Mud spas, Longneck Karen, adventure caving, and the beauty of remote Mae Hong Son.
By Dave Stamboulis
Mae Hong Son lies far from the maddening tourist crowds, separated geographically from the northern urban outposts of Thailand by steep mountains. Much of the province is ringed by the Shan Hills on the Burmese border, with settlements lying in mist-laden river valleys surrounded by swathes of rice paddies. The area is an adventurers’ dream, and it offers some of Thailand’s best opportunities for outdoor exploration, including trekking, whitewater rafting, and caving in the grotto-filled Soppong region. Mae Hong Son is also known as a showcase for ethnic minorities, in particular the Burmese Kayan, more commonly known as the Longneck Karen.
While daily flights do come in from Chiang Mai, the only other option for getting there is via the tortuous roads from Chiang Mai and Pai over the mountains. They feature hundreds of serpentine curves, with plenty of natural beauty along the way. The route from Pai passes through the beautiful Soppong region, which is home to Tham Lot, one of the largest cave systems in Southeast Asia. Visitors can ride bamboo rafts along the Nam Long River, which flows right through the giant cave, as well as explore on foot. The longstanding Cave Lodge (Tel: 053 617203, www.cavelodge.com), run by an avid Australian spelunker, offers guided cave trips, along with white water kayaking and rafting journeys, as well as hill tribe trekking in the surrounding mountains.
The more roundabout way into Mae Hong Son follows the 350-kilometer “Mae Hong Son Loop,” a clockwise back route from Chiang Mai into the province that is popular with touring motorcyclists and bicycle riders. This road passes through the hamlet of Khun Yuam, now famous in Thai tourism for its Bua Tong giant sunflowers, which carpet the surrounding hills during the period of cool weather from November through January. The nearby Mae Surin Waterfall National Park offers hiking and camping experiences, and it boasts one of the country’s tallest falls, Namtok Mae Surin, which is more than 100 meters high. The National Park Department (Tel. 053 061073, www.dnp.go.th) provides accommodation and other services, and the Tung Bua Tong National Park (Tel: 053 612078) can give updates on the sunflowers.
The provincial capital of Mae Hong Son itself is a sleepy backwater that really has not changed much over the years. The town has a large ethnic Shan population, and if you happen to be in town around the start of April, attending the fabulously colorful Poi Sang Long novice monk festival is a must. Coming from the Burmese Shan tradition, young boys spend three days getting their locks shorn and then, dressed in outrageously colorful costumes, they parade around town in preparation to become novices. The Provincial Tourism Office (Tel: 053 612982-3) provides details of the festival.
The center of Mae Hong Son is dominated by the picturesque Chong Kham Lake, named for the adjoining temple that sits reflecting in it—a perfect spot for bicycling around or walking the quiet side streets. Several inexpensive guesthouses and tour agencies cluster in this area to assist the backpacking and foreign travel crowd. There are outstanding views of the surroundings from Wat Doi Tung, another temple that sits on a hill above the city, as well as plenty of other interesting temples to check out in town, like Wat Hua Wiang, whose multi-tiered roof is a great example of the local Burmese Shan style architecture.
Perhaps the biggest draws of Mae Hong Son are its infamous “longneck” villages, where Kayan refugees from Myanmar have been housed. Kayan women wear heavy brass coils around their necks, giving the appearance of an elongated neck (according to J.M. Kashishian in “Anatomy of a Burmese Beauty Secret,” National Geographic, 1979, 6th edition, the collarbones are actually crushed as opposed to the neck stretched). These women are on display for tourists, leading to a bit of a human zoo element. While many feel that the villages are a lesson in exploitation—foreigners must pay THB 300 to enter, a fee which goes into Thai businesses’ pockets and not to the Kayan who, as refugees, cannot operate businesses or work legally—the Kayan women do say that they can make some money selling their weavings and craft projects, and that their existence here is far more peaceful than the situation they fled across the border. Some visitors may feel uncomfortable with the experience, whereas photographers certainly can make some excellent portraits. To make the most of a visit, try not to join large group tours, and instead rent a car or hire a local driver and visit Ban Nai Soi, the farthest village from town to get away from the crowds. Make sure to buy some local souvenirs and spend some time talking to the women. A good number of the young Kayan girls have studied English in school and are happy to chat.
After all the outdoor adventuring in Mae Hong Son, travelers will surely be ready for a bit of pampering, so why not take advantage of one of Thailand’s most unusual attractions. Mae Hong Son is known for its geothermal activity, and about a decade ago, a hot spring was discovered with mineral-rich mud beneath it. Further testing revealed that its mineral content was similar to that found in the Dead Sea, and these days, the Phu Klone Spa (Tel: 053 282579, www.phuklon.co.th) offers rejuvenating mud scrubs, body masks, massages, and plenty of relaxing soaking in their hot swimming pool. Located 15 kilometers from Mae Hong Son town and surrounded by verdant rice paddies, Phu Klone is a great spot for truly unwinding.
Be forewarned that the mountains around Mae Hong Son are renowned for chilly weather at this time of year; nighttime temperatures can drop down to freezing. So, now is the opportunity to get out that winter jacket and have a real northern adventure!
Go: Nok Air (www.nokair.com) and Kan Airlines (www.kanairlines.com) offer daily flights from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Alternatively, hourly minibuses make the six- to seven-hour trip from Chiang Mai, stopping in Pai along the way.
Eat: Bai Fern Restaurant (87 Khunlumprapas Road, Tel: 053 611374, www.th-th.facebook.com/fernrestaurant.maehongson) has long set the standard for good meals in Mae Hong Son and features Shan and northern dishes, along with live music in the evenings.