The pretty lake-side town of Mae Hong Son is a delightful road journey north west from Pai through another 800 plus curves (1,864 from Chiang Mai to be exact), heading towards the Burmese border. With a very different feel to it than hippie-lovin' Pai and much smaller than the metropolis of Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son is a unique destination in Northern Thailand that attracts a very different type of backpacker; those who are willing to hunt around a bit and explore rather than having everything so easily to hand. The town is a lot less catered for travellers in respect of touristy bars, restaurants and resorts. That said, there are still plenty of good, cheap guesthouses and loads of great street food places available.
Out in the wild up here, there is a sense of isolation in this part of Northern Thailand that is remarkable. Everything here is on a large scale; the mountains and rivers seem to go on infinitum. The natural beauty all around the town with its virgin rain forests are truly impressive and there are many nearby places to visit and explore where you will feel right in the heart of the real Thai countryside. If you're looking to get away from it all, slip into a local way of life, enjoy the fresh air and have amazing countryside on your doorstep - you might just fall in love with Mae Hong Son (we did)!
Mae Hong Son Hotels and Guesthouses
There are no backpacker hostels as such in Mae Hong Son, and no dorm rooms. However, prices for guesthouses are cheap and there are some very decent ones around.
Rom Thai House: (Where we stayed for 2 weeks!) Fan room for 300 THB or AC room for 450 THB, this guesthouse is a lovely place to stay amidst a lovely lily pond setting, with very friendly staff who will make you feel right at home.
Baan Mai Guesthouse: Run by a very friendly lady who took us around the town when we first arrived to find us a place to stay as she felt bad that her guesthouse was already full! Fan rooms 300 THB. AC 500 THB.
Sammork Guesthouse: Decent rooms for 500 THB / night.
Piya Guesthouse: A more upmarket choice that's very popular because of its swimming pool no doubt. Private AC rooms will cost 700 THB / night.
Laundry TIP: Instead of giving your laundry in at your guesthouse, why not DIY in the laundry rooms that you find all around town. 20 THB for a whole load in a modern machine that’ll dry it for you too!
Things to do in Mae Hong Son
The Bamboo Bridge: About 12km outside of town you’ll find the rather subdued tourist attraction of the ‘Bamboo Bridge’ or 'Su Tong Pae Bridge'. 500 metres long, the bridge was created to link the village of Kung Mai Saak to the nearby temple located across the rice fields, so that local monks would be able to receive alms in the morning. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot that seems to attract more Thai tourists than foreigners and it’s free to walk across.
Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu: Ride up the hill on your scooter to this beautiful white temple overlooking the whole of Mae Hong Son for incredible views over the town and the surrounding countryside. Although you'll find a few tourists up there, the atmosphere is very peaceful and there's just one small café called 'Before Sunset Café' where you can... well you can guess! (We hear it's the best place in town to do this!)
Hire a Scooter: This land was made to be explored on two wheels! There are so many beautiful roads to explore in Mae Hong Son that will take you through jungle, mountains, past huge rivers, waterfalls and rice fields. You can rent an automatic or semi-automatic scooter for 150-180 THB / 24 hours. Try the motorbike shop to the right of the night market around the lake. And (sorry to sound like your mum but...) make sure you take a helmet and make sure you’re insured!
Hire a bicycle: You can also hire a bicycle for a cheap 50 THB / day, but you can only really explore around the lake by pedal power, unless you're training for an Iron Man Contest that is. Outside of town it gets pretty hilly and pretty hot!
Namtok Mae Surin National Park: Home to Doi Pui (the highest mountain in the park at 1,700 metres) as well as beautiful Mae Surin Waterfall, one of the tallest single tier waterfalls in Thailand. There's also a cave known as 'Nam Hu Hai Jai Cave' which has a strange natural phenomenon of water gushing out of the cave walls every 25 minutes! The trek to the cave takes about 3-4 hours.
Jungle Trekking: The Lonely Planet describes a short jungle trek that you can do from the back of Fern Resort in Mae Hong Son. The trail is called 'Mae Sakud Nature Trail' and the full circular route is 7.5 km (4 hours walk) taking you past 16 points of interest! It's a lovely walk through the jungle which occasionally opens out to some wonderful vistas looking over the whole of Mae Kong Son. If 4 ho too much for you and you would like to visit just the waterfall, this is around a 1-2-hour walk there and back. See more information on the Fern Resort website here.
Exercise around the lake: Most mornings when we stayed in Mae Hong Son I started my day with a jog (or power walk) around the lake and a quick workout on the perfectly located exercise machines that overlook Wat Chong Klang and Wat Chong Kham. I love that Thailand’s parks come complete with free outdoor gyms, and most with better views than you'd get in an indoor sweat factory! Just be sure to go very early morning or after sunset as it can get super hot!
Phuklon Mud Spa: This place is advertised on the roadside miles before you get there! In the ads, it looks like a super posh spa resort, but when you get there you'll see it's a rather modest place, which means excellent prices for backpackers to use their hot mineral pools, mud baths, body scrubs and massage services. (See price board right).
Go for a Korean Barbecue: It's the most popular place for locals to eat at town! (A bit further down from Green Mountain resort on the main road). It's all you can eat, but there's one downside - you have to cook it yourself! Korean Barbecues are a very popular affair in Thailand where the whole family gathers around a metal hot plate with a soup and cooks a variety of meats, veg, fish, and things that look like meat but surely can't be, from the never-ending buffet. You'll be the novelty foreigner and will no doubt be helped to cook your food by the table next to you! Warning - not for vegetarians.
Visit the local market: Food, clothes, electronics, flowers and everything you can imagine in this bustling local market open all day. There's a special market on a Saturday on the same road as the bus station.
Have a coffee at Coffee Morning Mae Hong Son: Only 'cos they have the best collection of South East Asia Backpacker Magazines in town!
Get your Thai Visa renewed! Mae Hong Son has an Immigration Office that's a lot less crowded and a lot less stressful than the office in Chiang Mai (where many foreigners go to extend their stay). It took us all of 15 minutes to renew our Thai visas for another 30 days and cost us 1900 THB each.
Visiting the 'Karen Long Neck' Villages – Should You or Shouldn’t You?
Mae Hong Son has long been a place famous for the opportunity to visit the 'Karen' ethnic minority, also known as the 'Long-Neck Hill Tribe' people. Once a tourist 'must-do' that was described in the Lonely Planet and other guide books, visiting these people has become controversial over the past 10 years as more information has surfaced about their exploitation.
The groups of people that live in the hills surrounding Mae Hong Son belong to the 'Red Karen' or 'Karenni' ethnic group (also known as Paduang in Myanmar). They originally emigrated (or fled for their lives) from the Kayah State of Myanmar just across the border. Over the past 20 years of turbulent Burmese history, the people had long suffered suppression from the Burmese government who were involved in a struggle with their own 'Karenni National Progressive Party', who desired autonomy from the Burmese state. These struggles created a massive refugee situation in Thailand and there were questions raised about the treatment of the refugees by 'the land of smiles'. (To this day, Thailand does not actually recognise the concept of refugee status).
Of course, a few entrepreneurial Thais saw the money-making potential for inviting tourists to visit these unusual exotic-looking 'long-neck people' (femme giraffes as the French called them!). In the Mae Hong Son province, ready-made villages were set up for the Karen people to sell their handicrafts, and were criticised heavily by human rights groups for being 'human zoos'. It was said that the ethnic minority group were being exploited and were essentially 'trapped' on the borders of Thailand, unable to get a job as a Thai citizen for lack of papers, and unable to go back to their home country due to political fighting. The entry fee that was charged for tourists to visit the villages was rumoured to line corrupt pockets in the area, rather than go to the Karen people themselves.
Over recent years, however, in Mae Hong Son, the villages have become much more than tourist attractions. There is no longer a fee to enter and the Karen people seem to be working and living life as normal. Various sources on the internet quote that the Karen people say there is no pressure from anywhere to continue the tradition of adding gold rings to women's necks to elongate the neck bones, this is just a cultural tradition, which is followed if the individual so wishes. Some say that the Karen people are very welcoming of tourist visits so that they can practise their English and earn a little money from the sale of their handicrafts (which now hopefully goes directly to them).
Since 2012, the Karen people have officially been allowed to return to their homeland in the State of Kayah, although now many have aspired to get Thai nationality as they have a much better way of life and opportunities living in Thailand, rather than Myanmar. There is still a struggle against the Thai government for the Karen people to be allowed full Thai citizenship, as many are not allowed to leave their 'home province' and have to check in with immigration authorities every 90 days. Time will tell how this situation changes as more and more generations are born within the borders of Thailand.
So should you visit? Having not visited a Karen village in Mae Hong Son, I cannot form a personal opinion on this complicated matter and all of the above information is from my own internet research. I encourage you to do your own research and do what you think is right.
Where to eat in Mae Hong Son?
Salween River Restaurant: Number one on Trip Advisor and perhaps deservedly so, this Thai-Burmese food serves delicious food at excellent prices, beware it can be a little slow to arrive though.
The Night Market: When the sun goes down this is where everyone seems to congregate to eat and have a good natter. Meat on a stick, bright pink dragon fruit shakes, spicy north-eastern Thai food, whole grilled fish and much more. Try the delicious pad thai just outside the entrance to the market for 30 baht.
Street food in front of the post office: For cheap, authentic Thai eats try the street vendors that set up in front of the post office near the lake every night. Spicy northern Thai sausage, dim sum, sukiyaki (Japanese soup), jog (rice porridge) and goyteow (Thai noodle soup) all for less than 30 baht!
How to get to Mae Hong Son?
Most people reach Mae Hong Son by minibus. The main bus terminal is located about 1km from the lake.
From Pai: Most people arrive in Mae Hong Son after spending a few nights in nearby Pai. From here it’s a 2-3-hour bus ride that costs 150 THB. You can buy tickets at the main mini bus station on Pai Walking Street.
From Chiang Mai: You can get a bus direct from Pai to Mae Hong Son (1,864 curves later as the T-shirts say). Book tickets from the main Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai for 300 THB, and the journey takes 5-6 hours.
The Mae Hong Son Loop:
One of the most popular motorbike rides in Thailand, this 3-5 day, 650km bike ride takes in the towns of Mae Cham, Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest mountain), Khun Yuam, Mae Hong Son, Soppong and Pai. Many bikers use Mae Hong Son as a base for one night before heading on to hippie Pai.
Where to go next?
- Mae Sariang: About 3 hours south of Mae Hong Son, you'll find the small town south of Mae Hong Son that receives even fewer visitors! Rice fields, mountains, country roads and non-touristy hill tribe villages make this region perfect to explore by motorbike.
- Khun Yuam: Less than 2 hours south of Mae Hong Son, you'll find the quiet hillside town of Khun Yuam. There isn't much to do here, but that's the point!
- Soppong: Heading back to Pai? Why not stop at the small market village of Soppong (also known as Pangmapha) along the way. The area is famous for its caves.
- Pai: The liveliest place in Mae Hong Son Province, Pai is a big hit with backpackers and trendy Bangkokians on a weekend break from the city. There are loads of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and a bustling nightlife. Just out of town though, you can still find yourself lost amongst amazing countryside.
- Chiang Mai: Capital of the north, far from a sleepy cultural backwater, Chiang Mai is now a major city with shopping malls, traffic and a large expat population.