The Mae Hong Son Loop. For seasoned motorbike riders, this is one of the most epic routes in Thailand. A spectacular road journey that takes riders over an undulating series of twists and curves that takes you up, over, and around the mountains of North Thailand revealing fabulous views along the way. But for somebody who doesn’t ride motorbikes what are the alternatives? Sure, a shared minivan does the job or you could hire a car. But there is a better option. And it’s an option that Thai friends said I must be mad to do; travel by tuk-tuk.
The magic of the Mae Hong Son Loop is being at one with nature and feeling the breeze on your face as you climb through the mountains on one of the most memorable driving routes in all of Thailand. With The Tuk Tuk Club you have the option to either drive yourself or just simply relax in the back of these specially modified vehicles and let one of The Tuk Tuk Club’s team do the driving. If you’d like to have a go at driving, you will have the chance to learn the controls in an off-road environment first.
These individually named tuk-tuks are not ordinary tuk-tuks. The engine has more horsepower than a standard tuk-tuk, the seats are bigger and more comfortable and other extras such as bluetooth speakers and an ice box are thoughtful added touches. And these powerful little vehicles are able to take you off into side-roads and trails letting you explore the hidden delights of the Mae Hong Son Loop.
Lessons in life on the Mae Hong Son Loop
I’ve been fortunate to travel a number of times on the Mae Hong Son Loop and knew what to expect in terms of scenery. What I didn’t expect was to be getting some valuable lessons in life along the way. And that was thanks to my travelling companions and the people who shared the driving duties: founder of The Tuk Tuk Club, Bruce Haxton, and Khun Yaya, an integral member of the small team that Bruce has put together.
It’s no secret that the Covid pandemic has decimated Thailand’s tourist industry. Many people who worked in tourism have lost their jobs and been forced to look for work elsewhere in the gig economy whether it’s as delivery drivers, selling food, or taking any available work to just survive.
With only limited assistance provided by the Thai government, some have found it too much. Suicide rates – already at high levels for the region before Covid – have risen sharply. Personal debt is a major problem in Thailand. And it’s a problem that Khun Yaya knows all too well because she’s selflessly been helping others. Through her TikTok channel, Yaya offers practical and impartial advice to help Thai people manage their debt problems.
“Focus on yourself and what’s in front of you; don’t look back”– Yaya
Yaya herself has had to adapt to survive. With the absence of tourism and bookings for The Tuk Tuk Club drying up, she set up a stall in Mae Wang selling refreshments to supplement her income.
This diminutive Thai woman with a big heart uses the analogy of driving a tuk-tuk: “Focus on yourself and what’s in front of you; don’t look back”. It’s solid advice and speaking to her during the trip around some of the most scenic locations in North Thailand reminded me just how fortunate I was. Fortunate to be in a country I love and managing to keep my head above water when so many haven’t. Any troubles I’ve had during the Covid pandemic pale into insignificance when compared to those who have lost everything. Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop in a tuk-tuk with Yaya and Bruce put things in perspective.
Like anybody involved in the travel industry, it’s been a tough few years for Bruce Haxton. The founder of The Tuk Tuk Club has managed to remain stoic and do the right thing by his staff. He could have wallowed in self-pity, but that isn’t his style. Just as Yaya did, Bruce wanted to help others. And like Yaya, rather than just talk about helping, he put his words into action and raised money for his friend Noom and the Maevang Elephant Home.
The proud Yorkshireman is a keen cyclist, but by no means as fit as he’d like. By his own admission he is a middle-aged man who likes an occasional cigarette and a beer. He also likes a challenge. Over a few evening drinks with Noom, the two friends discussed ways to help the elephants at Maevang and Bruce came up with the idea of cycling across Thailand to raise money. An epic 1,400 mile journey with 18 consecutive days of cycling in the hot season with temperatures topping 40C (104F) and an elevation gain that would be the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest (and then some). And in case he ever felt like giving up, the effervescent Noom was on hand driving a tuk-tuk as the support vehicle.
An advocate for responsible tourism, Bruce has worked closely with the family-owned Maevang Elephant Home located in the scenic hills to the south-west of Chiang Mai city. While there are bigger elephant centres that get more publicity and are better known, Bruce brings The Tuk Tuk Club guests to the small, family-owned elephant centre run by his good friend, Noom.
The pandemic and sudden drop in tourist revenue has been a major blow for elephant centres across Thailand. The elephants still need to be fed and cared for. While it’s well-meaning to say release elephants into the wild, elephant experts agree that this isn’t the solution for all sorts of reasons including loss of natural habitat.
For his cycle ride across Thailand, Bruce and Noom decided on a route that would cover at least 2,000km. And that number wasn’t chosen at random because 2,000 Thai Baht is the approximate amount needed to feed and look after two elephants each day.
Join The Tuk Tuk Club
When travel gets back to some sort of normality and you can visit Chiang Mai, I can’t recommend The Tuk Tuk Club highly enough. These are genuinely good people doing great things. The Tuk Tuk Club has won deserved recognition through the Responsible Thailand Awards in 2020 and again in 2021 when they were named pandemic heroes.