In this post I provide details of my motorbike ride from Chang Mai to Myanmar that include maps, costs, logistical requirements and facts as well as links to additional details, photos and videos. This is a self-guided adventure on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the adventure.
I also call this ride the Mae Hong Son Loop (or run for the border) because it was a large loop ride that started in Chang Mai, headed northwest, then along the Myanmar boarder to multiple crossing points, across the border into Myanmar and then looped back to Change Mai via a different route. A 5 day loop that was about 50% off road (non blacktop).
The Run for the Boarder
This is a bumpy story that is being written on a shaky train from Chang Mai, to Bangkok. Let me begin by introducing the main character Ben Schroder, who I will affectionately call Big Jim. This label was coined by Cristina who said that he reminds her of her childhood action figure toy by the same name that was one of Barbie’s friends. She described Big Jim (the toy) as a handsome, dark haired, blue eyed, buff guy who was tuff and action oriented. The description fit Ben to a T. He is in shape, owns an outdoor sporting goods store in Munich, and spends as much free time as possible skiing, scuba diving, dirt biking, bicycling, and things of that nature. So the nickname, Big Jim stuck.
I originally met Big Jim a few years ago, when I wandered into his store. We immediately started talking outdoor talk, and we continued to have these conversations over the years. So when I decided that I would do an off-road adventure in northern Thailand he was the natural choice to join me. Via email we agreed on the timing and location. We would meet in Chang Mai (Thailand’s second largest city), rent motorbikes, and start out from there.
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $$
|5 day dirtbike (trail bike) rental ($19 per day)
Accommodation (avg $10 per night)
2009 prices (excludes pre & post ride costs)
I arrived a few days before him to scope out the availability of dirt bikes, off-road routes and maps. I found that there were three good sources for dirt bike rentals in Chang Mai. The largest bikes being 250cc in size and only the Pop location had them with knobby tires (a must for the deep dusty tracks we intended to visit). I also found GT Rider Guide Maps at all of the local book shops. These maps are specific to different areas of Thailand and show the paved and dirt roads adequately.
Our riding options boiled down to the northwest (Mae Hong Son Loop) or northeast (Golden Triangle Loop) or a combination of both. We opted for a modified western loop because the maps showed that most of the dirt roads and mountains were in the northwestern part of the country and because the maps also showed a number of border crossing points to Myanmar (Burma). The ride would have two objectives. One was to find good dirt riding tracks and the other was for me to cross into Burma and then re-enter Thailand in order to extend my visa (now limited to 15 days for those of us who enter the country by land).
Big Jim arrived mid-day on Friday, checked into the guesthouse and immediately asked about the bikes and was concerned about their size. He owns a 450cc bike and wanted to find bikes more powerful than the 250cc local options. We set out to check my sources and see if we could find any new alternatives. By late afternoon he conceded that the Kawasaki KLX 250cc bikes were as good as we were going to find and that they should be adequate for the task at hand. We talked down the rental price from 900 to 650 THB per day, for 5 days ($19 a day, $95 for 5 days). The price included medical insurance in case we damaged ourselves and needed treatment or air evacuation back to our home countries, but didn’t cover the bikes themselves (strange). We agreed to the terms, paid an advance, left one passport as a deposit, and agreed to return the next morning at 8am to collect our bikes and start the adventure.
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We then split up to make our own arrangements, buy miscellaneous items (I needed boots since I was traveling with only a pair of running shoes and flip-flops for the past 4 months) and to prepare for the next morning’s departure.
Day 1 Ride
The next morning we went to collect our bikes around 8 am. We then returned to the guesthouse to load up our gear. I had purchased a tiny daypack for my stuff and some tie-down bungee cords, but no boots yet. Big Jim had purchased a large day pack, and had brought with him boots, shin/knee guards, gloves, and an iPod with speakers, etc. We then ate a quick breakfast and headed out of town to locate the large and prosperous airport shopping mall to the south. It was my only hope to find boots. Cristina and I had searched the markets, night bazaar, and area shoe shops the previous day in an effort to find boots, without success. Very few boots were available, and those that we did find were not available in my size. There are very few Asians with size 12 (46 Europe) feet it seems.
I left Big Jim in the motorcycle/scooter parking lot watching the bikes while I went into the mall to shop. It was like stepping into the west. The shops were elegant, full of western goods, and expensive. I quickly found an outdoor store with real outdoor products (tents, cook stoves, gear, and even hiking boots). I checked out the boot selection and found that they had one pair in my size and they were even on sale (2,200 THB or $65). The sales girl was happy to get rid of them it seemed. She looked incredulous as I put them on, paid, and then wore them out of the shop. She seemed to be thinking, “There really are people large enough to wear such huge shoes.”
I found Big Jim outside chomping at the bit. It was hot in the open parking lot and the day was getting hotter. I gave my used running shoes to the baffled parking lot attendant, revved up the bike, and coasted out into the mid-morning traffic. We headed north, skirted the central city moat, and then cut west towards Doi Pui. This busy road quickly gave way to a two lane paved road that wound its way up steep forested slopes towards a temple (Wat Pirathat, Doi Sutup) where we stopped to take a few photos and eat some pineapple before continuing up the winding road. The road beyond the temple was devoid of traffic, narrowed to a single lane track with many hair-pin turns and signs indicating caution.
Big Jim didn’t slow down at any stage since leaving the shopping mall. Clearly he was in a hurry to catch up on lost time and find some dirt. He had warned me the previous day that his old back injury was bothering him so we would have to go easy and that he might have to cut the trip short. Based on the first few hours it was clear that his idea of going easy was quite different than mine. I struggled to catch up with him on the straight sections, but always lost him on the curves. Our map showed that the road we were on turned into a dirt track marked “Forestry road, 4WD only, wet season impassable” beyond Doi Pui. From there it would be at least 30 km of switch-back dirt trail up and down the sides of mountains to reach the paved road of the smaller Mae Sai loop, at Pong Yang. At least that was the initial plan.
Big Jim had told me that he didn’t have faith in the map and wanted to follow un-marked off-shoots. He insisted that this approach would lead to better dirt and an opportunity to better fight the road. I was a baffled since I was having enough trouble simply controlling the bike on the sharp and steep turns and wondered how much fighting with dirt he anticipated. So naturally, after taking a few unmarked off-shoots, we were completely lost in record time. Our attempts to get directions from the few locals we met were typical. They could not read a map, didn’t understand our translations of the local names, or simply ignored us as though we were invisible. From experience I knew that we were within a valley adjacent to the second largest city in Thailand, yet the dirt tracks, dusty huts, and mangy dogs, sure made me feel as though I was far from the beaten track.
We eventually spotted some solid buildings and a structured farm layout. We approached the buildings, parked and then wandered around calling out until a farmer appeared. Clearly we were on some kind of government research farm and therefore we figured that we must be near a road. The farmer pointed us up a narrow trail that disappeared into the forest. Big Jim seemed skeptical and kept making hand signs up the trail and indicating a person riding a motorcycle. The man kept nodding and pointing up the trail. We shrugged and then headed into the jungle to follow the trail, but not for very long.
The trail turned into a narrow, single track, rocky, steep route, with boulders, gullies, and jungle debris littering the way. It was a perfect trekking trail, but very difficult for the motorbikes. Big Jim seemed confident and announced that we had finally found a track good enough to fight. I looked at the track dubiously as it quickly got worse. Rounding a rough, steep bend, that dropped and then curved sharply, my back wheel spun off to the right. To the left was a steep jungle rise and to my right was a deep gully that dropped for 3 meters before dropping another 20 meters, then 50 meters. It was a treacherous washout created by the heavy rains of the last wet season. As my back wheel spun out I felt the bike slide into the gully and begin to drop. Fortunately the bike got hung up in vines and tree limbs otherwise my dirt bike adventure (and perhaps my life) might have ended on that first afternoon. I had a few scrapes and my heart was racing as I climbed out of the gully and looked down at the hanging bike.
When Big Jim rounded the curve and saw my bike deep in a gully he shook his head in disbelief. He negotiated the curve carefully, dismounted and wondered out loud about our options. We immediately set about wedging tree stumps under the bike to prevent it from falling deeper into the gully. We then tied a rope to the rear end and then tried to pull it out. The bike was simply too heavy to lift with only two people, plus it was well wedged into the tangle of vines. I set about to collect some long, narrow limbs to use as levers while he sawed away the vines with his handy pocket tool. We then tried different methods of lifting the bike without any success. If anything, our efforts were counter-productive as it dropped deeper into the gully.
Big Jim then volunteered to ride on down the trail to find the nearest village and bring back some local laborers. We unloaded his bike to make the going easier. He then headed down the trail while I sat and contemplated my options. After a long time I heard his bike returning. He was covered in sweat and confided that he never reached a village. Further, that the trail got progressively worse up ahead. He said that there was no way that a dirt bike could use this track to reach a village or road and that the farmer must be crazy. He then rode back up the trail, the way we had come, to find that farmer and ask for his help.
Once again I waited and contemplated the bike, the jungle, the gully, and life. Eventually I spotted Big Jim returning with the farmer and two additional helpers. They seemed pleased with our predicament (we would certainly be entertaining conversation for a while) and immediately set about chopping down trees, unwinding ropes, and setting up a pulley system. Within 15 minutes we were hauling the bike out of the gully. I was relieved both with the safe return of the bike and that we were going to give up this torturous trail and backtrack to the dusty 4WD road. I paid the farmers for their help (100 THB each, a lot of money for them) and then we returned to the farm to collect Big Jim’s bike. I waved goodbye to the farmer and his family as Big Jim tore down the dirt road with determination. It was now late in the afternoon and we were less than 30 km of Chang Mai. Not a very good beginning perhaps, but at least I had some really good video footage and photos for our efforts.
We spent the next two hours riding aimlessly about the mountain dusty trails using a compass and hand signals with any locals we spotted. We were hopelessly lost, but confident that sooner or later we were sure to find a way out of the maze.
Around 5pm we happened upon a trail that had two narrow cement tracks (at the width of a car). This trail wound about as much as the dirt tracks we had been following, but at least seemed to be going generally down into the valley. Eventually it exited onto a dirt road that we followed to a lake with lots of tourists. Checking the map we determined that we were at Lake Huai Tung Thao, a kind of resort area, with a new housing development, and a 4-lane road leading out to highway 107. We considered stopping for a swim but opted to make speed to try and reach the town of Samoeng for the night (so that we could at least spend the first night outside the suburbs of Chang Mai).
We zoomed out to highway 107, then zigzagged through northbound traffic until we turned west on country road 1096. We then flew up winding, steep, and scenic 1096 for the next 30 km until we reached the turnoff for Samoeng. Once again Big Jim flew around the curves and I raced to keep up with him as the sun quickly advanced to the horizon.
We reached Samoeng as darkness fell. I stopped at the main (only) shop to ask about a guesthouse. It turned out that there is no guesthouse in Samoeng, so we rode 5 km north of town to the intersection of 5032 where we rented a bungalow at a rundown “resort” with very hard beds for 400 THB.
We were just outside of Samoeng, the location I had visited with Cristina on our scooter the previous week. Big Jim didn’t feel all that proud of our day’s accomplishment but I was scrapped up, dusty, tired and quite happy with the day’s activities, if not the distance covered. I agreed to a quick dinner so that we might turn in early and start out earlier the next morning in order to cover a more respectable distance.
Day 2 Ride
Big Jim woke up extra early on day 2 because he felt that the bed sucked. I was content to stay in bed longer but he insisted that we be out early. Since there was no place to eat breakfast nearby, we opted to ride on and find a place to eat along the way. However, before leaving Big Jim was determined to have a cup of coffee. Being a prepared kind of guy, he had purchased packets of ready-made coffee. All he needed was hot water. This didn’t seem a problem as he walked into the bathroom with a glass in his hands. I then heard the shower running and then he exited with a glass of coffee. I scratched my head and poked my head into the bathroom to see if it contained a coffee maker. I saw no coffee maker, but did spot the shower hot water device. It was one of those that run water through a small wall mounted heating element before it exits the shower head. He was heating faucet water for his coffee, not even boiling it. I marveled about the lengths that people will go to have a cup of coffee in the morning.
After his coffee we rode out onto 5032, a paved country road that wound casually through the hills and forests towards the west for 20 km. We then reached a junction at Huai Mana, where we stopped for a late morning breakfast. We took our time at breakfast (actually they took their time making it), confirmed our directions with different people (who each had a different opinion), shopped a bit (I purchased a pair of shorts at a roadside market), and then we hit the road again. We continued on 5032 to the northwest for 40 km of beautiful winding country paved road until we reached a checkpoint at Tala village. We stopped to top off our tanks, enjoy a Pepsi, and for me to take some photos with the bored soldiers manning the check post.
We then continued to the northwest for another 40 km of very good dirt 4WD road that weaved its way over mountains and through isolated farming/forest valleys. We skirted a number of unmarked villages until we reached the regional cross-road of Wat Chan, where we stopped to confirm our location and join in a drunken marriage celebration. Big Jim accepted a number of drinks and we stayed for a while to take photos and smile until we could make our escape unnoticed.
We then went to a shack containing fuel drums and waited for an old lady to get the keys. We topped off our tanks once again and then continued on the dirt road for another 10 km at which point the road went from a dirt road to a dirt track with huge ruts, deep dust, sand pits, washed out sections, sharp bends, steep drops, and winding bends that wove in and out of the forest or followed the tops of mountain ridges. This section provided Big Jim with some of his anticipated road fighting. He was like a child in a candy shop. He zipped off, spun in circles raising dust clouds, zoomed up slopes, and generally left me eating his dust.
The road and the ride continued like this for another 45 km and the rest of the afternoon. By 6pm we were both tired and well short of our objective (Mae Hong Son) so started looking for a village to spend the night in. As if by providence, the next village (Huai Hee) had a sign post that stated that the village was a designated “Home Stay” village. We stopped and made sleeping hand gestures at some locals and were pointed towards a specific roadside shack. We stopped there and were greeted by a local who spoke very good English. He agreed that his house was a Home Stay site and indicated that the standard fee was 100 THB per person ($3) plus 50 THB ($1.5) for dinner/breakfast. We agreed to the terms and settled into the upstairs room (above t barn) as the women started making dinner.
The arrangements were Spartan, but acceptable and fit my previous Home Stay experiences. We were spending the night in a local family’s remote home and they were cooking for us. They provided two large floor cushions/mattresses, lots of blankets, a mosquito net, and directions to the outdoor toilet.
The dinner was very good, and filling, and the bed was even soft, so I slept like a tired baby. It was clear that Big Jim had been raised a city-boy. He had difficulty falling asleep because the family chatted late into the night (the walls were loosely fitted ruff planks so provided no sound insulation) and then the local roosters competed for attention around 4 am.
Part 2 of 3 Video
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Day 3 Ride
On day 3 Big Jim was up before dawn. He woke me and insisted that we make tracks because he could not sleep with the roosters crowing. I asked, “Roosters, what roosters?” I got ready while he turned down the family’s breakfast offer. We loaded up the bikes, and tore off to beat the sunrise. The next 25km of dirt track was amazing. Not just because it was continuously steep, winding, dirt, but also because we were in a National Park and the forest was rich and double canopy in places. As a result there were no farms or fires to be seen for the next few wonderful hours of riding. Then around 10 am we reached the paved road marked as 3006. This was also a great riding road, narrowly paved, steep, winding and full of switch backs as it descended out of the mountains to reach the narrow Mae Hong Son valley.
Once in the valley we turned north on route 108 (a properly paved road) that ran north into the town of Mae Hong Son, a featureless country town that has few guesthouses. Our main objective was now to find a late breakfast. We rode around town, through town, doubled back and rode to its beginning and then turned again and even stopped at numerous road-side restaurants in search of a normal breakfast. They all served noodle soup and I refused to eat any more noodle soup, so the search was long. Finally I spotted a high-end hotel on the main street. I pulled over and entered the lobby to ask the bellman if they had a restaurant. He didn’t blink at my dusty and disheveled state. He said breakfast was available in the garden area. I informed hungry Big Jim and we went to join the buffet line that contained lots of old, fat, nicely dressed tourists. They looked at us as if we had just fallen out of the sky. We ignored them and attacked the buffet. We sat down in the garden and helped ourselves to three helpings before asking the staff to also make us omelets. After an hour of eating we used the lovely clean bathrooms to wash up and then paid our tab (150 THB each – $5). We then collected our dusty gear from the front lobby where we had dumped it and exited to our bikes. Big Jim had enjoyed the feed and was smiling again.
We merged onto highway 1095 and then tore off (me chasing him actually) as the highway twisted its way towards route 1226, 50 km to the northeast, where we turned left. We continued up the winding smaller road for another 10 km before we cut down into the valley at Mae Lana. At the bottom of the hill we stopped at the main shop and filling station for a snack, to top off our tanks, and ask directions.
Our objective was to follow a dirt track for about 50-80 km east across a desolate area that paralleled the Burma border. We discussed our options and considered our timing. It was around 1 pm and it was doubtful that we could reach the main road on the other side (route 1332) that lead to a border crossing before dark. We agreed to give it a try anyway and to sleep in another village if we couldn’t make the main road.
The ride for the remainder of the afternoon was one of the best of my life. The first 10 km was lovely, but then it became incredible. The road had been freshly graded by the military (in order to better patrol the border) and cut through pristine rich green double canopy jungle, at other times it cut through forestry managed pine forests, and at others simply followed the mountain tops so that the road wound along constant breathtaking vistas before dipped back into winding dark passages and then climb again to the next ridgeline.
The entire mid-section (at least 40 km) was deserted, except for a new unmarked military village and two forestry stations. This stretch of road alone was worth a trip to Thailand.
The hours wound away in clouds of orange and pink dust, until late in the afternoon we began the usual routine of considering our lodging options for the night. We reached the dirt road junction at the bridge before Muang Noi village around 5pm. The power station construction workers informed us that there was no lodging nearby. Rather than continue following the remote dirt track going north (another 30 km) we opted to turn south and head towards the town of Pai (a more populated dirt road). We stopped at a few villages along the way but no guesthouses or home stay options presented themselves. We raced south on the dirt, winding, undulating track for another 15 km until we reached the paved, but tiny road north of Pai. This road leads to the main road and a few resort options. We asked about bungalow prices (400 – 800 THB) and then opted to continue another 5 km south and into the tourist town of Pai for the night.
Pai turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It is a small town full of Western tourists, old hippies, guesthouses, trendy and basic restaurants, food stalls, tattoo parlors, and trinket salespersons. We had spent the day riding on deserted forest tracks and had only seen a handful of people and some scattered huts and now we were in a bright festival atmosphere. We enjoyed the evening feeling like dusty cowboys who had returned to town after a long run.
Day 4 Ride
The next morning we were up early once again. This time it was a combination of roosters and chanting monks that woke Big Jim and I was starting to wonder if a good night’s sleep was going to elude him throughout the entire adventure.
Heading out of Pai so early was actually counter-productive. First because no-one gets up very early in Pai and as a result breakfast was as elusive as a good night’s sleep for Big Jim (at least if you wanted something beyond noodles). The second was because I got a flat tire twenty kilometers into the return leg to reach the spot where we turned south for Pai the previous evening. This unexpected event was further compounded when I tried to find someone to fix the flat in the nearest village. Clearly every village had someone who repaired scooters (the mainstay of Thai transport) and flats, but in my case the wheel tube was torn at the pressure valve so it was un-fixable and replacement tubes for dirt bikes were not to be had. The man in the hut pointed back towards Pai and nodded in the affirmative. Big Jim didn’t look pleased but bore up well, as he strapped the bad tube to his pack, spun the bike around, and tore off up the trail in a cloud of dust.
Two hours later I spotted his dust trail approaching. He had found the tubes easily enough in Pai. The man in the hut repaired the wheel in a few minutes and charged me 30 THB (90 cents). It was now 11:45am and we had not even reached the junction where we needed to rejoin the prior day’s track and head to the northeast, so without delay we topped off our tanks and rode out of the village and back onto wonderful dirt 4WD tracks. The rest of the day proceeded without incident and we made good off-road time in crossing the next 40 km of off road. By 3pm we had crossed the vast stretch of forest along the Burma border and had reached route 1178, a paved small road that leads to the north.
By 4pm we reached the Piang Luang Burma border crossing. We immediately noticed that the immigration office was closed and the area looked run down and deserted. We laughed and took a few photos and assumed that we were at an old crossing point and that a newer one must be up a steep driveway to our left. We rode to the top of this driveway and found ourselves in a temple courtyard. We could clearly see the no-man’s land between the two countries, but there was no sign of an active border checkpoint. We went over and asked some monks that were staring at Burma longingly and they pointed to Burma and said it was closed. We then also asked some locals and they confirmed that the checkpoint was closed and had been for the last 10 years. We were incredulous since our map (a 2008 edition) indicated that the crossing was open. We then asked them about the next crossing to the east (near Arunothai). They didn’t know anything about it since they were locals and had never traveled that far. With no other options, we decided to turn tail, backtrack to route 1322, and then race east for a few hours in order to reach that checkpoint before dark.
And so it went. We shot back down the paved road, turned east on ever smaller dirt roads, rode like wild (or let’s say that Big Jim did, while I simply tried to keep up). By 6pm the sun was setting and we were in need of a place to spend the night once again. Since all border crossings in this part of the world close at 6pm we agreed to stop at the town of Arunothai for the night and then race to the border early the following morning.
The town of Arunothai is basically a few paved roads around a small lake and a few scattered markets. Our inquiries turned up an English speaking Burmese refugee who was a teacher at a school he was building. He informed us that there was only one guesthouse in town and that the border crossing was also closed and had been for over 10 yrs. We shook our heads in disgust, and agreed to meet him for dinner after we checked into the guesthouse.
Dinner that night was at a Burmese restaurant (yard – https://www.toplinelandscapes.com/ can be checked out for yard services) and was very informative (see Schools of Hope website for details about his school for Myanmar refugee children.) Although we were unhappy about the closed border, we felt quite lucky to have met Noom Hkurh (email@example.com). His life story and objective of building a school to teach refugee children was fascinating and refreshing.
Part 3 of 3 Video
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Day 5 Ride
The next morning (day 5) Big Jim and I had a heart-to-heart talk. We agreed that we had achieved our primary objectives of riding some serious dirt tracks and reaching the Burma/Myanmar border (even if it was closed) and that we could now split up and follow our different and remaining objectives independently. I wanted to visit the local border crossing 3 km north of town and verify that it was actually closed, and then if it was I would need to put in a very long and fast riding day (on paved and busy roads) to reach the Mai Sai Burma border crossing. This one was confirmed open and would provide me with my needed visa renewal. Big Jim, on the other hand, did not need to accompany me on this long pavement ride when he had one more road to fight. Our map showed a stretch of closed road that ran along the border. Wet season washouts had made the road dangerous and it was calling his name. We shook hands and parted company.
I went to the checkpoint, confirmed that it was closed, met soldiers (and officers) who were guarding the checkpoint and were happy to have their photos taken. I then raced east for an hour to reach highway 107 (a 6 lane busy monster with continuous traffic and business activity). I then cut east to highway 1089 and then up to the Mae Sai crossing.
This crossing was in fact open so I stashed my bike behind the customs building and then exited Thailand. I walked across the bridge into the Burma/Myanmar immigration office. Paid my 500 THB ($ 17), got my passport stamped into and out of the country, turned around and walked back to the Thai immigration booth and re-entered Thailand with a new Thai 15 day visa.
I was back in Thailand and on my bike by 1pm and my final objective had been accomplished. I spent the rest of the day racing south at 100 km hour to reach Chang Mai by 7pm. That night in Chang Mai I read an email from Big Jim that informed me that he had stopped for the night in a town two hours north of Chang Mai. He also described his day of riding and that last dirt road as treacherous and wonderful. The washed out sections were less than 20 cm wide in places and fell off steeply on both sides. Just the kind of dirt he had been searching for and the kind I was happy to have avoided.
We had both achieved what we had set out to accomplished. We had had an off-road adventure in the rugged and scenic mountains of northern Thailand, we had reached the border of Burma (even if it was closed), and I had obtained my needed new visa. It was now time for Big Jim to return to cold and snowy Germany and for me to take some time off to let my scrapes scab over and the bruises to fade.
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