Asia, Thailand

Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop

Stage 2 of our Easter Adventure

We left Chiang Mai on Tuesday morning after picking up our little jeep. We decided to drive the loop in a clockwise direction, heading first to Mae Chaem via Doi Inthanon; Thailands tallest peak.

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We set off and instantly discovered how uncomfortable our little jeep was, bouncing all over the road, with spongy brakes, a speedo that gave you a rough estimation within a range and a mind-of-it’s-own steering…

We stopped briefly at the ‘Grand Canyon’, apparently an area of heavy construction and ecological damage which, after filling with water, has now been turned into a tourist destination for both Thais and foreigners. It wasn’t that great, to be honest, but the 40-degree heat makes any pool of water appealing!

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Our little jeep!

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“What happens if you over-rotate and land on your back?” …. “THEN I DIE!”

 

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Mid-dive!!
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My cliff was a lot smaller!

After cooling off for a bit and doing some cliff diving (although mine was a relatively small ‘cliff’) we continued on to Chom Thong and stopped for some lunch at a little vegetarian shop run by an old man.

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The owner cooking our food

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Our onward journey up to Doi Inthanon then took a sombre turn by finding a poor little kitten at the side of the road which had clearly been hit by a car. We stopped the car and tried to help. Pete bundled the kitten up in a t-shirt and a held it on my knee as we raced back to Chom Thong vet. But sadly, by the time we reached the vet, the little kitten had taken it’s last breath. It was very sad and upsetting for us both and we continued the journey with sober thoughts 😥

Not far along the road we decided to stop at Mae Klang waterfall, hoping to cool off again and take a little break and reflect. Unfortunately, you can’t swim here, so we chilled in the shade as close as possible to catch a bit of the spray.

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The drive up Doi Inthanon was tricky in our little jeep. The roads were steep and winding and we just didn’t have the power. We were almost snail-paced trying to reach the top. The icing on the cake for the jeep was when we tried to park near the top, we realised the hand-brake didn’t work! So we had to drive up to a wall on a slight downhill section to avoid rolling all the way back down the mountain whilst we got out and explored!

It was at the moment we realised how stupid we would be if we continued our journey through the mountains in this jeep. The brakes and hand brake were so bad, and we didn’t have enough power to get up the hills! So I phoned the car hire company and told them about the problems. They offered to come and collect the car and drop off a new one… we decided to jump from literally the cheapest (and shittest) car on their books to the most expensive (and we hoped, best). They agreed to drop it off at our next guest house the following morning.

Feeling safer in the knowledge that we’d soon be rid of the shitty little jeep, we continued our adventure!

We stopped near the summit of Doi Inthanon at the 2 Pagodas and walked to the top of the King’s Pagoda. The Pagodas themselves were beautiful, as were the carved walls, but as I had mentioned previously the heat and humidity meant the haze prevented any visibility. With this in mind, and knowing how bad our little jeep had been so far, we made the decision to skip driving up to the summit of Doi Inthanon, and instead continued to drive onwards to the next guest house.

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Visibility was really poor…

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By the time we reached our guest house ‘Hot Coffee’ just outside Mae Chaem it was almost dark. This was fine, but once we arrived we found out that the guest house had just had a complete power cut and all the lights were off! We whipped out our head torches and after a fairly crappy evening meal of fried rice, we got an early night.

When we woke in the morning we got to see just how beautiful this little guest house was – a little wooden hut built on stilts overlooking the river.

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After breakfast, we had a short wait for our new car to arrive – our beasty Fortuna! We waved goodbye to our shitty little jeep and continued on the road towards Mae Hong Son.

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Waving goodbye to our jeep 😦
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Hello 3L Turbo Fortuna! 😉

Pete was finally happy, ragging it down the little roads and driving so fast around bends that the tyres screeched… it was quite scary for me at times, getting thrown around the bends at brake-neck speeds, but I’d rather have that than Pete moaning every 3 seconds like he did in the jeep. Plus, in the Fortuna we had a working 6 disc CD changer, packed to the max with Thai tunes. We blasted them out and buzzed when we were able to recognise a few of the Thai words we had learned!

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Happy Pete

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It took about 2 hours to get to our first stop, Mae Surin waterfall. We parked up at the National Park parking-lot a little confused. We were the only car there and all the signs were in Thai. We took a gamble on one of the paths and fortunately, we ended up at the waterfall. Again, it wasn’t one you could swim in, it was actually very far away from the viewpoint, but nonetheless was still impressive to see.

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We jumped back in the car and headed back down the trail to Khun Yuam for some lunch. We stopped along the way at a couple of viewpoints. I imagine this road is absolutely stunning at the right time of year. We still enjoyed it, especially now in the Fortuna, but I must admit, it was a bit disappointing to not be able to see the views I had hoped for.

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This wasn’t even the worst hairpin, but it was the only one we could stop safely at for a photo…

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I hadn’t booked any accommodation in Mae Hong Son, so on the way into the town we stopped at Fern Resort to ‘scout it out’. It was absolutely stunning and we decided to stay here straight away. The owner showed us around and even showed us all her photos of the time Angelina Jolie stayed (she has actually stayed in this resort 3 times!). Well, if it’s good enough for Angie, it’s good enough for us! Plus there were 2 pools, and after a full day of driving, we longed for a nice cool-off in a pool.

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After a shower and change, we headed up into the town of Mae Hong Son to eat. The town itself is really nice, I wish we had stayed here longer actually. We did initially say we’d stay at Fern resort 2 nights, but only actually stayed 1… In the centre of town there is a lovely temple over-looking a lake which they light up at night. We ate at a restaurant with a view of the lake and it was really beautiful.

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Still not sick of khao soi…

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One of the reasons we love Thailand so much is also the abundance of vegan restaurants. There’s generally always something on HappyCow and Thai food, in general, is quite vegetarian-friendly anyway. The following morning we stopped at a place called Little Good Things and had the most amazing vegan pancakes. We enjoyed chatting with the owner and practicing our Thai (even though she spoke perfect English!). We asked her about the Padaung Kayen people who are based in Mae Hong Son. Refugees from Myanmar, they cannot work in Thailand and instead have established villages open to the public. We weren’t sure how ethical or authentic these villages would actually be, but she told us of a different small village to the ones I had heard about which was much less touristy. We decided to head there and check it out.

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Peanut butter and pancakes… Pete’s 2 favourite things!

The village wasn’t far at all, just south of town. Once we arrived, we had to get a little boat over to the village. There was an entrance fee, but really it was more of a donation to the village and it wasn’t much at all. Overall, the village was nice, we walked around town and browsed some of the shops selling little trinkets, but we just couldn’t shake the feeling that we were intruding. Although I took a couple of photos of the women with the long neck brass rings, Pete couldn’t bring himself to video them with the GoPro. That just felt too intrusive. I think it’s a very fine line between wanting to support this ethnic group who have fled from Myanmar, but not turning them into a spectacle or a human zoo just to take photos and selfies with. This village seemed to get the balance just about right, but we didn’t feel comfortable staying that long, so after chatting with a couple of the villagers and snapping a few photos we left. We did donate a bit more before we left too.

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Boat crossing to get to the village

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I didn’t feel bad taking a photo, when I asked this lady she seemed flattered and took a couple of seconds to fix her hair and clothes before smiling for me 🙂

From the village, we headed North of Mae Hong Son to Su Tong Pae bamboo bridge and temple. We practically raced across the bridge in the 42 degree heat (yes 42!!) It was so hot this day, we were grateful for the Fortuna’s A/C. The bridge was interesting enough for a quick detour, but the heat prevented us from staying too long.

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Is that one using an iPad?!?

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It seemed like the plan today was to spend as much time in the air-conditioned car with a few brief excursions to see the sights! It was so hot!

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In case you didn’t believe me!
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It was so hot, we also saw quite a few forest fires too…

Our next stop was Tham Pla or Fish Cave. A bit of a tourist trap to be honest, but mainly for domestic tourists it seemed. Still, it was directly on the road and gave us a chance to stretch our legs again before retreating back into the cool car.

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Pete with his fish food basket

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Looking at the clock, we decided we only had time for one more stop if we wanted to make it to Pai before dark. I had done a little bit of research about things to do and we considered the options. But I also thought I’d have a look to see if there was something less touristy than the things we had already done. If you’ve read my other blogs, you’ll know we don’t just go to ‘popular’ places, preferring instead to make our own minds up and visit places lesser known. I had found a waterfall on Google maps which looked interesting but had very little information on.

We followed the route that Google gave us until the road ran-out… A dirt track continued, but seeing as though we had this luxury 4wd Fortuna, we took the plunge. 10 minutes later we reached a river crossing on the road. I said turn back, but Pete was confident and said we should continue. 5 river crossings and 20 minutes later, we still hadn’t reached any waterfalls or notable places of interest. We wondered about turning back… but we had come this far, so continued…

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The route started off ok…
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Then it became a dirt track…
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Then there were river crossings…

Eventually, we made it to a bridge across the river that had about 5 Thai guys chilling in the water and on the bridge. We were going to ask them how much further the waterfall was when they shouted us over, “Come quickly! Monkeys!”

Without thinking I jumped out of the car and ran down to the bridge, I crossed the bridge quickly, I barely noticed how rickety it was and how many slats were missing.

When I got to the other side I was greeted by 4 beautiful gibbons hanging from the trees. When they saw me, they slowly made their way over to me. One had a baby clinging to it’s front. It was amazing. Pete followed me not long after that and we watched them for a while, until one, the one with the baby, decided to jump on me!

I screamed a little and it jumped off. I think it was trying to play with me, but usually monkeys in Asia can be a little aggressive, so I wasn’t confident so close, but I think generally gibbons are peaceful and gentle creatures.

The Thai guys that were there gave me some bananas to give to them, but still a little unsure, I handed the whole bunch over in one go!

During my big backpacking trip 5-years ago, I went out on a gibbon trip with a Thai girl I met in Phetchaburi and the closest we got was seeing them tens of metres up in the tops of trees! I couldn’t believe how close we were!

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Crossing the bridge
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4 beautiful gibbons!
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They were so close!

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My peace offering!

After watching them a while they then slowly made their way back into the jungle, so we decided to head on and continue along the river to the waterfall which the guys said was only 5 minutes away…

15 minutes later and with no waterfall in sight, we again thought about turning around. But just 2 minutes along the road from that point, literally, we found the parking area for the waterfall.

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Another bridge across the river
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No gibbons this time, only a Pete

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We cooled off in the waterfall for a bit, until the bugs and midgies became too annoying. There were so many spiders on the ground too, I mean, big massive, daddy-long-leg-like spiders everywhere you looked! It was a bit freaky, but they ran away as you walked Again worried about sunset rapidly approaching, and the long drive back to the main road then onward to Pai, we set off.

What an incredible trip. I wish we had known more about this place then we could have spent more time here.

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Driving back to the main road
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We made it!
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Viewpoint on the way to Pai, sadly far too hazy 😦

Just after we got back on the main road, we spotted a couple of hitchhikers, 2 young Western girls. We picked them up, they were really nice and had just spent a week at a Buddhist meditation retreat teaching them about mindfulness and giving up their sins (alcohol, drugs and social media). It was quite funny then, when after we had dropped them off in Pai, we later bumped into them on the walking street, both with a beer in hand! LOL! I guess the retreat didn’t work!

When we arrived in Pai it had already gone dark, so we quickly checked-in to our room, showered then headed back out to eat. We walked around Pai, including the infamous Pai Walking Street and really disliked it… It was so commercial and packed full of young (and annoying) tourists. The kind with no tops or shoes on, riding mopeds erratically like they own the place. It didn’t feel like a Thai town at all, instead, it was more like Magaluf… Western food shops and bars lined all the streets, there were ‘promoters’ outside many bars trying to lure us in with free shots and the local Thai people manning the street shops looked unenthusiastic…

Still, we were able to find a couple of good vegan food places, one for our evening meal and another for our breakfast the next day. We were also able to do some laundry which cost about £5 and was ready after just 4 hours all washed, dried and ironed

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Pai Walking Street
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Our place for the night
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Vegan waffles for breakfast
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Thinking about visiting the big Buddha on the hill overlooking Pai…
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In this heat, this was as far as we got (photo taken from the car)… lol

Whilst we waited for our laundry to be done, we headed over to Mor Pang waterfall, just outside of Pai. Whilst I had read that most of the waterfalls around Pai are dried up this time of year, it sounded like Mor Pang had water and even some slides, so we went to check it out.

It wasn’t completely dried out, and yes there was a slide, but it wasn’t the nicest waterfall we’ve seen in Thailand. At least you could swim in it though, so we had a nice cool dip in the 40-degree heat.

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The drive back to Chiang Mai from here was really fun. Loads, and I mean loads, of hairpins which Pete took far too fast for my liking. With the tyres screeching and the air-con on full blast, we made it back to Chiang Mai that afternoon and had completed the famous Mae Hong Son driving loop.

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It had been a good adventure, but I really wish we had had more time. If we were to do it again, I would definitely stay 2 nights in Mae Hong Son, and completely skip Pai, perhaps staying at one of the other smaller towns nearby to break up the journey that way.

Whilst our Mae Hong Son driving tour was over, our time in Thailand was not as I planned to spend the last full day and a half chilling in Chiang Mai before our flight out to New Zealand, but I think this post is long enough for now!

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