On a recent trip to Northern Thailand, I finally got to visit Mae Hong Son Province and its principal towns – Pai and Mae Hong Son. The northern capital of Chiang Mai is the gateway to start exploring this region and provides an opportunity to combine the city based attractions with rural exploration and adventure.
I travelled overnight on the air-conditioned sleeper train from Bangkok although most people tend to prefer to fly. The train takes approximately 12 hours whilst the flight lasts only one hour and a number of airlines ply the route numerous times a day. I was lucky not to be in a rush on this occasion and spent a couple of nights in Chiang Mai re-visiting the city’s awe-inspiring temples. Despite visiting Chiang Mai fairly regularly, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time in the temples since my backpacking days and I was pleasantly surprised by how much more interesting and spectacular they were to me this time around. Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai exhibit a mixture of architectural styles that reflect the varied heritage of Northern Thailand. Elements from Lanna Thai, Burmese, Sri Lankan and Mon temples have all been used in one form or another. Being very familiar with Sri Lanka, I was intrigued to increasingly be able to identify cultural and historical links (Lanna and Burmese alphabets bare a distinct similarity with the Sinhala script in Sri Lanka). Chiang Mai city has over 300 temples and the genuine enthusiast could spend weeks exploring them. For mere mortals, however, a day or two tends to be enough, particularly with a quality guide. I stayed at the excellent Manathai Village which has an excellent location in the heart of the city and was an oasis of calm and tranquillity to return to in the evenings.
So, from Chiang Mai, we departed for Pai, a drive of roughly three hours. The road is famous for its seemingly endless bends but the stunning mountain scenery more than makes up for the continuous twisting and turning. En-route we stopped at some incredible hot springs and some interesting temples shrouded in legend too long and convoluted to try and recollect and recount here.
Pai itself is a funny old town these days. Once a hippy traveller enclave, the riverside town has evolved into a charming crossroads of contemporary eastern and western cultures. The towns’ buildings are designed, decorated and furnished in a charming fashion that reflects the various influences over the years. Popularity amongst Thai travellers has also increased and despite the increase in numbers a distinct charm and air of relaxation prevail. Nowadays Pai attracts a real mix of visitors, from young backpackers (who probably lose weeks in the place) to the more casual visitor who tends to spend a night or two, and the range of accommodation on offer reflects this.
The selection of quality food and restaurants is quite remarkable for a small town of this size and the quaint night market had plenty of interesting crafts and wares on display. Pai feels to some extent like a movie set rather than a rural Thai town, but that is entirely the charm for most visitors – it’s a place with its own artistic identity, unlike anywhere else in the country. The surrounding areas offer lots of adventurous excursion options with rafting and trekking to minority (Karen, Lisu, Lahu & Hmong) villages the most popular. Most of the resorts and hotels are located out of town, usually overlooking the river, but all have free shuttle service to and from the main centre.
Back on the windy roads, the scenery gets even more breathtaking as you continue the onward drive to Mae Hong Son. We had a thrilling day, stopping en-route at the enormous Tham Lod Cave, where we took a bamboo raft into the dark, cavernous space and marvelled at stalactites and stalagmites that eerily resembled familiar objects (my favourite being a Buddha in prayer posture). Before reaching Mae Hong Son itself we stopped outside the town and continued on Elephant back through the jungle. A two-hour trek spent admiring the countryside ended by wading through a river where our vehicle was waiting for us once more. From here we proceeded to charter a traditional longtail boat for a delightful afternoon river ride. The journey took us past many small villages with kids and animals frolicking in the water as the sun thankfully eased out of the sky. We stopped at a ‘long-neck Karen’ village where I finally saw with my own eyes the bizarre and confusing spectacle that adorns many postcards and guide books. Contrary to popular belief,
the women’s necks do not actually stretch but the collar bones collapse, giving the impression of an elongated neck. It’s a bizarre spectacle and there are numerous theories about how the practice started. Visiting these villages is thought provoking on a number of levels and overall I was pleased to have been. The town is literally a stone’s throw from the border with Burma and many of the tribal people are refugees who have settled in Thailand. Indeed, the province of Mae Hong Son is, ethnically and historically, particularly diverse and offers fascinating travel experiences for those who want to get off the beaten track.
Aside from trekking, cycling, walking, bird watching and other such adventurous pursuits, Mae Hong Son has some of the most interesting temples I have come across. With a distinct Burmese influence, the temples of Wat Phra That Doi Kong, Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang are some of the most beautiful and decorative I have visited. Their picturesque setting and fabulous museums of carvings, artefacts and relics make them a must for temple lovers.
Mae Hong Son town is pretty unremarkable in itself but it is the surroundings that people come to visit. We stayed at the Fern Resort, which is located a few kilometres out of the town and is unquestionably one of my personal favourite resorts in Thailand. I had no idea quite how special this place was going to be – photos just don’t do it any justice. It’s the harmony and balance of all the different elements that make it so special. Understated, unpretentious and idyllic, its gardens and accommodation offer one of the most peaceful and enchanting places to unwind that I can think of.
I was travelling in the off season for this part of Thailand. March and April is the dry season when farmers in the region slash and burn their crops in anticipation of the rains. Temperatures can get very hot (it was often over 40 degrees) and visibility and air quality can be a problem. I found this to be fine personally, although the haze does mean that flights from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai are frequently delayed or cancelled due to poor visibility. On the other hand, the winter months (November to February) can be pleasantly chilly and you will need warm clothes in the evenings. If you didn’t fancy the driving element and were uninterested by stopping in Pai, you could fly in and out of Mae Hong Son and spend more time relaxing and exploring from there. Contact us at Experience Travel to discuss how you could tailor a similar trip to fit into one of your itineraries.