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Mae Hong Son

Travel Guide

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Remote Mae Hong Son town, provincial capital of the remote eponymous province, is just a few kilometres from the Burmese border in Thailand's far northwest. The town is barely larger than Pai, thanks to the tourism boom there, and Mae Hong Son certainly has far fewer foreign tourists. A few more government buildings may be around and more cars zip along the roads, but Mae Hong Son has an even more laid back feel to it than its busier neighbour down the road. (On the surprisingly accurate Travelfish 7-Eleven scale of importance, both are mere two outlet towns!)

Whether you go for bustle or laid back, Mae Hong Son is definitely a more attractive town than Pai. The valley is much narrower, with barely enough room for the town and its airport as steep forested hills crowd in from every direction. The lake is an attractive feature in the centre of town and makes for a good evening stroll or picnic spot while several attractive Shan-style temples dot the town and overlooking hills. Plenty of old teak buildings still stand and unusually for a Thai provincial capital, there's a total lack of high rise. An incongruous four-lane ring road now mars the suburbs somewhat, but it's apparently part of a future scheme to connect Chiang Mai and Pai directly with Delhi or Tel Aviv or somewhere or another.

The population of Mae Hong Son is still largely Shan, an ethnic group inhabiting this whole northwest corner of Thailand which buts into Shan state over the border in Burma. A large number of northern Thais also live here, after arriving when the province was opened up in the 1980s with the completion of a sealed road from Chiang Mai and the regional airport.

The initial road hacked through the jungles and mountains was built by the Japanese during World War II, when Mae Hong Son was a forward staging post for the planned invasion of Burma. The completion of the sealed road brought under government control this formerly inaccessible, wild border region, which up until then had been under the domination of Shan and Kuomintang opium-funded armies. As with Pai, the newly tamed area was then swiftly opened up to tourists in search of remote and adventurous destinations for trekking.

The locals in Mae Hong Son, while friendly and polite, tend to be shyer and more reserved than Thais in other regions, adding to the very laid back feel to the place. The nouveau hippy ex-Chatuchak market crowd and the retired-from-Samui-because-it's-too-commercialised set seem to have all stopped in Pai, nor do you see in Mae Hong Song the mass of expats married to locals running bars and guesthouses. The numerous long-stay backpackers of Pai are also missing, meaning Mae Hong Son is bereft of the scene you get there -- no nightly parties and no New Age accoutrements.

Mae Hong Son is still very popular with Thais, particularly in winter (November to January), when the province is frequently the coolest in the kingdom, getting down to zero degrees Celsius in the mountains. (It's generally one of the hottest in summer, from March to May). Only a minority of foreign tourists plus fairly plentiful organised tour groups make it up this way.

For Thais the attraction is the remoteness and cool weather, while for foreigners it tends to be because-it's-there -- Mae Hong Son is the final stop for those wanting to just continue to the end of the road. There is some great scenery up here, as there is all over north Thailand, and there is some decent trekking, particularly to the east of Mae Hong Son town. With enough time you can make a good loop from Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Son, then back to Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang.

Mae Hong Son's foremost attraction these days are the human zoos known as "Long-neck villages". Villages of Karenni refuges from Burma, with the women wearing rings around their necks, are now de rigueur on any trekking itinerary. Whether or not to visit is a complex issue, which we discuss a little more here. A recent blow to Mae Hong Son has been the relocation of a Long-neck village to Chiang Mai province, so expect another one to be relocated to that vacant block behind Sukhumvit Soi 17 any time soon. If it's other hill tribes you're after, then Soppong is better. Most villages around Mae Hong Son are populated with Karen refuges, who tend not to wear traditional clothing as much, while members of the Lisu and Lahu groups are scarce.

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Text and/or map last updated on 3rd September, 2009.

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Mae Hong Son - Chiang Mai ฿378 5h 15m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 17:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 06:30, 11:00, 21:00
Mae Hong Son - Chiang Mai, Chom Thong ฿369 5h 15m
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Mae Hong Son - Chiang Mai, Hot ฿364 5h 5m
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  •   Bus VIP24 24 11:00, 21:00
Mae Hong Son - Chiang Mai, Mae Chaem ฿312 3h 45m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 21:00
Mae Hong Son - Chiang Mai, San Pa Tong ฿374 5h 35m
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Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam - Chiang Mai ฿319 4h 55m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 11:00, 21:00
Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam - Chiang Mai, Hot ฿319 3h 45m
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  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 11:00, 21:00
Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang - Chiang Mai ฿225 3h 25m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 00:30, 07:00, 08:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:30, 17:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 09:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 14:00, 15:00, 17:00, 21:00
Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang - Chiang Mai, Hot ฿187 1h 55m
  •   Bus VIP24 24 00:30, 07:00, 08:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:30, 17:00, 21:00
  •   Bus VIP24 24 07:00, 09:00, 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 14:00, 15:00, 17:00, 21:00
Mae Hong Son, Pai - Chiang Mai ฿195 2h 55m
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  •   Bus VIP24 24 06:30, 07:30, 08:30, 09:30, 10:30, 11:30, 12:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30, 17:30

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