If you enjoy remote mountainous areas, on your route through northern Thailand you should not miss a visit to Mae Hong Son. Located in the northwest tip of the country, next to the Burmese border, this city of just about 7,000 inhabitants rests quietly among wooded mountain ranges that taint the area with all shades of green (a very high percentage of the forest reserves in Thailand are in this province) and create an idyllic setting that’s perfect both for quiet contemplation and hiking.
Mae Hong Son Province was formerly part of the Burmese Shan States until 1893, when it was annexed to Siam as a result of the Anglo-Siamese Boundary Commission, that kept the neighbouring territories located on the east side of the Salween River as part of British Burma. Mae Hong Son, with its border-town vibe and strong Burmese influence, is not a top tourist destination, the proportion of guesthouses and western-style restaurants is minimal compared to northern starlets as Chiang Mai and Pai, and walking in the streets you’ll find more locals and Thais than foreigners.
The city of Mae Hong Son is really quiet, and there is not much more to do other than enjoy its temples -very different from what you can see in Bangkok or Chiang Mai-, and walk around the central lake and along its calm streets, visiting the odd artisan or food market. But the charm of Mae Hong Son is rather found in its fabulous mountain surroundings, perfect for lovers of hiking, and if you stay a few days it is almost mandatory to rent a motorcycle or a car to explore the region and enjoy the beauty of its green landscapes.
Mae Hong Son is well-known in the tourist circuit for its nearby Long-Neck Karen villages, also knownn as Kayan, Padaung or Giraffe Women. Many describe these villages, which nowadays rely on tourism to survive, as human zoos, and although it is much more complex than this, we strongly recommend to do a little research before deciding whether or not to visit them.
Mae Hong Son is reached from Chiang Mai after 6-8 hours by road, a long journey of neverending curves that tests the stomach of travelers. Many choose to split the trip with an intermediate stop in Pai, a beautiful backpacker and hippie enclave halfway there. Others choose to explore Northwest Thailand at a slower pace, and ride a motorbike on the famous Mae Hong Son loop, a circular route from Chiang Mai, which is an excellent option if you are an experienced driver traveling in the dry season and have time enough.
ℹ️ Top Things to Do in Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son Temples
Temples in Mae Hong Son are different from what you will see elsewhere in Thailand, due to the colorful influence of Shan and Burmese influences. The most popular temples in town are Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang, and their white and golden chedis and spires refected on the water of Jong Kham lake are actually the most iconic image of Mae Hong Son. Besides these, you shouldn’t miss Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, located on top of a hill west of the city, which offers amzing views of the city and its surrounding valleys, especially at sunrise, when a spectacular sea of mist often partially covers the views, and at sunset, when the sun hides over Myanmar on the opposite side of the hill.
As in any other Thai town, one of the best ways to soak in the local atmosphere is by visiting the local markets. Despite its small size, Mae Hong Son town offers quite a few options to choose from. The main Day Market is similar to any rural provincial market in Thailand, with the peculiarity of having many Shan and Burmese products, so it’s guaranteed you’ll find a few extra items you’ll have no clue what they might be. Visit as early as possible, since it starts to wind down after mid morning. The Night Market is mainly a string of food stalls selling pre-cooked local dishes, including a wide range of curries, a good option to sample some local specialities although there’s not much seating space. If you are in town on a weekend morning, Sunday Market -which actually is active on Saturdays as well- is worth a wander, with a wide range of products including clothes, household goods, fruits and vegetables. Finally, in the dry season evenings (October-March) there is a handicrafts market by the Jong Kham lake, where you can find wear from the main hill-tribes in the area, mostly Karen, Hmong and Lisu. The Night Market sets up every evening on the pavement of Pha Nith Watana Rd. The Sunday Market sets up just south of town, along the lane that connects Khunlumprapas Rd and the bus station. Finally, the ethnic handicrafts market sets up along Pradit Jong Kham Rd right by the lake.
Su Tong Pae Bridge
This beautiful 500 meter long bamboo bridge that runs across paddy fields and a small river was only built in 2012, and has quickly become a popular site amongst tourists, both Thais and foreigners. Best time to visit is early morning around 6 o’clock, when the monks and novices from a nearby temple walk across it on their way to collect alms. This visit can be easily combined with other interest sites in the area, as Pha Suan waterfall or the Country Club mud spa, or can be a nice stop if you’re travelling between Mae Hong Son and Pai or Soppong.
There are two Kayan villages that you can easily visit from Mae Hong Son town. This ethnic group, known colloquialy by many as “long-necks”, are originary from Myanmar’s Kayah State, right across the border from Mae Hong Son province, and have been living on the Thai side of the border for generations, taking shelter from the chronic armed struggle in their homeland. Certainly, the touristic Kayan villages near Mae Hong Son are not blatantly human zoos as some in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Get informed and make your choice. While some travelers appreciate and enjoy the visit, others would prefer to be stung by a bee. If you decide to visit, the most popular is Huay Suea Tao, where the traditional old village has been turned into a souvenir and hadicraft market, run by locals dressed in traditional costume, while the rest of the population lives in a less picturesque adjacent village, where they are not bothered by tourism. There is a 250 THB entrance fee that, according to locals, mostly goes to the residents of the village. Huay Suea Tao is 12 km southwest of Mae Hong Son, and to get there you must drive past Ban Tha Phong Daeng, cross the bridge over river Pai and keep driving along that sealed road for another 8 km. The other nearby Kayan village, Huay Phu Keng, lies by the shore of the river Pai, and is accessed by boat from the pier at Ban Huay Duea village, about 8 km south of Mae Hong Son town. Boats cost around 600 THB/return trip, including waiting time for the visit.
Tham Pla National Park
Tham Pla Pha Seua is a huge National Park that covers most of the northwestern corner of Mae Hong Son province. The most popular sites inside the park are the ones that give it a name: Tham Pla (Fish Cave) and the beautiful waterfall Pha Seua. Entrance fee is 100 THB. Located just off Highway 1095, Tham Pla is a shallow cave that contains a pond crammed with fat carps, very popular among Thais who come here to feed them, and by doing so supposedly increase their spiritual merit. Near the entrance booth there is a string of cafes and eateries that are a simple but excellent option. Pha Seua is a beautiful waterfall surrounded by lush jungle, especially impressive in the rainy season, with a few trails that allow some exploration of the forested area beyond the falls.
The lush forested mountains of Mae Hong Son province, dotted with villages from a huge variety of ethnic groups, make an excellent trekking destination. You can choose between day hikes or multi-day trekkings, with options to suit different difficulty levels. The trekkings offered in Mae Hong Son town use different mountain areas, mainly Soppong district (65 km northeast), the area between MHS town and the burmese border, and Nam Tok Mae Surin National Park (45 km south). Trek prices usually range between 1.500 and 2.000 THB/person per day, depending upon the number of participants (minimum 2 people), the duration and difficulty of the trek, and if there are any extras (such as bamboo rafting) included. We strongly recommend choosing something longer than a 1 day trek so that you can overnight in a mountain village, which offers the chance to have some real interaction with local inhabitants, one of the most rewarding highlights that these treks can offer, and well worth the lack of comfort. Some long-running reliable agents in town are Garden Rose Tour and Sawasdee Tour, but in fact any guesthouse will sell you a trek or provide you with information.
🏨 Where to stay in Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son Centre
Best for: All kinds of travelers
Accommodation available: Hostels, guest houses, and basic midrange Hotels.
✔️ Many accommodation options, even though mostly lackluster.
✔️ Easy access to all kinds of restaurants ans services.
✔️ Urban but green and rather quiet.
✔️ Most accomodation is found at Chamnansahit St and Udom Chao Ni-Thet Rd.
✔️ On low season some are open to negotiate room rates.
Mae Hong Son Outskirts
Best for: Travelers looking for an even greener surrounding
Accommodation available: Guest houses and 3* Resorts
✔️ Surrounded by green and nature.
✔️ Quieter area.
✔️ Only if you have your own wheels.
🧭 Itinerary to visit Mae Hong Son
Provided you have your own wheels, one full day is enough to explore the highlights in Mae Hong Son:
✈️ Arriving to Mae Hong Son
You can get to Mae Hong Son either by road from Chiang Mai, as most travelers do, or by flying from Chiang Mai or Bangkok, although flight schedules are rather unreliable:
✈️ By plane
Fastest option when available
📍 From Bangkok and Chiang Mai
➡️ Flight schedules for Mae Hong Son are seasonal, erratic and change often, so it is advisable to check well in advance.
➡️ Flights are sometimes cancelled due to low visibility, caused by mist, clouds and/or smoke from slash and burn agriculture in dry season.
➡️ At the time of writing there are Mae Hong Son has one daily air connection with Chiang Mai (CNX), with Nok Air, and Bangkok (DMK) with Bangkok Airways.
➡️ Mae Hong Son’s small airport (HGN) is located almost literally downtown, only 1 km from central Nong Jong Kham lake.
🚌 By bus
Cheaper, slower and most common option
📍 From Chiang Mai
➡️ From Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Terminal there are 10 daily departures to Mae Hong Son, from 06:30 to 14:30, and a night bus at 21:00.
➡️ You can choose between air-con minibus (250 THB, 6 hours), fan bus (140 THB, 8 hours) and air-con bus (350 THB, 7 hours).
➡️ Once at Mae Hong Son’s bus station, you can get to town either by taking a mototaxi (40 THB/person) or a tuk-tuk (60 THB/2 people).