Last Update: February 2020
In the know destinations – Thailand
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. Interesting cities oozing with local culture. Small laid-back riverine towns and spectacular nature reserves. Maybe not exactly hidden gems, but without the usual crowds, only visited by the few travelers in the know.
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Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is also nicknamed “The City of Three Mists“. Kind of mysteriously cool right?! It’s because of the fog from evaporating rain during rainy season, the dewy mist in winter and 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 North-West 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 this is but a small town. The serenity of the surrounding mountains and the loads of possible activities make Mae Hong Son an incredible destination. However, you won’t find nearly as many tourists here as in neighboring 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 Februari. 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 rainy 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 (not) to visit Mae Hong Son
Reasons to visit
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
Reasons not to visit
Out of route if you’re on a challenging itinerary
Not a luxury destination
Cold in winter
No real mainstream highlights
Not very lively and no tourist or expat vibe
How to get to Mae Hong Son
From Bangkok you can fly straight to Mae Hong Son airport in 2h. Or, if you are doing the Mae Hong Son loop, fly to Chiang Mai in 1h. Use the Skyscanner website to search and 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 to Chiang Mai and from there continue to Mae Hong Son by minivan.
For bus/minivan 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). The tool is incredibly easy to use, 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.
Things to see/do in Mae Hong Son
Many travelers visit the town as part of the Mae Hong Son loop, a 600 km motorbike route from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang, on to Mae Hong Son and back to Chiang Mai via Pai. It’s a beautiful and scenic route through mountains and forests, including the famous 1864 curve road making it an item on many a bucket list.
Wat Chong Kham and Wat Chong Klang are two Shan style temples next to each other at the Chong Kham lake close to the city center. Next to seeing them up close they are also stunning when viewed at night when they light up the lake.
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 chedi’s 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 or 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.
Ban Rak Thai / Mae Aw
About 40km to the North next to the Myanmar border is the small village Ban Rak Thai, formerly known as Mae Aw. Republicans from Yunnan that fled communist China, also known as “Kuo Min Tang”, built one of their settlements here in the early 1950’s. For decades the area was notorious for its smuggling routes through Burma into China. Nowadays it’s famous for its tea production.
The village is dotted with tea fields, which in turn are dotted with Chinese style mud houses. A small lake, tea houses and a mountain backdrop provide a wonderful scenery. 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 rented motorbike over the hilly, winding road. Views are breathtaking and the paved road ensures a smooth ride all the way.
Make a stop at the Su Tong Pe bamboo bridge. It connects the village of Kung Mai Sak with the Su Tong temple while crossing the river Sa Nga and several rice paddies. It’s located about 10km North of Mae Hong Son and just off road #1095.
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, as well as 1 day or multiple day treks in the mountains.
Most travelers visit Mae Hong Son as a stopover when traveling through Northern Thailand. If however, Mae Hong Son is your base and you want to venture beyond the area it’s perfectly possible to visit surrounding points of interest on day-trips. Any tour agent in the town center offers day trips to Chang Rai, Chiang Mai and Pai.
Don’t forget travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. Just remember, you are a million miles from any professional healthcare, just saying.
I use World Nomads, because they also cover adventurous activities like trekking and even your motor bike rental adventures (if you follow the rules). You can buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of your trip.
Where to stay in Mae Hong Son
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. Below are my recommendations.
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
Situated in a quiet part area on the outskirts of town. Close enough to the town center (2km) to either walk or cycle. Chances are that you will rent a bicycle/scooter anyway to explore the surroundings. There is a small and good restaurant on-site if you prefer not to go out. They have 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.
Sarm Mork Guesthouse
Dirt Cheap = Up to THB500
Surprisingly spacious, concrete bungalows in neon-green colors, with small seating outside. Such friendly owners that hardly speak English, but solve all problems, if any, with a smile. No breakfast, but very near to breakfast options and the lake with plenty of restaurants.
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 enjoyed if you have your own transport. Or let the reception desk arrange a driver for travel to town. Above all, the secluded location is actually the biggest draw of this resort. Piece and quiet amidst jungle and rice paddies, a brand new swimming pool, trekking straight from the resort and included breakfast. The wifi doesn’t cover the whole area, but I dare you to disconnect and unwind.
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Where to eat in Mae Hong Son
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 Shan food.
JiJi Restaurant (Niwet Pisan ~150m East from the TAT office). Cute little restaurant serving THB35 fried rice and THB75 curries. Closes at 8pm so eat early.
Salween River Restaurant (#23 Soi Pradit Jong Kham). Popular restaurant with travelers and expats. Serves Shan, Thai and Western dishes that are ok, but not great. Breakfast options are very good though. Prices are slightly higher than peer places, but the restaurant has a good ambiance.
Primavera (Khunlumprapas road, near the fork with Siri Mongkol road). Arguably the best thin crusted pizza in town.
New Home Kitchen (261 Moo 5 Pang Mu, at the North Eastern tip of the airport). Go where the locals eat. Tasty Thai dishes and some Shan specialties with nice food presentation for more than reasonable prices.
Morning market (Pha Nith Watana road) and Chong Kham Night market (lakeside, in front of Wat Chong Kham). Next to local produce these are top spots to find some delicious treats. Food vendors cook up their tasty Shan noodles and tea leaf salads together with ample snacking opportunities. Furthermore, there are actually two more small night markets just Northwest of the lake that offer tasty street food.