Turning Things Around in Mae Hong Son

Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited! 

I made the (erroneous) decision to visit Mae Hong Son because I thought I would be able to get a direct flight from there to Chiang Rai. This would save me going back to Chiang Mai in order to get to Chiang Rai (where I would then depart to Laos) so it seemed like a no-brainer. However, I didn’t read quite close enough and too late realized that the twice-daily direct flights from Mae Hong Son were to Chiang Mai.

When I finally figured this out, I was already in Soppong and more than halfway to Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai. So…I decided to make the best of it and check out this mountain town.

Of course, this all happened after I got sick and had a bit of a disappointing time in Soppong. On my minivan ride from Soppong (hourly buses for just 100 baht), I kept my fingers crossed for 3 things: 1) no more tummy trouble, 2) that maybe my trip would turn around after leaving Soppong, and 3) that my bag, which was somehow fastened to the top of the minivan, would not tumble onto the road after one too many twisty turns.

I arrived in MHS and so did my bag. My stomach was doing OK. I checked into my hotel and went to find some food (I hadn’t eaten in 2 days). I had no idea what I was going to do. It was hot. The town seemed rather empty and quiet, but at least much bigger and like more of an actual town than Soppong. There were bars, restaurants, and massage parlors. This was already more promising.

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visiting Ban Rak Thai

On the advice of the owner of my guesthouse, I found my way to Salween River Restaurant which offered Thai, Burmese, and Western food. I was craving a burger and fries, even if that wasn’t the best idea given the state of my stomach. The place was pretty quiet, only a few Westerners tucking into their lunches. Just as I was about to dig into my fries, one of those Westerners started chatting me up. His name was Michael, he was Australian. He had quit his teaching job and decided to spend some time in Thailand. This was not his first time in MHS – in fact, he had come back to this town repeatedly as it was one of his favorites.

After a bit more chatting (and eating), he offered to take me up to one of the Chinese mountain villages about 25km away on his motorbike. Since I had no plans and no transportation of my own, this seemed like a great idea.

Within the hour, we were riding up into the mountains (I was just a bit nervous on the back of the bike) and I felt like my trip was already turning around. This was exactly what I needed.

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We spent a bit of time walking around Ban Rak Thai, a Yunnan village high up in the mountains (very near to the Myanmar border) that makes money by selling tea (so much tea!) to tourists. It was pretty and the ride there had been quite nice. Now I understood the appeal of the motorbikes. There was so much to explore if you were able to get out of these towns, but being limited to where I could go on foot or by taxi or public transportation was tough.

The next day, my only full day in MHS, I had booked a trek with Mr ChanI was nervous because my stomach had still been a little upset (likely due to that burger and fries), but the idea of sitting around in my budget bungalow room was quite unappealing. I grabbed some toast and a banana from the hotel breakfast and prayed that I would make it through the trek with no problems.

Mr. Chan picked me up right at 9am on his motorbike. It seemed that I would be getting a private trek! We first rode to his home just outside of the town, past the airport. First, he showed me around his garden which was like no garden I had ever seen before. He called it his own little paradise – it was full of all kinds of plants and flowers that he took the time to explain to me. Very quickly I realized just how much this guy knows about plants and insects. My whole trek would be like this. He showed me his rice field (nearly ready for harvesting, maybe the next day) and then we started our trek.

It was not that difficult of a trek, but it was incredible to watch Mr. Chan effortlessly find his way on the trail whereas I was stumbling and slipping. I envied his casual way of walking through what was basically his giant backyard while thinking that this was similar to how I somewhat skillfully make my way through crowded subway stations in New York. We stopped occasionally so he could explain something to me or show me some terrifying spider, had a delightful snack of sweet sticky rice, and an even more delightful lunch of pork fried rice and fresh fruit (WOW WOW WOW I cannot get enough of the fruit here). By mid-afternoon, I was back at my guesthouse and energized from the few hours in the jungle.

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view from the temple on the hill

I wasn’t done with trekking for the day – I decided to walk up to the temple on the hill for sunset. Surprisingly, it was not very crowded (unlike other sunset experiences I have encountered in Thailand and Laos). The views are incredible up here – the mountains, the town in the valley, and the temple itself – I came to understand why Michael was always coming back to MHS when he was in Thailand.

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As it grew darker, I walked back to the town towards the night market. (After seeing so many night markets in Asia, this was one of my favorites). The market is set up around the lake and it is not very crowded. If you decide to eat at the market, there are many places to sit along the lake which is an upgrade from cramming onto a slice of sidewalk in Chiang Mai or Pai. The temples in front of the lake are best viewed at night – during the day they look nice, but at night they really come to life. There are lanterns floating around in the lake and it is all rather peaceful. As I dug into more fried rice (this, in addition to toast, is what I would be eating for the next few days), I was finally feeling like my trip was moving in the right direction again. And, more than anything, I was SO glad I had ended up coming to MHS!

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Where to Stay: There are places to stay both in town and on the outskirts of town (better if you have a motorbike). I booked rather last minute so there were not a ton of options available for a budget price that looked decent, but I was able to snag a cheap room at Boondee Guesthouse for $10/night. It was definitely a budget bungalow with very thin walls, but fine for a night or two. And they even offered me free breakfast. There are some nicer rooms at this guesthouse (located near the breakfast area) so I would try to get one of those if you can.

Things to Do:

  • Grab a motorbike (or find someone with a bike) and explore the area around MHS. There are many villages in the mountains you can visit, as well as hot springs for swimming. Many people do the Mae Hong Son loop from Pai, visiting the towns, caves and other sights via motorbike.
  • Go up to the temple on the hill for sunset and enjoy the views of the mountains from up here.
  • Stroll the night market, check out the temples at the lake, and grab some dinner from the stalls here.

Getting There: MHS is accessible via minivan from Chiang Mai / Pai / Soppong. The ride to Chiang Mai is about 6 hours (and very twisty) so you can treat yourself on the way back by taking a quick flight back. I was able to book a flight via Bangkok Airways (about 10 flights per week) for less than $50. The airport in MHS is very small and just outside of town – I was able to walk there from my hotel in about 15 minutes.

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