Photo: Just stunning lake views.

Introduction

Our rating:

Support independent, honest travel writing.

Just A$35 gets you one year of Travelfish.org, the best of Southeast Asia online. Find out more.


Remote Mae Hong Son, provincial capital of the eponymously named province, lies just a few kilometres from the Burmese border in Thailand’s far northwest.



The small city or big town is barely much larger than Pai these days, thanks to the on-going tourism boom there, but Mae Hong Son certainly sees far fewer foreign visitors. You’ll notice several large governmental and municipal buildings on the outskirts and perhaps more traffic may zip along its slightly wider roads, yet Mae Hong Son has a decidedly more laidback feel to it than its busier neighbour up the road.

One of Thailand’s most beautiful provincial capitals. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

One of Thailand’s most beautiful provincial capitals. Photo: Mark Ord

Whether you go for bustle or laidback, we reckon Mae Hong Son has a more attractive setting than Pai in so far as its valley location is much narrower—with barely enough room for the town and its tiny airport—and is bordered by steep forested hills that crowd in from all directions. The lake is a highly 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 constructions, dot the lakeside, town and surrounding hills.

Unusually for a Thai provincial capital, there’s a total lack of high rise though an incongruous 4-lane ring road does mar the suburbs somewhat. (It’s apparently part of one of those pan-Asian highway schemes intended to eventually connect Bangkok and Chiang Mai directly with Delhi or somewhere or another.)

Do take a stroll by the lake. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Do take a stroll by the lake. Photo: Mark Ord

The population of Mae Hong Son is still predominantly Shan, an ethnic group inhabiting the entire northwest corner of Thailand which abuts Burma’s Shan State just over the nearby border. A large number of northern Thais and Sino-Thais have also moved here to establish businesses in the urban area. Karen and even Lisu and Hmong are also regularly seen in town markets.

The access road—now fully sealed Highway 1095—which links the remote outpost with Chiang Mai was originally hacked through the jungles and mountains by the Japanese during World War II, when Mae Hong Son was a forward staging post for their planned invasion of Burma. However, it wasn’t until completion of the tarmac route 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 a remote and adventurous destination for trekking.

Relax at Crossroads. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Relax at Crossroads. Photo: Mark Ord

The locals in Mae Hong Son, while friendly and polite, can be perhaps slightly shier and more reserved than Thais in certain 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 don’t seem to have got past Pai and neither do you encounter large numbers 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 nightly parties, new age accoutrement shops or competing detox courses 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 domestic tourists, particularly in winter (November to January), when the province is frequently the coldest spot in the kingdom, getting down to zero degrees Celsius in the mountains. Otherwise only a minority of foreign tourists, plus the occasional organised tour group, make it up this way. For domestic tourists, 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. There is some fantastic scenery up here, a bunch of interesting sites 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.

In wet season, Pa Sua Waterfall is great. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

In wet season, Pa Sua Waterfall is great. Photo: Mark Ord

Orientation
Mae Hong Son City—or as we said, large town—is set in a deep valley with steep mountains to the east and west with the Pai River, and now Highways 1095 and 108, carving out paths from north to south. The bowl-shaped valley just manages to contain the town and airport with newer suburbs and satellite villages spreading up and down the highway and river valley.

Soppong, around halfway to Pai, lies 80 kilometres to the northeast on Highway 1095 and Khun Yuam, on route to Mae Sariang, is some 70 kilometres south on 108.

Could eat this all day. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Could eat this all day. Photo: Mark Ord

In the compact town centre the older buildings and market, as well as many of the cafes and guesthouses, are to be found amid the vague grid pattern of streets between Jong Kham Lake and Doi Kong Moo—the pagoda-topped hill to the immediate west.

The principal road, or high street, is Khunlumprapas which forms the in-town stretch linking the two outbound highways. The central portion houses banks and a few mid-range hotels as well as more cafes and restaurants while the southern section contains many of the town’s newer buildings and municipal offices. The bus station and weekend market are on the latter stretch while the post office has a central position opposite Ngamta and Baiyoke Hotels. The main police station is situated towards the northern end past the junctions with Singhanat Bamrung and Langpanich roads which lead off to the hospital and airport respectively.

No shortage of temples. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

No shortage of temples. Photo: Mark Ord

A parallel road to Khunlumprapas skirts the foot of the hill connecting a series of Buddhist temples and is where you’ll find both the road and steps leading up the steep climb to Wat Prathat Doi Kong Moo perched on the summit and overlooking the town and valley. This route also links up with Makasanti Road which leads up the wooded north side of the hill to a clutch of chalet style resorts on the north-western edge of town.

Finally, but importantly for motorbike riders, the new four-lane ring road which performs a wide loop to the west of town is at the time of writing the nearest source of petrol. Strangely there were no petrol stations either in town or where you’d most expect at the start of the outbound highways so the closest we could find was some five kilometres out of Mae Hong Son close to where the ring-road meets Highway 1095. Be careful or it’s a long walk with a jerry-can!

Plenty to eat. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Plenty to eat. Photo: Mark Ord

Safety
As is generally the case in such mountainous areas of northern Thailand the principal risk to your personal safety is going to be from motorbike accidents. Aside from perhaps twisting an ankle while trekking or getting a stomach upset from a dodgy tuna sandwich, there’s little the average visitor needs to be overly concerned about.

The urban area is considered to be in the low-risk dengue category. If you’re wandering down back streets after dark then you may want to keep a stick or couple of stones handy in case of aggressive dogs though usually just pretending to throw the latter does the trick.

Do be careful on a rented motorbike then and treat those often steep and windy mountain roads with the respect they warrant. The climb up by Pha Seua Waterfall is a case in point with some hairpin bends and plenty of slippery moss and dead leaves on the road. Main highways are well surfaced but you’re always at the mercy of a Redbull-crazed truck driver overtaking on a blind corner or a car-load of Bangkok tourists incompetently negotiating the mountain roads.

Friendly locals. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Friendly locals. Photo: Mark Ord

Police
As the province has a long contiguous border with Burma (Myanmar) you will see plenty of roadside uniforms on display on both highways and occasionally minor country routes at either police, army or even border patrol (they’re the ones in black) checkpoints. Sailing past traffic cops on your bike with no helmet is asking for trouble but otherwise they’re mostly on the lookout for methamphetamines from over the border rather than hassling tourists for contributions to the widows and orphans fund a la Chiang Mai’s finest.

Travelling by bus you may well see police or military boarding buses for spot checks but again, they’re after smugglers or illegal immigrants. Keep your passport handy anyway and if you have left it at a Pai rental shop make sure you have a photocopy of the main page, entry stamp and TM card available.

As of late 2017 Thai police are also cracking down heavily on drink driving in an attempt to reduce the country’s appalling accident statistics and near zero tolerance plus hefty fines are applied so again don’t go wobbling past a roadside cop on your bike on your way home from a big night out in town.

The main city police station is located on the northern stretch of Khunlumprapas as it leaves the town centre while there’s a conveniently placed tourist police booth by the lake more or less opposite Salween Restaurant. The immigration department is north of town aside the Pai highway number 1095.

Popular attractions in Mae Hong Son

A selection of some of our favourite sights and activities around Mae Hong Son.





Best places to stay in Mae Hong Son

A selection of some of our favourite places to stay in Mae Hong Son.


Hospitals
The city’s main state-run hospital is a large and relatively modern affair situated close to the airport on Singhanat Bamrung Road. Most doctors should speak at least minimal English and they’re certainly competent to deal with any stomach upsets, twisted ankles or cuts and grazes. As usual though for anything more serious we’d recommend heading down to Chiang Mai.

We’re on a road to nowhere... Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

We’re on a road to nowhere... Photo: Mark Ord

Post
Mae Hong Son’s central post office is located on the central stretch of Khunlumprapas Road on the opposite corner to Ngamta Hotel and across the road from Baiyoke Chalet. There’s a stamps for collection desk and Western Union facilities while the carpark doubles up as a small night food market during evening hours.

Banks
Most of the principal Thai bank chains have outlets along Khunlumprapas while Krungthai has a large branch just down Singhanat Bamrung Road near the rear entrance to the municipal market which also offers exchange and Western Union facilities. Most keep to standard Thai banking hours, opening between 08:00 or 09:00 and closing between 15:00 and 16:00, though one or two of the larger branches claim to open Saturday mornings as well.

Climate
Situated a long distance inland, Mae Hong Son’s weather demonstrates more continental climatic conditions than say Bangkok or coastal regions do, meaning summer temperatures can be relatively high and winter ones lower.

Pick your chariot. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Pick your chariot. Photo: Mark Ord

Mae Hong Son’s cooler winter months are similar to elsewhere in northern Thailand, and so describe the November to February period, while the hot dry season begins in late February, early March and generally lasts until May. The principal rainy months are then June to October inclusive. The town isn’t at a particularly high altitude (around 250 metres) but it is surrounded by mountains and can get decidedly nippy during the cool season. For evenings and early mornings, a fleece may well come in handy.

Conversely, daytime temperatures can get uncomfortably high during the dry, hot months. In winter the mercury can descend below 10, even in town—cold if you’re in a bamboo hut—while it can hit the low 40s in March and April.

Statistically August sees the highest rainfall but Mae Hong Son doesn’t get the volumes of precipitation of coastal regions and rainy season can still offer periods of fine weather.

Last but not least with regards weather conditions, the hot and dry season frequently sees problems from haze caused principally by the burning of arable stubble—corn and rice fields being the main culprits—which, combined with high dust levels at that time of year has become an increasingly serious problem in recent years. The worst dry season days can see government health warnings to stay indoors and even the closure of the airport due to restricted visibility.

When to go
The most obvious time of year to travel to Mae Hong Son is during the cool, dry months of November to January. While the town doesn’t suffer from the high season crowds of nearby Pai the best of its limited accommodation options will fill up quickly and many places will compensate for reduced low season income by charging high season supplements. Again, they don’t triple rates as their noisy neighbours are apt to do but you may see substantial increases. Some of the popular sites can get crowded during holidays and weekends though this is mainly with local rather than foreign visitors.

Scenery near Ban Rak Thai. Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Scenery near Ban Rak Thai. Photo: Mark Ord

February can start to warm up and dust and smoke issues increase in significance but certainly by the hot dry period of March to May climatic factors—as outlined previously—Mae Hong Son won’t be looking its best. The Thai New Year water festival in April does provide some respite and with luck pre-rainy season showers in May can clear the air at least temporarily but overall you’re probably better heading to the beach and saving the mountains for June and the start of the monsoon.

You’ll find excellent low season discounts available for accommodation, as well as flights, during the rainy season and as usual, don’t be put off by preconceptions of non-stop downpours. Yes, clouds can stick to mountain tops for lengthy periods but showers are often of the short and sharp variety and you can also get long periods of blue skies. Humidity levels will be high until a shower takes the edge off things but this is the time when the surrounding hills and forests are looking their best, there’s more abundant fauna and rivers and waterfalls are in their prime.

For cheaper rates, fewer tourists and lusher nature then, if you’re willing to deal with occasionally reduced services and perhaps more limited opening hours, we’d suggest June and July—our personal favourite Mae Hong Son time of year.

Resources
There’s a rather uninspired TAT office in town near the market which does have some decent maps available and plenty of pamphlets—some of which are even in English—but most of your best information is of the online variety.

How about some bamboo rafting at Pang Oung? Photo taken in or around Mae Hong Son, Thailand by Mark Ord.

How about some bamboo rafting at Pang Oung? Photo: Mark Ord

As usual, the best maps on offer are the excellent maps produced by GT Riders which you ought to be able to pick up in one of the Khunlumprapas souvenir shops if you haven’t already availed yourself of one in Pai or Chiang Mai. Salween Restaurant has the maps along with a small used book exchange if you’re having problems finding them elsewhere.

Unlike busier spots, the vast majority of Mae Hong Son hotel and guesthouse staff and owners are either locals or long-term residents so are also a useful source of local information.

Emergencies (hospital) T: 1669
Emergencies (police) T: 191
Mae Hong Son Immigration Dept. Highway 1095, north of the town centre. T: (053) 611 106; (053) 612 106
Mae Hong Son Police Station Khunlumprapas Rd T: (053) 611 239
Mae Hong Son Post Office Khunlumprapas Rd, Jong Kham. Open Mo–Fr: 08:00–16:00 T: (053) 611 999
Mae Hong Son Tourist Police Main office: Singhanat Bamrung Rd. Also Pradit Jong Kham Rd, Jong Kham T: (053) 611 812 http://maehongsontouristpolice.blogspot.com/
Sri Sangwan Hospital: Singhanat Bamrung Rd, Jong Kham T: (053) 611 378; (053) 611 488
Tourism Authority of Thailand 4 Ratchathampitak Rd, Jong Kham. T: (053) 612 982-3 https://www.tourismthailand.org/

Search Mae Hong Son hotels
Arriving on:
Leaving on:
Guests:  

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Mae Hong Son.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Mae Hong Son.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Mae Hong Son.
 Read up on how to get to Mae Hong Son, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Mae Hong Son? Please read this.





By .


Like what you see? Then you’ll love our newsletter

The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.

:
:
:

Onward travel

Mae Hong Son is on the way to or near ...