Mae Hong Son is Thailand’s most northwestern province and hugs the border with Myanmar. It is characterised by green, undulating mountains and is a popular place to explore on a motorbike. Pai (more here) is the main traveller destination in Mae Hong Son, but if you have some extra time then getting out of the backpacker hub is definitely worth doing for better exposure to local Thai people and beautiful views. You will see some spectacular mountain scenery and get a feel for the local culture much more than in northern cities such as Chiang Mai and Pai. Read on for my tips on some of the more unexplored towns in Mae Hong Son province.
My partner and I did a four night round trip on our motorbike during which we stopped in Tham Lot (Pang Mapha district), Mae Hong Son city and Mae Aw (Ban Rak Thai). A motorbike or scooter is the best way to do this but be careful on the roads most of which are very steep and windy.
Soppong/ Tham Lot
Tham Lot is up the hill from Soppong in Pang Mapha district. It is a small, rather quiet little village where visitors mostly come to visit the famous Lod Cave. As a result there isn’t a huge amount to do apart from caving activities and exploring the beautifully scenic surrounds.
There is little accommodation in the area, but we cannot recommend Cave Lodge more highly. Run by expert caver John, this is the place to stay if you want some interesting knowledge about the area and to see the caves in a safe and guided way. Bungalows are basic but very reasonably priced and the best thing about this hostel is the huge number of activities on offer. From short kayaking through cave trips to few day treks, John will sort out whatever you want to do. He runs a very smooth operation getting everyone off to their respective activities in the morning. John speaks fluent Thai so if you need to request gluten free meals or have any other special requirements, you can rest assured he will help you out.
There is a nice communal area to relax in with hammocks and plenty of food on offer. John can give you some suggestions of where to head if you’re on a motorbike, but the roads do get very, very steep (we struggled climbing up even in first gear) so treat them with respect. Overall this is a great place to stay for some quality outdoor activities and a chance to experience gluten free food you can eat Mae Hong Son.
We opted for a half day kayaking and caving trip. We had our guide to ourselves and although he only spoke limited English he was helpful and fun. During the morning went inside the famous Lod Cave, first by boat and then we walked around it a bit. Afterwards we paddled down stream to Hair Cave, which we went deep inside. Being alone in the cave with just the bats to keep us company was quite a thrill. Both Lod Cave and Hair Cave house very interesting formations and our guide was very adept at finding holes that we could squeeze through to venture further in. The end of the tour was rafting in the inflatable kayaks downstream to be picked up. It was rough at times and there eye a few bigger drops to navigate down. We all laughed a lot and had a fantastic time!
Eating Apart from enjoying the tasty food on offer at Cave Lodge, which is particularly good for breakfast we visited a couple of other places in the area.
Unamed restaurant: (Good Cook on Google). This was a nice little place to eat on the way to Cave Lod. We had two meals here as it was both affordable and tasty – the chicken curry in and papaya salads in particular were very nice. The staff were able to adjust some of their meals to be gluten free after we explained that I could not eat the ‘special’ curry, which included fried chicken. It was easily the best value restaurant we visited in the area. Google street view’s photo of this area is a little out of date – there is a restaurant fully equipped with seats and tables here I promise!
Mae Hong Son city
The journey from Tham Lot to Mae Hong Son city on our motorbike brought more amazing scenery and challenging roads. It’s about 82kms which took us around two hours at a comfortable place. Mae Hong Son is very much a city and there isn’t a lot to do there, but we managed to spend a very pleasant afternoon visiting temples and enjoying some great food.
We stayed at The Palm House, which turned out to be in a great location for what we wanted out of the city. At 300฿ this is definitely budget accommodation, but it is very clean and comfortable with private bathrooms, television and airconditioner in the rooms. The description in Lonely Planet of an owner who speaks good English and is very willing to help when he’s not sleeping could not be more apt. I suggest phoning to make a reservation: PH: 0 5361 4022
From Palm House it is a five-minute walk to a lake where there are two nice restaurants where we ate some really nice food.
Salween River Restaurant: Shan (a state in Northeastern Myanmar) food that is really tasty. I particularly recommend the Burmese tea leaf salad and the beef and pineapple curry. Both are great gluten free options and this was the first curry we had found in Thailand where the chunks of beef were very big and juicy. The iced lemon and soda water is also delicious. The staff were friendly and we left the restaurant feeling very full for a good price.
There is another unnamed restaurant just around the Lake from Salween River Restaurant. This is a nice to enjoy dinner as you look over the lake and listen to live music in the restaurant. Classic Thai fare and a good selection of drinks for a fairly reasonable price considering this restaurant’s location.
Mae Hong Son city activities
Around this lake there a few active temples where lots of monks walking around. They are free to enter, but you won’t spend long after a short look.
A nice place to go is Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu on the top of the hill in the centre of Mae Hong Son. You could walk up, but it would be fairly tough in the heat. There are motorbike taxis that can take you up of you don’t have your own transport. We drove up in time for sunset and although you couldn’t actually see the sun, the dusk light and fairy lights were beautiful on the pagoda.
Another attraction surrounding Mae Hong Son is the Pooklon Country Spa mud baths. We stopped to have a look on our way past, but it was very expensive to be covered in mud and mostly full of Chinese tour buses.
Also known as Ban Rak Thai I would suggest this is a must visit on a more involved tour of Mae Hong Son province. This Chinese village was settled by the KMT, the Chinese Nationalists that fled Chinese when the Communists gained power under Mao. As a result this village is very much Chinese, which is obvious in the architecture and the abundance of tasty teas. Getting up to the village is via a very steep road. Take it slowly, but it is well worth it once you get up there.
A night should be enough to take in the beautiful sites, sample the local tea and fruit wine (interesting but not amazing) and have some local food. The village is set on a lake with many restaurants and accommodation overlooking the water.
We stayed at Ping Ping Guesthouse for 300฿. The room was basic, but everything we needed – it is much cooler up in the hills so we were fine without a fan or air-conditioning. The owner spoke little English, but she is very friendly and we communicated without issue. She even brought us some freshly cooked corn as we sat by the water and drank our fruit wine in the evening.
Food and drink
During the day we visited a coffee shop on the main road, where you can sit on a cute little porch that overlooks the water. The coffee was strong and tasty and we were given three different teas to try for free. The staff are here very friendly here.
Unamed restaurant: The cheapest and tastiest food we found in Rak Ban Thai serving Burmese tea salad and Yunnanese noodle-based dishes. There are plenty of rice noodle choices to cater for your gluten free needs. Expect to pay 35-40฿ a dish. The family that own the place don’t speak much English, but their Mandarin is excellent! Being in Mae Aw they of course treated us to some delightful complimentary tea with our dinner. The sign outside contains no Roman script but this Google location is accurate (although street view obviously visited before this place opened up).
Apart from just wandering around the village and sitting by the lake enjoying the views, it is worth venturing up to the water reservoir, about 7km away from Mae Aw, for beautiful views and to drive through some of the local villages. Communities of Shan people (a state in Myanmar) live here and the children are overjoyed to see foreigners drive past. They wave and shout enthusiastically, enough to brighten anyone’s day!
Final words on Mae Hong Son
I hope these articles have proved a useful tool for anyone interested in venturing off the beaten track in the North of Thailand. Look out for my articles on gluten free travel in Thailand and other Asian countries coming soon.