Trekking is another attraction in Mae Hong Son, though to a lesser extent than in Pai or Soppong, and can be done as part of a day tour for a few hours or for a full day or longer. Longer treks will take you into the mountains towards the Burmese border, where you will visit Karen villages. Generally you need a minimum of two people for a departure, but if you’re alone and flexible with your time the agencies can often find others to share the trip and costs with you. Prices vary depending on the number of people going, the distance travelled and the activities covered. In picking the right trek, a lot swings on the quality of your guide. Not only will he or she guide you through the jungle, they’ll inform you about hilltribe culture and teach you basic survival techniques so try and meet the guide before signing up.
The trekking experience generally starts with a drive out of Mae Hong Son for an hour or two to your starting point. This is followed by several hours of walking into the mountains, broken up by visits to villages. You may stay overnight in someone’s house — perhaps the house of the chief of the village, a village family or even a relative of the guide. Some companies have their own huts, but either way you will sleep dormitory-style on the floor with a thin mattress, sleeping bag or blanket and a mosquito net.
Guides will occasionally speak the local language, and sometimes come from the village you stay at. These are often the best experiences, when the guide can help you interact with your hosts. Meals are prepared by the guide, using produce carried in by them or bought locally where practical. Food is usually banquet style, with a few dishes to choose from, and foreigners’ tastes kept in mind. Vegetarian is available by prior request. Evenings are spent interacting with the locals and good guides will help to teach you a little about their ways of life. Some treks will spend the second night camping out in the jungle where your guide will teach you a whole array of jungle survival skills, including how to prepare and cook a banquet using only bamboo cooking and eating tools.
Any guesthouse will be willing to either sell you a trek or provide information on trekking in the area with Fern being a particular recommendation.
There are three main trekking areas: Soppong, east of Mae Hong Son and west of Mae Hong Son. As with Pai, many operators will bus you back to Soppong district with its wide variety of ethnic groups in a relatively small area. Other popular trekking routes concentrate on the Kayan villages west of Mae Hong Son towards the Salween river, taking in Karen and Hmong villages as well. The most interesting area is the relatively infrequently visited region to the south of Mae Hong Son, in and around Nam Tok Surin National Park. There is some spectacular scenery in this area and overnight stops would include Karen and Hmong villages.
A proliferation of itineraries from one to several days are offered at varying prices by guesthouses and trekking agents in town. Go have a chat and see what suits you and if possible meet the guide. As with Pai and Soppong, March and April are not ideal months for trekking because it’s very dry and very hot, while towards the end of the rainy season in August and September the going can get seriously muddy and quite challenging.
Expect to pay between 1,000 and 1,500 baht per day depending upon the length of the trek and number of trekkers. Below are just a few of many addresses and most guesthouses will sell you a tour directly for a small commission or put you in touch with their recommendation.
Rose Garden Tour: Khunlumprapas Rd; T: (053) 611 681, (081) 027 1725; www.rosegarden-tours.com; email@example.com
Sawasdee Tour: T: (084) 806 9086, (089) 855 6253; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunflower Cafe (tour desk): Pradit Jongkham Rd; T: (053) 620 549
By Mark Ord.
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.