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  • Writer's pictureHannah Awesome

Cycling Mae Hong Son Loop in Northern Thailand

Updated: Jan 12

Multi-day bike touring has always been one of those things that we never thought we would be able to do. Too much gear needed, too many logistics, too many things to go wrong, and too much time needed to do it. We would see pictures of friends on these epic multi-day adventures and think to ourselves “wow that looks so awesome” but never once would the thought that we could be doing the same thing occur to us. We are van lifers who ride mountain bikes for a living. It seems adventurous but to us it’s not that crazy. Your home travels with you and wherever you are, a bed and a kitchen are waiting for you as soon as you finish your ride. Bike touring was the real crazy thing that always seemed outside of reach for us. However all this would change for us during our time in Thailand.

This past winter we had the pleasure to spend a few months living in Chiang Mai Thailand, an adventure that would require a book all on its own. Normally we live in a van full time however we traded van life for international life and made our way to Asia. We had flown to Thailand with 4 bikes total (a gravel bike and an enduro MTB each) and our only goal was to experience the culture and get as much riding in as we can. While our original ambitions had led us there in search primarily of great single track MTB trails, we quickly realized that the road cycling was too good to not ditch the dirt in search of miles of perfectly paved roads and hilly climbs through the mountains!

One thing led to another, and after befriending a few cyclists who were also visiting, we became aware of an adventurous loop called “Mae Hon Song”.

This route goes through the mountainous region of Northern Thailand and through a few remote villages along the way. We were warned that it is very strenuous and at times does not give up. Coming in at 340 miles with about 33,000 total feet of elevation over a span of 5 days (this would be the route we chose).

Originally we dismissed the idea. Neither of us had ever done any multi-day cycling adventure, we had no gear, and neither of us spoke Thai. However in typical us fashion, the smell of an adventure had already kicked in.

The more we looked into the route the more we began to convince ourselves that maybe we had a chance. After all, we were in Thailand, a country where the US dollar stretches very far. In the US a hotel would cost us about $50 a night minimum where here the cost was about $10 a night. We didn’t need a tent if we just brought a bit of cash right? And if the hotel has a shower we could just wash the riding kit we are wearing, saving the need to bring any extra riding clothes, right? Little by little we started to convince ourselves that we were ready to take on the challenge! But what we didn’t know is just how painful the challenge would be. And man were we in for one hell of an adventure!

The Route

Distance: 340.0 miles

Total climb: 33014 ft

The more we looked into the route the more we began to convince ourselves that maybe we had a chance. After all, we were in Thailand, a country where the US dollar stretches very far. In the US a hotel would cost us about $50 a night minimum where here the cost was about $10 a night. We didn’t need a tent if we just brought a bit of cash right? And if the hotel has a shower we could just wash the riding kit we are wearing, saving the need to bring any extra riding clothes, right? Little by little we started to convince ourselves that we were ready to take on the challenge! But what we didn’t know is just how painful the challenge would be. And man were we in for one hell of an adventure!

Now you might be thinking to yourself surely we would bring a little gear with us right? Spare jacket, some tubes, maybe a few extra parts. Where would we keep these without any backpacking gear? While the original plan was to travel lightly, and just stuff everything in our pockets that we did choose to bring.

Luckily Hannah was able to construct a bike bag by taking one of our shoe bags and zip tying it to my handlebars. This would prove to be essential as we could now bring jackets, chamois butter, and a few other essential items like flip flops to walk around town in when we got to villages. Cheap and practical, all of the excuses had now been thrown out the window and we were ready to embark on an adventure of a lifetime!

Distance: 78 miles

Total climb: 7132 ft

The pace was sporadic on day 1, with neither of us entirely sure of whether it would be better to crank it out to have more time to rest our legs when we got there or to take the slower approach and conserve energy. After all today was just going to be 1/5th of the entire loop and we would still have 32,000 more feet of elevation to climb in the next 4 days. Regardless we were on our way and the views started almost immediately, as did the stops for food and drinks. That was the nice thing about this route, we had heard there were plenty of little shops that would sell water, food, drinks, and other essentials. We were also told the first day would hurt and about halfway into the day we started to feel it. Hills that never ended, climbing straight into the mountains. The hills tired us out so much that we fo

Our gearing wasn’t ideal, something we knew would be an issue but ignored leading up to the trip, somehow hoping it would magically change come time for this route. Well, as we grinded our way up the never-ending climbs, we can reassure you that never happened and we found ourselves constantly wanting a bailout granny. We quickly realized maybe we should have put the XT 11 speed cassette on with a 46t granny, but it was too late.

The route to Pai proved to be a very good idea of what to expect the next few days and after many pit stops, hills climbed, and beautiful views taken in, we made it! Pai was beautiful but also very touristy. We would have liked to spend more time in the town, however, the bed in our 400 baht a night hotel (approx $12 USD) sounded a bit more appealing than exploring the town. We stayed at Pai Friendly Resort and loved our stay!

Distance: 66 miles

Total climb: 9159 ft

Pai to Mae Hong Son Mae Hong Son Cycling Loop

Waking up on day 2, the reality was quick to slap us in the face. We have never had a better understanding of where the phrase “it feels like I got hit by a truck” had come from then on that morning! Sore, tired, hungry, and exhausted we packed what little gear we had and began to make our way to Khun Yuam. Today would be another big day in the saddle, with about 9k feet of climbing in front of us. We needed coffee badly so we made our way to a coffee shop in Pai, but first wanted a photo with the sunrise. A random monk thought we wanted him in the photo when we asked the man next to him, so we ended up with an even more epic photo and a story of that one time a monk photo bombed our picture!

After fueling up on overpriced tourist coffee, we hit the road again. One thing we knew about the day is that there were going to be some walls to climb. That and we were also combining what for smart people would be two days into one. Right off the back we also started to realize how much steeper the climbs were today. Maybe it was the fact that we had climbed close to 9k feet the day prior, but the climbs no longer looked like climbs, but rather walls of pavement! The saving grace here was that at the top of most of these climbs was a food stop area where vendors from the local villages sold things like potatoes and corn, as well as water and sugar drinks. Full disclaimer, lots of sugar was consumed during this trip. Copious amounts of sugar…

Mae Hong Son Cycling Loop

The highlight of the day was running into a group of older Thai men who were doing the same loop as us. They were taking a few more days than us, and the atmosphere was very relaxed and fun! They were amazing to meet and gave us a little bit of energy from their encouragement after learning what our plan was time-wise for the loop!

Boondee House Guesthouse Mae Hong Son Cycling loop Thailand

We would try to fill in the rest of the day here and how it went, but a lot of it was a blur. All that we remember was lots of hills, more hills, some more hills, lots of potato breaks, and then just like that we were at Khun Yuam! There were a few vegan-friendly restaurants here as well as a really nice night market where we found lots of sticky rice! Our hotel room here was another very friendly family home turned hotel and the cost was once again around 400 baht or 12 USD. The place we stayed at was called was Boondee House Guesthouse, we loved our stay, the owner was extremely nice and accommodating as well!

Distance: 43 miles

Total climb: 4107 ft

Mae Hong Son Cycling Loop Mae Hong Son to Khun Yuam

If we thought we had woken up sore and exhausted after day 1, waking up on day 3 felt like we had gotten hit by the same truck we felt like we got hit on day 1, but then ran over by the rest of rush hour traffic. Food was needed right away so after talking to our hosts, who were extremely friendly, we found an amazing all-vegan restaurant. We tried to talk to them and they tried to talk to us but we did not get very far besides smiles and laughs. The food was amazing and we were really starting to appreciate the Jae religion, which is a form of Buddhism incorporating a vegan diet. This made finding food pretty easy for us as we would either look for the sign or just show them the one that we had saved a screen saver on our phone.

Day 3 was supposed to be the milder of the days and a bit of a rest before tackling the final two. The climbs were also much less steep and it seemed like the entire day was actually somewhat pleasant in comparison to what we thought it would be like. With minimal fruit and food breaks needed we ended up making it to our destination with good time to spare. The one thing that became quickly apparent to us was how far out of the way of the tourist sections of Thailand we were. We received many stares while walking through the town here, and we could tell that not many tourists did make their way out this far. The vegan options were also not exactly plentiful here, and we definitely found ourselves eating a lot of white rice!

Distance: 62 miles

Total climb: 10,939 ft

Mae Hong Son Cycling Loop Khun Yuam to Mae Chaem

Do you know those moments when you wake up and know how crazy the day ahead of you is going to be so you close your eyes and pretend that the day is not going to happen? This was day 4. We knew that day 4 was going to be the biggest challenge for us, with some of the biggest elevation we have ever climbed in a single day. And even though we had felt well rested from the casual day previously (funny how 5k feet of climbing had now become casual), we knew we hadn’t taken in enough calories, primarily because at this point our bodies needed so many just to sustain themselves. We hadn’t figured out the food situation in the town we had stayed in either as the town was really small and English was much rarer than the bigger towns we had come across on the earlier days. Regardless, our spirits were high!

We had decided to start off before the sun rose to make the most of the day. We knew each of us was probably on the verge of the biggest leg cramp of our life and we wanted ample time to be able to deal with it. What we did not realize is starting off before the sun would trigger so many stray dogs, and we definitely had our fair share of scares. However even with the stray dog scares and somewhat hilly start, the crisp morning air felt really good, and we found ourselves making progress!

Day 4 went through a fair amount of villages and towns, some more remote than others and we did run into the issue of not knowing exactly what to order for our meal brakes, as vegan options were still scarce. We were able to find lots of rice and bananas which became a staple during this trip along with sprite and pure sugar! At this point of the journey we were just surviving as neither of us had ever ridden this far before consecutively. One thing was certain though, the hospitality of every single town and village we stopped at was second to none. The locals were so curious and even though we spoke no Thai and they spoke no English, we could tell they really wanted to help us however they could. With what little we were able to translate through hand gestures, we explained our route to them and realized how ambitious we had been because everyone seemed to think we were crazy!

With lots of amazing views, interesting geographical terrain changes, weird animal encounters, the day was very engaging, however, there was no getting over the fact that the hills were relentless! They did not stop and each time you made it to the top of one and had a quick descent you were faced with another mountain to climb. But after what seemed like an eternity, we somehow stumbled into the last town we would be staying at. And stumbled was an understatement as I literally toppled over as I got off my bike from exhaustion. With the biggest day behind us now, we knew the following evening if all went well we would be back in our apartment in Chiang Mai. But boy were we in for a treat on the final day.

Distance: 86 miles

Total climb: 9330 ft

Mae Chaem to Chiang Mai Mae Hong Son Cycling Loop

Remember that analogy where it felt like we got hit by a few cars? Well waking up for the 5th and final day felt like what we think it would feel like to be a couch that could feel pain and to be in the back of a pick-up truck, before falling off while on a freeway, toppling over a few times before getting slammed by an 18 wheeler. Over exaggeration? Maybe, but in reality we were hurting and definitely not in the shape to climb to the tallest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Could we have spent an extra day in the village resting and getting our legs back? Maybe. But we knew not making the schedule we had outlined for ourselves would lower the overall stoke so we set off for what would be one of the hardest days of cycling for either of us.

The road to the beginning of the mountain climb of Doi Inthanon was fairly pleasant and we had a good time warming up and stretching the legs. We didn’t have many snacks on us as we assumed we would run into a few locals selling things on the side of the road and we could just buy some more food and water. What we did not know is the way we were taking up to the top of Doi Inthanon was the back way, much steeper and less forgiving than the front way up the mountain and with absolutely no one selling anything except one stop that had some villagers selling some potatoes. The lack of food and water supply combined with the brutal elevation gain would lead to the bonk of a lifetime for me.

Hannah was a bit more fresh as she had been doing a better job staying hydrated as well as fed. I on the other hand was not a fan of potatoes and had turned down the one food stop we had, assuming there would be another soon. Fast forward 5k feet of climbing, and we were still only 60 % of the way there and I had lost any patience I had for this trip. I don’t bonk often, which is what made me realize how bad of a position I was in seeing how much further I still needed to go. Luckily we did eventually come up to a rest stop area where after almost getting into a fight with a security officer (this was entirely my fault, I’m an angry bonker and the language barrier plus being fully annihilated by the 5k of elevation I had just climbed with no water or food had removed any patience I had) we managed to understand that there was a food stop a few hundred feet from us.

We scarfed down food and water before making our way up the last steep bit to the top of Doi Inthanon and the beautiful view you would think would be at the top of the highest mountain in Thailand. Sound sarcastic? It’s because it is. The view from the top wasn’t really a view at all, and it was probably one of the biggest letdowns of the trip. However the amount of stoke we had while taking our pictures with the sign that told us where we were was incredible, and after hugging each other and taking it all in, we checked the map to see how close Chiang Mai was and realized we had miscalculated how much time we needed to make it home. Chiang Mai was still another 40-50 miles away from the base of the mountain, a journey that would take a few hours, not the 1-2 we had allocated in our mind.

Realizing we had a long road ahead of us we made our way down the mountain, but by the time we were back on flat road, ready to start the pedal out bonk number 2 hit us, and we quickly found a restaurant to eat at. The owners must have had quite the show as we both looked just as bad as we felt. The food was amazing (or at least amazing to our current state, I’m sure it was great but anything would have tasted good at that moment). We then started the journey back to Chiang Mai thinking all we had to do was keep our heads down and pedal.

However nothing came easy and my tire punctured and was losing air fast. Out of Dynaplugs, too tired to put a tube in, and with only 1 c02 cartridge left, we put a zip tie around the puncture which seemed to do the trick! Slowly, painfully, and with much effort, we put our heads down and grinded out the next 2 hours. And just like that we made it home!!!

Looking back on this trip now, we can’t seem to figure out what exactly is wrong with us.

No bike touring experience, no idea where we were going, or a guide with us who knew the exact route, no gear, and no ability to speak Thai. Yet in our minds not making it or finishing was never a thought. And in turn, the memories we made by just going for it are going to last us a lifetime.

We still think about moments through the trip that make us laugh as well as cringe. And looking back at the photos there is not much we would change if we could go back in time. Well maybe that’s a lie, we would probably bring a little bit more gear and maybe some proper hydration and nutrition. But also sometimes in life, the best memories can be made by just going for it, and we now have some awesome ones!


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