Blog Live to Ride — 28 March 2014

The western portion of the Mae Hong Son motorcycle loop in northern Thailand, from Mae Sot to Mae Hong Son, is an absoluteMae Sot to Mae Hong Son - 1 riders paradise. It’s 398km of euphoric riding cuts through multiple terrains, from beautiful mountain scenery to low lying farmland and small local villages. Almost too good to be true, this ride left me wondering if the civil engineers and surveyors who designed it were motorcycle enthusiasts themselves as this route was pretty much a riders mountain playground. Here’s a bit of what I found along the way and what you can expect when you ride the loop yourself!

Heading out of Mae Sot in the pre-dawn hours the roads were virtually empty. The rising sun had a bright orange glow as it came over the mountains and illuminated a low laying haze in the valley. This haze reminded me of what I saw in the early mornings during my ride south to Phatthalung a while back. Similar to that ride, here in the north the sweet smell of morning dew mixed with the pungent smell of smoke billowing up from the front yards of locals who were burning their trash along the roadside.

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Rolling on the throttle and hugging the center yellow line of the road, I roared through big sweeping turns as the mountains approached in the distance. Each time I exited the arching curves the road seemed to open up into a picture perfect rolling straightaway for as far as my eyes could see. A few times I actually caught myself giggling like a little kid as I opened up the throttle and took the bike to its limits while the scenery whizzed by.

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In this area of Thailand there is really only one range of mountains that separates Thailand from Burma. Rounding a turn, and and literally popping up out of nowhere, a bustling village snaked along the foothills of the mountain border. The narrow valley floor was jam-packed with wooden homes with thatched roofs which carried on far off into the distance.

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I came to find out that apparently in this area there are over 150,000 Burmese refugees living in villages on the Thai side of the border. Pulling over to get a photo of the village I saw a group of families standing on the side of the road. Befriending a man named Ton, I tried my best to communicate in Thai to find out a little about his story. Sure enough, Ton, was a Burmese Muslim who actually spoke less Thai than I did so, needless to say our conversation didn’t get too far past the initial pleasantries. His kids did enjoy playing around my motorcycle, however, I think they were a bit frightened when Ton placed them on top for a photo.

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Leaving the village behind, it didn’t take more than a few kilometers for the mountain road to reveal another of its secrets. Waiting on the other side of a few initial twists and turns were the 1,864 curvaceous and uninterrupted curves that lead to Mae Hong Son.

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Intermittently breaking up the euphoric cruising were strategically placed border check points. Manned by a handful of Thai army personnel, they quickly scanned cars and motorbikes which passed through a chicane of cones and barricades leading up to their guard shack. As I slow-rolled though one checkpoint my bike was given an extra long look of inquiry by guards armed with M-16’s. Pulling over, I took a few minutes to converse with the guards. They were curious about where I’d come from, where I was going and where I got my motorcycle; and I was equally as curious to see if I could check out their M-16’s (to which they said no). Before I sped off they graciously handed me an M150 energy drink to keep me energized for the rest of the ride and happily accepted my photo proposal so I could have a memory of this pit-stop.

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From the varying scenery on this ride I quickly learned this area of the country was a stark contrast to Bangkok. One thing I’ve gotten used to on my many rides through Thailand is riding past temples. But, I was literally stopped in my tracks when I rounded a corner and saw the golden spire of a pagoda poking out from behind a small hut nestled into the hills, which looked to be the home of two or three monks. As I was pretty much the only traveler on the road, I don’t quite know what this monk was waiting for on the roadside, but he seemed very happy to see me and obliged when I asked for a photo.

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Turn by turn and straightaway by straightaway the roads continued to get better and better. The warm sun, the wind in my face and the winding roads had me convinced this was heaven on earth, and at that moment there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be.

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On a full tank of gas my bike can go roughly 250km, depending on how I’m driving. With not many proper gas stations out this far in the country I was constantly watching my gas gauge and mile markers to avoid getting caught in no man’s land in between fill-ups. Saving me a few times, as I coasted in on fumes, were sporadic mom & pop fill-up stations. Run literally out of their homes, they store gas in free-standing 50 gallon oil drums and sell gasoline from pre-filled 1 Liter water bottles or pump it straight from the oil drum. A few times the ‘station attendant’ who filled up my bike was a diligent child apprentice learning the tricks of the trade. It’s stops like this that certainly let you know you’ve left the big city behind and are out in the country.

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One thing that amazed me while riding out of Mae Sot, and as I began to approach the half way point at Mae Sariang, was the abundance of corn grown in this region. Aside from my favorite country music videos, I haven’t seen this much corn in person in my entire life. It seemed like every time the mountains opened into a valley it was covered with sprawling rows of green corn stalks.

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Pulling into Mae Sariang I had two choices, find a guest house and park the bike for the night or fill my belly with some tasty Thai food and continue on the remaining 160km to Mae Hong Son. Briefly consulting the google map to see the remainder of the route, I noticed the road ahead looked just like where I had come from. With excitement and adrenaline still rushing through my veins I decided to grab a tasty lunch of spicy pork salad and hit the road to keep this thrill ride going.

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Leaving Mae Sariang the road climbed in elevation and I was soon riding along what felt like an outer ridgeline of the Lum Nam Kong National Park. While the roadside vegetation changed to that of pine trees and bushes, the roads remained the same. With virtual emptiness, I had the chance to see what the bike could really handle. The roar of the engine broke the peaceful mountain silence as I dipped my shoulders, leaned into the turns and rolled on the throttle; allowing the g-force to pull me through the turns and slingshot me into the next section of straights and curves.

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Descending from the mountains, I came around a bend and saw the beautiful backdrop of what I had just ridden through. With the mountains in the background and a budding lettuce field off to the side of the road, I had to stop and memorialize this epic ride. I had a few close calls while setting up the tripod in the middle of the road as there was a slight pickup in traffic this close to Mae Hong Son in the late afternoon. Eventually the tripod helped strike gold again and captured a great moment on the bike to end an amazing day of riding in Mae Hong Son.

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