As with accommodation options, Mae Hong Son’s rather limited bar and restaurant options reflect the limited number of visitors and the relatively small number of restaurant-going residents in what is one of the country’s smaller provincial capitals.
The selection of in-town eateries, mostly set along the main drag, Khunlumprapas Road and dotted among the grid of streets stretching from the lakeside up to the market does hold variety at least and you’ll find pub-grub, Italian, Burmese and Shan options amid the standard Thai offerings.
As you’d expect the municipal market is home to a decent collection of food and cafe boran—traditional style coffee-stalls and is a good spot to start the day if you’re feeling adventurous. Most food stalls set up on the Langpanich (sometimes known as Panich Wattana) Road side of the market where you’ll find a clutch of spots selling Thai and Shan noodle dishes and soups as well as juice and coffee. Cheap and cheerful with early mornings being the time when you’ll catch the market at it’s liveliest.
For a more classic Western brekkie then Crossroads, at the corner of Khunlumprapas and Singhanat Bamrung, has a wide choice of reasonably priced food options and decent coffee though a disadvantage is that they don’t open their doors until 09:00.
For those who appreciate a morning sugar hit then the small Alawaa Coffee, right opposite Wat Jong Kham, has a range of teas, coffees and juices plus a tempting bakery selection including cheesecake, brownies, cakes and pastries. It isn’t the cheapest coffee shop in town but they have a pleasant indoor air-con seating area as well as terrace tables and the WiFi’s good so it’s not a bad spot to start the day although again they don’t open before 08:30 and do close on Sundays.
For early risers, Kiang Doi, (not connected to the guesthouse of the same name next door), dishes up a good locally sourced brew, albeit lacking the bakery, and is conveniently located amid a clutch of guesthouses if you want an upgrade on your complimentary instant sachet. Otherwise, the popular and newly opened 77 House apposite Baiyoke Chalet or the equally well-frequented Salween, just up from the lake opposite the tourist police, claim to open at 07:30 and 08:00 respectively with both offering a range of inexpensive Western-style breakfasts, fresh juices and no less than 2 menu pages of coffees. The latter also has a useful book exchange for those who still read hard copies.
Both of the above are not bad lunch options either with comprehensive menus of local and international dishes. Salween’s includes various Burmese and Shan alternatives (from 50 to 80 baht) though frankly if you’ve visited Burma and enjoyed the food you’ll be disappointed by these watered down versions. We didn’t try the full range of 77’s local offerings but their 70 baht khao soi was definitely above average and the funky decor makes it a hit with the Mae Hong Son lunch crowd as well as what we assume are young foreign aid workers and missionaries. You do pay a bit extra for the decor and though you can get a competent pad Thai for 60 baht 180 seemed a bit steep for a north Thai style curry, gaeng hanglay.
Less flavour of the month and slightly out of the way but well worth seeking out is N and J’s Kitchen tucked down the western continuation of Singhanat Bamrung past Crossroads. The decor isn’t fancy but the Thai favourites are solid, copious and good value plus it’s another location where WiFi works well.
For more authentic local specialities then the number of Thai diners demonstrates Kai Mook to be a good choice and with a just off Khunlumprapas location they offer an extensive range of Thai classics with a few Shan touches and honest prices.
Another address offering both Thai and International cuisine and popular with both residents and visitors is Fern Restaurant slightly south of the centre but again on Khunlumprapas. Prices for their steaks and pasta dishes as well as their Thai and more local, Shan-style, offerings are higher than our previous suggestions but they do emphasise quality products and some, at least, of their vegetables are organically grown in their eponymously named out of town resort’s garden. The setting is decidedly classier with white table linen and lots of dark varnished wood though the would-be fine dining experience is somewhat compromised by rather tacky live music. We’re not actually sure if it’s a nightly feature but on busy nights it can get pretty loud and raucous so contrary to first appearances it may not be the place for a quiet romantic dinner.
Perhaps more romantic, certainly in terms of a delightful sunset view of the temples across Jong Kham, is the lakeside Sunflower Cafe. It’s more spacious restaurant than cafe and the odd faux cavern decor doesn’t score many romantic points but a great location and competent local and international food makes it a popular spot during high season. They too feature what passes for live music during busy periods though they were temporarily closed on our last rainy season visit. Some claimed it was for a much needed revamp of their tired decor while more cynical observers reckoned they didn’t have enough punters to cover the large establishment’s staff and electricity bills. (Let us know how it’s looking if you do pass by.)
Another address that is notorious for erratic opening times is the Meeting Bar also on the lakeside, right next door to Sunflower. On a good night the little two-storey bar can get very lively and is popular with both visitors and Mae Hong Son’s more rock orientated crowd and for once their occasional live music offerings are well worth catching. On a bad night, we get the impression the owner just can’t be bothered to turn up. They do serve some decent Thai bar grub but it is more bar than restaurant.
Another option for good Thai food and again the number of local customers is a good sign is Baiyoke Chalet’s in-house eatery back on Khunlumprapas. For a mid-range hotel their local dishes are above average and also reasonably priced. There’s an indoor, air-con dining room though we also reckon their street-facing terrace makes for one of those great people watching spots. Another in-house eatery worth mentioning is Sang Tong Huts where Thai and Shan, as well as international specialities, are served up in their delightful garden setting. Local dishes are somewhat toned down for foreign visitors but remain reasonably authentic and are of good quality with honest prices. Don’t turn up too late though and in low season you’d be better calling in advance to make sure the cook doesn’t go home.
Also in the Thai category and another that’s a bit tucked away is the cosy and friendly Little Good Things located on the road, Chamnan Satit, leading down the side of Wat Jong Klang past Alawaa. Specialising in Thai and Shan vegetarian options it’s worth the five-minute walk from the lake though sadly they only open for lunch and generally close evening times from 17:00 onwards.
Finally, for local food, you also have the night market and in high season at least the walking street market. The latter is excellent for grazing with plentiful local style snacks to be picked up while the former has an extensive array of pre-cooked Thai dishes available though does lack seating. Useful if you’re staying at Pana or Baan Mai though where you have access to a kitchen.
For international fare in the evening, the aforementioned 77 House, Sunflower and Salween all offer a variety of western dishes while Crossroads has an excellent and good value selection of classic pub grub fare such as pizzas, burgers and sandwiches plus a range of salads. Their standard Thai dishes go for around 60 to 80 baht and a decent sized pizza for 180-ish. 77 kicks off with pasta dishes from 100 baht up with steaks going for between 250 and 490. As mentioned, fancier Fern aims higher both in terms of quality and pricing.
More specialist foreign eateries include the low-key La Tasca just up from Baiyoke on Khunlumprapas or the smarter Primavera located in the Mae Hong Son Plaza on the southern section of the same road heading down towards the bus station. As the names suggest both offer Italian fare with the former being Thai owned but Italian trained and the latter Western managed. The unpretentious cafe style La Tasca serves up cheap and competent pasta dishes with copious servings going for 100 up to 150 baht or pizzas at 150 to 200 though for the best wood-fired pizza in town, plus an extensive pasta and steak selection, the well-run and well-decorated Primavera is the place to go.
You’ll find a couple of our favourite coffee shop suggestions in amongst the earlier breakfast options so moving on to bars, the first thing to note is that Mae Hong Son is devoid of either the Pai-style mojito bucket at dawn or Chiang Mai’s Loi Kroh Road hostess bars. In fact it’s relatively devoid of many bars full stop. Meeting Point, as we said, on a good day can be a lively and fun spot with occasional, decent live music and Sunflower has a great terrace to sup a cold one early evening. 77 House has a wine list if that’s your tipple while otherwise, you’re rather limited to the old Crossroads Bar. This is perhaps the closest you’ll get to a Pai-style drinking hole with graffiti coated walls and cheaply priced cocktails but it is a one-size fits all drinkery and gets a mixed crowd of young and old; locals, expats and tourists and staff members are friendly and the atmosphere convivial. As we implied, it’s not really a bar kind of town but this should keep you watered and amused for a night or two.
Our personal recommendations then, though this is for example’s sake and we wouldn’t normally eat and drink that much—honest—is as follows: a wake-up brew at Kiang Doi before heading over to the market for a Shan noodle breakfast. On to a healthy, light lunch at Good Little Things to compensate for the subsequent afternoon tea of iced mocha and mango cheesecake at Alawaa before grabbing a strategic table for a sunset beer at Sunflower. Dinner would be at either Kai Mook, if we fancied local, or Primavera if we were feeling riced-out followed by a nightcap or two at Crossroads. Not a bad line-up and you may even have time to visit some sites in-between.
77 House’s Coffee and Foods 77 Khunlumprapas Rd, Jong Kham; T: (053) 611 977, (094) 712 2777; Mo–Su: 07:30–22:30.
Alawaa Coffee Chamnan Satit Rd, opposite Wat Jong Kham, Jong Kham; Mo–Sa: 08:30–17:30.
Baiyoke Chalet 90 Khunlumprapas Rd, Jong Kham; T: (053) 613 132–9; Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.
Crossroads Bar and Restaurant 16 Khunlumprapas Rd, Jong Kham; T: (081) 0202 6776; Mo–Su: 09:00–00:30.
Fern Restaurant Khunlumprapas Rd; Jong Kham; T: (053) 611 374; Mo–Su: 10:30–22:00.
Kai Mook Udon Chai Nithet Rd. Jong Kham; T: (053) 612 092; Mo–Su: 10:00–14:00 & 16:30–22:00.
Kiang Doi Udon Chai Nithet Rd, Jong Kham; Mo–Su: From 07:00.
La Tasca Khunlumprapas Rd, Jong Kham; T: (053) 611 591; Mo–Su: 10:00–21:30.
Little Good Things Chamnan Satit Rd, Jong Kham; T: (062) 274 3805; We–Mo: 09:00–17:00.
Meeting Bar 2/1 Pradit Jongkham Rd, Jong Kham; T: (080) 132 3223; .
Municipal Market Langpanich Rd, Jong Kham; Mo–Su: Early morning to mid–afternoon.
N & J’s Kitchen 3 Singhanat Bamrung Rd, Jong Kham; T: (083) 318 7672; Mo–Su: 08:00–21:00.
Night Market Langpanich Rd, in front of the municipal market, Jong Kham; Mo–Su: 16:00–20:00.
Primavera Mae Hongson Plaza; T: (053) 612 820; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Salween River Pradit Jong Kham Rd. Jong Kham; T: (053) 613 421; Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.
Sang Tong Huts 250 Moo 11 (off Makasanti Road); T: (053) 611 680, (094) 229 0543; .
Sunflower Cafe Pradit Jong Kham Rd, Jong Kham; T: (053) 699 385; Mo–Su: 08:00–23:00.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.