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About Planning a Visit to Mae Hong Son in Northern Thailand
Mae Hong Son has a different feel to many other Thai provinces. Tucked away in the mountainous border region of north-west Thailand, it’s one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Thailand. And the diversity is reflected in the food, culture and architecture of the province. If you want to experience the rich culture and natural beauty of Northern Thailand, visit Mae Hong Son.
Check out our suggestions below for the best things to do in Mae Hong Son.
When you travel around Mae Hong Son, one of the first things you notice are the Shan-style Buddhist temples. With wooden facades and metal fretwork, they can be seen all around this Northern Thai province. These beautiful wats are the work of the Tai Yai (Shan) community. The Tai Yai have lived in Northern Thailand for hundreds of years and form one of the country’s largest ethnic minority groups.
For fabulous views over the diminutive city of Mae Hong Son, head to Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. Visit the hilltop temple in the morning and watch as mist gathers in the valley below before slowly lifting as the sun’s rays get to work. After admiring views from the front, walk towards the back of the temple. Order up a coffee from the small shop and enjoy the panoramic mountain views.
Visit Nong Chong Kham Lake in the town centre for an iconic view of Mae Hong Son. The twin Tai Yai temples of Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang provide a serene backdrop to the lake and mountains beyond. Whether you are religious or not, the photogenic temples are special places to visit at any time of the day. Walk to the lake at first light and watch novice monks depart on their morning alms round. Visit in the afternoon to see the temple rooftops shimmer in the sun. Or visit the lake at night and see the reflections of the illuminated wats.
Mae Hong Son is famous for one of Thailand’s most colourful events, the Poy Sang Long Festival. The event celebrates the ordination of young Shan boys into the monkhood. Characterised by ebullient street parades, Poy Sang Long usually takes place in early April. The youngsters dress in bright costumes before their older male relatives lift them on to their shoulders and carry them through the streets.
Another unique local festival takes place to mark Awk Phansa, the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat. In the Tai Yai tradition, the Chong Para ceremony celebrates the Buddha’s return from heaven at Awk Phansa. Communities across the province construct brightly decorated wooden towers in honour of Buddha. Then, on Awk Phansa night (usually in October), a long procession of people carry the towers to the temple.
The magnificent mountain scenery and wide open spaces of Mae Hong Son make it the ideal location for trekking. Hire a local guide and enjoy the rugged beauty of the province. You can also learn more about the hill-tribe communities who live here by joining a trek that supports community-based tourism (CBT). The CBT projects are owned and managed by the community, for the community, and are the perfect way to support responsible tourism. You will be able to stay overnight in hill-tribe villages and discover more about the local way of life.
Enjoy the cool climate and tranquil lake at Pang Oung. The pine forests and cool climate here has earned Pang Oung the moniker, ‘Switzerland of Thailand’. The ‘Switzerland’ tag is used liberally at different locations around Thailand, but in the case of Pang Oung, it really does feel like you are in the European countryside.
Make the 30 minute drive from Pang Oung to the village of Ban Rak Thai (also known as Mae Aw). Sitting flush against the border with Myanmar, this isn’t a typical Thai village. When you arrive here it’s like arriving in China. The locals speak in a version of Mandarin, signs are in Chinese, Yunnanese food dominates the menus and there are tea shops at every corner.
Following the Chinese Civil War, Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers retreated to Burma and the border areas of North Thailand. A number of the anti-communist fighters settled in Mae Aw and established a community there. In the early 1980s the Thai government renamed Mae Aw to Ban Rak Thai (which translates as ’village loves Thailand’).
The golden sunflower fields at Doi Mae Ou Kor draw crowds of Thai tourists from November to early January. Carpets of wild sunflowers present a glorious sight on the mountain slopes of Doi Mae Ou Kor in Khun Yuam district.
Make the trip to Su Tong Pae to see the photogenic bamboo bridge that stretches for 500 metres across the rice fields. The local community built the bridge to connect their village with the hilltop temple at the other end.
The town of Pai is probably the best-known destination in Mae Hong Son province. Located halfway between Chiang Mai and the provincial capital, Pai features picturesque countryside, waterfalls, and mountains. You will also find a well-established traveller scene here. If you’re making the long trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, Pai is a good location to break up the journey.
The ethnic diversity of Mae Hong Son is reflected in the array of foods you’ll find here. Alongside Northern Thai food favourites like khao soi and gaeng hinlay, you will also find plenty of Yunnanese food and Burmese dishes. In Mae Hong Son city, try a variety of regional dishes at the compact and enjoyable Walking Street Market. The market sets up each weekend near Nong Chong Kham Lake in the centre of town.
Travelling from Bangkok or Chiang Mai, it’s possible to fly direct to the small airport at Mae Hong Son. However, please check with the airlines because schedules can change often on this route.
For most travellers heading to Pai and Mae Hong Son, it will mean journeying by road via Chiang Mai. If you’re prone to motion sickness, be careful. The road between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son is a winding one with 1,864 bends. The journey by bus or minivan from Chiang Mai to Pai takes around four hours. From Pai to Mae Hong Son city is another three hours.
Purchase tickets for the bus on the day at Chiang Mai Arcade bus station. You can buy tickets for minivans at tour offices in Chiang Mai and at some hotels and guest houses.
If you are an experienced motorbike rider, you can enjoy the thrill of riding the Mae Hong Son Loop. Many riders rate this one of the most spectacular road journeys in Thailand. Starting and finishing in Chiang Mai, the 600 km circular route can be travelled in either clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. The epic ride takes in a number of stops en route including Pai, Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang.
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