Billed as the remotest town in Thailand, Mae Hong Son is a reasonably popular tourist destination mostly visited as part of a multi-day excursion on the ‘Mae Hong Son Loop’. The city itself is a quaint and unspoilt mountain destination that sits prettily in a small valley among manifold ranges and is more Burmese in character than Thai.
Though technically part of the Lanna region of north Thailand, a great number of the indigenous hilltribe people that populate Mae Hong Son are Thai Yai (Shan), one of the largest indigenous tribal groups in Southeast Asia. And the temples of Mae Hong Son are Burmese in design, making them distinctive from those found in other parts of the Kingdom’s northern reaches.
In the centre of town, there is a small lake where a daily market is held on the banks. It is a quaint atmosphere around sunset, when the locals stroll the streets for dinner or a snack and Wat Chong Kham becomes illuminated with strings of lights creating a pleasant and ambient glow. At dawn it casts an enchanting impression reflected in this misty lake.
Just a short drive will take you to the hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. This temple, erected by Mae Hong Son’s first governor, leaves no doubt about its Burmese roots. A lookout just across the temple yard gives you a vantage point of the city and also of the surrounding mountain skylines.
There are some great opportunities for trekking in the vicinity of Mae Hong Son and adequate travel agents are situated in the city. Mae Ngao River is a great area for adventure travellers. Mae Hong Son sees enough tourists and accommodates them in a variety of lodging options from small guesthouses to fairly decent hotels.
Activities in Mae Hong Son include rafting down the Pai river, although the starting point for this is in Pai. Trekking is another popular activity, offering a chance to really experience the rural mountainous interior of Asia, miles form civilisation, but the region isn’t as pleasant in the dry season. One special event that Mae Hong Son is famous for is the Poi Sang Long Festival in March when Shan boys are ordained as novice monks and dressed up in feminine garb (make up and all) and paraded around town.
Soppong and Pang Ma Pha
Midway between Pai and Mae Hong Son is the district of Pang Ma Pha and small town of Soppong, noted for its unusual karst and limestone topography. In fact the area is dotted with numerous caves offering spelunkers and amateurs some excellent exploration and even black water rafting on a subterranean river at Tham Lod (cave).
Cave Lodge is the best place to sign up for some caving, led by the entrepid Australian John Spies who has been mapping the area for two decades and achieved international fame for discovering rare species of flora and fauna plus thousand year old burial coffins. He was probably the first person to enter many of the cave systems, as the locals were always too superstitious. 15 Moo 1, Pang Mapa, tel: (053) 617 203.
If you’re just passing through you’ll find it more practical to stop off at Tham Pla National Park which has some easily reachable caves noted for the large carp that have prospered off the nutrients flowing from the caves. Pha Bong Hotsprings is also on the route, just before you reach Mae Hong Son. With a bit of extra time you can make the excursion to Mae Aw, a remote village populated with descendents of the Chinese KMT who settled here 50 years earlier.
If you are driving ‘the Loop’ you’ll continue south after your stay in Mae Hong Son, through a fairly flat valley that runs parallel to the Myanmar border and it’s worth the detour to see the spectacular and lofty Mae Surin Falls. At Khum Yuam there is a small museum to Japanese soldiers who occupied the area during the Second World War and integrated themselves into the community, many subsequently never made it home after the surrender.
You have the choice to drive a sealed road from here directly to Doi Inthanon National Park and then back to Chiang Mai if time is limited. If you continue south you come to the pretty Mae Sariang town on the banks of a river, which is an ideal overnight stop, since the drive back to Chiang Mai from here is hilly and arduous. There is more of the lovely mountain scenery, and a quaint rural northern town with guesthouses rather than hotels.