A Bit of TLC Part 7 – Doing the Loop

Pai and Mae Hong Son  December 2023

The Life of Pai

The Mae Hong Son Loop as it was known, was a famous long and winding road circuit (600 miles in total) from Chiang Mai through the length of the province.  It was lauded as one of the most popular motorcycling tours in Northern Thailand, but feeling too old, nervous and fashion conscious to don leathers, we decided to tackle it on four wheels. It turned out to be a sensible move! We were promised breathtaking scenery, rolling countryside dotted with hill tribe villages, viewpoints and waterfalls. We weren’t expecting the tour vans cutting every corner, slow moving lorries, numerous tourists attempting it on small scooters, and nervous fellow car drivers taking each bend at the speed of an arthritic snail. Overtaking was certainly a challenge but I managed to keep my breakfast down on the route’s 1864 bends by having my eyes closed most of the time!  Fortunately, Ian was driving (so I had to keep my ears closed too!).

The long and winding road

Our first stop was the old hippy outpost of Pai.  The hippies were outnumbered by young backpackers these days and wandering into town the first evening, we discovered that it was now most certainly a “party” town.  The walking street was lined with restaurants and bars offering live music, a wide variety of western food and abundant cannabis shops.  Luckily our hotel was a short walk away from the bustle, and made a comfortable and calm retreat for the next few days.

Our peaceful haven

One of the main sights in the area was Tham Lot, a massive limestone cave complex which had a river running through it. It was certainly one of the largest caves I’d ever seen, and all visitors were required to hire a guide with a gas lantern to explore.  Our guide’s English only extended to describing the various stalagmites and stalactites which (vaguely) resembled animals, and in one case a pair of breasts (!) but the huge caverns (and our guide’s imagination) were impressive.  We floated along the river on a bamboo raft through to several side chambers accompanied by thousands of fish, and beneath a roof literally covered in bats.  Reaching our destination involved climbing up some very rickety stairs which was quite a challenge when you were trying not to hold on to the bat dung covered hand rails!

More bat shit than our Government!

One cavern contained the remains of several pre-historic coffins.  This was not your usual “grave in a cave” type scenario… these wooden caskets had been carbon dated as between 1600 and 2200 years old and were over 10 foot in length!  No-one knows how or why they ended up here – a true mystery.

The grave in the cave

Pai’s other attractions including tubing, rafting and hiking, but feeling in the mood for more relaxing pursuits, we hit one of the area’s natural spring resorts.  Having lunch overlooking the river, we were surprised to see an elephant bathing, although unfortunately with the help of some tourists. A pleasant few hours were spent sitting by the picturesque pool and lounging in a couple of the resort’s hot spring baths.  We even felt chilled enough that evening to gatecrash the local hostel’s karaoke night– they were impressed that us couple of “oldies” even knew most of the words!

Bathtime for jumbo

In search of a decent bakery (Ian was missing his bread) we stumbled upon the Saturday morning market.  This was obviously where the “hippies” hung out nowadays, as it appeared to be a cross between Glastonbury and Camden Market – lots of nose rings, baggy elephant trousers and top knot dreadlocks.  I was delighted however, to buy some hummus, a sourdough loaf and a nice piece of spinach quiche!

Hanging loose in Pai

Lakes and Mountains

Next stop was the route’s namesake, the town of Mae Hong Son, set amongst the verdant mountains and by a tranquil lake.  It was originally an elephant trading centre, but fighting in nearby Myanmar forced thousands of Shan people to make their home here.  Walking towards town that evening, we were delighted to stumble upon a large cultural festival which was being held just opposite our guest house.

Welcome to Mae Hong Son

It was host to people from several different tribes that inhabited the area, including Shan, Hmong and Karen.   Many were dressed up in their traditional costumes, with stalls selling locally made crafts and food, with a huge stage set which featured lively dancing and music. Although as foreigners we must have stood out, we felt very welcome and were even invited to play a game of bingo (where luckily the organiser helped translate what was going on!) – great fun, and a really nice, genuine experience.

Two little (Peking) ducks…22!

Finding it hard to tear ourselves away from our comfortable guesthouse run by the lovely Jasmin, we drove just out of town for a short hike into the national park.  Unfortunately, being Constitution weekend it was closed, so we were unable to take our “constitutional”!  Instead, we drove up to Wat Doi Kong Mu (we were well over climbing stairs by now!) for spectacular views over the town at sunset.  There was even a small memorial there to the bikers who had tackled “the loop” (it didn’t mention exactly how they met their ends…).

A bird’s eye view

Wanting to try the Northern Thai cuisine (which seemed to feature a lot less coconut milk, was less spicy and contained a lot more potatoes) we found a great little restaurant a 20-minute trek out of town.  I had the most delicious potato and aubergine curry and struggled back to the hotel feeling very full!

Aiming to work it off the next day, we attempted the hike again, but as it had rained during the night, I managed to slip over in the mud grazing my knee – and that was before we had even started!  That, and the fact that they were charging an entrance fee of around £5 each to enter the national park put us right off the idea.  This practice seems to be common in Thai national parks – locals are only charged 50p when tourists are charged ten times more, which seems a bit excessive.  Some places are certainly worth the money, but the reviews of this hike complained that it was poorly maintained and signposted, so we were glad to give it a miss.

The bamboo bridge

Instead, we drove out of town to see a bamboo bridge which had been built over the rice fields by monks in order to access their temple.  This type of bridge was common in the region and the construction was simple but impressive.

Although a bit loathe to visit the much touted “tribal villages” in the surrounding hills, we were assured that the Huay Pu Keng village was one of the smallest, oldest and was community-based so more ethical than most.  The Karenni are refugees who fled the war in Myanmar and the the Karen (or Kayan) women traditionally wore brass coils around their necks, gradually building them up until their necks appeared extended – hence the name “long-neck Karens”.

Traditional costumes

The village was quite remote, and we had to take a boat across the river to reach it.  There were some women wearing the rings on their necks and feet, selling homemade crafts – but also other villagers going about their daily lives.  The Kayans are marginalised by Thai society and are not able to integrate which is very sad.  It did feel a little like a human zoo, but it was interesting learning about their culture and lifestyle, plus the inhabitants made a small living out of tourism and this helped to provide a school and health centre.

The naughty gecko

Mae Hong Song had been our favourite stop on “the loop” so far, helped by our serene surroundings, set amongst the jungle.  The only disturbance was a curious noise we heard each night which sounded like something crying “monkey”, “toucan” and most hilariously “f*$k You!”.  Fearing our host had some form of “Tourettes” we eventually Googled it, to discover that it was in fact a tokeh gecko, otherwise known as the “F*$k You Lizard”!! These fearsome creatures were apparently named as such by the US troops stationed in Vietnam, who thought it was sending them a message!

Next Stop:  Wooden it be nice…?

More photos!…

The fish cave
Following the light
Crocodile rock
Elephant man rock??
Take me to the river
Cave art...can you tell what it is yet??
Caveman's Christmas Tree??
Out of the darkness
Into the lights!
Lounging by the pool
The Thai Hell's Angels?
Pai anyone?
Coffee with a view - Ban Cha Bo Hill
Soundtrack to our journey!
Welcome to Mae Hong Son
Shan mat-ers tea party
My new Christmas outfit
Little Shan Princess
A very "a-peeling" clothing stall
Let the show go on...
Mr Magic's toymobile
Jasmin's place
Ian's place!
Long necked Kathy (apologies for any cultural appropriation!)
We did it!
Rest in Peace (not in pieces hopefully!)
The sun sets on another amazing place
Sigh...I asked for a Calippo but got given a Twister instead
The queue for the canteen was always long when jam roly poly was on the menu
Four heads are better than one
Today, through the round window...
Thinking of getting Ian this sign for when he's driving!
The Longneck village
Traditional costumes
Traditional football shirts? The best headers in the league...
Huay Pu Keng Education Centre
The village entertainer
The crossing back
Trust us to come on bin day!

5 thoughts on “A Bit of T L C – Part 7 – Doing the Loop”

  1. Good idea to write a book – another book. I wouldn’t have liked the bat cave either! You’ve covered an astonishing amount…there’s no stopping you! xx

  2. Isn’t it sad, that the world over, us humans find ways to marginalize segments of our own people? Why do we all do that? I loved loved loved your cave adventure. More bats please!!!

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