Roadtripping Thailand

Riding the Mae Hong Son route

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A little earlier this year Perth riders Luke Pegrum and Oscar Thompson ventured to the Thai city of Chiang Mai to begin a week-long journey of self-discovery. Their goal was to complete the Mae Hong Son loop, a famous 600km motorcycle journey through the misty mountains of Northern Thailand, starting and finishing in Chiang Mai. As Luke and Oscar soon discovered, their trip was to become one of real ups and downs; physically, topographically and emotionally.

Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai may not be on your cycling holiday bucket list, but it should be. When I first visited in 2011, I nearly didn’t leave — a week exploring the surrounding mountains on a rented motorcycle had seduced me, and I wanted to stay for good. Alas, life came first, and I reluctantly returned to Australia — but a desire to one-day return remained.

At that point, I’d just dipped my toes into the world of cycling. My close friend Oscar Thompson had been deep into it during our first years of university, even convincing me to buy a bike. But I didn’t ride it much and when winter came we put the bikes in the shed and forgot about them.

But my exposure to the beauty — the majesty — of mountain roads, got me back on the bike. Perhaps glad to have a friend to ride with, Oscar joined me and together we spent hours riding through the Perth hills. The buzz was back; I was hooked.

Unfortunately, the demands of university and work took their toll on Oscar. After a hard ride, Oscar ‘rage quit’ — throwing his gloves, helmet and glasses across his backyard in a frenzy, and consigning his bike to the past.

I continued riding though, and while Oscar completed university and began working fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) as an engineer, I flailed through my degree while squeezing in as many long, mid-week rides as I could. We barely saw each other for years, and as so often happens, our lives diverged as new pressures took priority over old friendships.

But the best friendships need the least tending.

Panorama of Chiang Mai from the Doi Suthep lookout. Image: Pratyeka

Panorama of Chiang Mai from the Doi Suthep lookout. Image: Pratyeka Wikimedia Commons

 

Click the map for a full, interactive version.

Click the map above to open a full, interactive version.

When Oscar’s tenure working FIFO was coming to an end, he suggested we go on a cycling trip in the spirit of the Morton brothers’ Thereabouts documentary. I saw this as a natural opportunity to return to Chiang Mai and resolve the unfinished business I had with the place.

When I rented a motorcycle there I was given a map and recommendation to ride a famous motorcycle loop through Mae Hong Son, a mountainous region west of Chiang Mai. At the time I thought it too serious an undertaking to attempt solo, considering I barely knew how to ride, but my curiosity was piqued. Now seemed the perfect opportunity to take on the challenge, but on a roadie.

I don’t recall when I convinced Oscar to take the plunge with me; he thinks he must have been drugged to agree. “I don’t remember ever agreeing to it and now it’s just happening and there’s nothing I can do about it,” he told a friend as our departure loomed and the difficulty of the route had sunk in.

The Mae Hong Son loop totals about 660km, with 13,000 metres of climbing and 4,000 bends. We planned to ride it in six stages, with two days off for rest and ‘tourism’.

After a few rides together in the Perth ‘Hills’, neither of us had a lot of confidence in Oscar’s ability to complete the route. Nevertheless Oscar remained focused, if not entirely optimistic. With a few hundred kilometres of training in Oscar’s legs, we each packed a small backpack with spare clothes and nothing else, stowed our bikes in cardboard and set off for Chiang Mai.

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Oscar (left) and Luke (right).

Oscar (left) and Luke (right).

The trip didn’t start as we planned. As we dined out in Chiang Mai, we overheard the forecast for the next few days and both tightened — five days of rain during what was meant to be the dry season was not what we wanted to hear. The following morning we woke at six planning to beat the traffic out of the city, but were met with darkness and the steady patter of rain falling heavy on the roof.

Grimacing, we slowly readied ourselves to leave, but it was cold and wet and not even the excitement of first-day riding was enough to get the spirits up too much higher than the temperature.

This changed dramatically when we turned off the main highway on to the small road to Pai, our day-one destination. We were immediately jolted into rural Thailand, riding on a beautiful, smooth road lined with dense foliage interspersed by paddy fields and small villages. Rolling hills got the legs warmed up and our expressions turned to smiles, despite the relentless rain.

Then the road pitched upwards, straight into the clouds. I gave Oscar a nod and rode off ahead, leaving us both in solitude, walled in by fog on all sides.

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“It seemed the most natural thing to be surrounded by cloud as we tapped upwards along this beautiful road.”

Mae Hong Son translates to “the City of Three Mists”, named for the heavy fog which engulfs much of the region year-round, adding an element of mythical beauty to the majestic route. At sunrise, the fog lies heavy in the valleys, coldly hiding from sight anything beyond a one or two hundred metre radius.

When viewed from higher ground — the balcony of a well-located guesthouse for instance — the cloud drifts below, making islands of the surrounding mountaintops which appear to float on a sea of whiteness. As the sun’s golden rays take the edge off the nippy morning air, the fog slowly rises to reveal glistening dew-dressed greenery and terraced farmland.

But on a cold day like this the fog hangs around, cutting off the views though giving the road a supernatural sense. In the Pyrenees, a whiteout like this bites with a menacing cold, forcing you to grit your teeth as you plunge through its unpleasantness. Here, the fog envelopes you much gentler — it seemed the most natural thing to be surrounded by cloud as we tapped upwards along this beautiful road, surrounded by lush, rain-soaked vegetation.

At the top of the first peak we sheltered from the rain with some people selling bananas at the roadside, who invited us to share their fire. We loaded up on fresh fruit, which always tastes so much better in Asia, and continued on upwards.

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The road climbed steadily for the rest of the day, and as steep hairpins directed us up the mountain, the foliage changed. Large deciduous forest took over the roadside — rainforest green gave way to the orange, yellow and red hues of autumn. Still the road climbed, treating us to rich flowing bends and jagged hairpins.

Eventually, after a puncture, some hot noodles, and countless false summits, we finally crested the pass and began the descent into Pai. Leaving the clouds behind us, we had clear views of the valley for the first time all day. We stopped to take a photo as a truck carrying an elephant trundled passed, reminding us we were a long way from home.

The descent into Pai was severe, the road spiralling downwards through hairpins with nearly vertical apexes. I believe Christian Meier laid it down on this road once, and you can understand how: long winding curves tempt you to ride on the edge, but exult in tightening late or scrunching up into screwy hairpins that would challenge on dry roads, let alone in the wet state we encountered them.

Rolling into Pai, legs weary, we jumped on the wheel of a lady riding her scooter into town. Somewhere between amused and bemused, she watched us nervously in her mirror as we cruised the last 10km at a steady tick, before sprinting away as we approached the town limits. After a solid day in the saddle, we arrived cold — but in good humour — at the first guesthouse we came across that could guarantee a hot shower, and crashed for the day.

Click here to see Luke’s Strava file for the ride from Chiang Mai to Pai.

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We spent the following day exploring Pai on our bikes. There’s something very gentlemanly about having a rest day after only one day of riding. We visited the stunning local hot springs, got massages, and unexpectedly practised our Chinese at the nearby Kuomintang village, which was settled by fleeing Chinese after the Chinese Civil War.

The highlight though, was seeing Oscar nearly decapitated when an out of control motorcycle crashed through the front of a restaurant we were eating at.

The bike, careering out of control at the hands of a young tourist, sent pot plants flying before obliterating a life-sized cardboard cutout of the chef, and finally coming to rest — engine screaming full throttle — on the floor in front of our table, while a frantic Oscar pinned himself back against the wall in a desperate attempt to escape a horrible death.

Fortunately I was safe behind a heavy concrete table, and didn’t have to stop eating while watching, intently, as the calamity unfolded before me. Fortunately nobody was harmed, except the cardboard cutout.

We awoke the following day to some great news out the window. Glorious sunshine had replaced the rain — never trust a weather forecast in the mountains.

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“We were both under the false impression that the worst was behind us. ‘It’s mostly downhill from here,’ I told Oscar.”

The road to the town of Mae Hong Son began with a long, sustained climb with only a few ramps over 10-15%, and sweeping views over the valley below. We both took it easy, enjoying the sunshine and letting our legs ease into the day’s riding.

At the top local hill tribespeople were gathered selling fruit and wares, while their children ran around in traditional garb getting photos with tourists. I lent one my camera and she ran around taking dozens of mostly blurry photos of us and her friends.

When it was time to leave I thought I’d never get the camera back — I ended up saying Oscar would pay her for it, so she handed me the camera and ran off to hassle my unsuspecting friend.

With the day’s major climb out of the way, we were both under the false impression that the worst was behind us. “It’s mostly downhill from here,” I told Oscar. “Gentle rolling hills all the way to Mae Hong Son.”

Brimming with optimism, we rolled off the summit and sped off down the other side. The descent was fast, lots of long sweeping bends and those loose hairpins that just beg you to lay the bike down and carve around like Casey Stoner on a Ducati. Before long we had knocked over half the day’s kilometres, and stopped for a hearty lunch in one of the many tiny towns peppering the route.

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“He would spend the rest of the evening vomiting and sweating in bed in a state of delirium.”

The next 60km nearly killed Oscar. Straight after lunch the road pitched up with vengeance — we had encountered the first of about six short but brutally steep climbs that we’d have to overcome before reaching our destination. Each was about 1-2km long with gradients over 30%(!) at their steepest; the sort of climbs you don’t so much ride up as crawl, where every pedal stroke is a struggle — totally belligerent sort of terrain that tests the spirit as much as the legs.

Each climb would be followed by an equally steep descent — thrilling roads that at times seemed to simply drop away before your eyes, forcing you back off the saddle and sketchily on to the brakes, so you could bring the speed down enough to throw the bike into another tight corkscrew bend.

Luckily the roads were in perfect condition; clean, smooth and wide hot mix without the gravelly and potholed sections that can make European alpine roads so unpredictable.

With about 10km remaining, Oscar was fading badly. We stopped so he could buy a Coke, while I went with a beer (it was that sort of day). By this stage he was looking very pale and after we climbed the last hill and rolled into Mae Hong Son, he was completely cooked. He lay down in our lakeside bungalow and was overcome by nausea.

He would spend the rest of the evening vomiting and sweating in bed in a state of delirium. Whether it was heat stroke or food poisoning, we’re not certain, but it wiped Oscar out. The ride was in serious jeopardy.

Click here to see Luke’s Strava file for the ride from Pai to Mae Hong Son.

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The following morning Oscar was able to stomach breakfast, and after a massage decided to try and ride the 67km leg to Khun Yuam. If it got too tough he could flag down a passing ute and hitch the rest of the way. Fortunately, apart from one moderate climb, the day’s riding wasn’t too challenging — at least compared to the previous day — and with a bit of assistance from his charitable riding partner, who towed him up the last few hills, we reached the speck on the map that is Khun Yuam.

Here we began a tradition of staying in what Oscar described as, “hotels going for the ‘Lost Tourist’ niche market” — places where, upon your arrival, the owner asks in broken English: “How did you find us; all our signs are written in Thai?”

Our hotel in Khun Yuam was about 5km out of town, and a kilometre up an unsealed, rutted out track over a steep hill. I’d read about the place in the comment section of a website I couldn’t recall then and I’m beginning to doubt even existed now, but it was perfect. It had the feel of those grand hotels of Europe that are about a century past their best, but it was full of character, had a wonderfully friendly host and looked out across a valley decorated by a mosaic of rice terraces.

The trials of the past 24 hours evaporated as we sat on our balcony and watched in silence as the golden light of the setting sun danced across the landscape before finally dipping over the horizon. It was one of those perfect moments that makes everything you did getting there worthwhile.

Click here for Luke’s Strava file for the ride from Mae Hong Son to Khun Yuam.

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The next morning Oscar was still washed out, but he told himself one of those little lies we all tell ourselves when the task ahead seems too much to deal with. “I’ll just ride for 20km — stretch my legs — then I’ll hitchhike,” he said, not for the last time that day; for when 20km came up he repeated it, then again after 50km. By the time we’d ridden 70km, 30km more didn’t seem too tough. On we rode.

Somehow, around sunset, we made it to Mae Sariang. Oscar had ridden through two days of hell, but now we had a rest day to recuperate and less than 200km left to overcome.

Our penultimate day on the bike was one of the longest and hardest on paper. Out of Mae Sariang the road rose over a thousand metres before rolling across a mountain range — steep rolling hills that offered no joy — for another couple of hours. Oscar was riding well, largely thanks to the serious doping program of ibuprofen he’d engaged in since his knees began hurting two days earlier. Nevertheless, it was good to see him without a grimace on his face.

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The smiles continued as we enjoyed a beautiful descent for almost 20km, down through a rocky gorge lined with deciduous trees that felt more like somewhere in North America than what we expected of Thailand. Eventually we turned on to the road to our destination, Mae Chaem, and began riding through a bizarre, barren, fire-ravaged environment reminiscent of the Australian bush.

With no shade around, the temperature began to soar and we both started feeling the toll the kilometres were taking on us. It didn’t get any easier, and soon we found ourselves riding up an almost vertical climb that didn’t seem to end.

Unlike the short bergs we’d encountered previously, this climb remained relentlessly steep for 4-5km. Sweat dripped from us as we stood over our pedals, fighting against the pain in our legs for every stroke, grinding our way upwards with pure grit.

Surviving that, we rode on, but we were broken men. Tempers frayed, an argument flared. Eventually things came to a head — punches were thrown — but by the time we rode into Mae Chaem all had been forgiven. The road had almost gotten the better of us, but we’d overcome, and now only the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, stood between us and the end.

Click here for Luke’s Strava file for the ride from Khun Yuam to Mae Sariang and here for his Strava file for the ride from Mae Sariang to Mae Chaem.

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“I was practically tiptoeing up the mountain as though it were a sleeping dog I was trying not to wake.”

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Doi Inthanon is a monster. It stands barely 2,500m at its highest — only a bump compared to its Himalayan cousins to the north — yet its prominence puts it in the realm of the toughest climbs tackled by the famous races of Europe. From Mae Chaem, it climbs for 28.3km at an average of 7% — including two sections 4km and 7km long at over 12% — for a total elevation gain of more than 2,000m.

We rolled out in the cold, foggy morning air. We ate breakfast together near the base, wished each other luck, and set off, each at our own pace. It was very quiet, and my breath made clouds of fog as I ticked off the first few kilometres. I was riding very gently, knowing what lay ahead, practically tiptoeing up the mountain as though it were a sleeping dog I was trying not to wake.

There were kilometre markers announcing the distance to the summit, but I tried to ignore them. As the grade increased, I settled into a cadence, a rhythm — Krabbe’s “Trance… rocking my organs’ protests back to sleep” — and climbed slowly, somnambulantly.

As the first part of the climb came to an end, after 90 minutes, I turned off on to the spur to the summit — and jubilantly dumped my backpack in a bush to collect on the way down. Relieved of the burden that seemed to gain in weight with every metre climbed, I discovered a second wind.

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The profile of the Doi Ithanon climb.

The profile of the Doi Ithanon climb, which rises more than 2,000m in 28.3km.

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Somewhere in my mind a voice noted how ridiculous it was to feel like I was almost done, when 9km averaging 10% still remained. But I felt refreshed, like I was riding with a brisk tailwind. For the first time I felt free to dig the toes in and dance out of the saddle, to attack the sharply graded hairpins. It’s incredible what you can do when the end is in sight — to make the suffering end faster, to paraphrase Marco Pantani.

The way pain dissolves — effervesces — when you reach the summit, is something magical.

At the top of Doi Inthanon dozens of monks were among the many tourists who’d ridden in taxis to see the summit. I couldn’t help but feel they were missing out on something intensely spiritual by being driven up this magnificent mountain, by not experiencing the transcendent sensation that comes with hours of sustained physical effort.

After recovering at the top I rolled slowly down again, looking for Oscar. I met him 2km from the summit, the steepest thankfully behind him. I turned back up the road and pedalled up beside him, reached my arm around his shoulder and gave him some encouragement. Side by side, we rode the final stretch together, enjoying the sense of completion.

After descending the 45km down the eastern side of the mountain, we decided to call it a day. We stopped and bought a couple of beers, flagged down a ute headed for Chiang Mai, threw our bikes in the back before climbing in ourselves.

As the car sped off down the highway, we cracked a beer, felt the wind in our hair, and rejoiced at the end of a very special week’s riding.

Click here for Luke’s Strava file for the ride from Mae Chaem up to Doi Ithanon and down the other side.

You can follow Luke’s adventures on Instagram. And if you haven’t already, be sure to check out his how-to guide to ultralight touring.



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  • Beautiful.

  • Chris Andrews

    Awesome guys! Should’ve taken an off the seat-post rack to hold your bags – worked a treat for me for two weeks in Europe…

    • Tony Abbott

      Yes Maybe next time

    • Vlad A.

      Hey Chris. Can you recommend a seat-post rack to fit a road bike? I have tried some of them (mostly fixed on the saddle or the post), but they either shake too much or shift. Thanks

  • A

    Great!

  • Paul Adler

    That’s a great read, with beautiful photos. Thanks for taking the time to write it up and sharing!

  • Chris

    Thanks for the article – great read.

  • JJ

    Great piece. I really got a sense of how tough, but fulfilling, it was.

  • anyoldbike

    There is some fantastic riding in the north of Thailand and ‘the Loop’ is something that I have planned for the end of this year and I was debating whether I’d head to Doi Inthanon but I’m sold now. Roadbiking it can be the harder way to go (and the boys were pushing along) – check out some other journals on Crazyguyonabike (just search Mae Hong Son) – there is a recent one (Jan 2015) which covers a lot of the same ground.

  • pauldr

    Great read, thanks for writing it up and great photo’s this is definitely on my list – Europe and USA are just so far away and I just love Thailand. And congrats on the KOM! Made it all worth it!

  • DanDru

    I rode the loop in January but went the opposite way to these guys, certainly worth doing but the section from Mae Hong Son to Soppong had the hardest climbing – https://app.strava.com/activities/238683434, at 25k, it goes straigh up and it did. I put the ride details on Crazyguyonabike.

    • Tony Abbott

      That entire trip from Pai to Mae Hong Son was brutal. Very hard day on the bike

  • Pete23

    Wow, just wow!! great write up too!

  • Brendan Canty

    Very nice place to ride a bike!! That’s where we went for a week with the Search2Retain-Healthcomau team training camp in December 2013. We were staying in Chiang Mai so riding to the top of Doi Inthanon was a little bit too far so we only managed the first handful of km’s of the climb before turning around. Would love to go back for more training and reach the summit

    • I’m sure there are a few people on Strava that would probably like you to stay away. ;)

  • Ben Pilot

    Completely Rad!!!!!

    And those kids ????????????????

  • AlexXSmith

    I didn’t know Thailand was also left sided driving.

  • Xavi

    Wondering how many L is the backpack you carried on this trip? Is this the same one you carried to Norway? Watched Norways trip post and Im already planning on going from Donosti to Compostela this summer.

  • Praphol Krajitboribun

    good job

  • life2001

    You should try North Laos from Luang Namtha to Vang Vieng. This road is real paradise for mountian lovers.

  • Werner Hamer

    Hey Luke,great story,hope to ride the hills together again,let me know when you are in europe.