Mae Hong Son is a small town lying about 120km or 75 miles to the north west of Chiang Mai; not far from the Burmese border, indeed the people indigenous to the area (The Shan) straddle the border.
The distance doesn’t sound far but this hides the fact that the route is very mountainous, the road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son famously has some 1800 twists – and you can get the t-shirt (literally) at the Mae Hong Son night market. There are 2 road routes from Chiang Mai, both of which take about 6 hours by bus, or you can fly with either Kan Air or Nok Air – the flight is about 30 minutes and was my prefered option: about £60 return.
Being an internal flight the formalities are delightfully low key and as the airport is right in town, you can walk to your hotel or tuk tuk will be about Bht 50.
The lakeside is where you will wander first and this is the location of many of the tourist restaurants and facilities (tour booking etc), the main temples are here too: Wat Chong Klan and Wat Chong Kham, both decorated with the filigree metal that seems to be popular in the area. There is a large market further back in to town, but unless you need any staples there won’t be much of interest. The road between the Post Office and the lake becomes a walking market on Wednesday nights (possibly others too) and has all the usual stuff – along with some Hill Tribe crafts; some of the items do seem different to items in Chiang Mai so might be worth looking if you want something different.
One of the main attractions in Mae Hong Son is trekking and all the agents will be happy to sort this for you, options vary from a few hours to a few days (heading to Chiang Rai). I only had one clear day so need a faster (and to be honest a softer) option; so I hired a car and headed off to see the following:
The Fish Cave: All trips push this one, with tales of a mysterious cave where fish enter and a few return, oooh… There is cave, but you don’t go in, you just get to peer over a fence to a small pool (about a meter wide) where the said fish do indeed swim in to the cave. Outside the cave (grotto really) there is a larger pool where the fish live and some gardens leading from the car park. To be honest; pretty, but not terribly exciting and debateable whether its worth the 100 Bht entry fee and the half hour you visit will take.
Waterfalls: A few in the area, some of which have pleasant settings, good for jungle photo opportunities.
Long Neck Karen visit: This is the hill tribe where the women extend their necks with metal hoops. I didn’t want to do this as I don’t think the Karen are from this area anyway (more Chiang Rai); I have a friend who is Karen and he was of the opinion that it’s a bit of a freak show. I guess they are making a living, but I would have felt uncomfortable.
Lisu Hill Tribe Village visit: this is a real and working village where you can go and wander around and get a coffee in a local cafe, nothing in the way of tourist trinkets – for now anyway. Despite just wandering about it didn’t feel invasive or exploitative and you do get to see a ‘slice of life’.
Tham Nam Lod Caves: huge cave system, the largest in Thailand. These caves are truly spectacular but visits come with some caveats… I honestly did feel that I might have over stretched myself at a couple of points – this is not for the faint hearted.
You have to have a guide to get into the caves (150 Bht) and you need a bamboo raft (500 Bht for up to 3 persons).
There is no lighting apart from the lantern carried by your guide and some parts are accessed via slippery, steep and in the last cave covered in swift and bat shit, rickety stairs and pathways. However it was worth it. The last cave contains coffins believed to be up to 2000 years old and whilst you are not going to be the only person there, its quiet compared to anywhere else this spectacular. Article from the New York Times here.
Wat Prathad Doi Kongmu: the temple on the hill behind Mae Hong Son. Two Cheddi and incredible views over town and surrounding mountains. From the rear of the hill you are looking over to Myannmar/ Burma, there is a small coffee bar where you can enjoy the view.
The top of Doi Kongmu is accessed via a twisty road and cars can get right to the top unlike Doi Suthep in Chaing Mai. The downside of this is that the old stairway is becoming overgrown and looks abandoned – be sure to stop at Wat Muai To on the way down where you can see the staircase (similar to the one at Doi Suthep).
Mae Hong Son is a great place to visit for a couple of days, but that’s enough unless you are trekking. Restaurants offer more limited choices and charged more than places in Chiang Mai (fair enough, it’s a smaller place), and one meal I had there was the worst to date: the Sunflower Cafe by the lakeside did a red curry that was not just bad it was truly awful – looked like a red sludge with random vegetables that had been lying about in the kitchen – vile. Better options available at The Fern, near the post office.