The Mae Hong Son loop is incredible and awful at the same time. Gorgeous valleys carved into massive mountains and the dense jungle of northern Thailand around every curve. But picking myself up off the ground after a motorbike crash at 60 kilometers per hour, just a few feet away from a monocled cobra, not so idyllic.
Day two starts with a quick breakfast, then the open road. We're getting the hang of this and are starting to feel confident. After 100 kilometers we stop in a small town for coffee, before continuing on through some of the most incredible scenery we've ever experienced. Thick jungle surrounds the well paved road and we really hit our stride. Cruising along at high speeds, all is well in the world. But in an instant, everything changes. What happens next is my best memory of a surreal few minutes.
Megan in front, me riding only a few bike lengths behind, a large snake slithers into the road, then stops. I can't see what's happening in front of her, but hear Megan scream, brake hard, then manage to squeeze through a small gap on the left shoulder of the road. As she turns, I see what's in front. Over six feet long and stretching the width of the entire lane, the snake comes into view. Without time to think I instinctively grab the brakes and try to veer a little left. With only a rear brake, the bike locks up and I start to slide. Having slowed down some already, I hit the ground with the bike somewhere around 60 kilometers per hour, just in front of the snake. Sliding down the road, backpack and sunglasses launched from the front basket, I finally come to a stop. I’m bloodied and seriously dazed, but quickly remember what caused the crash and jump to my feet to avoid the massive snake just a few feet away.
I pick up the bike, engine still humming and roll it off the road as the disinterested snake slithers quickly into the jungle. Megan runs over and we take inventory. My right knee and ankle have some deep scrapes, leg and hip are bruised, left rib hurts, hands and shoulder have some gnarly road rash, and helmet is scraped up, but everything else is intact.
This is the point where the Mae Hong Son loop really sucks. Everything else is absolutely beautiful, but the reality of being deep in the Thai jungle isn't always as great as it sounds.
With nothing else to do but push forward, we get back on the bikes for the 50 kilometers left to Mae Hong Son. Less than 10 minutes in and it starts to pour. We pull on our plastic ponchos, mine sticks to the wounds on my elbow and arm, splashes of blood against the clear blue rain cover. In an hour we've made it to Mae Hong Son, soaked, tired, and bloody. A quick stop to the pharmacy for bandages, antibacterial ointment, and ibuprofen before arriving at our countryside guesthouse. The people there are welcoming and helpful, giving us extra bananas and water, some homegrown mangoes, betadine for the road rash, and some questionable Thai painkillers.
That evening, exhausted and seriously scraped up, we sit in front of our laptop, typing "large, black snake northern Thailand" into Google search. We learn that there are only so many species that reach two meters or more (it covered the width of the lane) and even fewer that are active during the daytime. Our process of elimination, compared with cross referencing creepy photos, tells us that our snake must have been a cobra. Worse yet, the fact that we saw it during the day (not very common, evidently), means that it was very likely a monocled cobra, the poisonous snake with the highest fatality rate in Thailand. Still, we agree that we have no idea what we're talking about and can't trust everything we read on the Internet. That is until breakfast, when we tell the story of the "large black snake" to our guesthouse owner and she casually, without a second thought, replies "cobra."
We read up plenty on the loop. Most say it is amazing, beautiful. A few warn of the dangers of riding a motorbike over 600 kilometers through the twisting mountain roads, far from any major cities and very close to the Myanmar border. But those folks seem far from adventurous. Rather than being overly cautious, we've set out to really experience the places we visit, and the independence of riding a motorbike on the open road is impossible to resist.
We stop by a recommended rental shop on our second day and decide that the 125cc semi-automatic Honda is best suited for tackling the tight turns and steep inclines to come. A few days later, picking up the bikes and getting in some practice within the city limits, we're ready to take off. Strapping one pack on one of the bikes and leaving the other behind at our hotel, we ride through the city streets, south past the airport and the Chiang Mai suburbs, until we reach the turn off for Mae Hong Son. The scenery changes drastically as flat land turns into green hills. The road follows a muddy river and the exhilaration of going 80+ kilometers per hour on a small motorbike takes over. A total of 200 kilometers on the first day, through an afternoon rain shower, before we arrive in the quaint town of Mae Sariang in the early evening. We find our guest house, get some dinner, and call it a night.
The next day we cover another 100+ kilometers to Pai, enjoying the insanely beautiful scenery that once again surrounds us. I am incredibly sore but bandaged and determined. Besides a few precarious looking pieces of tangled rope in the road and an abnormally large lizard, we make it through happy and unscathed.
Pai is a cool little town in a big valley, straddled by mountains, and full of backpackers. It's scenic and there are plenty of places to stay, eat, and drink, but the plethora of foreigners means it lacks the same “authentic” appeal as other towns nearby. After two nights in Pai we make the final, treacherous, ride back to Chiang Mai, once again through hundreds of mountainous curves in the pouring rain.
The Mae Hong Son loop, all 600 kilometers of it, is the most beautiful, awesome, and simultaneously terrible thing we've done since we started this trip. The first day and a half was better than our epic experiences in both Halong Bay and the Angkor temples. Then in one second, everything changed. But all in all, it's an experience we would never take back. We had planned to head to Laos next, but have decided to save it for our next Asia trip (we've had enough mountains and jungle for now). Instead we're flying down to the Thai islands - Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket - for some much-needed R&R.
*Above, right: A trip to a nearby hospital in Chiang Mai 5 days after the crash when my foot had swollen due to infection. Nothing penicillin and a tetanus shot can't take care of (all for under $30)
**Below: The Mae Hong Son Loop, including the crash site