Two main roads head in opposite directions from Chiang Mai over the western mountains, meeting each other in Mae Hong Son, at the heart of Thailand’s most remote province – and offering the irresistible prospect of tying the highways together into a 600km loop. The towns en route give a taste of Burma to the west, but the journey itself, winding over implausibly steep forested mountains and through tightly hemmed farming valleys, is what will stick in the mind.
The southern leg of the route, Highway 108, first passes Doi Inthanon National Park, with its twisting curves, lofty views over half of northern Thailand and enough waterfalls to last a lifetime; from here, with your own vehicle you could shortcut the southernmost part of the loop by taking the paved but very winding Routes 1088 and 1263 from Mae Chaem to Khun Yuam. Sticking to the main loop, however, you’ll next reach Mae Sariang, an important town for trade across the Burmese border and a gentle, low-key base for trekking and trips on the Salween River. The provincial capital, Mae Hong Son, roughly at the midpoint of the loop, is a more developed hub for exploring the area’s mountains, rivers and waterfalls, though it can become frantic with tour groups in the cool season, especially on November and December weekends when the sunflowers are out.
The northern leg follows Route 1095, much of which was established by the Japanese army to move troops and supplies into Burma after its invasion of Thailand during World War II. The road heads northeast out of Mae Hong Son towards the market town of Soppong, whose surroundings feature beautiful caves (notably Tham Lot), appealing accommodation and stunning scenery to trek, cycle or kayak through. Halfway back towards Chiang Mai from Mae Hong Son is Pai, a cosy, cosmopolitan and hugely popular tourist hangout with plenty of activities and some gentle walking trails in the surrounding valley.