The magic kingdom of Mae Hong Son, Thailand
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Thailand : Mae Hong Son

Thailand: The magic kingdom of Mae Hong Son
 Thailand: The Magic Kingdom of Mae Hong Son

Welcome to the true Northern Kingdom.

Visitors usually get their first taste of Mae Hong Son as they gaze down from the window of their aeroplane. On the way into the provincial capital, the aircraft glides over an endless green valley of forest, into a picturesque city surrounding a large reservoir, bounded by mountains and rivers with dirt roads that wind away into the void. Mae Hong Son has a couple of nicknames - "The Land of the Three Mists" and "The Switzerland of Thailand." Either description is appreciated the longer one stays and soaks in the scenery of this romantic hideaway tucked against the border of Myanmar.

The province is only a stone's throw from Chiang Mai, the regional metropolis and former capital of the Lanna Kingdom. The easiest and most direct way to get there is via a 25-minute Thai Airways flight, direct from Chiang Mai. The truly adventurous can try to navigate the eight-hour winding road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, which passes through 1,865 curves before it finally arrives at the same place.

Mae Hong Son is one of the most forested provinces in the nation, appealing to those who like their weather cooler and their terrain a little more mountainous. It is one of the only places in the country that can reach 0 degrees Celsius during the cold season evenings, so it is advisable to come armed with some items of warmer clothing during November-January. The cooler temperatures are one of the reasons for the aforementioned mists, which appear throughout the year, most often in the early morning.

Most visitors to Mae Hong Son stay within the capital city area or head to the smaller but lively city of Pai. Both have excellent dining and accommodations to offer. There are several large hotels in the main city, but visitors would do well to head out to one of the outlying resorts either south or north of town, where they can enjoy a quieter time, often by a pool, deep in the forest. To the south is the Fern Resort. To the north are both the Saksuay Resort and the Golden Pai and Suite Resort. All three of these are comfortable forest hideaways. In Pai, two of the nicer places for an overnight stay are the Hut Ing Pai Resort and the Muang Pai Resort.

Pai has a more lively nightlife than the provincial capital and has become a cultural Mecca of sorts for Bangkokians and others. It is also a backpacker's favourite haunt and can get quite crowded because of this during the cool season. The nightlife in Pai includes a blues/jazz pub (Bebop Jazz Bar) and several coffee houses and book shops catering to a more sophisticated crowd. Muslim culture has made obvious inroads here; one can hear the sound of the call to prayer at dusk while walking around the main market in town.

For those seeking a sensual release, Mae Hong Son is a favoured destination. Besides the omnipresent Thai massage places, there are an unusual number of hot spring saunas. The best one, Pooklon Country Club, is just south of the capital city, on the way to Ban Rak Thai. At Pooklon, guests can avail themselves of the walk-around sauna room (an enclosed wooden walkway around a steaming sulfurous pond), mineral baths, and face or body mud therapy, as well as the traditional massage. For equestrian aficionados, horse riding is available.

For the adventure-seeker, there are a number of appealing options - visitors can hire a local guide for a short-term or long-term trek into the mountains and forest, stopping overnight at hill tribe villages. Similar day or sleepover trips can be booked for rafting and/or cave exploration. Mae Hong Son has numerous caves. Tham Lot, near Pai, has one of the longest caverns in the country. Creativity is the key to a really exciting trek and incorporating elements such as rafting, spelunking, and elephant riding can make all the difference. Thai Adventure Rafting in Pai specializes in two-day rubber raft trips along the Pai River from Pai to Mae Hong Son.

The hill tribe areas can be visited either by trek or by vehicle. One village, specifically geared for day visitors and seemingly on every tour agency's list, is the famous Paduang "long-necked" hill tribe, located just outside the provincial capital. Residents of this over-visited group live in a partly secluded valley, but it has become its own cottage industry and there's not much to see here. Better and more natural options exist if you choose to trek into the mountains.

Adventuring is just one of many opportunities for vacationers.

Sightseeing is plentiful for those who would like to rent a motorcycle, car or jeep, to travel the winding byways. In November and early December, the hills south of the provincial capital become a feast for the eyes, as the annual Bua Tong Blossom Festival takes place. The hillsides play host to the golden Bua Tong flower, an oversized sunflower that blooms only once a year. So many bloom at once that the hillsides become a sea of yellow for one month.

Other sightseeing opportunities exist on the winding roads toward the Burmese border. The village of Mae Aw, or Ban Rak Thai, just outside the provincial capital, is a peaceful Chinese KMT village, also surrounding a mountain reservoir. The powerful scent of pine forest greets visitors as they ascend a mountain into the village, bringing sharply to mind the area's comparison to Switzerland. The former Chinese rebels now grow Oolong tea and that and other Chinese delicacies are available in shops throughout the village.

Mae Hong Son is a melting pot of different cultures, blending Thai Yai (Shan), Chinese, Akha, Lisu, Hmong, Muslim and numerous other tribes. Streets are colourful affairs, as people from any one of these cultures ply their wares on street sidewalks and from shops. Most of these items are coloured fabric handbags, hats and purses. Other regional specialties include wood carvings, Shan woven field hats, Burmese puppets, lacquerware and cigars.

Sightseers familiar with Thai architecture will notice a difference to the buildings and temples of the area, arising from the obvious influence of Burma and Thai Yai culture. Most buildings have a distinctive carved ornamental trimming around the roof edges and there is a Burmese outline to the faces of the Buddha images; a white oblong look that is quite different from the faces of the Buddha figures in Central Thai temples. Two glittering examples of this, Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang, are next to the main city's reservoir.

One of the must-do temples in Mae Hong Son is Wat Doi Kong Mu, which rises 1300 metres above the town, offering vistas of both the capital city and its airport and surrounding territory. Climb the steps during the right time, preferably during the early morning or late afternoon and you will be treated to the sound and sight of one of the three flights daily landing or taking off.

Experiencing all this beauty laid out before you may prompt you to stay around a bit longer - not a bad option when you consider all the places you can still explore in the "Land of the Three Mists."


- November Issue, 2002

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