Thailand road trip! The Chiang Mai – Pai – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang loop

We took our eyes off him for a second and before we knew it Jack was part of the tribe We took our eyes off him for a second and before we knew it Jack was part of the tribe

We got to Chiang Mai Airport at around 9am to pick up our hire car for the 616km Thailand road trip we’d decided to tackle, a decision we’d made just a few days earlier. We had a couple of days off work and decided it was time to get out of town, and after reading about this popular drive we thought we’d give it a go. With virtually no research done on where we were going or what we should do, apart from plugging the destinations into Google Maps to give us a vague indication of where we were headed, we were on our way.

Road trip map: Chang Mai - Pai - Mae Hong Son - Mae Sariang loop

Road trip map: Chang Mai – Pai – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang loop

Wat Phra That

Given our first stop was Pai, 139km’s away, we decided to make the most of the fact we had a car and take a slight detour to Wat Phra That at the top of Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep). It’s a beautiful Wat that’s been there for the better part of 700 years, and can be seen perched majestically on the hillside from the city of Chiang Mai below. You arrive at the base, try and jag one of the few parking spots on the street (we were lucky to get one right out the front) and make your way up the 306 steps to the top.

Sarah and Jack ready to climg the stairs at Wat Phra That

Sarah and Jack ready to climb the stairs at Wat Phra That

Given my dodgy back at the moment (I have a bulging disk which causes me pain in my left leg whenever I pick up anything heavier than my socks), Sarah had the task of carrying Jack. So for the first time on this trip, and finally giving her justification for buying and bringing the damn thing, Jack was strapped onto Sarah’s back with the Ergo-Baby. So there was Sarah powering up the stairs piggy-backing Jack, camera around her neck and full two litre water bottle in her hand, while I was grimacing every time I took a step towards the temple at the top carrying nothing more than my bruised ego. An English woman near the end of our ascent even had a crack at me for not doing more to help my wife. I tried to explain my back issue, but my perfectly valid reason didn’t elicit any pity whatsoever. In fact I believe I detected a rolling of the eyes as she turned away in disgust.

The golden stupa inside Wat Phra That

The golden stupa inside Wat Phra That

The Wat and its surroundings were magnificent, but then again they all are. There’s literally an incredible Wat in every city suburb and village throughout the country. Has anyone ever done a Wat stocktake? There must be thousands of them. I wonder how they can afford to maintain them to such an incredibly high standard? It’s not the richest country in the world, despite the Royal Family’s chart topping wealth, yet these Wat’s are all immaculate. If the truth be told we’re both pretty much Wat-ed out! But even if you are too, this place is worth a visit just for the amazing views over Chiang Mai. It was a crystal clear day and the city vista was breathtaking. Despite the fact my shorts were shorter than Sarah’s, I was allowed into the temple but Sarah had to stay outside. I don’t like this inequality at all, but I went in anyway because there’s no point both of us missing out. Sarah didn’t mind because as I said before, we’ve seen the inside of a lot of Wats lately!

On our way to Pai

When I plugged the coordinates into Google Maps and it told me the first leg to Pai was only 139km’s but would take almost three hours, I must admit I scoffed. But then you get out of town and onto the windy road and you realise you won’t be breaking any land speed records on this trip. If you get motion sickness, or even think you might get motion sickness on a 140km stretch of road with more kinks than a bashed up slinky, then I suggest you get some pills. Sarah, who gets car sick exiting the local supermarket car park, took some pills and didn’t have a problem for the entire trip.

Beautiful countryside on the way from Chiang Mai to Pai

Beautiful countryside on the way from Chiang Mai to Pai

We were told this road trip would showcase some of the most amazing countryside in all of Thailand, and it was definitely spectacular, but the torrential downpour we endured didn’t help with our appreciation of the scenery. But I guess that’s what you get for spending a couple of months in Thailand during monsoon season! It didn’t rain the whole time we were in the car on the way to Pai, but enough to have a significant impact on our viewing pleasure.

The charming little town of Pai

The charming little town of Pai

We arrived in Pai around two hours and 45 minutes after leaving Chiang Mai (damn you Google Maps and your accurate time predictions), and we were both instantly impressed. I’d read a forum or two about the places we’d be visiting and the overwhelming opinion was that Pai was nowhere near as good as Mae Hong Son where we would be staying the night. If that was the case we couldn’t wait to get there because we both instantly loved Pai. The forum criticism of Pai was that it was nothing more than a tourist trap for hippies and pot-smokers, but we didn’t see any of that. It’s main narrow walking streets are very quaint, with little cafes, restaurants and bookstores seemingly inviting us in. There were also an incredible amount of tiny bars, and for such as small town I’m guessing the nightlife really takes off. After walking the streets for a while we stopped at a coffee shop and enjoyed a cup of tea, hot cocoa and a brownie before heading back to the car. We were both disappointed that we couldn’t stay overnight and explore the surrounding areas a bit more, but we vowed we’d be back before leaving Thailand to check Pai out properly.

Beautiful countryside on the way from Pai to Mae Hong Son

Beautiful countryside on the way from Pai to Mae Hong Son

Pai to Mae Hong Son

The second leg of our trip on Day One took us from Pai to the Fern Resort just outside of Mae Hong Son. It was just two hours and 110km’s away, but the torrential rain that left us alone during our visit to Pai soon rejoined us on the road. Despite the inclement weather we could see this was an incredibly beautiful stretch of road winding through the mountainous terrain. In fact, if I didn’t know better I’d suspect the Thai planners deliberately made the road ridiculously windy to ensure we slowed down and appreciated what their country had to offer. It’s truly beautiful in the north-west corner of the country as we edged closer to the Burmese border. We wanted to stop at one of the many waterfalls, the hot geyser, or a traditional village along the way, but the weather put paid to any ideas like that.

The grandiose entrance to Mae Hong Son

The grandiose entrance to Mae Hong Son

We drove through the ludicrously huge northern gate into Mae Hong Son (we’ve decided they love a huge entrance in Thailand) and I instantly didn’t like the place. After driving through town and around a few of the streets my initial instincts were right, it’s not a pretty city. The surroundings are incredible, and there are so many things to do just a short drive out of town into the countryside, but the town itself did nothing for me. Luckily for us our digs for the night were on the other side of town and in the bush. The Fern Resort was about 6km’s south of Mae Hong Son and nestled into a fantastic bush setting. For $AU40 a night this place was more than we could have asked for. We had our own huge bungalow, there was a nice warm swimming pool, the restaurant was picture perfect, and the ambience was exactly what we were looking for. We’d found a slice of Thai paradise for the night. We dumped our belongings in the bungalow, Jack and I had a quick swim, then we got in the car and headed back into town for a bite to eat. We decided to stop at a place we saw earlier called Crossroads. It’s a western style (as in wild west) pub/restaurant filled with all sorts of nik-naks in all likelihood sourced from antique and second hand stores all over the world. While the restaurant itself was great, the food didn’t match. It wasn’t horrible, but we were hoping for better. In all honesty we should have eaten at the resort restaurant for the same price. What I did notice about Mae Hong Son was how quiet it was for a Friday night. There was hardly a soul on the streets which really surprised me. We were the only people in Crossroads bar a couple seated at another table, and we didn’t see anything that resembled any action as we made our way back to the resort. I guess it’s just not that kind of town.

Visiting the Long Neck Village

The rings actually push the rib cage down, not elongate the neck as most people believe

The rings actually push the rib cage down, not elongate the neck as most people believe

The following morning we had breakfast, gathered our belongings and started heading towards Mae Sariang, 161km’s and two hours and 39 minutes away running parallel with the Burmese border about 20km’s away. Before we started the trip we decided to check out the Longneck Village just outside of Mae Hong Son. We were both fascinated to see these people of Burmese decent in their natural habit, especially the women with their elongated necks due to the rings they continually add over many years. However, the experience was incredibly disappointing to say the least. We arrived at the village and we were clearly the first visitors for the day. The lady at the ‘Information Office’ (at least that’s what it said on the home made sign before you enter the village) charged us 250THB ($AU8.60) each to enter, claiming all of the money went to the villagers as they are refugees from Burma and not allowed to work in Thailand. For Thailand this is a large amount of money to be charging for entry, so I was expecting an amazing Longneck Village experience. What we got was totally different. We basically paid about $AU17 to enter a Longneck shopping mall. The ‘village’ was just a 100 metre path lined with stalls on either side selling all sorts of ‘Longneck’ trinkets. The cultural experience I was hoping for was shattered, and the bad taste in my mouth from having to pay to enter the ‘village’ meant I had no intention of purchasing anything from them. The ‘Longneck’ women were very nice, but I didn’t learn anything about their culture or history from them. I learnt that from reading from a couple of weathered A4 pages on a notice board as you enter. Not exactly worth the 500THB entry fee I’m afraid. So after doing a lap of the ‘Longneck Mall’ we said our goodbyes. To rub salt into the wounds, there was a donation box near the notice board, and some of the Thai locals were begging for money next to the ‘Information Office’ as we made our way back to the car.

The countryside between Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang

The countryside between Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang

Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang

The torrential rain rejoined us once again for most of the drive to Mae Sariang. The scenery was still beautiful but slightly different to Day One. While the countryside from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son via Pai was jungle-like, the countryside from Mae Hong Son to Mae Sariang was much more forest-like. It actually reminded me a lot of driving around Tasmania back in Australia. The vegetation wasn’t nearly as dense and there was a lot more open spaces. It was still beautiful, just different.

A word of warning, you really need to have your wits about you driving on these windy roads. It’s not unusual to see cars cutting corners, or worse still, overtaking cars on blind corners. There aren’t that many cars on the road in this corner of the country, but the way some people drive is crazy dangerous. Should a car be travelling at speed in the opposite direction going around a blind corner, there’s very little room to get out of the way. While we didn’t see any near misses, we saw several instances where 5-10 seconds either way could have spelt disaster. It shouldn’t put you off driving on these windy roads, but take your time and be aware the locals love cutting corners.

The golden Buddha atop the hill in Mae Sariang needs some repairs

The golden Buddha atop the hill in Mae Sariang needs some repairs

Of all the major towns that were designated milestones for this road trip, Mae Sariang was the town I knew least about. In fact I knew nothing. When we finally drove through the town gates, my instincts were similar to those I experienced at Mae Hong Son. I didn’t like it, and once again on further exploration, those feelings didn’t change. While driving through town we noticed a huge golden statue perched on a hill on the outskirts of town, so we decided to make our way there for a look. When we got to the top of the hill, and negotiated the stairs to the massive golden Buddha, we were surprised and disappointed to see it was in a terrible state of disrepair. No one had maintained this monument for quite a while. The grass was overgrown, the toilets were disgusting, and the silk sash around the statue was torn. We noticed monks living in the premises at the base of the stairs, but they were doing nothing to maintain their facilities. However the views over the town in the valley with the mountains in the background made the trip worthwhile.

We stopped in at a local coffee and cake place so Jack could enjoy some ice-cream. Sarah and I decided to indulge in a brownie and chocolate sundae as well, a little treat for all the driving we’d been doing.

Back home to Chiang Mai

The final leg of the journey from Mae Sariang back to Chiang Mai was a mere 188km’s away and would take us just over two and a half hours. The first leg of the drive was beautiful and windy, but the second half was nothing but ugly open roads where you could finally get the car up to 100km/hr! We took the car back to the car rental outlet at the airport, then jumped in a Song Teaws for the short trip home.

The road trip was fantastic and despite the rain and short timeframe we had a great time. In an ideal world we would have stretched the trip out for a few extra days at least so we could explore the waterfalls, mud baths, authentic local villages, national parks and many of the other tourist attractions dotted along the route. We realised, given we hadn’t done much research prior to departure, the loop is more about the drive between towns rather than the main towns themselves. You see some spectacular scenery around every bend, and the smallest villages have the most amazing temples dominating their tiny skylines. We highly recommend you experience this road trip, albeit at a slower pace than we did, should you ever be up in this neck of the woods in Thailand.

Check out a photogallery of our road trip below…

12 Comments on Thailand road trip! The Chiang Mai – Pai – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang loop

  1. I must admit you have planned it perfectly. I have never visited Chiang Mai, but if I ever do, I’ll follow your steps! 🙂

  2. Incredible trip and incredible photos!

  3. Richard Mace // June 12, 2014 at 12:34 am //

    Shame you missed the lake area (with Burmese Wat) @ Mae Hongson & the river @ Mae Sariang…
    I live in Pai…

    • Hi Richard, we did check out the lovely lake area in Mae Hong Son, there’s a photo in the photogallery. It was definitely the highlight of that town. Pai is gorgeous and we can’t wait to get up there again. I think it will be sooner rather than later.

  4. mitsandgebaut // September 13, 2014 at 3:52 pm //

    Good morning from Bangkok. Thanks for the nice description of the loop. One question to this: were you an experienced driver at this point or was this one of the first trips in left-hand traffic and thai-style?

    We want to do the loop soon, I am an experienced driver on european streets (maybe a mere 100.000km – also the countries with more chaotic driving) but no left-hand until now. The most difficult thing I guess is to get out and into Chiang Mai?

    • Thanks for your message. I’d never driven on the right hand side of the road before until I moved to Thailand. Talk about a baptism of fire with the way the Thai locals drive! But the loop road was pretty quiet, you just needed to be aware of locals cutting blind corners which was a concern.

  5. Where did you stay at Pai and Mae Hon Son.. Any recommendation?

  6. Thank you for the informative and helpful post. Any advise on where to rent cars from? I have been hearing mixed reviews about some of the car rental agencies (i.e. charging money for pre-existing damages). Any tip would be much appreciated. Thank you!

    • Hi Stan, we hired our car from Sixt at Chiang Mai airport and didn’t have any issues at all. Just make sure you check the car yourself before signing anything. The only issue we had was returning it without enough fuel in the tank. The petrol station attendant didn’t fill the tank and I was made the go back and fill it up! Have fun…

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