Mae Hong Son Loop: Before We Begin

Sign Outside Hot Coffee Mae Chaem
Are we there yet?

The Mae Hong Son Loop has become a well-known travel route around Northern Thailand, using Chiang Mai as its base. It is an especially popular motorbike route. Please note: prior motorbike experience is required/heavily encouraged to tackle these roads successfully. Since we do not have any and although we were tempted to jump on a bike, we opted for the much more boring car. It could have been a blessing in disguise, though, because as we set out on our road trip on December 18th we were met with really chilly weather that would have made life on a motorbike, well,cold. Our car wasn’t without its issues, though, with a lot of smoke coming out of the engine. It forced us to take many scenic breaks; the picture below about sums it up.

Mae Hong Son Road Trip Toyota Vios
Our untrustworthy ride through the loop

Temps for us in late December have been warm (70s/80s) during the day but very cold (40s) at night. I also want to note that we’re going clockwise around the route and taking the possibly lesser traveled route of Mae Chaem and Khun Yuam as opposed to Mae Sariang. We will also be stopping over in Soppong instead of going straight from Mae Hong Son to Pai. For our Africa road trip I posted the hours of driving but considering how close together all these places are it really doesn’t matter. We also stopped a lot en route which would make it hard to estimate. Instead, I’m citing the road conditions as this has a more profound impact on time to destination. In addition to using the city maps to go app (just download the whole Mae Hong Son Province map), we also bought the Mae Hong Son road map (looks like this) in a bookstore in Chiang Mai before departing. This map is nice because it marks off some of the bigger places worth seeing such as waterfalls, the sunflower fields, etc. It’s helpful to have as a reference. It also offers detailed maps of all the big towns along the route to help you get your bearings. Good luck! And watch those curves.

Mae Hong Son Loop Windy Road
One of many windy roads through the loop

This post is part of one of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.

A Better Way From Bangkok to Chiang Mai

On our first trip to Thailand we took the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Some said it was a long, grueling journey at 17 hours, but I say it’s not a bad ride. Grab a Singha or two from a vendor passing through and sit back and relax. For a short trip, this is the best way to make the journey. But if you have more time there is much more to see than the passing countryside. Here’s my proposal.

Ayutthaya

One of Thailand’s several early capitals, it was at one time the largest city in the world. The center of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the city’s glory lasted through the mid-18th century before being conquered by the Burmese. What remains are the humble remnants of prior glory with ancient ruins scattered about town.

Getting There

There are two reasonable options for getting from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. And by reasonable I mean convenient and cost efficient. Yes you could a take a bus, but that will involve a Skytrain to the end of line in Mo Chit and then a public bus or tuk-tuk to the Northern Bus Terminal. I’ve yet to figure out the local bus system in Bangkok so that’s out of the question for me. The other unreasonable option is a boat up the Chao Phraya River, but these pre-booked tourist cruises will likely leave a dent in your pocket. So consider the two options below:

  1. By Train: trains leave from the Hualamphong station near Bangkok’s China Town regularly each day. The trip takes a little bit longer than the road at 2 – 2.5 hours. Tickets will cost you about 250 baht (~$8)
  2. By Minibus: a few select minibuses hang around Victory Monument waiting to take people to Ayuthaya. They will only leave when they are full and if your bags are too big they’ll spend the 1 – 1.5 hour ride sitting on your lap or you’ll be forced to pay for another ticket so they can occupy another seat. Either way one ticket should cost you between 80 and 100 baht (~$3).

What to Do

Bang Pa-In Palace

Bang-Pa-In-Palace
Bang-Pa-In-Palace

Wat Phra Mahathat

Wat-Phra-Mahathat
Wat-Phra-Mahthat

Wat Naphrameru

Wat-Naphrameru-Buddha
Wat-Naphrameru-Elephant

Wat Lokayasutha

Wat-Lokayasutha

Phitsanulok & Sukothai

Phitsanulok is a likely stop between Bangkok and Chiang Mai as a it hovers right around the half way point and has connection points by both train and by bus. Most use the small city as a jumping off point for Sukothai, but I’d say there’s enough here to keep you busy for a couple nights.

Getting There

Both trains and buses are convenient in Phitsanoluk with several options throughout the day. Expect around a four to five hour journey depending on mode of transport. One ticket on either mode should put you back about 300 baht ($10). Continuing on to Sukothai (for a day trip or an overnight stay) will take about 1 hour by bus and cost you about 50 baht ($1.50).

What to Do

Viewed from the outside Phitsanulok make look like your ordinary Thai transport town. While it’s not really catered to tourists it welcomes the few that pass through. I didn’t know what we would find during our visit and wasn’t expecting more than a place to rest my head. But there were a few hidden gems that peaked my interest.

Kuay Tiaw Hawy Khaa: Literally ‘Leg-Hanging Noodles’; a few shops line the river front north of Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat and offer some interesting seating options while you snack on several forms of noodle soup. The only thing in English that I saw on the menu was the coffee options. I pointed at pictures and ended up with a rice noodle soup with tom yum broth. The portions are small though so I ended up downing two bowls myself. Woops.

Ramnin-Hanging-Leg-Phitsanoluk
Leg Hanging Noodles at Ramnin

Other Food and Drink: While browsing through the night market, we stumbled upon a few other interesting food options. 1) Pak Bung Loy Faa: Flying Morning Glory; I love morning glory, but a few restaurants on the far south side of the market offer to make the delivery a spectacle in itself. It’s fried as normal in a wok and then tossed across the restaurant to the server who’s waiting anxiously to catch it on your plate. Sounds like fun. 2) I spied a few floating bars / restaurants along the river that might be worth a try. We didn’t make it across the river to check it out, but it’s on my list for next time.

Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat: If you’re a temple enthusiast take a pass through this temple to see Thailand’s second most revered buddha in the country. We’ve been a little templed out so just passed by on our way for some snacks.

Wat-Phra-Si-Ratana-Mahathat-Phitsanoluk
Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat

Sukothai: If the ruins of Ayutthaya intrigued you, Sukothai’s will too. Mostly because the ruins can be explored in a little more peace than the heavily-touristed Ayutthaya. Grab a bicycle for just a few bucks and cycle your away around the old city.

Uttaradit

Uttaradit is on no traveler’s radar. The most a normal traveler knows about this town is that it is a stop on the train line between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Not a stop that anyone has plans on getting off at. But we got off at that stop. Not because we were curious about what lies in this quiet, agricultural region but because we had other, better plans.

Because I have an aunt that grew up near Uttaradit. My mother’s long lost half sister whom she only found out about a decade ago. Because when my mother left Thailand for the US at just 10 years old, she left behind her Thai father who would go on to leave Bangkok for the northern countryside. Rumor has it that he was on the run from something and was most likely chased out of the city rather than having chosen to leave on his own. Either way, he started a new life on a sugarcane farm near Uttaradit complete with a new family. My mother’s Thai father has long since passed away, but this trip was the first time for her to see where he had spent the rest of his days after she left Thailand.

Before visiting the sugarcane farm, we made a pit stop for lunch. In a quiet little garden on the outskirts of town we chowed down on some northern Thai cuisine while learning about the local fable in the area. I can’t remember the details, but I do remember the moral of the story: never tell a lie.

Lablae Never Tell a Lie
Never tell a lie in the Lablae region
Uttaradit Garden Motorscooter
One of many passing motorscooters
Uttaradit Garden Restaurant
Garden seating at Mon Lablae

We continued even further outside of town, passing smalls stands on the street, kids running around and riding their bicycles, and lots and lots of sugarcane and rice before arriving at my Thai grandfather’s humble abode. Kristin and I sat quietly as my mother and her half sister and her Thai father’s new wife (take a second to wrap your head around that combo) chatted in Thai. I listened for anything that I understood in Thai (without much luck) and succumbed to looking at an old photo album where I finally found proof of my Thai grandfather’s rock star status.

The Traces Thailand
My Thai rock star grandfather (front and center)

I stalked the home’s resident pets…

One of the house dogs: Pepsi
One of the house dogs: Pepsi

And found some local produce…

Thai Vegetable Morning Glory Pak Bung
The most delicious Thai vegetable: Morning Glory
That Fruit Jackfruit
Thai jackfruit

All in all – should you visit Uttaradit? Probably not. But I’m glad we were able to tag along for the journey.

Uttaradit-Family-DSC08922

A One Stop Guide to a Bangkok Fruit Market

Navigating a Thai produce market can be daunting. It’s a range of unfamiliar, but colorful assortments of everything local. We recently wandered around the Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok to sample the unknown. This market is located right across from the Chatuchak (JJ) Weekend Market making it a perfect place to escape the sweaty, narrow alleys of clothing stalls that you’ll find across the street.

Or Tor Kor is the high-end market in Bangkok. Meant for the upscale restaurants’ daily specials or the local elite with inflated prices to prove it. But if you’re a western tourist traveling on western dollars you’ll hardly even notice. This is supposed to be the good stuff; the freshest of the fresh and best of the best.

So here is what our guide (my mother) took us around to touch, taste, and smell.

Durian

The infamous durian. I smelled this stuff in my garage growing up after one wouldn’t even think of bringing it inside. Many higher class hotels in Thailand ban the fruit from the premises. Because it stinks. Some say like raw sewage, rotten onions, or propane. Not something I wanted to try when I was a child. But now I’m slightly older, slightly wiser, and a little more adventerous so we gave it a go.

thai fruit durian
Kris loving her first try of durian
thai fruit durian
Durian still in the shell

Gac

The sign next to the gac stand said it was the fruit from heaven. A super fruit of sorts. 70 times more lycopene than tomatoes; 20 times more beta carotene than carrots; 40 times more vitamin C than oranges; 40 times more zeaxanthin than yellow corn. Wow. I don’t know what zeaxanthin is, but it sounds important.

thai fruit gac
Gac: the fruit from the heavens

Pomelo

We first tried pomelo after ordering Yam Som-O at a restaurant in Bangkok. We were blown away. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. But pomelos aren’t just good for a salad. Also known as a Chinese Grapefruit, they can be eaten just like you would a normal grapefruit – for breakfast or as a light snack.

Rose Apple

Also known as a mountain apple. We picked up a few to try, but unfortunately they started to mold before we got a chance to try them (within 3 days). I guess they taste like apples?

thai fruit pomelo
Pomelo
thai fruit rose apples
Rose apples

Longan

For some reason I thought these were lychee. But I guess I didn’t know what lychee was. Both have a hard shell on the outside. White fleshy fruit on the inside. Slightly sweet. I think longan would go good in some sort of girly vodka-based cocktail.

thai fruit longan
Longan

Dragonfruit

This really is a beautiful fruit. The white, dotted interior contrasts well with the bright pink exterior. But there is more to a good fruit than just good looks. Dragonfruit grows off a form of cactus. But who knew there were cacti in tropical countries? Well they are transplanted cacti. Rumored to originally come from Mexico, but no one knows the real truth leaving this fantastical fruit shrouded in mystery. Sexy.

thai fruit dragonfruit
Dragonfruit

Mangosteen

Mangosteen – the forbidden fruit. Seriously. You can’t get this stuff in the U.S. because it’s illegal to import. Off limits must mean it’s delicious. It’s only entrance into the U.S. was through a multi-level marketing company selling the fruit’s juice in a drink called Xango. Never had it, but I’m gonna go find some of that hippy nectar as soon as I get home.

thai fruit mangosteen
Mangosteen

A Lap of Luxury in a Bangkok Movie Theater

DSC08580-blue-ribbon-sign

We’ve heard that movie theaters in Bangkok were world class. So while trying to find somewhere to relax during the recent protests, we decided to pay a visit to the Paragon Cineplex to see what it was all about. This theater, located in the Siam Paragon shopping mall, has 15 screens + an IMAX theater. Of the 15 screens, the Enigma is the most expensive of the bunch at 3000 baht ($93) for a pair of tickets. That price point seemed a little overboard so we decided to go for one of the three Bangkok Airways Blue Ribbon screens that put us back 1,500 baht ($47) for the two of us.

DSC08585-paragon-tickets

But even at this “lower tier” we were in for a treat. There is a separate lounge for the three Blue Ribbon screens with a full bar. We meandered in, trying to make sense of what was in store for us. It starts with a 15-minute massage session. Grab a coupon at the bar and then walk across the hall for a neck & shoulders or foot session. The coupon says that it’s a 300 baht value ($9), but you could grab a one hour session at other less luxurious massage places around town for that price. Nice way to start things off either way.

Entering towards the lounge and screens.
Entering towards the lounge and screens.

After the massage and back at the bar it’s time to order the included drink and snack. Check out the choices:

Menu of snacks and drinks included with the price of a ticket
Menu of snacks and drinks included with the price of a ticket

If you choose the coffee or tea you must enjoy it beforehand in the lounge. Popcorn and soda will be delivered to you in the theater during the previews.

So we made our way to the theater. We were the first to arrive. This particular screen only has 38 seats and everyone else was busy on the government house protesting, so it wasn’t a surprise how empty it was. And since we were the only ones there, I grabbed the opportunity to snap a pic (even though there’s a sign outside saying no photos inside).

Our seats for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Our seats for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

These chairs have an electronic recline, a blanket, and a pillow included. But don’t get cozy too early. Because after the previews the national anthem will play along with clips of their beloved king in which you’ll be required to stand up to pay respect. After the national anthem it was time to push back, throw a blanket over ourselves, and enjoy the show.

All in all we were happy with the experience and it was a good way to spend the afternoon. Although the price tag seemed like a bit much, we could have easily spent that much at an ordinary theater in Chicago once you throw in the included popcorn and soda for each of us. And we wouldn’t have gotten the additional comforts back at home.