Mae Hong Son province in the northern part of Thailand is not yet a mainstream destination among Malaysians, yet it seems to have worked its spell on the gap year backpackers for a while now, especially those who seek thrills and natural wonders. The region is sparsely populated, but well-connected to the main city of Chiang Mai via the 600-kilometre circular route that makes up the infamous Mae Hong Son Loop. Travellers should visit this province during Northern Hemisphere winter to enjoy its delight, especially when sunflowers bloom beautifully on the hillsides, and the cool air means pleasant weather for sightseeing.
Adventurous travellers head to Mae Hong Son province to tackle more than the 4,000 road curves by meandering along the misty green hills using motorbikes. Those with less courage can instead visit the area’s many attractions and still have an equally fun-filled experience. My round-trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son is an example of a four-day itinerary that one can choose to do when visiting the region.
Also read: 10 Offbeat Things to Do in Thailand
The journey from Chiang Mai to Pai – my first stop within Mae Hong Son province – took around three dizzying hours to complete, and boy, how foolish I was for underestimating the long winding journey! I thought I was not the type who gets motion sickness easily, especially after having the experience traversing one of the most dangerous roads in the world: the narrow, snakelike Skippers Canyon in Queenstown. Turned out that Route 1095 with its 762 vomit-inducing curves between Chiang Mai and Pai finally took the best of me. I remembered the locals said, “If you survive Route 1095, you can survive any other road in the world”, and I don’t think they were lying.
Nevertheless, it was hard to remain perturbed from the experience after being rewarded with some of the most picturesque landscapes that Thailand could offer. Pai is photogenic and surrounded by glossy green plantations. It has a relaxed, hipsterish feel to it, where travellers are tempted to do nothing but wander around and philosophise about life. And it is incredibly affordable too. Many come here every year, and some even extended their stay longer than intended.
To get me into the right mood, after checking into the hotel in Pai, my tour guide arranged a much-appreciated spa session at Sapaiya Spa, the only premium spa in town that offers a variety of pampering options such as sublime Thai massage, Swedish deep tissue massage, facials, and acupunctures. The employees are attentive and professionally trained. There was no single moment throughout the treatment that I felt uncomfortable – a welcoming and classic Thai hospitality indeed.
Once I have adjusted into Pai’s blissful milieu, I visited the historical Tha Pai Memorial Bridge for a quick glimpse into the town’s heritage. This bridge, though no longer in its original form, was initially constructed by the Japanese during Wold War II to connect Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. At the time, the Japanese were attacking Burma, which was part of the British colonies. However, when the Japanese surrendered, the bridge was burnt down. The locals decided to rebuild the bridge to ease accessibility and even reinforced it with steel from the decommissioned Nawarat Bridge in mid-1970s.
I then stopped at Fine Leaf, which is an artisanal shop that has been supplying the nation with eco-friendly dinnerware made only from unbleached fallen leaves. The team at Fine Leaf sources these leaves from the wild all year round, especially in January and February when the trees shed their leaves in dry winter weather. Their products are cut-resistant, microwave-friendly, strong and completely pesticide-free, which make ideal souvenirs. The prices for these products start from THB1.80 each.
And since I was already in the area, I visited the night bazaar on the nearby Pai Walking Street. The town does not offer pulsating nightlife like Thailand’s larger cities, but this bazaar is bustling, nonetheless. I was treated to a vibrant scene full of stalls selling wide range of products, from artisanal handicrafts, t-shirts, cute quirky socks, to mouth-watering local food; in fact, halal food is abundant on this street. There’s even a local mosque on site. My personal favourite part of the street, however, would be the postcard shop that not only sells beautiful postcards, but comes together with cool stationeries for travellers to decorate their cards. Once the postcards are beautified, simply pop them into the post box located right in front of the shop.
My second day began at 4.30 a.m. with a drive to Yun Lai Viewpoint where I was swooned by the mystical sea of fog floating atop the range, despite being a little bleary-eyed from getting up so early. The was packed with tourists when I was there, but as sunlight bathed the valley with golden hue, everybody seemed to understand the cue and absorbed the magical atmosphere in total quietness and peace, which was wonderful. There is also a cafe on site serving hot drinks to keep warm in the chilly morning weather.
Nearby is a Yunnan Chinese Village that seems to belong in a Chinese period drama. The population is small, mainly comprising Thai hill tribes’ people and descendants of Chinese immigrants who fled from Yunnan during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Today, the village offers visitors an opportunity to experience Yunnan lifestyle, be it tea-tasting session, partaking in folk games or dressing up in traditional attire. This is also the place to see a rare traditional wooden Ferris wheel, which is open for public to play at merely THB20 per person.
On my way back to the hotel, I swung by Tha Pai Hot Springs, which are part of the Huai Nam Dang National Park, roughly a 20-minute drive away from Pai town centre. There are several pools of different heat intensities, all surrounded by tranquil rainforest, turning it into an ideal oasis to rejuvenate the body, mind and soul. The entry fee is THB300 per person. This is also where I concluded my visit in Pai.
From the hippie town of Pai, I moved to the Mae Hong Son town proper that involved another 800 sharp road curves. The journey takes two hours and a half. This time however, I readily took a motion sickness pill for the journey. Mae Hong Son’s lakeside provincial capital is often dubbed as ‘The City of Three Mists’ by the locals, partly because it hides in a narrow valley protected by mountains that are shrouded by mists every day. Thanks to its proximity to the Myanmar border, the town brims with Burmese influence as one can see in the architectural style of the temples here, for example the whitewashed Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu on top of a hill. For travellers who prefer a quicker way to get to this town, Bangkok Airways flies directly from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son daily.
Mae Hong Son is enormously rich in nature. Expect diverse geographical wonders, including one of the best mud hot springs in the world at Phu Klon Country Club Health Mud Spa. The mud here is high in minerals and said to be on par with the Dead Sea mud in Jordan and the Romanian dormant volcano. Plenty of beauty-related options can be done at this spa, including Thai massage, foot massage and the open-air Jacuzzi facing a vast paddy field. I personally loved the mud facial treatment, which rewarded me with soft, glowing skin at the end of the session. Prices of the treatments are also affordable.
The curfew in Mae Hong Son town is early, but if you visit it between October and February, be sure to have a jaunt at the town’s night market that surrounds a local lake. This is where you get to add more unique hill tribe handicrafts to your souvenir collection. There are also foot massage services and street food stalls for travellers to enjoy after a full day of sightseeing.
Out of the many things to explore in Mae Hong Son, perhaps my most favourite place to visit is the Su Tong Pae Bridge. Come early in the morning, around 6.30 a.m., to witness or even join in the daily almsgiving ritual. Since I arrived slightly later, I missed out on the opportunity. But the serenity of the place prevailed and completely won me over. Imagine walking on this bamboo bridge, which was built by the villagers of Pang Moo district for them to access the temple on the hill from the surrounding villages, with no noise except for chirping birds and the sound of your own thoughts.
My rapture dissipated when I realised it was time to bid Mae Hong Son goodbye. My guide then took me to a museum dedicated to the special friendship between the Imperial Japanese Army and locals during World War II called Khun Yuam War Museum in Khun Yuam district. To me, this museum is essentially eye-opening because like many citizens who grew up in countries that have been occupied by foreign forces during the war, invaders and colonisers tend to be deemed as cruel. But here, one couldn’t help but see a different side of the war. Khun Yuam became the base for the Japanese army when they were battling with Burma, and while they were there, a special bond formed between the troops and the locals. The Japanese were treated as part of the community, and some even married to the locals. This union is celebrated and represents the key theme in the museum, where old artefacts and documentations from the period are exhibited.
The journey from Khun Yuam to Chiang Mai normally takes around four hours and a half. But to avoid feeling stiff throughout the journey, my guide and I dropped by Bo Kaeo Pine Tree Garden for a quick rest. This place is a man-made forest filled with rows and rows of towering pine trees. Nearby, there are coffee shops lining up the road, each offering quick bites and pick-me-up drinks for weary travellers heading to their respective destinations.
My final day on this part of Thailand started with a visit to Chiang Mai’s Wat Sri Suphan, widely known as the Silver Temple, which has been rebuilt and renovated ever since its construction in the 16th century during Mangrai Dynasty. The design pays homage to Lanna influence, featuring impressive silver handiworks on the walls, roofs and even Buddha statues. However, it’s important to note that women are not permitted to enter the temple following the traditional Lanna belief. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, there will be an open session where visitors get to chat with the monks and meditate with them. There’s no charge for both entry and chat session, but donations are welcomed.
A trip to Chiang Mai wouldn’t also be complete without exploring the city’s vibrant night market, where travellers usually stock up souvenirs for their loved ones at home. Wide range of products are sold here, mostly are competitively priced. However, I personally feel that the handicrafts found in the markets in Pai and Mae Hong Son towns are more unique. For halal hunters, the bazaar also boasts several halal-certified eateries like the Rumit Restaurant.
ARRIVING AND LEAVING CHIANG MAI
There are various airlines offering connectivity between Kuala Lumpur and Chiang Mai. As such, Thai Airways connects the two cities daily via Bangkok. I travelled in the economy class for this trip, and personally found the seats absolutely comfortable. The legroom is decent, the in-flight entertainment is diverse and the best thing of all, they serve halal-certified meal for all flights operating out of Suvarnabhumi Airport. The halal meals are also available in the airline’s business class lounge at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
WHERE TO STAY
Puri Pai, Pai
Set on a sprawling space surrounded by verdant landscaped gardens, Puri Pai is a sophisticated hotel that seamlessly blends the outdoor with the indoor. The open-air lobby overlooks jaw-dropping views of the valley, while the handsomely appointed villas and deluxe rooms offer utmost comfort. Excursion options are abundant, but one activity that tempts me the most is barbecuing under the twinkling stars right in the property’s grounds. Puri Pai is just a five-minute drive away from town and provides complimentary transfers to the airport and the town.
Reverie Siam Resort, Pai
I wouldn’t mind revisiting Pai again to just be at Reverie Siam Resort the whole time. It feels like a home that I’ve loved in a former life. It screams old-world elegance, resulting from the winning combination of Thai culture and Western influence manifested throughout the property in the use of neutral hues and timeless antique furnishings. The resort also takes pride in its fantastic culinary offerings deriving from Lanna, Akha and Thai Yai tribal recipes, an unsurprising fact given that the resort’s co-founder Pira Laohacharoensombat is a food connoisseur and certified sommelier.
Pai Island Resort, Pai
This resort is a heavenly honeymoon hideaway, as guests shy away from the world while enjoying a luxurious, slower pace of living. There are only ten beautiful villas here altogether, all perfectly juxtapositioned following a traditional village-like concept to give guests peace and privacy. For an immersive cultural experience, the resort invites guests to join in the almsgiving session to the monks that happens every morning in front of the dining room.
Kirina Wellness in the Valley, Pai
Kirina means ‘paddy field in the mountain’ in Thai language, which aptly represents the natural setting surrounding the resort. Come in between September and November when the paddies look glorious and lush. The resort co-owner, Poole, gives yoga classes to guests every day while her husband, Kookai, takes care of the management. The cosy rooms here are spacious, making them also ideal for families.
The Imperial Mae Hong Son Resort, Mae Hong So
Nestled in a private patch of teak woodland, this place is a quiet oasis of relaxation. The 104 guest rooms are well designed and replete with little touches of Thai elements that make them even more cosy and comfortable. It also has an open-air terrace that hosts the all-day dining restaurant, Golden Teak, which serves both authentic northern Thai and international cuisines.
Duangtawan Hotel Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai
A great central location means this hotel is always busy, proven to be the ideal base to set the bag down for a few nights. The famous night market is just within walking distance, while plenty of tourist attractions and MICE venues are only short drive away. On top of these, the hotel will appeal to guests looking for comfortable rooms and professional hospitality.
Arranging a trip to Northern Thailand region is easy as there are many local tour operators in Chiang Mai that can help visitors decide on the best package to suit their needs. My trip was guided by Mr. North, who can be contacted via Whatsapp at +66 9185 68899 for travel enquiries.
Gaya Travel team would like to extend our gratitude to Tourism Authority Thailand and Thai Airways for making our trip to the northern region of Thailand such a breeze.
All photos by Shahida Sakeri, Unsplash, Pixabay (respective photo owners mentioned) and respective product owners.
This is article is featured in Gaya Travel Magazine Issue 15.1. Read other contents HERE.