A Traveller's Guide to Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Phra That Doi Kong Mu Temple can't be missed on a trip to Mae Hong Son
Phra That Doi Kong Mu Temple can't be missed on a trip to Mae Hong Son | © Nuwat Chanthachanthuek / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Sarah Williams
13 September 2021

Planning a trip to Mae Hong Son in Thailand? Here’s everything you need to know for a fabulous and fun adventure.

You can visit Mae Hong Son with a group of like-minded travellers on Culture Trip’s 10-day Northern Thailand tour, led by a Local Insider.

Located in Northern Thailand, Mae Hong Son is one of Thailand’s most remote provinces. Known for beautiful scenery, hill tribes and outdoor activities, Mae Hong Son is a top place to escape the tourist crowds and get off the beaten track. These tips will help you to plan a successful and enjoyable trip.

Arriving in Mae Hong Son

Frequent buses and minivans connect Mae Hong Son with Chiang Mai. Minivans are quicker, taking around five and half hours as compared to an eight-hour bus ride. Long-distance buses also connect the province with Bangkok – as the trip takes around 15 hours, night services are often more comfortable. Mae Hong Son does not have a train station – the closest station is in Chiang Mai. Mae Hong Son has a small airport (HGN), served by short flights from Chiang Mai (CNX).

Travelling around Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son Province is divided into seven districts: Mae Hong Son District, Pai, Mae Sariang, Khun Yuam, Sop Moei, Pang Mapha and Mae La Noi. These are split into more than 40 sub-districts and numerous villages.

Local buses and minivans connect Mae Hong Son’s major towns and villages, while songthaews are a good way to travel between smaller villages. Tuk tuks and motorbike taxis are useful for relatively shorter distances, though do agree a price beforehand. Some destinations are much easier to access with private transportation so many visitors opt to rent a car or scooter.

Mae Hong Son Loop

Ride a motorcycle on the Mae Hong Son Loop | © Jack Barker / Alamy Stock Photo

The Mae Hong Son Loop is a circular road that runs through many of the province’s major destinations. It starts and ends in Chiang Mai, winding its way along some 600km (373mi). A popular motor-biking route, the loop can also be accessed by public transport and car. People planning to complete the loop by motorbike should be experienced and confident riders – the roads are often steep and there are many curves and sharp bends. Always wear protective clothing, closed shoes and a helmet, and ensure that you have adequate travel insurance.

Accommodations in Mae Hong Son

You’ll find plenty of accommodation options around Mae Hong Son | Courtesy of Bella villa / Expedia

While you’ll find the biggest bulk of accommodations in Pai, Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son Town, there are small hotels, guesthouses and homestays scattered throughout the province. Prices are often affordable and, overall, Mae Hong Son is one of Thailand’s cheapest provinces to explore. Accommodations are often fairly basic, and the cheaper room options will likely come with cold water showers and electric fans.

Breeze is a budget-friendly option in Pai, with small but cute cottages. Pai Cherkaew is a quiet mid-range option and Baan Tawan has beautiful gardens. Pura Vida and Belle Villa are some of the area’s fanciest accommodations. In Mae Hong Son Town, popular options include Boondee House and Sang Tong Huts. Riverhouse Hotel, Baan Khue Wieng Resort and Chok-wasana Guest House are a few recommended accommodations in Mae Sariang.

Best things to see and do in Mae Hong Son

Natural attractions in Mae Hong Son

Explore the Lod Caves near Mae Hong Son | © Nirut Saelim / Alamy Stock Photo

The large Tham Lod cave system is well worth visiting, with interesting rock formations and ancient rock art. You can also explore parts of the system by rafting along the river. Cave enthusiasts are also sure to love exploring the calcite Kaeo Komon Cave Forest Park.

Pai Canyon is another hotspot, often ambitiously referred to as “The Grand Canyon of Thailand”. Plan to spend a good couple of hours exploring the area and try to stay to witness the incredible sunset. The Land Crack is one of the province’s most unusual natural attractions – erosion has caused the earth to split right open.

There are many waterfalls in Mae Hong Son, with some of the most beautiful including Mo Paeng, Pam Bok, Mae Yoi and Mae Yen. Peer into the fish-filled cave at Tham Pla National Park and gaze up at majestic teak and Asian redwood trees at Salawin National Park. Other national parks include Mae Ngao, Huai Nam Dang and Namtok Mae Surin. Soothe your mind and soul with a soak at Pha Bong, Mueang Paeng or Tha Pai hot springs. Pong Dueat Hot Spring has a geyser that spurts up to 2m (6.5ft) into the air.

Outdoor adventures in Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son appeals to fans of the great outdoors, with rolling mist-covered mountains, lush valleys and dense jungles to explore. There are plentiful opportunities for hiking, with rugged trails that pass waterfalls, local villages and stunning viewpoints, all while exposing visitors to the fascinating flora and fauna of Mae Hong Son. Keen mountain bikers will also find plenty of trails for thrills and challenges.

Get out on the water and go bamboo rafting in a lake | © Napon Tippayamontol / Alamy Stock Photo

Leisurely boat rides let you soak up the scenic vistas from a different perspective, while there’s always a chance you may get wet with a spot of bamboo rafting or tubing. Feeling more adventurous? Try kayaking, canoeing or whitewater rafting. Other outdoor activities in Mae Hong Son include caving, climbing, ATV riding and elephant encounters. Visit an ethical sanctuary if getting up close and personal with Thailand’s national animal is on your bucket list.

Cultural sites in Mae Hong Son

Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu at dawn in Mae Hong Son | © Panther Media GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

The Shan-style hilltop temple of Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu is one of Mae Hong Son’s most revered temples. It has a large gleaming Buddha statue and two impressive pagodas. The lakeside Wat Chong Kham in Mae Hong Son Town is especially beautiful when illuminated at night. Wat Jong Klang has an on-site museum with a large selection of traditional Burmese dolls. Other awesome temples include Wat Hua Wiang, Tham Wua Forest Monastery, Wat Toong Pong and Wat Phra That Mae Yen with its huge white Buddha.

Learn more about local culture, people and traditions at Mae Hong Son Living Museum and Mae Sariang’s cultural museum. Pai Memorial Bridge, originally built during World War II but now reconstructed, has a sad history.

Ethnic villages in Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son is home to many ethnic groups, often referred to as hill tribes, many of whom live in traditional villages and retain a way of life that has endured the ages. Visitors are welcomed to the villages of Huay Sua Tao and Pha Ma Lo to meet the resident Red Karen/Padaung population, part of the larger Kayan group. Drive out to the border village of Ban Rak Thai, one of Thailand’s most charming villages and mainly home to descendants of Chinese soldiers. The remote border village of Mae Sam Laep also offers fascinating insights into life at the edge of two countries.

Santichon Village, also known as Pai Chinese Village, began life as a place of refuge for people fleeing the Mao regime. Today, the replica village showcases traditional buildings and has many shops selling anything from Chinese tea and herbal remedies to vases, fans and items used for spirit worship. Tham Mae Lana is a great place to discover more about the life of the Thai Yai. Khun Yuam Indigenous Cultural Center and the Tribal Development & Assistance Center are more top spots for people interesting in anthropology.

Other Mae Hong Son highlights

Look out for traditional handicrafts at markets to take home as unique souvenirs. The Morning Market in Mae Hong Son Town is a top place to fill up on tasty food for breakfast. Alternatively, hit the Night Market for dinner. Pai Walking Street is also perfect for foodies. Pai Circus School is one of the province’s more unusual attractions. Learn new skills like juggling, trapeze acrobatics, hooping, diablo and fire dancing, all while having heaps of fun with a cool bohemian crowd.

Time your visit right and you might catch a festival in Mae Hong Son | © Dave Stamboulis / Alamy Stock Photo

If you visit in March you can watch the spiritual celebrations for Poy Sang Long Festival, a time when young boys ordain as novice monks at the twin temples of Wat Chong Kham and Wat Jong Klang. The colourful festival of Chong Phara usually takes place in October.

Eating and drinking in Mae Hong Son

Tea leaf salad, or lahpet thoke, is a local speciality in Mae Hong Son | © Tades Yee / Alamy Stock Photo

Although Mae Hong Son isn’t known for being a nightlife destination, you’ll find a great selection of laid-back and low-key bars throughout the province, with Pai offering the most choices.

You’ll have no problem finding small restaurants and street stalls to satisfy your appetite. Many guesthouses, particularly in Pai and Mae Hong Son Town, have restaurants that serve a range of classic Western comfort food along with typical Thai dishes. Do be sure to try some northern dishes too, with influences from Burmese and Laotian fare. Local specialities include too•a poo un, Burmese noodles with split pea porridge, kow soy, a Northern Thai noodle curry soup, moo dup (grilled pork) and lahpet thoke, flavourful tea leaf salad from Shan State.

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