We went where not many have gone before and did the Mae Hong Son Loop by bus rather than by motorbike. Here’s my honest account of what it was like and how you can do it too!
I did lots of cool things in Thailand, read my Thailand travel story.
What is the Mae Hong Son Loop?
The Mae Hong Son Loop is an infamous route (amongst motorcycle enthusiasts) in Northern Thailand, starting out from Chiang Mai. It’s a 600km journey through the Mae Hong Son province.
With more than 1,800 bends in the road, and glorious scenery it’s easy to see why motorcyclists love it and those who get travel sickness hate it.
Why we did the Mae Hong Son Loop by bus
1. Safety and moped experience:
my husband and I have only been on a moped a handful of times and had recently fallen off a moped (doh). After doing the Mae Hong Son Loop by bus, we agreed that the roads would be extremely tricky for those who are only beginner bikers, especially whilst carrying all your stuff. They are very windy!
We did see some proper and experienced motorbikers (with huge, awesome looking motorbikes) very much enjoying themselves on the loop though! We also saw some less experienced bikers, without the right equipment and sporting a variety of injuries.
I get a VERY sore bum sitting on the back of a moped.
We looked at car rental but at around $38 USD a day it was out of our budget. The bus was by far the cheapest and safest option for us.
Cost of transport for the Mae Hong Son Loop
It cost $24 USD per person for us to do the entire Mae Hong Son Loop via bus (5 journeys).
Bus company for the Mae Hong Son Loop
We used Prempracha Transports who were largely excellent, bar the odd very fast driver. They also have excellent customer services via email.
This is purely a service by mini van rather than traditional bus, but it’s what locals use too. We didn’t see any big buses on the way, probably something to do with the myriad of turns.
When using Prempracha you can book all your journeys in one go and pay in advance by PayPal (for a fee) or by going into the Arcade Bus Station (Terminal 2) in Chiang Mai and paying in cash. We paid online as the fee was cheaper than return Grab journeys to the bus terminal. Alternatively you can buy tickets for each leg of the journey in each place you go to.
If you get travel sick, bring travel sickness pills. At one point half our bus was spewing and I was handing out travel sickness pills like sweets.
Price of accommodation
We found a double room with a private bathroom at $15 – $19 USD per night in all locations on the Mai Hong Son Loop. We booked in advance as we knew what dates we would be in each place given we had pre-purchased our bus tickets. However in Pai and Mae Sariang it is possible to find accommodation on arrival as there were some homestays not advertised online. Khun Yuam and Mae Hong Son may be a little trickier to do this for.
Was the Mae Hong Son Loop by bus worth it?
Yay and nay.
We did do some cool things, such as bouncing along on an open-backed truck (songthaew) with a load of people from the local hill tribe villages on the way to the village right near the border of Myanmar. And the views on the Mae Hong Son Loop were absolutely beautiful.
However, we also ended up in dead Thai towns where you had to pay for expensive excursions if you wanted to do anything (e.g. visit waterfalls, caves, hill tribes or do some pretty easy trekking). The excursion packages cost up to $60 USD a day. Whilst some of this money undoubtedly finds its way to the local hill tribes, it was questionable as to how much.
Attractions far away
Often any attractions to see were far out of the towns we were staying in and there were few public buses. This is where having your own moped or car comes in handy. Some guesthouses seemed to hire mopeds out. This is fine if you are happy to jump on a bike, but for those who don’t have a driving license or don’t feel comfortable on a moped, you can end up feeling a little trapped.
This information is not to put anyone off, but more to give you the full picture of what doing the Mae Hong Son Loop by bus entails.
Mae Hong Son Loop stops
Below is an overview of each place on the Mae Hong Son Loop, a few key things to do and points of interest. I also have included the Prempracha Transports bus timetable below.
Stop 1: Pai
Pai can be your first or last stop on the Mae Hong Son Loop. It was our first. A lot of people really love Pai and I can see why. It’s got lots of shops, a walking street with night market, a chilled hippie vibe, a nice river and is nestled in the mountains.
For me though, it was very touristy and culturally washed. I understand wanting home comforts but with Western food all over the place this was just a level I wasn’t used to in my travels. There seemed to be very few local people, including the street market vendors.
Things to do in Pai
We only stayed in Pai one night. But despite it being fairly touristy, I wish we’d stayed a second night. There is a lot more you can do independently and on a budget in Pai compared to the expensive tour excursions of the rest of the Mae Hong Son Loop. For example you can hike to Mae Yen Waterfall and bike/van to the Tham Lot caves (you do have to pay for a guide into the caves though, which is 150baht/around $5 USD for up to 3 people).
Additionally the place we stayed in Chilling Hill Guesthouse was as the name suggests, very chilled out. It is pretty basic and outside of town, but had decking overlooking the valley and amazing sunset views.
There was also a great vegan restaurant (Blossom Cafe) nearby, serving up lovely burgers and desserts with decent portion sizes. But get in early as it shuts at 7pm!
Stop 2: Mae Hong Son
This was one of those slightly weird dead towns we visited. It’s the provincial capital so has a lot of government buildings, but there was just no one around! With very few people on the streets and everything seemingly shut, it seemed like a place too big for its small population. We stayed here two nights, which was too much time considering we couldn’t do any trekking.
Trekking in Mae Hong Son
Trekking is meant to be one of the main attractions here. However we weren’t able to do any trekking due to the high prices. We were quoted $77 (with no budging on the price!) for the two of us to do just a few hours trekking with a guide. There are no walking maps available of the area, so trekking independently wasn’t really an option.
This seems to be what you pay for trekking in Thailand, yet this is more than I paid for hiking guides back at home in the UK. As we also recently have done the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal on our own, trekking in Corsica fully independently and an amazing and affordable trekking tour in Sapa, Vietnam, it seemed a little restrictive to only be able to do it with a guide and at such a high price.
Generally the excursions on the Mae Hong Son Loop were too high for our backpacker budget.
Tour companies closed
Not to mention finding someone to potentially do a guided trek with us was a nightmare. We went to 4 different tour company offices in Mae Hong Son and only 1 had anyone around to help us. Our guesthouse called 4 different people and not one answered.
I did, after much digging, find a trekking route you can do independently from Mae Hong Son. It starts from Fern Resort. The trail is called ‘Mae Sakud Nature Trail and the full circular route is 7.5 km. We found out this information too late to be able to do it.
Other things to do in Mae Hong Son
However, saying this Mae Hong Son has a lovely small lake with a nice temple complex next to it. There are two nice eating places Salween and Little Good Things, although the latter we were unable to try due to it being closed, but it has good TripAdvisor reviews.
We also walked up to the temple on the hill (Wat Prathat Doi Kong Moo). Whilst not the most impressive temple we’ve seen in Thailand there were nice views of the surrounding area.
The night market in Mae Hong Son was good too, with decent and affordable vegetarian options.
Stop 3: Khun Yuam
Khun Yuam is a small village and we stayed here one night. It’s not a bad little place but there isn’t much there. The place was so small I only photographed the sunset here…
Things to do in Khun Yuam
The temple is nice, and there is a tiny market. The locals were pretty friendly and we got chatting to a few of them. There is a waterfall a moped ride away.
And this, which must have been a lost in translation moment…
When we stayed there (on a Sunday night) only one of the very few restaurants in the town was open, Shabu Sushi, which has an outstanding 2.5 review on TripAdvisor and we found out why.
We got served the special delicacy of a mayo and cornflake salad, (which we hadn’t actually ordered but they tried to charge us for)! At least it was open, I gave it two stars on tripadvisor just for that! For dessert we did manage to find a nice lady who lives opposite the hospital, where she works as a nurse during the day. At night she makes crispy crepes with a multitude of toppings to choose from!
The next day we tried to get breakfast at Doi Khun Coffee, which turns out is also owned by Shabu Sushi and has the same menu. We ended up with an expensive slice of toast each that had been cut up into small squares, individually slathered in marmalade and then topped with hundreds and thousands…
Stop 4: Mae Sariang (final stop)
We liked Mae Sariang best of all the places we visited on the Mae Hong Son Loop. There was more going on than some of the other stops on the Loop and we had the option of doing a budget friendly day trip to the town on the border with Myanmar. Mae Sariang is still a small town with limited restaurants and shops.
Things to do in Mae Sariang
There is a small tourist street, where there are a few nice bars and restaurants that you can have a drink and dinner whilst looking out on the river. Our favourites were Sawadee Bar (although beware of the giant Huntsman spider that nearly ate me when I went to the toilet!) and Banana Cafe. There are also some decent local places too.
We also did a nice evening walk along the road up to the Wat Phra That Chom Kitti temple on the hill, where you head through all the farmland which is pleasant.
Outside of Mae Sariang, within driving or moped distance are Mae Sawan Noi Waterfall (20km away), Wat Tham Phra Boran Temple and Buddha Cave (6km away) and Mae Sariang Lake (6km away).
Trekking in Mae Sariang
Mae Sariang has potential for being a good trekking location, with Salawin National Park nearby. Again the limited options for trekking are fairly pricey. In Mae Sariang it is $64 USD per day per person to hire a guide to go out trekking with.
Visiting Mae Sam Laep, Myanmar border village
The best thing we did in Mae Sariang by far was the trip to Mae Sam Laep. The village where you can see Myanmar and the Salween River.
You can hire a boat to take you along the river for around 600baht (around $19 USD). Or if you are on a budget like us we wandered up the road that goes through the village for a few hours and enjoyed seeing the more rural way of life in a border town. You can trek 18km along here to the next village if you wanted to. It looked like it was also possible to hire a boat to take you across to Myanmar but we didn’t ask about this.
Bus to Mae Sam Laep
Getting to Mae Sam Laep village wasn’t hard for us. We grabbed a songthaew (a Thai pick up truck) just before 9am from the location called ‘Mae Sam Laep truck pick up’ on Maps.Me near the market. If you just head there about 8:30am-8:50am and ask around you should find a bus. Each way it costs 100 baht (around $3 USD) per person and takes around a hour and a half.
The journey is very pleasant, gives some lovely views and is a welcome break from the heat. The road is new, so smooth but still windy, so take some travel sickness tablets if you need them. Make sure to ask what time the last bus back is as they stop running quite early. We ended up on one around 1.30pm.
There are some local places to eat on the main road. We went for one of the first ones as you come into town, opposite a drinks stand and asked for a vegetarian version of the noodle soup. It was delicious and very cheap (about 30 baht per bowl).
Prempracha Transports Timetable
Timetable for buses for the entire Mai Hong Son Loop (as of January 2019):
- Chiang Mai to Pai 6:30, 7:30, 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30, 17:30
- Pai to Mae Hong Son 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30, 17:30
- Mae Hongson to Khun Yuam 14:00
- Khun Yuam to Mae Sariang 6:00, 7:00, 13:00, 18:00
- Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai 7:00, 8:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00, 14:00, 15:00, 17:00
- You can skip Khun Yuam, there is a service from Mae Hongson to Mae Sariang at 14:00
Time it takes to travel between locations:
- Chiang Mai to Pai 3 hours
- Pai to Mae Hong Son 3 hours
- Mae Hong Son to Khun Yuam 1 hour 30 minutes
- Khun Yuam to Mae Sariang 2 hours
- Mae Sariang to Chiang Mai 3 hours 30 minutes
- In case you prefer to skip Khun Yuam the service from Mae Hongson to Mae Sariang take 3 hours 30 minutes
Final thoughts on Mae Hong Son Loop
Although I can see the appeal of the Mae Hong Son Loop, on the bus it just isn’t the same as on a motorbike. I’d also recommend that it’s more something for the very competent motorcyclist due to the bends in the road and for safety reasons.
Furthermore, if you do want to do it by bus, be prepared to either be happy to pay for expensive excursions to see the local sights or hire your own moped in the towns you visit.
Get in touch to share your own experiences of the Mae Hong Son Loop or if you have any questions!
Or read more about what I got up to in Thailand:
Found this blog useful?
Share the love.