You think you’re a bad-ass.
You think you can ride like Trinity from the Matrix.
You think you own the roads and who cares about a few bends?
BEEP BEEP BEEP…. BEEP BEEP BEEP!
Yep, that’s your alarm waking you up from your dream.
You can’t even ride a bicycle properly, let alone a motorbike!
You have a driver’s license, but you haven’t driven in a decade, and even if you had, you don’t actually have a motorcycle license so you wouldn’t be covered by insurance if you got into an accident; you could even be fined by the local police, but that doesn’t happen very often and they usually only fine you about $20AUD. Your dream quickly becomes something like your first attempt at making a soufflé.
The reality is more of a deflated mess.
So what do you do when you read about all these exciting posts about Northern Thailand and you know you can’t get around by scooter?
Well, my answer is to take the bus!
Yep, that humble four-wheeled transport that has served many a good folk and local people for decades. You can avoid walking around like an Egyptian mummy in Pai and instead sit back and take it all in.
How to travel the Mae Hong Son loop (without riding a scooter!)
Chiang Mai to Pai by mini van bus
Take a tuk-tuk or songthaew for about 80 baht to Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station. Here you want to find the newly constructed Avia Booking office. NB: Chiang Mai to Pai is a mighty popular route so do book in advance if you have a specific time you want to travel. Otherwise, arrive and try your luck; you may only have to wait 4 hours for available seats like we did. Luckily it was lunchtime and there are loads of coffee shops around where you can connect to wifi to pass the time.
Be prepared for over 200 bends climbing up into the mountains. I was nervous about this leg of the loop because I have first-hand experience of a Thai bus crash (thankfully a small one and no one was injured). I also read of capsizing minivans heading to Pai.
We arrived 4 hours later with no incident.
I’m not sure if driver training has been put in place or drivers are not so certain of being reincarnated, but whatever it is we found all the bus journeys in the north were incident-free rides.
Bust ticket price: 150 Baht p/p (4-hour journey)
Pai to Soppong/Pang Mapha by mini van bus
We stayed for 3 nights in Pai which was plenty. You can read my blog post on Pai as to why.
We were heading for the caves of Soppong/ Pang Mapha.
Book your bus ticket from Pai ‘Bus Station’. It’s the same place where you were dropped off from your Pai to Soppong leg. It’s effectively a small parking lot with an office booth. At the time of travel (mid-November 2015), there was only an 8.30am morning bus heading to Mae Hong Son via Soppong. It’s this bus you will want to catch; there is a public bus departing around 11 am, but it is often full.
An hour later, it is like you have travelled to another place entirely. You are dropped off at a small bus office on the side of the main road. Dusty paths lead north and south only. Visible tourists are almost at zero.
As soon as we arrived, I immediately knew we made the right choice to get out of Pai. Staying at Cave Lodge was a dream. Rest up in simple bamboo bungalow housing; hang out it the spacious communal area designed to get people to interact; listen to the birds and river sounds as you contemplate what adventures you will book on to.
Bus ticket price: 100 Baht p/p (1-hour journey)
Soppong to Mae Hong Son by mini van bus
We got in the habit of booking our onward journey as soon as we arrived at a destination. With our strict deadline to get back to Chiang Mai in time for the La Krathong Festival, it was the best thing we could do to ensure we had a seat.
We booked onto the 9.30am bus to Mae Hong Son, which is effectively the 8.30am from Pai to Mae Hong Son.
Speaking with our accommodation hosts at LikeView Hostel, Mae Hong Son is a place forgotten by most tourists. Motorcycle rental places have closed up shop and accommodation outfits have no reason to expand. Mae Hong Song offers a different pace and place to explore the west and north of Thailand. The town has a small lake, no night bazaar to speak of or a bustling main strip, but the surrounding areas are some of the prettiest around.
Bus ticket price: 100 Baht p/p (2-hour journey)
Mae Hon Son to Pang Ung by songthaew
Okay here we cheated and dumped our luggage and took the 1.5-hour motorbike ride north, but you can do it by songthaew if time is on your side. There are yellow songthaews from the town market (Sai-Yud market) that go up one to two times a day. Ask your accommodation for assistance in writing what you need in Thai to talk to drivers.
Pang Ung is Thailand’s self-described ‘Switzerland of the North’. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is a very beautiful small town that has a very cool climate on offer. Think fleece wearing weather. Not technically on the Mae Hong Son loop, but a great reprieve from temples and thousands of tourists.
I’ll have a post about Pang Ung coming out soon with things to do on route.
Pang Ung to Chiang Mai by public bus
To truly make the loop you want to be heading to Mae Sariang from Mae Hong Song, but as we took a sojourn to Pang Ung we needed to head back to Chiang Mai for the lantern festival. So it was back on the bus for us for the 6-hour return journey (250 Baht) to Chiang Mai for the lantern festival.
For those going the distance…
Mae Hong Song to Mae Sariang by public bus
The Mae Hong Son bus station is located 20 minutes walk from the town centre. They have a couple of time slots for a 5-hour public bus (100 baht) to Mae Sariang where far fewer tourists are around and offer up more authentic trekking experiences. If it’s the right season you can check out the Mexican sunflower fields. I would recommend 2 nights here if you have the time and plan to do a trek.
To continue on to Chiang Mai is a further 4-hour bus ride from Mae Sariang (100 Baht).
That completes Tripmashers’ guide to travelling the Mae Hong Son loop like a pro (and without a scooter!) You can go slower and check out many other towns along the way like Khun Yuam, Chiang Dao or Mae Chaem.
Motorbike vs Bus
Having been a passenger on a motorbike, I know the feeling of being able to stop and explore a hidden path or drive your dollar further being able to see the sights without spending additional money on tours or motorcycle taxis. But what I love about bus travel is the opportunity to just stare out the window and let your mind wander and reflect over the journey you have had.
Call it a mobile meditation or daydream diary-writing if you will.
A toast to the humble mini-van bus. May you long give weary travellers the option of exploring the same roads as their two-wheeled counterparts!
Back to two-legged transport listening to Lamb.