I rolled into town exhausted from the previous day’s wrong turn that resulted in 12,000 feet of climbing and extremely sore legs. Once I found a $5 a night room right next to the night market I decided that Mae Hong Son would be a good place to recuperate for a few days.
For several days I worked from local coffee shops and cafes, explored town, walked the night market, and sipped cold Changs. I did a day trip to visit a Kayan Village, known as the “Long Neck People”, where the women use sets of brass rings to elongate their necks. I’d read both positive and negative opinions about visiting, and as I watched elderly women with extraordinarily long necks sitting at looms weaving stunningly ornate fabrics waiting for tourists to take pictures of them as curiosities I was reminded that the more I see of the world the less certain I am that I have all the answers.
After 5 days in town I packed my panniers and followed the road north to explore the Su Tong Pae Bridge at Wat Phu Sama, Thailand’s longest bamboo bridge. By mid day I departed the Mae Hong Son Loop and rode to the tourist town of Ban Rak Thai, a Chinese style village on a small lake nestled under the hills that form the border with Myanmar. I stayed 2 nights, working from a tea shop, wandering around the shoreline, and wishing international borders were open for a quick visit to Burma.
This was also the furthest north I rode during my Thailand bicycle tour, and at just under 6,000 feet above sea level the air was brisk and felt more like autumn back home than the northern mountains of a tropical destination. I donned my puffy jacket for the first time in nearly a year and could see my breath in the mornings as I passed local families bundled up and huddled around small fires smoldering in their front yards.
From Ban Rak Thai I rejoined the Mae Hong Son Loop and spun into the heart of hundreds of hairpin turns. It’s said that the road has 1,864 turns, which I’m sure are exciting on a motorcycle, but on a bicycle it means a whole lot of pushing up steep hills and screaming down dangerous descents with squealing disk brakes.
At one point I was feeling a bit frustrated, slogging along pushing the bike up a hill when a Thai man on a motorbike stopped, handed me an energy drink and pack of Mentos and said in English “For you, good job!” I still wasn’t having fun pushing the bike, but it reminded me to live in the moment and appreciate the opportunity to be on an incredible adventure.
Through this stretch I cycled (or pushed) past countless monks in robes walking barefoot up and over mountain passes, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, sometimes with nuns, and always ready to smile and wave as we passed in opposite directions.
I took a side road to Ban Jabo, a small village of the Lahu hilltribe that sits on a picturesque crest of rolling mountains, perfect for enjoying sunset and sunrise. The town was packed with tour vans and selfie stick superstars, so rather than Googling a hotel for the night I stopped at a general store and asked about a homestay. The girl behind the counter made a phone call and a few minutes later a woman arrived on a scooter. I followed her to a few simple bamboo huts perched on the side of the mountain.
The amenities were spartan, I had a mattress on the floor draped in a mosquito net and a bathroom consisting of a toilet and a huge barrel of water that doubled as the flush as well as a shower. But the lack of creature comforts was well worth the sunset and sunrise views.
Leaving Ban Jabo I continued east, up and down hills until I rolled into a city with a 7 Eleven where I bought double breakfast and double coffee. After so many days contending with mountains I was exhausted and felt like no matter what I did I couldn’t get enough calories to make enough energy. I’d planned a few more days taking some remote routes to more scenic views but scrapped that plan and pointed toward Pai, dreaming of devouring a burger later that night.
In Pai I met up with friends from Chiang Mai who were visiting for the weekend. Once they headed home I stayed a few more days to catch up on work and explore town a bit more. I really enjoyed Pai and would have stayed longer but my days were limited and I needed to get back to Chiang Mai to arrange travel back to Koh Lanta and check in at Immigration for my long term visa.
From Pai I crossed one last mountain summit and coasted down rolling hills to flat land. I spent the final day lazily riding 50km along the highway into town and straight to the Old City McDonald’s to celebrate the completion of the Mae Hong Son Loop with a Big Mac meal.
My plan was to return to the south via trains, but at the rail station I tried to buy overnight 2nd class tickets with a sleeping bunk but the only option was an 18 hour 3rd class seat. Instead I cycled to the Thai Post Office and after explaining that my bike had zero cc’s (apparently shipping motorbikes via post is common here) I paid $45 to have the postal worker package my bike and ship it to Koh Lanta. It was cheaper than the 2 day train journey and meant I could catch the 2 hour direct flight back to Krabi.
I spent a few more days hanging out with friends from Lanta who were visiting Chiang Mai, went back to the post office to ship the rest of my bike gear home rather than check it as luggage, and enjoyed craft beers and a few more visits to McDonald’s, two things I wouldn’t have back on Lanta.
In 3 weeks along the Mae Hong Son loop I cycled a total of 10 days, covering 680km (423 miles) and pushing up 16,400 meters (53,800 feet) of elevation. It had been beautifully brutal, and with both the Mae Hong Son Loop and the 1,000 mile tour across Thailand done I felt like I’d gotten over my island fever and was ready to return to Koh Lanta.
I owe a huge thank you to Nu at Triple Cats Cycle in Chiang Mai. After my first 1,000 mile ride I took my Decathlon mountain bike to him for a tune up. He checked over everything, adjusted the fit, replaced the chain, and sent me out on the Mae Hong Son Loop with confidence. If you’re in Chiang Mai and have any bike related questions, definitely go see Nu!