Some confusion lies over the name of this small settlement between Pai and Mae Hong Son, with Pang Mapha being the official name of the district and Soppong the name of the Shan village lying off the main road, a couple of kilometres to the east. Before highway 1095 was finished in the late 1980s there was only the old village along the bank of the Yang River, but now the action -- banks, stores, bus stop, the market and even most of the guesthouses -- have relocated to the new highway, taking the name Pang Mapha, whilst Soppong village has faded into obscurity. So although road signs and many maps call it Pang Mapha, the locals still frequently refer to it as Soppong.
This tranquil and tiny town (or large village really) lies just 45 kilometres in distance from Pai, but it's a world away from its bustling tourism scene. Only a tiny fraction of Pai’s visitors make it as far as Soppong and then often as only a noodle stop en route to Mae Hong Son. This means there’s not many guesthouses, no restaurants and few coffee shops -- and with the demise of the excellent Border Pub, there are no bars either.
What Soppong does have is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery to be found in Northern Thailand, some of the kingdom's largest cave systems plus a multitude of often still very traditional hill-tribe villages in the immediate vicinity. The few decent accommodation options here will also knock you up a good feed and a cold beer so is Soppong worth a stop? In our book -- most definitely!
There’s the fantastic Tham Lod underground river and cave system, plus a plethora of lesser-known sites (and indeed new caves still being discovered); rafting and trekking; many Lisu, Lahu, Karen and Shan villages that can be visited on your own, and motorbike touring along minor mountain roads, which are being upgraded. Furthermore, if you like a bit of tranquility and wish to explore the surrounding scenery and villages, the very lack of many other visitors is a big plus in its own right.
Soppong is at a slight elevation (around 700 metres), so evenings can get a bit chilly in the cool season from November to February. Taking some warm clothing is a good idea.
By Mark Ord.