Remote Mae Hong Son town, provincial capital of the 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, but Mae Hong Son certainly sees far fewer foreign visitors. A few large government buildings can be seen and perhaps more cars may zip along the roads, but Mae Hong Son generally has a decidedly more laidback feel to it than its busier neighbour down the road.
Whether you go for bustle or laidback, Mae Hong Son is a more attractive town than Pai; its valley is much narrower, with barely enough room for the town and its tiny airport, with steep forested hills crowding in from all directions. The lake is a picturesque feature in the centre of town and makes for a great spot to take an evening stroll, enjoy a picnic or down a sunset drink, while several attractive Shan-style temples as well as old teak buildings dot the town and hills. 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 directly with Delhi 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 abuts Shan State over the border in Burma (Myanmar). A large number of northern Thais and Sino-Thais have also moved here to establish businesses in the urban areas.
The initial road hacked through the jungles and mountains was carved out by the Japanese during World War II, when Mae Hong Son was a forward staging post for the planned invasion of Burma. However it wasn’t until completion of the sealed road from Chiang Mai in the late 1980s and construction of the regional airport that this formerly inaccessible, wild border region — until then largely under the domination of Shan and Kuomintang opium-funded armies — was finally brought under government control. 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, can be perhaps more shy and reserved than Thais in other regions, adding to the laidback feel of the place. The Thai nouveau hippy crowd and the retired-from-Samui-because-it’s-too-commercialised set seems to have all stopped in Pai. Nor do you see in Mae Hong Son a 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, no New Age accoutrements and we didn’t see a single person walking down Mae Hong Son’s main street in a bikini or without shirt or shoes on.
Mae Hong Son is still popular with Thais, particularly in winter (November to January), when the province is frequently the coolest spot 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 a few 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 – or as a stop on the famous Mae Hong Son Loop from Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Son, then back to Chiang Mai via Mae Sariang. There is some great scenery up here and some decent trekking, particularly to the east of Mae Hong Son town and it’s certainly an agreeable little town in which to while away a couple of days.
Be warned that while rafting is offered by some agents, most will take you almost back to Pai to do it, so we’d suggest skipping it here and rafting in Pai instead.
For a provincial capital, Mae Hong Son is small, and the bulk of its attractions are within easy walking distance of Jong Kham lake.
All major Thai banks have branch offices on Khunlumpapas Road, where you’ll also find the main post office. Should you have a problem, the tourist police at the intersection of Sinahanat Bamrung and Pradit Jongkham roads may assist.
For medical care, head straight to the main city hospital at the far eastern end of Sinahanat Bamrung Road.
A basic tourist information desk is located in the Language and Learning Centre also on Khunlumpapas Road. They don’t have a lot of information, but if you’re lucky they may have some of their very useful English-language maps of town and the surrounding area. Open daily 08:30 to 21:00.
By Mark Ord. Last updated on 10th October, 2016.