The Mae Hong Son Loop: Riding the Clouds to Khun Yuam

We woke to wet ground and an overcast sky. We knew from experience that riding in the rain is miserable. Equally, we didn’t want to hold up in Mae Hong Son any longer, so we hoped the weather would turn in our favour. We layered up most of the clothing we had and set off in the chill morning air. Our destination was the small town of Khun Yuam, a direct 66km south of Mae Hong Son on an easy road. But we weren’t planning on taking the easy road. After stopping at a viewpoint for some coffee, we were soon on our way.

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Just another amazing view with our morning coffee
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We were there 10 minutes and already they had amassed a collection of scavenged bottle tops and rubber bands.

We were making good time, but making good time is not the same thing as having a good time. It was still overcast and with no sun to warm the air, I was cold despite all my layers. I do not enjoy being cold.

About 40km south of Mae Hong Son the 4009 inconspicuously branches off the main road and this was a turn-off we were planning to make. A steep road with stunning views, it would divert us eastwards into the Namtok Mae Surin National Park, taking in a few sights along the way and turning south to meet the 1263 which would bring us into Khun Yuam from the east.  We would basically be swapping a straight, easy 25 kms for a 65km loop on a narrow mountainous road full of steep hairpin bends. This was not a swap to make in inclement weather.  When we arrived at the turn-off I was still cold and could have happily motored on straight to Khun Yuam; but although the sun was still hiding above the clouds, it didn’t feel like rain and Alex and the kids were keen to take the high road. So up we went.

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Setting off on the 4009

 I’d read the road described as being “a bit hairy” by experienced riders on a motorbiking forum and it was marked with the notation “caution: very steep” on our route map. As the road steadily rose through sharp turns I thought to myself, “well, this isn’t that bad” and pondered the idea that perhaps the forum tended towards the melodramatic. I was soon to revise my opinions. As we rode upwards the steep sharp turns turned into steep hairpin bends. So switchbacking that I was glad we didn’t meet anything coming down the other direction, often having to drift into the opposite lane when making a turn so my bike wouldn’t tip sideways. So steep I have no pictures to show you because it wasn’t safe to stop. In short, it was a bit hairy. And a hell of a lot of fun. We rose high, riding a knife-edge ridge through the clouds. Alone in the eerie damp air, the (apparently stunning) views were blanked out in a sheet of white on either side of us. I couldn’t be disappointed, it was just so cool to be there, riding that road.

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After countless twists and turns the road began the descend and we left the clouds above us.  We found a silent lake where we sat and scoffed banana cakes from the 7-eleven, watched by a curious toddler peering at us from a driveway. We drove past lush green fields, the sun finally starting to burn through the lifting mist, beginning to warm up the day.

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We passed through quiet villages with curious animals and we wondered what brought people to settle out there, in the middle of nowhere.

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As we passed through the village I noticed signs for construction up ahead. I slowed down expecting the road to narrow to one lane or some such thing. When I turned a corner I was not expecting the scale of the roadworks going on before me. The paved road stopped abruptly and two lanes of deep, red mud stretched out before us as far as the eye could see. Workmen stood and stared at us, ankle deep in mud, tools and shovels in-hand. Alex and I looked at each other, shrugged and then off he went. What else were we going to do? Turnaround? Alex took it slow keeping his wheels in older tire-tracks and balancing the bike with his feet on muddy ridges either side. Despite Alex’s slow-and-steady method proving successful, I opted for a different tack. I don’t know what came over me but once I had my wheel in a track I figured getting up some speed might help me just…sail through the mud. Or something. I dunno. So I gave the throttle a little twist. My bike responded with a little twist, the back wheel fishtailing in the mud. Whoa! Workmen turned towards me, their faces looking concerned and their hands waving in a slow-down motion as I passed by. I knew immediately that I’d done something really stupid. I needed to stop, however my surprise caused me to put on a little more throttle whilst simultaneously squeezing on my brakes. I finally skidded to a halt, my bike tipping sideways. I put down my feet to steady it but my tiptoes sunk in the mud and the bike was still tipping. A 150cc Honda PCX is a heavy bike for a 5ft4″ woman to pull upright from an angle and once it reaches a certain point, that bike is going down. I had reached the point of no return and was staring at the wet mud below me when suddenly the bike stopped. I turned to see that, witnessing the impending calamity, a quick footed workman had rushed over, catching the back of my bike just in time. He helped me right it with a smile as I stood there catching my breath and feeling so incredibly embarrassed. I was sure they would be shaking their heads and good-naturedly laughing at the silly Farang as soon as our backs were turned. So, lesson learned: go slow through mud. The question was, how much more mud was there? From what we could gather, we had about a kilometre of it in front of us. So off we set. Slowly. So slowly in fact that our friendly workman seemed to think we needed some more help, and a few minutes later he caught up to us, directing us to follow him. He picked out the firmest way through the mud and we followed his path exactly. He stopped ahead of us as the tarmac appeared once more and waved us on our way. With relief we thanked him profusely and sped off on firmer ground.

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A firmer part of the dirt road, in the muddier areas I couldn’t even stop or I’d sink in!

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About 5km further on we came to the turn-off to the Mae Surin Waterfall. We pulled over and a National Park guard came out of a hut beside a barrier across the road.  He pointed to a sign that listed the entry fee as 200 Baht per person, kids half price. 600 baht to go see a waterfall? We’ve seen our share of waterfalls in Southeast Asia and that seemed steep. We stood there for a minute of two conversing amongst ourselves about the cost and explaining to the kids that it probably wasn’t going to be worth it. The guard interrupted us and said he would let us all go in for 200 Baht. Well, okay then. In we drove. The road had some speed bumps on it and I could see that motorbikes had gone off-road on either side, making small paths in the roadside dirt to avoid them. I figured I’d be clever and do the same. I should have known better. I was going slowly but the hard-packed dirt was at an angle, damp and algae-covered.  My wheels slipped. I braked. I stopped. The bike fell over. This was not my day. No one was hurt, the bike tipped onto soft ground and nothing was damaged except my confidence. And the side mirror, which the National Park Guard kindly fixed with a wrench he just happened to have lying around. Glad to be away from the bikes for a bit we wandered over to have a look at the waterfall. We walked down some paths, avoided the massive spiders that had strung their webs between all the trees, stared at the falling water for a minute or two and then turned around and went back, glad not to have paid 600 baht for a 10 minute diversion.

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We carried on riding the 4009 and as we neared its end a vista of yellow opened up in front of us. We had reached the fields of the Dok Bua Tong. It was a beautiful spectacle as rolling hills of yellow spread down the mountainsides in front of us, contrasting with the deep green of distant hills.

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We stopped to take in the view, and we weren’t the only ones. Tourists flock to see the sunflowers covering the hills in this part of Khun Yuam Province in gold during the last two weeks of November, and minivans were parked along the roadside en-masse. I took some pictures, the kids snacked on 7-eleven cake, and then we were winding down the road again just as rain started to fall. It wasn’t a downpour, and with luck we seemed to skirt the worst of it. Soon enough the 4009 came to an end and we were on the relatively flat 1263 heading west to Khun Yuam. We stopped at a guest house called Ban Farang and I admit, after a long day that required concentrated riding which takes it out of you mentally; and with my confidence shaken from some stupid mistakes, I was ready to get off the damn bike.  So that’s where we were staying for the night, because I wasn’t going anywhere else. Chloe threw a fit, sulking off and crying because she wanted to stay at the other hotel in the town. The one that we thought we’d go to, but then drove past by accident and so arrived at Ban Farang. I’d had it by this point, especially because that morning she had sulked about the prospect of having to stay at the other place, and instead wanted to stay at Ban Farang, where we now were, because it had bungalows in the forest. So yeah, I just ignored her and walked away to get our stuff.

It was a mixed day. Some of it was really cool, some of it not so much. I think we were all tired and cold and maybe a bit biked-out. We sat the kids in front of Netflix. In the meantime, Alex and I were off to buy last-minute birthday gifts for a certain four year old who would be turning five the next day.

3 thoughts on “The Mae Hong Son Loop: Riding the Clouds to Khun Yuam

  1. It all sounds so amazing, Bear. I expect you’re all on your way home for Christmas soon. Safe travels darlin. Maybe we’ll skype while you’re at Mom and Dad’s. Love you. Xo

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