With spectacular vistas and an abundance of waterways, mountains and caves to explore, Mae Hong Son province is an ideal destination for those seeking adventure or simply looking to connect with nature. Serenely tucked away in the mountainous north-west of Thailand, Mae Hong Son is a photographer’s paradise. The picturesque province is home to a diverse range of cultures and traditions with influences from Myanmar (Burma) and China combining to make this area of Thailand one of the most culturally diverse in the entire kingdom. This fascinating mix is reflected in the colourful dress of the hill-tribe communities, the distinctive architecture and the delicious local food.
Where to stay in Mae Hong Son
The compact and charming town of Mae Hong Son is the eponymous capital of the province. With an absence of high-rise buildings, Mae Hong Son town is one of the most relaxed and affable regional capitals you will encounter anywhere in Thailand. You won’t find the same array of accommodation options compared to somewhere like Chiang Mai, but there are some good choices close to the centre of Mae Hong Son town. The Imperial Resort is the pick of Mae Hong Son’s more luxurious hotel options with comfortable rooms and attentive service.
Elsewhere in Mae Hong Son province, visitors seeking to connect with local culture should take the opportunity to book into a homestay in one of the hill-tribe villages. The rustic locations may lack some of the modern conveniences most of us have become accustomed to, but a village homestay provides a truly rewarding local experience with unrivalled hospitality. A number of community-based tourism initiatives can be found in Mae Hong Son including the highly recommended homestay at the Karen village of Ban Muang Pam.
The attractive mountain town of Pai makes for a good stopover point on the long and winding road journey between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son town. Although it’s true that Pai is no longer the sleepy backwater it once was, it remains an attractive location to while away a few days. Take a trip out to Kong Laen (also known as Pai Canyon), pose for photos on the Memorial Bridge and shop for souvenirs at Pai Walking Street Market. Visitors to Pai will find a burgeoning arts and craft scene and a surprisingly large number of coffee shops to satisfy the sweetest of sweet-tooths.
What to see and do in Mae Hong Son
Many visitors to Mae Hong Son come here to explore the natural beauty of the province. Mae Hong Son’s mountain scenery and flowers are particularly attractive in the cool season with the spectacular golden sunflower fields at Bua Tong and Mae Ho drawing crowds of Thai tourists from December-January. Just outside of Mae Hong Son town, the photogenic bamboo bridge of Su Tong Pae stretches for 500 metres across rice fields and a river. The bridge links a hilltop temple at one end with the village of Kung Mai Saak at the other.
Further out of town is tranquil Pang Oung Reservoir, home to one of the Royal Initiative Projects for highland development. And just a few miles beyond Pang Oung is the village of Ban Rak Thai (also known as Mae Aw) where visitors can get a taste of China without leaving Thailand. Located on the Burmese border, the village of Ban Rak Thai was settled by former fighters attached to the Kuo Min Tang (KMT) political party in China. They sought refuge in Thailand following the civil war with the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1940s. And it’s easy to see why the first settlers here soon made themselves at home amidst the serene surroundings. Visitors can gaze out on views of the lake and mountains whilst eating Yunnanese food and drinking Chinese tea.
Mae Hong Son town was originally established by people from the Tai Yai (also known as Shan) community. The Tai Yai form one of Thailand’s largest ethnic minority groups. The Tai Yai have lived in Thailand for hundreds of years and distinctive Shan-style temples with their elegant wooden facades and metal fretwork can be seen dotted all around Mae Hong Son province. In Mae Hong Son town centre, the twin temples of Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang enjoy a picture-postcard setting with mountains behind and Nong Kham lake in front. Visit early in the morning to see monks filing out on their morning alms round. In the evening, the reflections of the temples in the lake provide one of the iconic images of Mae Hong Son.
The hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu provides glorious views over Mae Hong Son town. Morning mist often swirls around in the valley below before lifting as the sun’s rays warm the air. And don’t miss the small coffee shop and viewpoints behind the temple which are the perfect place to watch those magnificent Mae Hong Son sunsets.
Food and drink
Mae Hong Son may be a small province, but it punches above its weight when it comes to food options. Alongside all the traditional northern Thai favourites like khao soi and gaeng hinlay, visitors will find additional regional specialities with influences from Burma and China. In Mae Hong Son town, Fern Restaurant on Kunlum Praphat Road is a good choice to sample local food with live music. For Thai food on the go, a small but atmospheric Walking Street market sets up around Nong Kham Lake each evening during the cool season with an excellent selection of street food to sample as well as a selection of local arts and handicrafts to peruse. Adjacent to the temples and lake, Alawaa Cafe shop serves up tasty cakes, coffee and smoothies. Check out the morning market for more local food and people watching. If you visit the roads outside the market at around 7am you will see monks on their morning alms round and locals making offerings to them.
Travel and local tips
There are no direct train or plane connections to Mae Hong Son from Bangkok. The most convenient way to arrive is by air from Chiang Mai. Bangkok Airways and Kan Air are currently the only two scheduled airlines making the 30-minute flight between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. It’s a scenic flight across mountain ranges with a spectacular approach into diminutive Mae Hong Son airport. Kan Air also operate a service between Chiang Mai and the small airport at Pai.
Travelling on the twisting mountain roads between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son is slow, but does provide some of the most scenic driving routes in the whole of Thailand. According to the Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce, there are 1,864 curves on Route 108 from Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang to Mae Hong Son. Travel on Route 108 in one direction and take Highway 1095 in the other to complete the famous Mae Hong Son loop. And once you’ve completed the road trip and all 1,864 curves, the Mae Hong Son Chamber of Commerce can issue you with a souvenir certificate recording your achievement.
Weather in Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is often the coldest place in Thailand during the winter months (November-February) with temperatures in mountain villages plummeting into single figures at night so be prepared with suitable clothing. The cool season is usually pleasantly warm during the day with periods of extended sunshine making it a perfect time to explore the many natural attractions of the region.
March-April can see smoke and haze in Mae Hong Son with farmers across the region adopting traditional slash and burn techniques. The intensity of the haze varies from year to year, but March is not the best time to visit if you are prone to respiratory problems. The topography of Mae Hong Son means that April and May can get extremely hot (hotter than Bangkok at times) and it’s not unusual to see temperatures hovering around 40C (104F).
June-September/October brings the rains and the green season with fresher weather and the gorgeous Mae Hong Son countryside at its verdant best. At the same time, the intensity of the downpours when they do come means that remoter roads in the province can be difficult to travel on.
Mae Hong Son is famous for the Poi Sang Long ordination ceremony held annually in late March/early April in villages throughout the province. Part of the Tai Yai tradition, the colourful ceremony sees young boys dressed in elaborate clothing as they are ordained as novice monks. And if you are visiting Mae Hong Son towards the end of the rainy season, look out for the Chong Para Festival which is usually held in October as the local Tai Yai community celebrate the Lord Buddha’s return from heaven with the Chong Para ceremony.
by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com
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