loop. Our destination that first evening was a campground in a national park approx 35km out of MHS.
We stopped first at a big Tesco’s in Chiang Mai so we could stock up on essentials – Aad and I watched over the bikes and chatted whilst Karen and Mike went food shopping, returning with bags of marshmallows and other essential items. From there we headed north up the 108 before turning west and making our way towards Pai. I’d read on Trip Advisor that the road from CM to MHS via Pai was all ripped up and undergoing reconstruction – and we did have some long stretches of unsealed road to ride, but nothing too difficult. With that said – some of the unsealed inclines were very steep, and having been wet down by a water truck they were slick and slippery. By and large the new Karoo 3’s did a good job of hooking up in the thin veneer of mud over the road, but I think I’m a die-hard TKC-80 fan and anything else is less than 100% confidence-inspiring. (Karen is not a fan of the new tyres….she doesn’t like the singing noise they make!)
After one particularly long stretch of slippery mud and crap we stopped for a drink and a chance to let the idiot car drivers pass us by, before remounting and heading north to Pai. Arriving in Pai we crossed the infamous Tai-Pai bridge – not the original one built by slave local labour at the behest of Japanese occupiers during WWII as the Japanese burnt that down when they later retreated, but another one built (after a flood I think). The bridge was a bit touristic with lots of tourists walking the bridge and taking their selfies, and on the far side (western side) of the bridge there was a long line of stalls selling t-shirts and sun-glasses and other useless rubbish. On the upside there was also a small restaurant over there as well so we repositioned the bikes and then settled into a lunch of steamed rice, curried meat (chicken?), and spicy chicken mince, which only I ate as everyone else found it too spicy, all washed down with EST Cola – the local version of coke. After lunch Karen succumbed to Aad & Mike’s collective charm and let them both jump onboard the Animal (though not at the same time) to try it out for size.
The road between Pai and Mae Hong Son was a definite improvement over the morning section, with no major roadworks to contend with, and arriving in MHS we stopped at a servo so Aad could get some fuel for his Coleman stove, and to stock up on water. We then backtracked a short distance before taking the 35km diversion out to our campground – a challenging ride up a very steep and winding sealed road. At one stage Karen and I were stuck behind a small taxi truck, and when the driver finally indicated that he was pulling over and we drew alongside him to overtake the knob then aimed straight for us – what a tosser, and thank goodness for the roll-on power of the 1200.
The road up to the campground at Paangxu Ng, N19.49895° E97.90546°, Pang Tong Under Royal Forest Park 2 (Pang Ung) was a delight to ride – tight switchbacks that rose so steeply we seemed to be lining up for a near-vertical moon-shot. Eventually we crested the mountain and rode along the ridge through a dense forest before entering a rustic village that lined the road and terminated at the entrance to the national park. The road into the park followed the contours of a tree-lined lake, but there were so many tents already set up that we pushed on a bit further and ended up camping on a patch of grass opposite the Visitor Centre and near the toilets – and that was a bit of a mistake as they were noisy and smelly.
We pitched our tents as darkness fell, and cooked a simple meal of noodles and baked beans (Karen and I have been carrying those baked beans since Pakistan, and Hienz 57 Varieties they definitely were not). It was a hot night and I ended up pulling back the fly halfway to try and catch some airflow. We’d already struggled with the lack of moving air – it had taken us ages to inflate our trendy thermorest neoair mattresses without any wind to catch in the inflating bag, much to Aad’s entertainment.
The following morning – 24th November – was my birthday, and as I said to Aad, I couldn’t think of a better birthday present than to go riding with Karen and friends, so we packed up our gear – saturated with condensation so we had to lay that out in the sun first to dry off before we packed it away, had a delicious breakfast cooked by Karen – pancakes and croissants with Nutella, and instant oats, and then headed down the steep mountain bound for Mae Sariang, about 200km south.
Arriving in MHS we refuelled quickly and pushed on again, stopping an hour or so later at a small roadside stall that appeared to sell coffee – a birthday treat for me – but the only coffee available was cold coffee in a tin can that tasted like sweet crap, and the strange cola they sold didn’t taste much better.
The 108 south of MHS is a rider’s delight and the Mae Hong Son Loop deserves its place in the Road Rides Hall of Fame. With new tyres on the bike and the engine absolutely barking as it lapped up the never-ending corners, the BMW felt right at home here. Mike was determined to not fall behind too far and he’d creep up in the corners, but the big Beemer would just scream out of a curve and disappear in a warp-speed flash of light on the short straight sections.
We stopped mid-afternoon as Karen was feeling a bit nauseous – the curves were relentless and the whiplash-inducing dynamic mode I was using wasn’t helping, so we pulled over looking for a place to get a drink and have a pit-stop (Khun Yuam I think). Even Mike was feeling nauseous from the curvy roads. I confess to being that pumped with the exhilarating ride I didn’t have time to get sick. Aad guided us to a steak and coffee place where Karen ordered steak and pepper sauce and the rest of us had a chicken hamburger and fries, with cold drinks bought from the local 7-11 as the coffee place could only supply hot drinks – my first real coffee in weeks – Mmmmmm !!! Karen looked for some mince in the 7-11 but couldn’t find any so we pushed on to Mae La Noi and stopped again, again not finding any mince for dinner, and compounded as I managed to drop the bike in the rocky carpark when I lost my footing. No damage done except bruised pride – the bike is heavy and when it passes that point of no return its too heavy to fight, and the best thing to do is just let it go. Still – no photos were taken so maybe I can deny that it ever happened hey 🙂
[EDIT – I didn’t realise at the time, but Karen – who wasn’t on the bike when I lost my footing with the bike – was waiting with camera poised and managed to snap a photo – so now I can’t deny that it happened…]
Arriving in Mae Sariang we located our third 7-11 for the afternoon and pulled in there, a bit more cautiously on my part. Mince still couldn’t be found, so we got some ham and cheese and drinks, and then headed 8km west to the Salawin National Park, arriving close on dusk. We paid our 100THB/head camping fee plus 20THB/bike fee, and then the ranger jumped on his scooter and rode just a round the corner from the boom-gate to show us to our camping spot – a narrow dam wall/embankment that separated a small dam from a lake below on the lower level. The dam wall was just wide enough for our tents, but the spot was near the toilets, and the campsite was deserted – much to our liking.
Dinner was a joint effort and consisted of spaghetti and ham and a spaghetti sauce, with marshmallows for desert. The perfect end to an almost-perfect day – I haven’t dropped the bike in ages and I should know by now that carparks can catch you out – silly me for getting tired and sloppy.