A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

Four days and 800 kilometers on scenic roads, enduring series of s-curves and hairpin bends climbing up and down the mountainside, we explored 20 top attractions in ‘the land of three mists’

The images of mist enshrouded mountains, golden Bua Tong flower hills, Poi Sang Long novice ordination ceremony, tribal villages, Burmese-style temples and the natural beauty of the countryside as well as series of hairpin bends have placed Mae Hong Son on my bucket list for many years.  Finally ticked off the list, and so glad I did.

Mae Hong Son is indeed a dream-come-true destination, and really lives up to its name as ‘the land of three mists.’

There are dozens of things worth doing and seeing in Mae Hong Son. Our four-day road trip, during November 19 – 22, specifically timed to catch the Bua Tong Blossom Festival 2018, followed the anti-clockwise Mae Hong Son Loop, exploring 20 attractions.

DAY ONE: CHIANG MAI – PAI

We left Chiang Mai at 9 am on Monday. Traffic was not as bad as we thought, being three days away from the Yi Peng or Loi Krathong Festival. The weather was nice, and after a short drive we were on scenic windy roads up and down the mountainside.

1. Huai Nam Dang National Park

At first, we debated whether to come here on the following day to see the morning mist from the park’s peak at Doi Kiew Lom viewpoint. But it would take around an hour from Pai where there is also a morning-mist viewpoint nearby, we decided to make our first stop here.

We reached the top of Huai Nam Dang National Park at around 10.30 am to this fabulous view and crisp mountain air.

2. Memorial Bridge, Pai

Just 30 minutes before reaching the town of Pai is the Memorial Bridge, built during World War II. You can learn about its history at the visitor information board.

On the other end, there’re stalls selling souvenirs, fruits, snacks and drinks as well as a few cafés across the road. We had coffee at one of the cafés before continued the journey to Pai and had lunch there.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

3. Sunset at Kong Laen or Pai Canyon

After checked in at a bungalow accommodation by the Pai River and relaxed a bit, we set off for Kong Laen, also known as Pai Canyon. Though its name implies geological grandeur, do not expect it to be of the same sheer size as the Grand Canyon.

We arrived at 5.30 pm, and after climbing up a flight of stairs, we reached the main viewing area and braved some more trails along razor sharp ridges. The trails were slippery and treacherous as some ridges are narrow with unprotected drops on either side.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

People with a fear of heights may feel nervous. But really, you don’t need to hike very far to get the best seats for watching Pai sunset. This photo was taken at the main viewing area and timely captured the sun going down and disappearing behind the mountains.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

4. Pai Walking Street

From our place, we just crossed over a small wooden bridge and found ourselves right at the end of Rungsiyanon Road, where the Pai Walking Street takes place nightly from 5 pm to 10 pm.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

It was a very nice and cool evening to come out and enjoy our only one night in Pai. We strolled through the street, snacking on many Thai and international food. Vendors offered their specialties in small servings, so we could enjoy as many ‘appetizers’ as possible.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

Finally, we decided to chill out and relax at a restaurant. This place had amazing live music performance by a Thai acoustic guitar artist. At one point, he was singing the song ‘Scarborough Fair’ so beautifully that a passing couple stopped to listen to the entire song.

On the way back, I was a little disappointed that I had not gone for a bar hopping. Late at night, almost every bar on the street came alive with great vibe and live music.

DAY TWO: PAI – BAN RAK THAI

5. Sunrise at Yun Lai viewpoint

Apparently, many tourists got up very early that morning to catch the panoramic view of sunrise above the mountain valley and morning mist at Yun Lai viewpoint. It’s a steep windy road with sharp turns, so going up there in off-road vehicles offered by the locals is recommended.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

6. Baan Santichon

The villagers of Baan Santichon, a Chinese Yunnan Cultural village, oversee the Yun Lai viewpoint. The 20-baht fee will give you access to the viewpoint and a pot of Chinese tea. You can also dress up in traditional Chinese costumes for a social media op, try a hand at an archery game, or take a ride in the wooden ferris wheel.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

7. Pai Riverside

We stayed overnight at a resort by the Pai River. Despite remarks that Pai was not as ‘raw’ as before, we could still enjoy the peaceful and serene life of Pai.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

8. Kho Ku So the Bamboo Bridge of Merit

The Pai’s version of bamboo bridge has its own charms with its walkway weaving through paddy fields, with every nook and cranny decorated for a social media photo opportunity. But it seemed a little too much, especially the ones with plastic flowers. It’s on the same way to Pam Bok Waterfall and so it doesn’t hurt dropping by.

9. Kiew Lom viewpoint

So far, the journey on highway 1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai was tolerable. I didn’t feel any motion sickness. (We hired an Isuzu MU-X with a driver, and he was a careful driver.) But on the way from Pai to Tham Lot cave, the steep S-curves and hairpin bends were more apparent.

When we reached the Kiew Lom viewpoint overlooking the Pang Mapha range, the driver pointed to the windy road down the hill, saying ‘that’s where we’re going next, and there’re more than a few of those hills to endure.”

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

10. Tham Lot cave

At the entrance to the cave, we were greeted by a fish-eating snake with its eyes fixed on loads of fish in the river. Our guide urged us to keep walking as it would take at least 40 minutes to explore two “rooms” on foot. It eventually took us about an hour.

The photographer captured this photo inside the Tham Lot cave in almost complete darkness with only warm glow of the guide’s hand-held lamp.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

To get to the third ‘room’ of the cave system, visitors would need to travel by bamboo raft. Whether you choose to explore by raft or on foot, you will need to hire a local guide. Visitors are not allowed to explore the cave by themselves.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

11. Su Tong Pae the Bamboo Bridge of Faith and Success

Mae Hong Son’s original version of bamboo bridge, built by villagers of Ban Kung Mai Sak village to link it with the hilltop Shan-style monastery Phu Sama, aka Wat Tham Phu Sama.

From the village, you will see this ‘hermit shrine’ at the entrance to the raised bamboo bridge that stretches some 500 meters across paddy fields and the Mae Sa Nga Stream.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

Because the bridge was built out of faith, locals believed that you can make a wish there that will come true. We didn’t make any wish, but we took a lot of photos. Although the rice had been harvested, but late afternoon sun made it ideal for this landscape photography of the bridge leading to the hill-top monastery.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

We were on our way to Ban Rak Thai and the Su Tong Pae bridge made for a great stop among other places of interest in the area including the Phu Klon mud spa village and Pha Sua Waterfall.

12. Baan Rak Thai

It was dark when we arrived at Baan Rak Thai, having endured series of hairpin bends on the well-paved, but narrow mountain roads. It felt like slipping into a Chinese village, with Chinese-style red lanterns, clay roof tiles and what appeared to be the mini version of the Great Wall.

This is the ‘lobby’ of our homestay, and since everything was closed before 9 pm so it’s only ideal that we entertained ourselves.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

DAY THREE: BAAN RAK THAI – MUEANG MAE HONG SON

Again, we got up very early in the morning for a walk around the village, and were rewarded with such breathtaking views and relaxing atmosphere of Baan Rak Thai.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

The village was founded by Kuomintang Chinese soldiers, and there’s a small museum that tells the story of its founding. It is famous for its tea cultivation and so we got to taste several tea varieties.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

13. Kong Mung Mong, Shan State, Myanmar

Located just one kilometer away from Baan Rak Thai is the Kong Mung Mong border village in Myanmar’s Shan State. We had to leave our ID cards at the Thailand’s checkpoint, but didn’t have to provide any document to enter into the Myanmar’s village.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

We didn’t walk that far into the village, only within the area near the border gate. But it seemed like a small town, with a school, a temple and a few ‘duty free’ shops. We also saw Thai soldiers with pack mules taking supplies to the hilltop border post.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

14. Pang Ung

We visited Pang Ung quite late, thus missing the park’s famous morning mist. There were camping tents along the bank in the pine forest along the bank of Huai Pang Tong Reservoir. It’s definitely the place for nature lovers.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

15. Wat Tham Phu Sama

Since it was on the way, we decided to make a stop at the Shan-style monastery Phu Sama, aka Wat Tham Phu Sama, which is linked with the Su Tong Pae Bamboo Bridge that we visited yesterday. We took other shots of the bridge from the hilltop temple.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

The temple appeared to be under an expansion. Inside the main chapel, there is an impressive Shan-style golden Buddha image.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

16. Baan Huai Suea Tao Long Neck village

There is a controversy surrounding the Long Neck village. It’s dubbed a ‘human zoo’ for one.  There are so many stories behind this and other village with the ‘Long Neck’ women in the media and other blogs.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

We went there just to see. Baan Huai Suea Tao looked more like a souvenir market with these ladies as staff, readily striking the perfect post like a model.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

During our 30 minutes or so, there was a group of Tourist Police officers at the market. We asked them what they were doing there, and they replied that it was part of their regular patrol to prevent any incident among tourists and the local villagers themselves.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

17. Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu

The Buddhist monk at Wat Phrathat Doi Kongmu explained that ‘Kongmu’ means pagodas, when we asked what the differences are between the two pagodas. Apparently, one was built before another and the large one enshrines the bones of Mokkhalana Monk, the main follower of Lord Buddha.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

From the temple, we could see an aerial view of Mae Hong Son town.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

18. Wat Chong Kham

Like many other provinces in Thailand, Mae Hong Son has no shortage of Buddhist temples. In the center of the town is the Shan-style temple Wat Chong Kham. It is said to be the very first temple in Mae Hong Son.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

19. Mae Hong Son Walking Street

This ‘winter’ market is set along the road around the Chong Kham Lake, including in front of Wat Chong Kham. Open nightly from 5.30 pm to 10 pm, only five months a year from October to February. As well as souvenirs, there are food and snacks, and a place to sit and enjoy the freshly-cooked dishes along the lake.

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience
A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

We left Mae Hong Son town for Khun Yuam that evening.

DAY FOUR: KHUN YUAM – CHIANG MAI

20. Bua Tong Fields, Doi Mae U Kho

The Bua Tong hills and valleys at Doi Mae U Kho in Khun Yuam district was the last stop of our four-day Mae Hong Son trip. We arrived at about 10 am on November 22, just at the perfect moment to see the Bua Tong flowers turning their bright faces towards the sun. (Read more at: Blooming Bua Tong flowers brighten the hills of Doi Mae U Kho in Mae Hong Son)

A Fantastic Mae Hong Son Loop Experience

That’s it. On the way back to Chiang Mai, we also made a stop at Doi Inthanon to pay homage to Phramahathat Napamathanidol and Phramahathat Napaphol Bhumisiri (the Great Holy Relics Pagodas) and lunch at the Royal Project Doi Inthanon, where there is a research center for highland fish farming for trout and sturgeon.