MAE HONG SON is one of the most beautiful areas in Thailand. The province is still 85% forest with rugged mountains and beautiful vistas. The best way to enjoy the Mae Hong Son area is by motorbike or jeep. While most people think this is the area for trekking. Chiangmai and Chiangrai are still the best areas for trekking by far because of the wide variety of hilltribes not found in Mae Hong Son. Traveling around Mae Hong Son by motorbike or jeep is much more rewarding. The many splendid waterfalls, caves and tall trees adorned with colorful orchids are easy to get to.
Traveling to the area is best by air. There are several nonstop flights daily from Chiangmai to Mae Hong Son. The bird's eye view of Chiangmai and the rugged mountains to Mae Hong Son is worth the trip in itself. The good thing is you don't have to endure a hot 7 hour bus ride and the air fare is unbelievably low. For only 345 Baht you can be there in only 40 minutes or less.
The breathtaking beauty of Mae Hong Son inspired film director Roger Spottswoody to film the movie "Air America" in November of 1989 with Mel Gibson and Robert Downy Jr. One film sequence is where Downy is dangling by a rope from a helicopter and shows a beautiful view of this small town from the air. In the movie, the airport was buzzing with activity resembling an air base in Laos. As a matter of fact most of the scenes in the movie where filmed in the Mae Hong Son area. The airport and town are quiet now with only the daily Thai Airways flights from Bangkok and Chiangmai.
The most refreshing thing about Mae Hong Son is the lack of commercialism. Mae Hong Son is big enough to survive the Thai trade fluctuations and the high pressure tactics for the tourist Baht seem non existent. The locals even talk about how the tiny town of Pai receives many more foreign visitors than they do.
From November through March, make sure you book your flight to and from Mae Hong Son at least one day in advance. Getting a flight there is usually easy but a return flight can be difficult as tour groups arrive by tour bus or van from Chiangmai or direct flight from Bangkok. They tour the area for a few days and then fly on to Chiangmai.
Accommodations in Mae Hong Son vary widely from inexpensive guest houses located along the lake in the center of town to 4 star hotels and garden resorts located just out of town. Once you have checked in you can ask where to rent a motorbike or jeep. There are several places with good transportation and excellent maps of the area both north and south of town. Many interesting day trips are available from guest houses and hotels which include, elephant riding and rafting along the river with a visit to Long Neck Karen villages included.
You can head just a few Kilometers south of town to visit a Karen hilltribe village, ride an elephant and return in a few hours on your own if you wish. The place where you rented your vehicle will have the maps and answer your questions on how to get there. You should also go to the temple on top of the mountain overlooking Mae Hong Son around 5 pm and stay until sunset if you wish. Late afternoon is the best time for taking pictures of the valley below from this spectacular vista.
Plan to leave early after breakfast and head north toward Pai. Spend one night in Pai then return to Mae Hong Son the next day.
Before you leave the city go by the temple on the south side of the lake in the center of town to the old Burmese style temple behind the market. Picture taking here is best in early morning.
The road to Pai is paved all the way but very winding with steep climbs. The views are fantastic. Your first stop should be a waterfall, Namtok Phasua. There is a big sign stating where to turn left. Follow this concrete road to the end where the Namtok Phasua Forest Park is located.
This road is in a fertile valley surrounded by towering mountains with local people working in their fields. You will travel through small hamlets and villages with traditional wooden Thai homes decorated with flower gardens. Smiling faces and warm hellos greet you as you motor down this delightful road.
The problem is you'll want to stay at the waterfall most of the day because of its impressive beauty and peacefulness. I have been there many times and have yet to see more than four other people there at the same time. There are no food or beverage stands here but toilets are available.
From here head back down to the main road and turn left. Your next stop will be known as the "Fish Cave" located on your left. This is a good place to enjoy a chicken barbecue lunch with papaya salad and sticky rice. There are many vendors here when you make the left turn into the park.
You will need to leave your vehicle near the vendors area. Take a leisurely walk along the beautiful gardens and path with meandering stream to the caves. The caves are really holes in the ground along the bottom of a high cliff. Vendors sell fish food for visitors to feed the fish. When you first look into one of these holes, the water is dark but after a few pellets of fish food are dropped in, the water churns with hundreds of huge blue carp.
The fish cave is visited regularly by both Thais and western visitors. Although not as peaceful as the waterfall, the "Fish Cave" is a great experience to be had and a superb place to enjoy lunch.
The next stop should be "Lod Cave". This by far is one of the best caves in Thailand. The turn off will be on your left just a few meters past the village of SaPong. Again, turn left here and follow the paved road to the cave. This cave is unique in that there is a river that runs through it. You need to stop at the office and hire a guide who has a lantern and will show you where to go. The guide is 100 Baht per group.
Once inside the cave you will cross the river on a bamboo raft that holds up to four persons for 10 Baht. You will climb stairs winding through crevasses, stalagmites and stalactites and colorful rock formations. The path crosses the river three times then heads back again. Another tour take visitors all the way through the cave by bamboo raft accommodating up to three persons for 100 Baht accommodating up to three persons. The raft also come outs the other side of the mountain. There is a special treat near the far opening for those who venture this far. You can climb stairs again to see old wooden coffins which have been left in place for over two thousand years. Some coffins still contain petrified remains.
When your raft trip finishes at the far opening of the cave, walk through a bird feeding station where hundreds of rare and colorful birds native to Thailand roost in the tall trees. Their beautiful songs echo around the canyon walls. The walk back to the cave office takes about 30 minutes from here. The tour of "Lod Cave" needs about two hours. It's well worth the time, effort and money.
From here travel on to Pai and plan on arriving in the late afternoon. Pai has changed in the last few years catering mainly for foreign tourists rather than the Thais. High pressure sales by some guest houses for trekking is annoying and they can be rude if you refuse to join one of their treks. Those traveling by motorbike or jeep may not be welcome at one of these guest houses.
If you like resorts the Muang Pai is one of the best in north Thailand featuring real northern Thai style cabins each with attached toilet and shower. The food and hospitality are as friendly as you would anticipate. I recommend Shan Guest House for a nice clean bungalow. They do not do treks or tours They give great service and even provide towels and soap for 150 to 250 Baht.
The ride back to Mae Hong Son the next day is just as pleasant. You can stop to enjoy the many breath taking vistas that you didn't have time to appreciate. Take time to shop for Lisu handicrafts at the many road side parks on your way back to Mae Hong Son.
This is a journey I enjoy doing every year and I know you'll enjoy it also.