Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son lies in a forested valley, surrounded by soaring verdant hills and just about lives up to its claim of being the ‘Switzerland of Thailand’. The road from Pai is continuous switchback, cutting through spectacular scenery and communities of diverse ethnicities. On a clear day, the short flight from Chiang Mai is breathtaking – the plane crosses a range of high hills before spiralling down into a tight series of continuous banks, depositing its passengers almost in the middle of the town. An excellent centre for trekking, the town is changing rapidly (some would say has changed) from a backpackers’ hideaway to a tour centre, with the construction of two major hotels and a proliferation of ‘resort’-style hotels. Despite this, Mae Hong Son still manages to retain peaceful, upland vibe.
Background Mae Hong Son Province is about as far removed from ‘Thailand’ as you are likely to get, with only an estimated 2% of the population here being ethnic Thais. The great majority belong to one of the various hilltribes: mostly Karen, but also Lisu, Hmong and Lahu. Mae Hong Son has always been caught between the competing powers of Burma and Siam/Thailand. For much of recent history the area has been under the (loose) control of various Burmese kingdoms. The influence of Burmese culture is also clearly reflected in the architecture of the town’s many monasteries.
Mae Hong Son also has a murky reputation for illegal logging; this area has some of the richest forests in the country. At the beginning of 1998, revelations surfaced about an alleged massive bribe to officials of the Royal Forestry Department, to overlook logging in the Salween conservation area. Sights Most postcards of the town picture the lake, with Wat Jong Klang, a Burmese wat, in the background. It is particularly beautiful in the early morning, when mist rises off the lake. Wat Jong Klang started life as a rest pavilion for monks on pilgrimage, with a wat being built by the Shans living in the area between 1867 and 1871. The monastery contains some 50 carved Burmese tukata(wooden dolls) depicting characters from the Jataka stories, as well as a series of mediocre painted glass panels.
In the same compound is Wat Jong Kham, which contains a large seated Buddha. Wat Hua Wiang, next to the market, contains an important Burmese-style brass Buddha image – the Phra Chao Phla La Khaeng. It is said that the image was cast in nine pieces in Burma and brought to Mae Hong Son along the Pai River. Doi Kong Mu, the hill overlooking the town, provides superb views of the valley and is home to the Burmese-style Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu, constructed by the first King of Mae Hong Son in the mid-19th century. At the foot of Doi Kung Mu Hill is Wat Phra Non, which contains a 12-m-long Burmese-style reclining Buddha. The main fresh marketin town is on Phanit Watana Road, next to Wat Hua Wiang. The usual commodities from slippery catfish to synthetic clothing are sold here, together with some produce from Burma.
Around Mae Hong Son Mae Aw, officially known in Thailand as Ban Rak Thai, is a Hmong and KMT (Kuomintang – the remnants of Chiang Kai Shek’s army) village in the mountains, 22 km north of Mae Hong Son, on the border with Burma. (Chiang Kai Shek was the Chinese Republican leader who fought the Communists and then fled to Taiwan when the latter were victorious. Remnants of his army and supporters also took refuge in Thailand.) There are stunning views over Burma and the trip here is worthwhile in itself Tham Plaa(Fish Cave), 16 km northeast of town off Route 1095, is another worthwhile excursion, which can be combined with a trip to Mae Aw. The name of the cave refers to the numbers of carp that live in the cave pools – several hundred, some exceeding 1 m in length. The carp are believed to be sacred.
From the gate, a path leads across a river to the cave. Khun Yuam and Muang Pon Roughly halfway between Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son is the bustling market town of Khun Yuam. The town itself has few attractions yet it is an engaging and friendly place to stop off for a couple of days if you want to make a slow meander through this part of the country. Most of the people who live here are Karen, Shan or Hmong. There is a pretty Hmong/Burmese-style temple 5 km to the west at Wat To Phae, which is worth a look; it houses a 150-year-old tapestry just to the side of the main altar. There is also a War Museum, which focuses on the plight of Japanese soldiers during World War Two. Thousands died here as Khun Yuam was home to a Japanese army hospital. The museum houses a collection of poignant artefacts left behind by the dying soldiers.
The nearby Shan village of Muang Pon, about 15 km to the south of Khun Yuam on the road to Mae Sariang, hosts an excellent homestay programme that is run, managed and owned by local people. Stay here for a few days and you’ll get a chance to engage in a genuine encounter with local people a million miles from the usual intrusions of a ‘hilltribe’ trek. Nearby you’ll find hot springs, mountain walks and a small hilltop temple.
The city of Mae Hong Son is located in one of the most beautiful provinces in Thailand, a rugged northern area where you’ll find a blend of Thai and Burmese culture and some of the most stunning landscapes you’ll see in the country. Mae Hong Son township is known for its dense forests and mist-shrouded valley and lies in the mountainous border region between Thailand and Burma.
The province can easily be reached from Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand. Tourists can hop inexpensive local buses or minivans to various destinations in Mae Hong Son once they arrive in town.
For some inspiration and ideas on what to do once you get here, see our list of what you should do in Mae Hong Son.
1/ Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu
Location: Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, Chong Kham, Mae Hong Son District, Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Make the half-hour trek to the top of Doi Kong Mu hill through dense forest, and you’ll find this unique temple with two white chedis plus some of the best views of Mae Hong Son you can find anywhere. Two enormous Burmese-style lion statues greet you at the foot of the overgrown staircase to the top.
The chedis – which date back to the 1800s and are topped by golden spires – hold the ashes of one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, as well as the ashes of the governor who ordered the construction of the temple. The chedis are “guarded” by Naga, a mythological snake and a lion-like creature called a Chinthe. At night, the chedis are lit and can be seen from the town.
2/ Burmese Temples
Location: Chong Kham, Mae Hong Son District, Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Standing next to each other by a little lake in the southern part of town, Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang are Burmese-style temples. Especially notable for tourists is the Wat Chong Klang wiharn, which holds over 30 statues brought to Thailand from Burma around 1860.
The temples are surrounded by a park used by the locals for recreation. There’s also an outdoor market here, where temple visitors can buy hill tribe handicrafts, traditional sweet snacks, and textiles.
This small town near Mae Hong Son is loved by both locals and tourists for its slow pace and beautiful natural surroundings. There’s no shortage of guesthouses and quaint eateries, not to mention bungalows occupied by long-haired hippie wannabes strumming guitars and lazing in hammocks. Nearby tourist attractions include a waterfall, the Pai canyon, and a chance to go tubing down the Pai River.
4/ Mae Sariang
Pai may be a favorite destination among backpackers on a soul-seeking experience, but Mae Sariang holds its own charm for those willing to get a bit off the beaten path. Smaller and lacking Pai’s notoriety, Mae Sariang promises quiet authenticity—an opportunity for a true northern Thai experience.
Here, you can trek to local hill tribes, bike through the town, purchase local handicrafts, and visit many temples. Being one of the few foreigners in the area will give you a different perspective on life in rural Thailand.
Mae Sariang is about three hours south of Mae Hong Son city, so either leave early in the morning for a long day trip or plan on spending a night somewhere along the way.
About 1.5 hours from Mae Hong Son town, you can visit the Padong Longneck Village, where members of a local hill tribe still stretch their necks with golden rings. Girls begin wearing the rings at age four and more are added until they turn 25. Tourists pay a fee to enter the village, and often to take photographs as well.
There are many tour options for visiting the local ethnic minority communities, known as hill tribes—but all are not created equal. Tour companies, looking to make money off unique lifestyles and traditions, often exploit groups. These communities are fascinating, but make sure to research companies and packages before you purchase.
Many local resorts will offer personalized tour opportunities, or you can do a homestay in a village rather than popping in for a photoshoot while on a bus tour around the region.
6/ Mae Aw
Much is made of Thailand’s proximity to Burma, and rightly so, as many Burmese live in Thailand as migrant workers and refugees. But China also sits in close proximity to both countries and Mae Aw (also known as Ban Rak Thai) stands as a testament to that nation’s history.
Mae Aw, about 20 kilometers northwest of Mae Hong Son, is home to mostly Chinese immigrants. The Chinese who live here are the direct descendants of General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops who, after losing the war against Communist China, fled to Burma and then Thailand rather than following their leader to Formosa (now Taiwan). Many of the men work for the Thai police or as guards and officials along the Thai-Burmese border.
7/ Shan Villages
The Shan people have fought both the Burmese and Thai government for decades, and ongoing violence and upheaval often force refugees across the border. The Shan state lies just across the border from Thailand, and, as a result, there is a good deal of Shan influence in some Mae Hong Son areas.
If you’re interested in visiting a Shan village, one of your best options is to hire a local guide who knows the area. You can also find your own way to the Mae Lana village near Soppong—surrounded by rice paddy fields, this small village does not receive much commercial tourism, so you’ll have a better chance of seeing authentic local customs and maybe even catch a Buddhist ceremony at the temple.
8/ Fish Cave
Known as Tharn Pla in Thai, this popular tourist destination is exactly what it sounds like: a pool fed by a small river that is home to an array of exotic fish you can feed, a short hiking trail, and a number of food stalls.
Located about 17 kilometers from Mae Hong just off a highway, this place can be hard to find but worth the effort if you’re after a relaxing couple of hours in a cool shady park by the water. Despite the name, there’s no cave here but instead a jungly hill surrounding the stream where the giant fish live – and giant they are, with some of the blueish brook carp reaching one meter long.
Based on the diverse of nature and culture in Mae Hong Son offer for travelers, we have carefully created this 2 day suggested-tour which including combine travel style.
Day 1: Mae Hong Son – Santichon Village – Sai Ngam Hot Spring – Lod Cave
In the morning, we depart to Santichon Chinese Village and Yun Lai View Point to see the scenic view of Pai. Then continue to Sai Ngam Hot spring where we can have a bath and relax in the warm mineral pond.
In the afternoon, heading to Lod Cave or Tham Lod where is a natural limestone cave system, its main feature is the freshwater stream which runs through the middle of the cave for about 200-300 meters. Inside it’s walls are covered with massive formations and columns over 20 meters high.
The cave is also home to large numbers of bats and swifts. We would have a bamboo rafts inside the cave as well. After that, we continue to Pang Ung or “Pangtong 2” is one of the Royal Initiative projects by HM Queen Sirikit for highland development. A large reservoir in Pang Ung is popular and attracts more and more visitors to come every year. Its lake view, pine leaves, beautiful mountain scenes, and hazy fog in the morning are a perfect combination for visitors who love to touch by natures.
Day 2: Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu – Pai – Pu Ka Long Neck Village
In the morning, visit Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu affords a spectacular view of the entire valley in which Mae Hong Son is nestled. The temple itself is notable for its two large white chedis and its typical Shan architecture.
In the afternoon, take long tail boat riding along a scenic route with marvelous cataracts on the Pai River to Baan Nam Phiang Din or Huay Pu Kang Long Neck Village. Here you will find long-neck and long-ear girls. Handicrafts made by them are available. Then, back to Maehongson town to visit Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang, a symbol of Mae Hong Son with the twin Burmese-style temples.
1/ Thai Yai/Shan
The Shan (also known as Thai Yai or simply Tai) are an ethnic group related to the Thai, but who predominately live across the border in Myanmar. Much of their food has been influenced by Burmese-style cooking, and Mae Hong Son is the best place (in many cases, the only place) in Thailand to try these unique dishes.
Quite possibly the most ubiquitous Shan dish of all is khao sen, thin rice noodles in a light, tomatoey broth. Places that serve this dish also often serve khang pong, deep-fried fritters made from green papaya, shallots of banana blossom, and khao kan jin, rice kneaded with pork meat and blood. Khao sen is available at Mae Hong Son’s morning market, as well as all the places mentioned here; in particular, Paa Khon does an excellent bowl of khao sen, fortified with crunchy banana stalk.
2/ Salween River Restaurant
Location: 23 Pradit Jong Kham Rd,, Mae Hong Son, Thái Lan
Salween River Restaurant is likely one of the longest standing places in town. Popular with locals and expats alike, this place has been the main hang out for charity workers. This friendly family restaurant has an extensive menu which includes local specialities like Khao Soi and Burmese tea leaf salad as well as pizza and burgers. Local beers and bottles of whiskey are served, and there is a large book library where one can swap books.
3/ Little Good Things
Location: Chong Kham, Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Little Good Things is a popular vegan restaurant and coffee shop which offers delicious healthy food at super-cheap prices. Try the smoothy bowls, fresh spring rolls or a huge salad, everything is mouthwateringly tasty and will have you coming back for more. A few local souvenirs are also on sale in this cute home style cafe located in a traditional wooden house.
4/ N & J’s Kitchen
Location: Pang Mu, Mueang Mae Hong Son District, Mae Hong Son, Thailand
N&J’s Kitchen is a cheap and friendly restaurant offering Thai and international cuisines. Tuck into your favourite Thai dish or a big greasy burger, this place has your back. The curries are particularly good and come with a nice kick.
5/ Morning market
Location: 2 Pha Nith Watana Road, Tambon Pang Mu, Chang Wat Mae Hong Son, Thailand
The local morning market deserves a mention on our list of best restaurants in Mae Hong Son. The morning market is an ideal place to pick up a cheap breakfast and try some local specialities. It is also a great place to check out the local produce for sale and stock up on inexpensive snacks.
The best time to visit Mae Hong Son is between the months of November and February as the weather is quite pleasant. The busiest month for tourism in Mae Hong Son is January. The prices for hotels and flights are likely to be the most expensive during January. However, May makes for the low season and you can take advantage of the off-season prices.
Generally, Mae Hong Son has a tropical savanna atmosphere. The winters there are dry and warm. Temperatures ascend until the month of April, which is hot with the normal highest being around 39°C (101.7 °F). The storm season is usually between the months of May through October.
There is an overwhelming amount of precipitation during these months. However, cooler temperatures exist during the day, despite the fact that evenings stay warmer. Mae Hong Son holds the record for the highest temperature at any point recorded in Thailand when it hit 44.6 °C (112.3 °F).
By air: You can actually fly from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son and it is, of course, the fastest way to get there. You will have to fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai first, however, as there are no direct flights from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son. For this, your choices are Air Asia or Nok Air to Chiang Mai, and then Nok Air or Kan Air from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Total flight time? 90 minutes to Chiang Mai from Bangkok and an additional 30 minutes to Mae Hong Son.
By train: You can’t actually get all the way to Mae Hong Song via train from Bangkok, but you can get to Chiang Mai, which takes about 15 hours. From there, you can take a mini bus that will cost you approximately 175-200 baht ($5.75- $6.60) and takes an additional three hours. Get a train from the Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
You can buy tickets for first, second or third class with first and second class also having an optional Sleeper if you don’t mind the higher price. There are also several trains that go to Chiang Mai daily depending on which route you want to take. Ask at Hua Lamphong train station or at a travel agents for details. Book a day or two in advance, if possible, so you’re sure you can get a sleeper if required.
By bus: The cheapest way to get to Mae Hong Son from Bangkok is by bus. Do be aware, however, it is around a 16-17 hour drive so only take the bus if you know you can stand being stuck on one for that long. Get a bus from Mo Chit Bus station in northern Bangkok. They leave two or three times a day and tickets are around 575 baht or $18.99. Get to Mo Chit bus station by taking the BTS sky train to Mo Chit station and then either a motorbike or taxi to the bus station from there.
Throughout this article, we wish you to have an idea of how to travel to Mae Hong Son for your best experience. In case you are looking for your own travel agent, who can offer a wonderful and hassle-free trip, please feel free to let us know. We always commit our best to make it your once-in-a-lifetime journey.