Four Day Mae Hong Son Tour (with TBB Tours, Chiang Mai)
I was invited to join an official tour group that TBB Tours were hosting. It was too good an opportunity to decline (despite some initial reservations of riding with people that I did not know, on a bike I was unfamiliar with).
The tour would be a four day Mae Hong Son Loop tour, a route that I know well. However, the trip would also take in a few interesting POI’s that I had never taken the time to go see, so was looking forward to the opportunity.
Day 1: Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang (via Doi Inthanon) I initially arrived at the TBB shop in Ratchamanka Road at around 8am. The official meeting time was 8:30am, but as I was being given the choice to ride either a CB500X or CB650F, I decided to turn up early to take a look at both bikes.
I had already test ridden the CB650F once before and liked it, but the consensus feedback from others was that I should go for the CB500X. I wanted to sit on the CB500X to see if it felt comfortable height-wise and compare it to the initial feel of the 650. Surprisingly it was more comfortable than I thought. Additionally I could solidly flat-foot it. Given the consensus, I decided to go for the 500.
At around 8:30am the tour customers began to arrive. The group consisted of four men, three of which knew each other. Then there was the official TBB tour guide and the TBB backup support (in a truck), and myself who was to be “sweep” at the back. Given that I am used to solo riding and winging it, it was strange for me to be told to bring whatever I wanted, as it can go in the support truck. I took just a small bag anyway. No reason to take more than the basics that I need and it is always good practice to pack light when possible.
By approximately 9am we set off. My main concern at this point was not to do something stupid on a bike I wasn’t familiar with. So I initially gave myself a bit of a jump when I hit the horn instead of the indicators! In my defense, this is apparently a common initial problem for CB500x users, because the horn is where the indicators normally are positioned. For some reason Honda designed the horn ABOVE the indicators. I ended up hitting the horn again later on, but after that I got used to the unusual position.
So anyway, we weaved through the Chiang Mai hub of traffic, hitting a few lights on the way, until we arrived at the main 108 highway. As we picked up some speed I could feel the dramatic difference in smoothness riding the CB500x in comparison to my dtracker, but I am quite attached to the feeling of being thrown about a bit on my smaller bike. The CB500x was in full control and was taking me for a ride, whereas I ALWAYS have to be the one in full control of my dracker and take IT for a ride.
Finally we turned right onto the R109 and could get away from the main traffic flow. We took a nice pace pace as we began snaking our way through the curving sweeping roads that would lead to Watarachan Waterfall, where we would stop for coffee. We parked up the bikes, leaving our gear behind under the watchful eye of our backup support. Thailand is normally very safe, but I always lock my gear away or normally bring it with me “just in case”. Was quite refreshing to not have to worry about anything and just go enjoy the view. ..and what a view it was! At the waterfall we were greeted by not only a powerful flowing waterfall, but also a stunning rainbow at the base of it.
After enjoying the beauty of the waterfall we all sat down for coffee and drinks in the small cafe next to the waterfall. I steeled myself to introduce myself properly to the group and to find out their names and generally break the ice. This is always initially hard for me in general, being of an introverted nature, although I tend not to show it. They all seemed very lovely though which helped with feeling comfortable. This initial coffee stop after a short ride is a great idea really. Not just for a short break, but to establish common ground with other riders on the trip. A nice new experience for me.
After a short bathroom break we geared up again and set off for a local market, and then a short ride up to “The highest point in Thailand”. (As an aside I have a guide to Doi Inthanon here. Doi Inthanon is a part of the Himalayan mountain range).
We parked up the bikes and headed on foot on the trail. Stunningly beautiful due to being covered in moss and surrounded by lush green forestry.
A quick hop back on the bikes, to head a few short km to the King & Queen Pagodas (The Great Holy Relic Pagodas). Quite wonderful to see the peak of the pagodas emerge when heading up the steep incline to the parking area.
We parked up again and headed on foot to view the Pagodas and the stunning gardens. Given that just a couple of days from this day (on the 13th October) the official funeral of the late King, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, would take place, and that some of his remains would be placed within this Pagoda, it was a humbling experience.
By this point the temperature was heating up and I was looking forward to getting back on the bike and feeling the wind cool me down. I was itching to get in some riding time.
We set off towards Mae Sariang, via Mae Chaem.
Something about this road with its overhanging trees and jungle-like feel that gets my adrenaline going. So, as soon as we hit that turn I could feel my face crack into a wide smile, because i knew what was coming; lots of great curvy twisty roads!
By the time we pulled into our accommodation at Mae Sariang I was feeling good. The rest of the group seemed happy too. Lots of smiles. We arranged to meet an hour later for dinner and drinks.
A small thunderstorm that was brewing finally hit and we had rain for the rest of the night. It cooled the air down and was lovely to hear the sound of the rain, which helped lull me to sleep later. The only downfall is that my gear didn’t fully dry (I always wash part of my gear when on a ride), but even if damp it always dries out fast when I am on the bike.
Day 2: Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son (via Bua Tong)
Folllowing breakfast (and after a stroll around the hotel property), we set off towards Khun Yuam and a viewpoint at Bua Tong (famous for Mexican Yellow Sunflowers during the month of November).
It was a fantastic ride, but a couple of heart stopping moments happened that day.
First incident was a dog absolutely BOLTING across the road, right in front of one of the bikes. It was horrible to witness this from behind not knowing what the outcome might be. Time seems to slow down in these situations. Obviously would have been a lot more shocking for the rider, who thankfully handled it well and avoided hitting the dog. I caught this moment on my GoPro but the footage isn’t great (included in the full trip video at the end of the write up). However, you can just see the blur of the dog and how fast it ran out.
The second incident was a little later when one of our group took a slide on the road.
Thankfully all ok. Given how dramatic the slide seemed to be, it was amazing there was so little damage, both to rider and bike. Plus, after the fall he bolted up like lightening and picked up his bike as though it were made of paper. Impressive! Anyway, thankfully no major issues. The damage to the bike was merely a broken mirror and footpeg, but easily fixed.
As an aside, the roads around Khun Yuam area to me is a cursed area! I honestly don’t believe in curses or superstitions, but given that I had my own serious accident on this road and know of others who have had accidents here too, i just feel very wary of the road in general. Later on, when we visited the WWII Japanese War Museum, we discovered more of the history of the area. So, well, it gave me a slight case of the spooks, even though I am generally never spooked by anything).
Anyway, so two close calls so far, and then comes incident number three!
We were all riding along happily. In fact, it was one of those perfect moments of synchronization. As I was at the back of the group, I was enjoying the harmony we had going on, as we followed each other along the road, snake-style. Then, without any warning, my bike just gave up the ghost and stopped working. I pulled over into the side of the road and tried to work out what was going wrong. It looked like the battery had just died on me, yet normally their is some warning prior to this happening in the form of sluggish starting up or a flickering display screen.
The group member who was directly in front of me turned back to find me scratching my head, wondering what to do. Turned out to be just some loose battery connections, which had worked their way loose on the ride.
Felt rather embarrassing to realise it was something so simple, but I was unfamiliar with the bike and didn’t even know how to remove the seat! Removing my dtracker seat is much more of a fuss to remove, requiring the removal of a lot of bolts, so was surprised to know you just use the bike key to pop the seat up! Anyway, these things just add to my experience and help me to know what to do in the future. I have long given up holding on to embarrassment when i do something stupid on a ride. All i can do is learn!
We decided that given the distance covered by the other guys by now, who were on their way to the viewpoint and would return the same way, we would be best to just wait for their return. I had already messaged the tour leader when the incident first happened to arrange a plan of action, so all was fine. When we met with the rest of the group it turned out they didn’t get to see much of a view due to the cloud cover anyway, so at least I didn’t feel bad about us not getting to see the viewpoint. The tour leader double checked the battery terminals and off we went back down the road, riding in some heavy rain which had just kicked in. We took the ride slow. By this point I think many of us had a few shocks and incidents to just want to take the pace a little slower through the rain, as we headed to a small roadside restaurant for lunch.
Lunch was good (Pad See Ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว)) and a welcome break. It was only lunch time but with all the incidents it seemed like we had been riding for a very long time! I did not feel weary at all though, in fact quite the opposite. Felt like a real adventure so far. I enjoy the feeling of adventure and incidents add to that, so long as nothing serious happens. In saying that, I did hope it would be smooth sailing from this point on, haha!
The next stop after lunch was a visit to the WWII Japanese War Museum. I had never been before, so was an interesting experience. First we were shown a video which informed us of the history in the area. Then, we were instructed to walk around the museum area to see the artifacts and learn more about the area and history. As an aside, my grandfather served in the second world war and sadly his ship went down. I remember finding old love letters from my grandfather to my grandmother, who was pregnant with his second child (my father). There are never any real winners in war, just devastation and destroyed lives. It was a thought-provoking visit. (I found an interesting video on YouTube about the history of WWII in the area, which you can view here)
After the museum we headed back on the main 108 to Mae Hong Son. A wonderful ride and we were lucky with the weather, as it had now stopped raining.
At the guesthouse in Mae Hong Son we cleaned up quickly and met again for a ride up to Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu. We decided to leave the bikes behind and hop in the back of the support truck, which was a lot of fun.
One of the guys asked me if i had ever been up to this temple and I said no. Then, later, as we were walking around I suddenly had a flashback from years back. A huge flood of memories returned. I HAD been here before, and in fact I had put my name on one of the tin “leaves”. It is just that I had lost a lot of my memory from concussion when I had my accident. Was weird and nostalgic and a little sad when I realised the memory had returned. I broke away from the group to light a candle and thank the powers that be that I am still alive.
We headed back down the temple road, back to the guesthouse, with a plan to meet a little later at Salween River restaurant for dinner.
We had a fantastic dinner in which we tried some new dishes (Shan food), then I left the guys for an early night of rest (even though I ended up staying on my computer until around midnight anyway!). Seemed they ended up having an early night themselves. The ride that day had taken a lot out of all of us it seems!
Day 3: Mae Hong Son to Pai (Via Huay Pu Keng) At around 8:30am I was packed up and ready, so headed to Salween River restaurant where we had arranged to meet for breakfast. The other guys were already there. I ordered a light breakfast and headed back to the guesthouse to fully gear up and get the ride to Pai underway.
The initial ride out of Mae Hong Son was short at around 5km, as we stopped in at Pha Bong, to take a boat trip to Huay Pu Keng, a Kayan and Kayaw Hilltribe village (“Long Neck” Tribe and “Big Ear” Tribe).
At the village it really did put things in life into perspective. These people are ethic Burmese and state-less refugees. Their struggle is very real and it is unlikely they will be able to return to their homelands within their lifetimes (and for many generations to come). Homestays are available within the village, and they are in desperate need of a volunteer school teacher (they have school facilities and books, but currently no teacher). If you would like to know more and can help, you can read about this village here.
We chatted with the local ladies and bought a few of their handcrafts. We also fed a young nursing dog a few buns to help her with her feeding of a big brood of puppies. I couldn’t see anything more nutritious than the buns on hand, so although not great, at least it was something.
If you are going to visit this village i suggest budgeting for purchasing some of the handicrafts the ladies have on offer (the items they sell go for as little as 50baht for a bracelet), and taking along some animal food/biscuits for any of the cats and dogs there. The people have to take care of themselves as number one, so the animals will only get what is left over. So, taking along specific animal food would be helpful i think.
On the boat ride back to our bikes the mood was a little somber. The story of these people had hit us all and was food for thought.
Our next stop was to Su Tong Pae Bridge (aka The Bamboo Bridge). A 500 meter long bridge which stretches across rice fields and the Mae Sa Nga River. Bridge built by villagers to serve the monks of Wat Tham Poo Sa Ma and locals of Ban Gung Mai Sak.
Back on the bikes, we headed along the 1095 for around 20km to a scenic coffee shop. This is probably my favorite section of the MHS loop. I love the twisty 1095 Pai to Chiang Mai road for when i want a fast paced ride, but in terms of scenic beauty, the Mae Hong Son to Pai road is the most beautiful part for me.
Before we arrived at the coffee shop we were riding in harmony again, and was a fantastic sight to behold when in real synchronization. Then, suddenly i heard a *clatter-bang* and realised that it most certainly must be my phone that has dropped out! I pulled over to the side of the road and found find my phone lying on the road with the screen smashed.
(video below. Skip to 05:00, if you just want to see the phone dropping part)
I was not too worried about the phone breaking, and was much concerned about the contents of the phone being lost. So, was good to retrieve it. Our back up support who, as usual, was right at our back, pulled up to check on me. But all was ok. Got my phone and got going again. When I caught up with the guys and we stopped for a photo op just before the coffee shop, I was even surprised to find my phone still worked! Thank you Samsung! Haha!
We got a few great photos shots of the bikes lined up, then headed to the coffee stop for the first break of the day.
The next stop was to be at Ban Rak Thai, a favorite of many riders, but where I had never bothered to ride to. So was going to be interesting to finally visit the area. Was a nice twisty ride. Ban Rak Thai was once a settlement for fighters from Yunnan Province, China, after the Communist takeover of China. The drug and Jade trade used to dominate the economy here.
We stopped for lunch and then headed to a security checkpoint to cross over into Burmese soil. It is rare to gain permission to do this, so this is why it is lucky to be with an experienced tour group.
It is a highly sensitive area and was a real experience. We took a walk around and then headed back on the bikes, and back towards the main 1095 route to Pai.
I am fairly confident on the twisties, so suggested to the guys that at one point i will aim to shoot ahead in order to get a good video of the guys riding along the road. At a nice tight spot I saw my opportunity so took off and rode ahead. I must say, that although the CB500X is a nice bike, this is when i really did miss my little 250cc. I know my bike well, including how to get the best out of it. It flies on the twisties and i like the control that i have over it. I had a small amount of mental disconnect between the bike and the road, and my riding. Not significant, but enough to make me aware that i was not riding my own bike. I particularly like how my bike responds when i use the brake and clutch, as i can create a sort of sliding effect, like you can do on a bicycle (sorry, am not very technical when it comes to explaining). With the CB500x i wasn’t able to do this. Not sure if it is because of how the bike is set up or because i am not yet familiar enough with it. I still enjoyed this moment though. I got ahead of the guys and was able to catch a nice moment of them riding down through a twisty section. As i was filming i couldn’t believe just how perfectly they had lined up one after the other. Was fantastic!
At Pang Mapha viewpoint, we stopped for coffee and to enjoy the view. Then from there it was a straight ride to Pai, where we stopped at the picturesque Yoma hotel for the night.
Taking an hour to get ourselves together we met up to have Yoma shuttlebus drive us into the main city. We headed to Pai Village Boutique Resort restaurant and enjoyed some good food and drinks, talking about our experiences and other topics on life. Was a great conversation and a perfect last night. (I have a guide to the town of Pai HERE)
We headed back around 10pm to rest for the night. I still stayed up till around midnight, but figured it wouldn’t be an issue as I still had 8 hours of sleep i could get in…or so i thought. I got to around 2am i think, when the banging began above me. I figured that maybe some guests had arrived back from a late night, so they would settle down in a matter of minutes. Alas no. The intermittent banging continued. From door slamming to loud stomping on the floor, to furniture being scraped, to bags being dragged. I eventually had to walk upstairs to the room above and knock the door. A young Chinese lady opened the door, looking surprised. I politely told her that the noise was keeping me awake and to please be more quiet. She apologized. I headed back to my room and got ready to finally settle back down into much needed sleep.
However, a few minutes later it all started up again. I gave it maybe another half an hour to an hour before going up and knocking the door again. The room went quiet, but no one answered the door. I went back down and of course the noise began again. By around 4:30am it was as if they had decided to start clog dancing. My anger levels were rising. I can understand not sleeping well if there is some noise which cannot be prevented, such as nature (loud roosters etc), but this was unnecessary noise. This was purely inconsiderate noise. So, i began to feel my anger levels rising, which of course also meant i could not sleep at all. Instead I opened up my computer and began to sort though things and watch youtube videos etc. I was not going to get any more sleep.
At around 7am I went to get breakfast. Our support driver was already there, and the poor man was the first to behold my rant about the girls. I apologized to him but thanked him for being an ear for my frustration. He even told me he saw the girls (there were two girls in the room) messing about on the balcony and trying to climb over onto the next balcony adjacent. Later I saw the same girl I had spoken to going for breakfast. I felt deathly due to lack of sleep and knew I had a big ride ahead of me. I couldn’t help but go back up to her and tell her again that she had ruined my sleep and that I have a big motorbike ride ahead of me where I need my concentration levels to be high, but now I have to ride tired. Again she said sorry, but in all honesty I doubt she cared. I had to let go of the anger or I knew it would be bad for me to ride. Thankfully, no matter how i feel, when i get on a bike adrenaline pumps through me, helping to wake me up.
By about 9am we were all set to go. Initially we headed to Thom’s Elephant Camp (a camp which promotes responsible interaction with elephants), to feed the elephants there. They are truly magnificent creatures!
Then, we headed back along the road and onto the main 1095. I knew what was coming, but the guys didn’t. LOTS OF TIGHT TWISTIES! I knew it would be a fun one for them!
Off we went, one twist after another, after another, followed by a few switchbacks.
We stopped at My Mom Cafe for coffee and then back on the bikes and back on the curves. Normally, when I hit the end of the 1095 at the 107 junction, I take a right turn and head straight ride back to Chiang Mai along the highway. But on the tour we took a left turn and headed along the 107 to Chiang Dao, for the last leg of the tour. At Chiang Dao we stopped for lunch then the guys headed into Chiang Dao cave.
I elected to keep an eye on the gear because our support driver needed to head back to TBB in Chiang Mai. Three of the guys had a flight to catch later in the day, so we needed to make sure there would be no delays. I have been to the cave many times, so was not too bothered.
After Chiang Dao we took a scenic route back to Chiang Mai and to TBB shop.
At TBB it was sad to say goodbye, but was also looking forward to a shower and bath and a good sleep. So, lots of hugs and well wishes as we departed to go our respective ways. I hopped back on my scooter (in full gear and feeling silly!) and headed home. On my ride back home I was filled with lots of memories of the trip and struggled to remind myself that I am on a scooter (which felt really weird after being on the CB500 for so long!).
I got into my apartment, hugged my cat (who my neighbours kindly take care of when i am away), got a shower, and headed straight to bed where i promptly fell asleep for several hours.
Absolutely fantastic trip and one for the memory backs forever.
Here is the full video edit of all four days. It is a long one, but I think worth it.
Hope you enjoy!
Oh..and i have my own personal guide to the Mae Hong Son Loop, which you can view HERE
..a few other images from the trip, which are a mix of photos from tour members (thank you!). We created a group Dropbox account, so will update some of the images and video footage once more videos and photos come through.