The Mae Hong Son Loop: Doi Inthanon – Standing On The Highest Point In Thailand & Walking Above The Clouds

We left Mae Sariang and continued on through a day’s driving to the small town of Mae Chaem. Mae Chaem is a quiet place with not much going on, which suited us just fine for an evening. Inexplicably, considering its size, it was also a place in which we continually failed to find our way to whatever restaurant or cafe we were seeking out without first driving around in circles at least three times. We did eventually find food and caffeine, then settled in for the night at the Pamview Hotel (did they just misspell Palmview and let it stick…?).

Come morning we were back on the road and heading east towards Doi Inthanon National Park. At least, we thought we were. Alex, whose sense of direction is usually impeccable, took the lead out of town and I followed him in blind trust. We passed some beautiful valleys filled with wide open farmland and saw men ploughing impossibly steep hillsides. We saw a pickup truck halfway down a hillside where it came to rest after presumably rolling off the edge of the road above, groups of men standing around trying to figure out how to get ‘er back on the road.

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What we didn’t see were any signs advertising the National Park which was supposedly on the road ahead. Normally you see such signs as you drive towards one. We stopped, I got out my phone and opened Google Maps. My phone signal and therefore my data cut out, but not before briefly pinging our location on the map. North of Mae Chaem, not east. Yup, we’d driven 18km in the wrong direction. That may not sound like a lot but at our average speed it had taken us about half an hour, and it was a chill morning with no sunlight to warm the air. We turned around and went back to Mae Chaem, an extra unnecessary hour of cold driving, which by now you should know is far from my favourite thing. It was about 10am; we still had a 136km drive ahead of us and a National Park to visit, ideally fitting it all in and arriving in Chaing Mai before dark. We needed to get a move on.

Heading east out of Mae Chaem on the 1192 the sun remained resolutely behind the clouds and it only got cooler the higher our elevation. In such conditions when you’re as unprepared in the apparel department as we were, there is a delicate balance to strike between getting where you want to go in a timely manner, and not turning into a popsicle. More speed = more wind = more shivering and swearing. Our tight schedule meant there was much shivering and swearing. When we finally arrived at the top of Doi Inthanon, my hands were tingling with pins & needles and my back was aching from tensing through the unpleasantness of the previous couple of hours. The kids were also chilled, though not as badly as I; Alex, of course, was absolutely fine.

Fun Fact: if you arrive into Doi Inthanon National Park from the west on road 1192, as we did, then you get in for free.  If you arrive from the east you get to pay 300 Baht per person (150 baht for kids). For some reason the checkpoint where you pay the entrance fee is located about 20 metres south of where our road joined the road up to the mountain. Shrug. Saved us 900 Baht, which is about £20 and a significant portion of our daily budget, so we didn’t look that gift horse in the mouth.

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Our route in blue, coming in from the west and joining the 1009 to head north to Doi Inthanon. The checkpoint is situated so that you can totally avoid it. And no you don’t have to pay on the way out, we just drove straight through as they waved us on. 

We visited the shrine to King Inthanon and then took the obligatory picture with the  “Highest Point in Thailand” sign (which isn’t actually at the highest point, the shrine is further up the mountain but whatever…). Too impatient to wait at the end of the queue of others doing the same, we gave up on the money shot and went for an alternative.

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Incense and offerings
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Obligatory sign pic

After a quick coffee and hot chocolate stop to warm up we got back on the bikes and headed down the mountain. After a few kilometres we pulled into a parking lot, parked up and went in search of a guide. We were at the starting point for the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail.

The Kaew Mae Pan Nature Trail is a short 2.7km loop for which a local guide is compulsory, at a cost of 200 Baht. Guides can be hired from the headquarters at the trail head and I think it’s pot-luck as to how much, if any, english may be spoken. Our guide was friendly but silent. We were issued bamboo walking sticks and then off we went. We entered the dense evergreen cloud forest, crossing streams and passing a waterfall as we headed ever upwards.

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And then the forest just stopped. Walking out into a field, the view opening up in front of me, my jaw dropped. We were above the clouds! When did that happen??

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We walked on to a viewpoint and had a rest to take in the panorama in front of us.

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The path carried on along the hillside, a steep drop and stunning views off to our right, until we reached a viewpoint looking across the hills to the Phra Mahathat Nophamethanidol and Phra Mahathat Noppholbhumsiri Chedis. The Chedis were built by the Thai Royal Air Force in 1987 and 1992 to honour the King and Queen’s 60th Birthdays, respectively.

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The Queen’s chedi on the left, the King’s on the right. 

And then we were back in the forest, on a path that went up and down, up and down, up and down until finally leading us back to the guide headquarters.

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It was an absolutely amazing walk through beautiful and varied landscapes, with wide open vistas and views to die for. There were informative plaques along the way providing interesting details about the ecosystem and landscape around us, so tick off some education for the day as well. If like us, you only have time to do one thing at Doi Inthanon, I’d highly recommend this walk.

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It was a great end to a fantastic thirteen day journey around Mae Hong Son Province. We left Doi Inthanon and headed back to Chiang Mai, arriving just as the sun was setting. Our room at Love CNX Guest House was waiting for us and after so long on the move I was looking forward to staying put for a little while.

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