5 of the Most Epic Motorbike Loops in Southeast Asia

There’s more to Southeast Asia than street food and temple-hopping.

That said, one of the most visceral pleasures of the region can involve both of those things: getting behind the handlebars of a motorbike and heading off the grid. The limestone karsts, the lush jungles, the layered rice terraces — these are all tableaux that demand an intimacy you simply can’t achieve by car, bus or train.

Fortunately, motorbikes are available pretty much everywhere, so ask around, do some research and be sure to check the brakes, lights, horn, etc. before renting. The dangers of these roads are extensively covered on the internet, so we’ll skip the disclaimers and get right down to our favorite rides throughout the Indochinese Peninsula.

All that remains is for you to find a tolerable co-pilot and get out there.

Mae Hong Son Loop
Thailand
Best time to go: November – January
Duration: 3-4 days
Route: Chiang Mai – Pai – Mae Hong Son – Mae Sariang – Chiang Mai
Characterized by jungle-clad mountains and rice fields, the Mae Hong Son Loop is a must-see adventure in the Kingdom’s northwest corner. Starting off in Chiang Mai, you can get to Pai by day’s end, a funky town with a distinctly bohemian feel and loads of waterfalls, trekking and rafting. From there, the ride to Mae Hong Son is full of winding roads and stunning views. Give yourself plenty of extra time to explore unmarked dirt paths and quaint villages along the way.

Thakehk Loop
Laos
Best time to go: November – December
Duration: 3-5 days
Route: Thakhek – Mahaxi – Nakai – Lak Sao – Vieng Kham – Thakhek
Road conditions on this rugged loop have significantly improved in recent years, making it far easier to explore Laos’s striking karst formations and rustic farmlands by motorbike. While in Thakhek, Nang Ene Cave is well worth a visit, but it’s just a precursor for what’s to come.  Whatever you do, don’t miss Kong Lor Cave, where you can take a boat seven kilometers down an underground river. For reasons that should be obvious, we recommend doing caves in the dry season.

Ha Giang Loop
Vietnam
Best time to go: September – October
Duration: 3-5 days
Route: Ha Giang – Yen Minh – Meo Vac – Du Gia – Ha Giang
In the far north of Vietnam, between the rather austere towns of Yen Minh and Meo Vac, is the Ma Pi Leng Pass. This epic stretch of road carved directly into a mountainside is reason alone to travel to Vietnam. Dramatically rising hundreds of feet over a valley and river below, the views are so distracting that it’s almost dangerous to drive among them. Park your bike at the top and take the Skywalk path for the best vistas around.

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Bolaven Plateau Loop
Laos
Best time to go: November – January
Duration: 3-5 days
Route: Pakse – Tad Fane – Sekong – Tatheng – Tad Lo – Pakse
Waterfalls and coffee plantations, that’s what the Bolaven Plateau does. The double waterfall known as Tat Fane is among the most impressive on the route, but it’s worth noting that it depends on the time of year. Ideally, you want to hit the very beginning of dry season (typically in November), when the falls are still heavy and the jungle is verdant. During the wet season, the dirt roads on this route can quickly turn to mud and create a bit of a struggle on the ole iron steed.

Chiang Rai Loop
Thailand
Best time to go: November – February
Duration: 4 – 6 days
Route: Chiang Rai – Mae Salong – Mae Sai – Chiang Saen – Phu Chi Fah – Chiang Rai
After visiting Chiang Rai’s jaw-dropping temples, you can head north on a loop that rambles through the mountains, hugging the border with Myanmar and Laos. Known as the Golden Triangle due to the convergence of the three borders, this area played a major role in the region’s opium trade, the history of which can be learned at the House of Opium museum in Chiang Saen. The real highlight of the ride, however, is Phu Chi Fah National Forest, where you can trek to the mountaintop at sunrise to catch a glimpse of the fog rising over the surrounding hills, known as the “sea of mist.”