Hong Son Loop, Northern Thailand
Why Thailand? - It's different.
Different to Europe, different to the United
States and it's a change from the world dominant
western way of life. Northern Thailand has pleasant
scenery, an accommodating & fascinating culture
and it's off the conventional tourist trail.
It is also a warm dry place to go when the UK
& the Northern States of the USA are suffering
a miserable & cold winter.
It's not expensive once your flights are paid
for, and your Thai Baht will buy you ample quantities
of delicious food & drink, plus a selection
of interesting souvenirs to bring home.
Thailand was always a place I had wanted to
visit, and when my friend John went to live
over there for two years, his invitation to
go and do some biking in 1999 was too much to
resist. On this first occasion we had pregnant
partners and even small children with us, so
did the "loop" for the first time in a convoy
of a couple of motorcycles plus a jeep to carry
kids & kit.
This little adventure set a precedent, and
I've been back riding the dirt trails of northern
Thailand 5 or 6 more times since then.
If I were to grade the great biking trips I've
done, on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was so easy
it wasn't worth doing (think CB125 in a school
playground, or South East England perhaps?)
and 5 was something extreme and severely challenging,
then the ranking would go like this. The 1 to
5 score would rate the difficulty of riding,
plus the "adventure" factor. 1 low, 5 high.
Grade 1. I don't do grade 1.
Langkawi, Malaysia. Easy, level, low speed
cruising on a hired Modenas 175 "low rider".
Great beach holiday, where biking is secondary.
The same would also apply to Goa. It's one of
my favourite places to go and hire an Enfield,
but would only rank it 2.5 in terms of biking
challenge. It's a potter-around-in-the-sun kind
The UK National Parks. Twisty back roads of
Derbyshire, the Yorkshire Dales, The Lake District
and Western Scotland. Great riding, sometimes
testing road conditions.
The Alps. Great roads and scenery, and although
not particularly difficult riding, the sheer
enormity of the mountain passes, and mile after
mile of twists and turns can take it's toll.
Thailand would be Grade 4.5
It doesn't warrant a 5. What would? Maybe a
Nick Sanders World Tour, or Charley & Ewan's
efforts if they didn't have the support crews.
Thailand is challenging and highly rewarding
because it's best done partially on dirt roads.
These in themselves are less technically demanding
than most English Green Lanes, but they go on
forever and can be in very remote locations.
Us Brits aren't used to riding maybe 100 kilometres
in one go without seeing Tarmac. There is no
real rescue or support system. No 999 number
to phone in case of accident or emergency, no
AA to call if a bike breaks down. If we have
an incident, we have to self-rescue, if a bike
breaks down we fix it or tow it. This is the
nature of adventure.
The Mae Hong Son loop, is a widely recognised
paved route around Chiang Mai Province, comprehensively
described in the likes of the Rough Guide and
similar travel books. Depending upon which exact
roads you use, it's roughly a 700 kilometre
circuit, starting and finishing in Chiang Mai.
There's a fairly straightforward road route
to follow via, Chomthong, Hot, Mae Sarieng,
Khun Yuam, Mae Hong Son, Sop Pong, Pai & back
to Chiang Mai. This is OK and worth doing in
a little hire car perhaps. But you'll find as
soon as you leave the main highway, the roads
become dirt, and even in a 4x4, progress can
be difficult and certainly slow going.
This is where an Enduro bike comes into play.
It allows you to tackle dirt roads, leading
up to remote hill tribe villages or cascading
waterfalls, where even a pukka Jeep would struggle
to go. Typically, I use something like a Honda
XR250 Enduro machine, which holds it's own on
the road, and can gobble up the hundreds of
hairpins on the mountain passes, but can also
tackle mud, gravel, sandy or hard-packed trails,
rutted tracks and even river crossings. Assuming
a base grounding in off-road riding skills,
you can manage 30 to 60 kilometres per hour
off-road on one of these bikes (more if you're
a real expert!). You'd be thrown out of your
seats at these speeds in a 4x4.
Using the right tool for the mixed terrain,
enables the more adventurous traveller to cut
corners on the "loop", add extra sections or
access places rarely seen by most other visitors.
I like to start off by riding to the summit
of Doi Inthanon, which is an easy enough paved
road. However be warned that it can it can actually
be quite cold up there at 2200 metres, and the
simple 250cc single cylinder engines run really
badly in the rarified air. A tip is to open
up the airbox, and this makes an enormous difference.
Strangely enough, I've found the Honda XR250s
cope much better with the climb than the Yamaha
TTR 250s do. A visit to the twin temples is
worth doing before heading on to Mae Chaem.
The descent to this town is certainly a ride
to remember, into the setting sun at the end
of the day. One needs to exercise extreme caution
though, as the drop down is very steep and twisty,
and the knobbly tyres afford little traction
on a polished road surface that hasn't seen
a drop of rain in 3 months.
After a day's practice on the local trails
around Mae Chaem and Melu, I like to tackle
the 160km ride to Khun Yuam. This is almost
all off road, and took a number of attempts
with a compass, wrong turns and very patient
mates to get the navigation sorted. The trouble
is, although the map of the area is extremely
useful; indispensable in fact, it's not 100%
accurate and many trails are simply not marked
on it. On arrival at junctions, or rather, mere
splits in the trail, there will be no signposts
or markings. On the rare occasion there is a
sign, it will usually be in Thai script of course,
so not much help to the uninitiated. It's a
very rewarding day, although very tiring, and
a couple of "offs" throughout the day are not
In November 2004, completely by chance, we
were lucky to arrive in Khun Yuam to coincide
with the festival of Loi Krathong. A time when
people launch home-made rafts, complete with
offerings of food and burning candles onto any
river or body of open water. Huge paper lanterns
are also released into the skies, powered simply
by the lifting effect of hot air generated by
the paraffin soaked rags burning inside them.
These things are truly amazing, cheap to buy
and great fun to launch into the night. Especially
the ones with strings of fireworks attached!
It's interesting to go and do the Tourist thing,
just once, and go and see the ladies in the
Long Neck villages, whose necks have been "stretched"
by the application of half a dozen brass rings
over the years. It's a bizarre experience leaving
you with the uncomfortable feeling that you've
just paid to visit a human zoo.
The highlight of this trip for me, is revisiting
Cave Lodge, near Soppong, where John, the most
laid back Aussie you've ever met, has set up
a serene lodging house high in the jungle. It's
becoming a little too well known for its own
good now, but still a superb, relaxing place
to spend a few days. Relaxation? Pardon? We
don't do much of that. As we have the dirt bikes,
we ride high up to ridge top settlements like
Eyla, where we become the circus act to people
who've scarcely strayed from their own village
in their entire lives. Places with no electricity
or much connection with outside world. They
have little concept of what a city is like,
and sometimes prod and poke our armoured motorcycle
clothing, and stare incredulously at anyone
with blond hair.
Despite returning many times to the same part
of Thailand, there's always something new to
discovery or a different route to try. My latest
experiment was to try a night's camping at Pong
Deud hot springs. During the day, it tries to
be a bit of a tourist attraction, but at night,
for the time being at least, there is no-one
there at all. Our plan, was to camp close by,
then bathe in the hot springs at midnight under
a full moon. This turned out to be exquisite.
We persuaded the staff of the tiny restaurant
to stay open late, feed us the usual tasty Thai
dishes and sell us some beer. We then relaxed
under the stars, in the steaming hot pools with
just ourselves, a few cans of cold Chang beer,
and a bottle of Mekong whiskey for company.
It doesn't get much better than that.
A roller coaster ride back to the lively city
of Chiang Mai completed my latest trip there.
It certainly won't be my last.
www.gt-rider.com Great resource for motorcycle
travellers in the Golden Triangle.
story was kindly provided by Bike Tours UK website,
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