Sunday, January 11, 2015

Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop: Mountains, Caves, and VERY Windy Roads

On Monday, we picked up a rental car and began a weeklong road trip adventure: driving the Mae Hong Son loop, followed by a visit to the Golden Triangle.  The Mae Hong Son loop starts in Chiang Mai and follows some of the region’s windiest roads along a loop west of the city.  We were far enough west that, for most of our trip, we were just kilometers from the border with Myanmar.

Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang: Climbing Thailand’s Tallest Mountain

After picking up our tiny car (a Toyota Yaris), we immediately decided to put it to the test by ascending the highest peak in Thailand: Doi Inthanon.  Giorgio, our team’s driver extraordinaire, had no trouble readjusting to driving on the wrong side of the road.  Stephanie almost never interrupted his turns to shout, “look right!”  And except for a brief moment of panic when a giant bag full of bottles flew off a garbage truck (aiming directly at our windshield), we made it to the base of Doi Inthanon unscathed.  Fortunately, they were plastic bottles, because even though we were able to swerve to miss the bag, a few bounced off our windshield.

Unlike many mountains, Doi Inthanon is accessed via a network of paved roads that climb all the way to the top of the 2,565 meter peak.  Therefore, a trip to this Thai national park is not exactly an extreme endeavor.  Regardless, the mountain is located in a national park that boasts numerous lovely waterfalls, temples surrounded by scenic gardens, and, of course, the highest point in the country.

At our first stop, Mae Klang Waterfall, one of the signs mentioned that the cascade was the most beautiful waterfall to be found in the entire park.  We were a little concerned about the prospects for the rest of the day when, after a short walk from the parking lot, we arrived at a pretty, but somewhat unimpressive, waterfall.

Over the course of the day, however, we determined that the initial sign was incorrect; Doi Inthanon’s best waterfalls were yet to come.  As our Yaris climbed the switchbacks to the summit, we stopped to see various beautiful cascades hiding in the verdant green jungle.  There are probably hundreds of these waterfalls, but we only found the ones marked in English; as we drove further away from Chiang Mai, the percentage of signs (that is, both traffic and tourist signs) in English dropped from 100% to about 15%.  Who knows what we missed!

Near the summit, the Thai Royal Air Force has erected two modern temples set amidst laboriously cultivated gardens.  From the temples, the rolling green hills of northern Thailand spread out for miles.  Despite being mostly “templed out,” we were quite excited to find what we have appropriately named the “Williams Temple” – an edifice with a purple base and an actual gold stupa.  Can it get any more beautEPHul than that?  Aside from the pagodas, the gardens were immaculately kept and we were delighted to find homemade pork buns being sold by the parking lot.

We continued our way up the mountain, occasionally worrying that our little Yaris would not have enough power to complete the ascent.  Fortunately, we managed to reach the top, where we parked our car and set out on foot for the final 50 meters.  A short walk later, we had made it to the highest peak in Thailand – 2,565.3341 meters above sea level.  Other than a couple signs commemorating the elevation, this was a somewhat anticlimactic experience, as the views from the Williams Temple were much better.

Contrary to Laos, the “shaRp curves” in Thailand are for real.  We drove part way down the mountain only to be faced with yet another steep ascent.  Giorgio kept driving up and down the hills, constantly changing altitude from about 2,000 meters above sea level to 500 meters and back up again, all while navigating one hairpin turn after another.  Just imagine starting a right turn and immediately come across a left turn road sign (and vice-versa). 

We eventually arrived at our destination for the evening – Mae Sariang – a sleepy town along the banks of a river.  Goats and cows, all with their bells jingling, roamed the opposite bank.  The hills in the distance were all that separated us from Myanmar.

We set out to explore the small town, which was not exactly a bustling metropolis.  Regardless, we stumbled upon a small night market with four or five food stalls.  Like many of the restaurants and carts we encountered on the loop, English-language menus (or menus with photos) were nowhere to be found.  When someone in front of us ordered pad thai and we saw the man behind the wok cook the familiar dish, we decided to do some pointing and hand gesturing to indicate we wanted two of the same.  We ended up with the best pad thai of our trip!

Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son: Conquering the Hairpin Turns of Route 108

For our drive the second day, we made our way north, driving parallel to the border with Myanmar.  Our first drive had provided good training, as the roads became increasingly windy between Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son.

Along the way, we had planned to stop at a few of the places marked on our map, which contained various symbols for caves, waterfalls, and scenic viewpoints.  With most of the signs in Thai, we once again ended up missing many of the turn-offs for these sites.  Regardless, we managed to visit some of the attractions, including the Kaeo Komon Cave (after a quick U-turn, of course).  This is apparently the only calcite cave in Southeast Asia and was hidden in the hills a few kilometers off the highway.  We were the only visitors at the cave that morning and no one seemed to speak any English, but they managed to communicate enough for us to pay for our tickets and hop into the back of a pick-up truck for the final ascent to the cave. 

At the cave’s entrance, one of the guides gestured to a list of English-language rules for our visit.  In addition to avoiding taking photos, we were instructed not to remain underground for more than 20 minutes, due to the low levels of oxygen and high levels of heat in the cave.  Given that no one accompanied us to make sure we followed the rules (or died), we disregarded the instructions related to taking photos.  The 20-minute time limit, however, seemed a little bit more important so we made sure to constantly check our watches.  Inside the cave, we quickly descended several staircases; as promised, it was quite warm and there at least seemed to be less oxygen than usual, although it could have just been the power of suggestion.  Complex calcite formations surrounded us and we were even more impressed when we learned they were apparently almost 500 million years old.

Having survived the low oxygen levels of the cave, we were back in our Toyota Yaris continuing north to Mae Hong Son along the winding road.  En route, we made our second stop of the day at the Japanese-Thai Friendship Museum in Khun Yuam; also referred to as the Khun Yuam WWII Japaense War Museum.  This very small mountain town used to serve as the Japanese base for their offensive into Myanmar during WWII.  Thousands of troops later had to pass back through the town on their retreat to Japan at the end of the war.  Many of the troops never made it all the way home as they succumbed to malaria and other illnesses and are buried in mass graves in Khun Yuam.  This somber location details Thailand’s involvement in the war and describes the apparently friendly relationship between soldiers and villagers.  To better illustrate these friendly relations, we were treated to an incredibly tacky movie reenactment of the ill-fated romance between a soldier and a local woman.

As we approached Mae Hong Son, we were on the lookout for what another blog promised would be coffee with the best view at precisely 17km before the town.  Sure enough, we found a tiny coffeeshop at the 17km marker and settled in with our iced treats to appreciate the stunning view before completing the day’s drive.

Mae Hong Son to Soppong: Getting Lost in the Jungle

For our stopover in Mae Hong Son, we opted to stay at a small eco-resort outside of town.  Gio has an intense aversion to lodging labeled as “eco-anything,” which, in our experience, is often a little too close to nature for comfort.  This turned out to be the perfect plan, though, since the resort was adjacent to one of Thailand’s national parks (and “eco” did not extend to include sleeping among hordes of mosquitoes or anything else too close to nature).  We found a map for a half-day hike with directions in English (a rarity on this portion of our trip) and set off into the jungle.

When the first few signs included mystery directions only in Thai, we figured this was the way we would end up lost in the jungle in Thailand.  Instead, the trail turned out to have plenty of English-language signs explaining the various flora and fauna along the route. Not only did we not get lost, we saw three beautiful waterfalls and marveled at the amazing views of Mae Hong Son’s rolling hills and temples from the top of the mountain.  We were also the only ones on the trail to appreciate all of this!

After the morning’s exertions, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city’s market and temples.  From the terrace of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, a Burmese style temple, we even spotted our trail from earlier in the day!

Our destination for the night was Soppong, also known as Pang Mapha.  This small town is set in a valley and can only be reached by even windier roads.  We did not count them, but multiple signs insist the road includes 1,864 curves.

Spelunking in Soppong

We decided to spend two nights in Soppong, both to take a break from driving the continuously twisting roads and to explore a few of the area’s many caves.  Most drivers on the loop actually stop in a town called Pai rather than Soppong, but we had read that Pai was such a popular riverside town that it was absolutely full of foreigners (or “dirty hippies,” to use Steph’s exact words) – not the low key rural experience we were looking for. 

We started our cave-hopping day at Tham Lod.  Although this means “spirit cave” in Thai, we renamed it the "Horcrux Cave" as our guide poled us through the cave entrance on a narrow bamboo raft.  A river full of enormous catfish runs through Tham Lod and provides visitors with access to its dark inner caverns.

Our guide docked the raft along one of the sandy riverbanks inside the cave and we followed her to explore the multiple dark chambers hidden in the cave complex. Although we did not encounter any horcruxes, we did find plenty of crazy rock formations, ancient coffins, and one very smudged cave painting (not to mention a lot of bird and bat droppings).

In addition to Tham Lod, our road map had several caves marked, but none of them were in the guidebook or online (or at least not online in English).  We decided to set off in the direction of Mae Lana cave and see what would happen.  We took another narrow and winding highway north, coming even closer to Myanmar.  Our Yaris barely made it through the various villages as the steep road abruptly changed from asphalt to dirt and back again.  We arrived at a police checkpoint just as we were starting to think we had taken a wrong turn.  The officers looked at us askance when we asked about the cave, but then simply smiled and indicated that the turnoff was up ahead on the right-hand side of the road. 

We eventually made it to the entrance to a series of caves, including the one we were looking for.  Upon being informed that the Mae Lana cave was not only the longest cave in Asia at 12 kilometers, but also had almost a meter of water to wade through for those 12km and would take about 4 hours to explore, we opted to investigate the Diamond and Coral Caves instead.  One of the guides hopped in our car to direct us to their entrances in the valley below.

These caves proved to be a bit more of an adventure than Tham Lod, which is more firmly on the tourist track.  For all we know, we were the only ones who showed up to see the caves that day since we didn’t see any other tourists on the road or in the villages we passed.  The adventure began at the entrance to each cave, one of which was hidden and one of which required a descent down a ladder into the darkness. 

No signs or illumination of any kind were provided inside, so we were left with the minimal light provided by our headlamps.  In the dim light, we clambered along the 700m length of the Diamond Cave and the full kilometer of the Coral Cave.  We reached what appeared to be the end of each cave several times, only for our guide to scramble up a steep rock face or squeeze through a narrow hidden passageway.  Our guide did not speak much English and many of his explanations were done via sound effects and hand gestures.  Besides the resident bats, we were surprised to find all sorts of weird forms of life along the way, including grasshoppers, gigantic spiders, millipedes, frogs, and of course, cockroaches (who can survive anywhere).

After skipping the Cango Cave adventure tour back in South Africa, we certainly got an even bigger adventure in northern Thailand!  It was a good thing we found a guide to lead us through both caverns – we are sure we would have ended up stumbling alone and lost in the darkness otherwise.  Plus, when Steph (always the clumsy one) tripped and fell, our guide pulled some leaves off a tree to staunch the bleeding.  Were they the same ones we had seen in Madagascar?

From Soppong, we continued east to complete the Mae Hong Son loop and headed onward in the pouring rain to the northeast corner of the country.  Known as the Golden Triangle, where Thailand borders both Laos and Myanmar – details to follow!



  1. Thank you for the interesting travel blog. I did the Mae Hong Son loop just over 2 months ago although I packed a lot in to the 4/5 days you guys did quite a few attractions I missed - makes me want to go back and do it all again!

  2. Did you attempt to drive at night? What were the conditions like? Is it hard to read the road signs? Are they all in Thai only? I'm considering whether to drive in Mae Hong Son and was wondering how tough it is to drive there.

    1. We didn't drive at night, just during the day. It was a pretty easy drive, although the road is definitely windy and narrow in spots. We used this map for directions and it was very easy to follow (and easy to find in Chiang Mai):