Last Update: August 2023
I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve visited Thailand. Some visits were just short beach holidays or passing through on my way to other destinations. Several, longer visits involved extensive travel for months on my way to nowhere, just exploring this wonderful country.
Although the list of highlights in Thailand seems endless, there are still many places like Mae Hong Son that are not yet overrun by tourists, but certainly worth discovering. The whole area is interesting and just oozing with local culture. A small laid-back mountain town, surrounded by spectacular nature reserves. Maybe not exactly a hidden gem, but still without the usual crowds, only visited by the few travelers in the know.
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Mae Hong Son is also nicknamed “The City of Three Mists“. Kind of mysteriously cool right?! It’s because of 1. The fog from evaporating rain during rain season, 2. the dewy mist in winter and 3. the smoke from field fires in the summer. I guess the latter isn’t so cool after all.
Still, try to imagine the perfect Thai mountain village and I bet that Mae Hong Son looks just like it. Tucked away in the far Northwest of Thailand close to the Myanmar border, it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that this area became properly accessible.
With hardly 10,000 residents Mae Hong Son is just a small town. Actually the whole province with the same name is not very densely populated. The serenity of the surrounding mountains and the loads of possible activities make Mae Hong Son, Thailand an incredible destination. However, you won’t find nearly as many tourists here as in neighboring town Pai. No hipsters, no expat bars, no vegan-meditation-detox-yoga-resorts. Just a local vibe and perfect vistas.
Mae Hong Son is popular with domestic tourists though, mainly because of the mild climate from November to February. From March to May it warms up to 36 Celsius and as said, there’s a lot of smoke from burning fields in the valley.
During rain season from June throughout October it’s still ok to come here. Temperatures are down a bit and except for maybe September/October rain usually comes in afternoon showers. Nature is lush and green and waterfalls are at their best, just take the muddy trails into account.
Reasons to visit/avoid Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Why visit Mae Hong Son
Authentic Northern Thai town
Incredible outdoor activities
Part of the Mae Hong Son loop
Ample interesting destinations nearby
Moderate temperatures compared to the rest of Thailand
Why avoid Mae Hong Son
Out of route if you’re on a challenging itinerary
Not a luxury destination
Can get cold in winter
No real mainstream highlights
Not very lively and no tourist or expat vibe
Many travelers visit the town as part of the Mae Hong Son loop, a 600 km motorbike route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son and looping back to Chiang Mai via Pai. It’s a beautiful and scenic route through mountains and forests, including the famous 1864 curves road making it an item on many a bucket list.
If however, you want to stay a bit longer you would like to venture beyond the area it’s perfectly possible to visit multiple points of interest on day-trips. Actually, we rented a car when visiting this part of Thailand. The freedom of mobility combined with the excellent driving conditions turned us into complete Thailand car rental adepts.
Read more: Renting a car in Thailand – How to?
Without a doubt Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang are the main attraction of Mae Hong Son city. Two Shan style temples situated next to each other close to the center of town. Beautiful outside, as well as inside. The view at night when their reflections light up the lake is nothing short of stunning.
Do have a look inside as both temples feature interesting Buddha statues, altars and shrines. Admission is free and wheelchair access possible.
Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu sits on top of Kong Mu hill overlooking Mae Hong Son and the valley. The temple itself consist of two large chedis and a viharn offering an interesting cultural attraction. However, what makes this location so special are the incredible views, particularly during sunrise when the mist hangs over the valley.
There’s a stairway leading you to the top of Kong Mu hill, but if you can’t be bothered just motorbike your way up. Furthermore, don’t skip the back of the temple where you can awe over the mountain views with some freshly brewed hill tribe coffee from the small cafe.
Wat Hua Wiang near the airport is of historical value for Mae Hong Son, Thailand. The Shan style temple is constructed out of teak wood and the second oldest temple in Mae Hong Son city. It houses 5 ancient sacred Buddha statues under its remarkable three tiered roof. If you’re visiting the Mae Hong Son market, don’t forget to make a stop here as it’s just around the corner.
Ban Rak Thai / Mae Aw
About 40km to the North, just before the Myanmar border is the small village Ban Rak Thai, formerly known as Mae Aw. In the early 1950’s, nationalists from Yunnan, also known as “Kuo Min Tang”, fled from China and built their settlement here. For decades the area was notorious for the smuggling routes through Burma into China. Nowadays it’s famous for its tea production.
The village is dotted with and surrounded by tea fields, which in turn are dotted with Chinese style mud houses. A small lake, Chinese tea houses and a green mountain backdrop provide a wonderful scenery. Your Instagram account will thrive. Of course there are plenty of tea tasting opportunities and Yunnan style dishes dominate the local food scene.
In the morning at both 8am and 11am yellow songtaews leave for Ban Rak thai from the food market in Mae Hong Son at Wat Hua Wiang (THB120 p/p). However, the best way to get there is to drive your rental motorbike over the hilly, winding road. Views are breathtaking and the paved road ensures a smooth ride all the way.
While on your way to the tea village, make a stop at the Su Tong Pe bamboo bridge. It connects the village of Kung Mai Sak with the nearby monastery and temple. It was built to accommodate the monks to cross the river Sa Nga and several rice paddies that flood during rain season. It’s a whopping 500m long and the view is unbelievable. Don’t miss it and make a wish as you cross.
Tham Pla–Namtok Pha Suea National Park
If your up for it, there’s more to see on your way to Ban Rak Thai. A National Park with a long name and an entrance fee of THB100. For that price you get access to waterfalls, a fish cave and a whole lot of green mountain.
The fish cave, known as “Tham Pla“, has hundreds of carp, which are regarded sacred by the local population. Nearby Tham Pha Daeng is a limestone cavern about 1 kilometer in length with beautiful stalactites, stalagmites and crystals. Well, at least that’s what they say. I didn’t enter, because of my fear of darkness.
Pha Suea waterfall is about 15m in height and maybe not that spectacular. You already paid the National Park fee, so you might as well go to see it, it’s on route anyway.
South of Mae Hong Song along the Pai river are a few boat and rafting operations for tours on the river. Tour agents in town can hook you up for boat trips, or you can just show up at the Huai Dua Tourist Port to hire a boat and skipper. The same tour agents and even your guest house can also book 1 day or multiple day treks in the mountains for you.
Don’t forget travel insurance. One that includes evacuations and repatriation. Remember, you are a million miles from any professional healthcare, just saying. Any serious ailment or injury will most likely involve expensive medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore, payable upfront if you lack proper insurance.
Make sure to also cover adventurous activities like trekking/hiking and your motor bike rental adventures (if you follow the rules). Don’t just assume that it’s included in your regular healthcare insurance, because it’s not. You can even buy cover online if your trip already started.
Read more about travel insurance, or at least get a non-committal instant quote right now!
You won’t have any trouble finding accommodation, especially in the budget and mid range. The trick is of course to pick the right one.
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
In a quiet street on the outskirts of town. Close enough to the town center (2km) to either walk or cycle. There is a small and good restaurant on-site if you prefer not to go out. Choice between dorm beds and private rooms. Bathrooms are shared, but this is just a small scale accommodation so you won’t have to wait in line for your shower. Wifi all around.
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
Small, basic, but cozy family run guesthouse in a good location. Close to the town center so multiple breakfast options are not far away. Rooms include aircon and strong wifi. This guesthouse offers real value for your money. If you opt for a room without aircon (not always necessary in the cool season) the price gets even better.
Mid Range = from THB1000 to THB2500
App 8 km out of town, so best if you have your own transport. The resort can arrange a driver for visits to town. The secluded location is actually the biggest draw of this resort. Peace and quiet amidst jungle and rice paddies, a new swimming pool, trekking straight from the resort and included breakfast. The wifi doesn’t cover the whole area, so perfect to disconnect and unwind.
Due to Mae Hong Son being a small town, the number of eateries is rather limited. Don’t let it bother you, most visitors won’t stay here long enough to exhaust all the food options anyway. Having said that, you should be on the lookout for local Shan food.
Salween River Restaurant
Popular restaurant with travelers and expats. Salween River Restaurant used to be in the center of town, but recently moved to the outskirts in a more nature environment. The Shan and Thai dishes are great. Western dishes not that much, but still ok. Breakfast options are very good though. Prices are slightly higher than peer places, but the restaurant has a good ambiance and serves as a great meeting point for like-minded travelers.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. However, I can’t help myself, I can never go too long without pizza and Pizza Primavera has the best thin crusted pizza in town. With THB295 on average for a pizza it’s not exactly cheap, but I forgive them. The flavors, preparation and service are impeccable.
Of course they offer pasta, salads and antipasti as well. We didn’t have any when we were there, just pizza. However, looking at other guests plates, maybe we should have tried. Next time.
Coffee Morning Not really a restaurant other than that they sell tasty cakes. On the other hand, good coffee, tea and shakes are important as well on your travels. This is a lovely little coffee shop with a look and feel that will remind you of the good old days in Thailand. Quaint (never thought I’d use that word lol), cosy and friendly. A decent choice of coffee and a caring owner. We easily spent a few hours in here doing nothing but dreaming. Err, and drinking coffee of course.
Cute little restaurant serving THB45 fried rice and THB79 curries, but also spaghetti, salads, samosas and Mexican dishes, all very affordable. JiJi Restaurant has lot’s of vegetarian choices and serves breakfast as well. although the latter seemed it bit more on the expensive side. The restaurant has a good atmosphere and is favored by foreign visitors. Closes early though around 8:45pm in the evening.
The morning market Talat Chao at the Southwest end of the airport is mainly a wet market, although there are also some clothes for sale. Street food options are plenty, especially if you like a hearty bowl of noodle soup for breakfast. Maybe a few bits of deep fried chickpea tofu Burmese style.
And of course there’s the inevitable night market, we are in Thailand after all. Next to local produce and Northern Thai handicrafts Chong Kham Night market is the top spot to find some delicious treats. Street food vendors cook up their tasty Shan noodles and tea leaf salads together with ample snacking opportunities. Paired with the wonderful views of the Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang temples this is a must visit venue.
From Bangkok you can fly straight to Mae Hong Son airport in 2h. Or, if you plan to see plan to see more of Northern Thailand, fly to Chiang Mai in 1h. Use the Skyscanner portal for schedules and to book flights. Sometimes flying is cheaper than buses and trains. Of course you’ll miss all the nice scenery.
Traveling by bus from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son is also possible, but it will be a long ride of almost 16h. Most visitors travel by bus or train to Chiang Mai and from there continue to Mae Hong Son by minivan.
For bus/minivan/train schedules and tickets within Thailand I always use the transport planning tool from 12Go.com to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). Just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
Because Mae Hong Son is rather compact, you should not have any problem walking from A to B. Of course a rental bicycle or motorbike will be more convenient. There are plenty of places to rent a bicycle for THB150 p/d and motorbikes go for THB200-300 p/d.
Contrary to most Thai towns, there aren’t that many tuk-tuks around, but they seem to be mostly hanging out at the bus station. Also, your guesthouse will be able to hook you up should you need one. Expect THB60-70 for short rides in town and about THB500 for every 10km out of town. Motorbike taxi’s are slightly cheaper.
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