The mountains roll on, ridge after ridge of thick jungles marked only with a single highway. Occasional villages and farms dot the valleys and hilltops. Back in town, locals pass one another, speaking at least three different languages. One shop sells locally harvested teas and another hawks bags of dried mushrooms and flowers, picked from the surrounding forests.
The culture bubbles with a mix of northern Thai, Karen, Akha, Lisu, Shan, Lahu… and the list goes on. This is Mae Hong Son.
West of Chiang Mai, on the border of Myanmar, the province of Mae Hong Son is a mix of remote adventures and peaceful getaways.
The capital – the town of Mae Hong Son – is a five hour drive from the city of Chiang Mai (a bit more by bus) but the best destinations the province has to offer are scattered across it, some closer in to Chiang Mai and easily accessible (…Pai) and some further afield, practically kissing Myanmar (the lake town of Ban Rak Thai).
With destinations so spread out, it’s hard to know what’s worth seeing.
Here’s our guide to the best of Mae Hong Son.
The Best Places To Go In Mae Hong Son Province (And Where To Stay When You Get There)
The following towns and things to do in Mae Hong Son are organized from south to north, as best we could manage.
The town of Mae Sariang is located on the banks of the Yuam river and is a small hub for adventures in the area. It’s a great jumping off point for Salween National Park (see below), and guided treks and river rafting are also popular choices.
Northwest Guest House is a reliable outfit for treks and guides – rates will vary depending on the length of the trip and what’s involved, but expect to pay at least 1,000 baht per day. NG Guides offers kayaking and rafting on the Yuam river and other spots in the area (and it’s all just fine for families).
The small village of Mae Sam Laep on the Salween river, which forms the border with Myanmar, is also worth a day trip – a sleepy, out of the way spot to slow down and take in the river (locals boat drivers will happily take you out for a river tour).
There are also two night markets in Mae Sariang – one at the end of Wiang Mai Road on Sunday evenings, and one in the center of town on Friday evenings.
In town, there are plenty of cute coffee shops and a few good places to stay. The Riverbank Guest House offers a few great, large rooms that overlook the river – inquire before you book to make sure you get one of these because if you can, it’s a treat. An in-house restaurant doesn’t disappoint, offering great homemade Thai food and a couple of Western options. The large rooms start at 800 baht per day.
If you’re looking for something a little cheaper, Northwest Guest House offers a family-type atmosphere, as well as motorbikes and bicycles for rent. Rooms start at 250 baht per night.
Salween National Park
The Salween National Park, only a 15-minute drive out of Mae Sariang, is a sprawling expanse of jungle along the Salween river that sees few tourists despite the easily-accessible trails and chances to see some great bird life.
There are nature trails among the mix of evergreen and more tropical ecology, with English signage to explain all you’re seeing. Birds and butterflies seem to flock to the basic little two-kilometer loop.
If you’re hungry for more, there are trails going all the way to the Salween but unless you’re an experienced hiker, we recommend talking with the park staff to arrange a guide if this sounds appealing (they said they could arrange a guide for the next day, not day-of).
There is good accommodation in the park, with cabins starting from 300 baht per night, and camping available for cheaper.
Entrance costs 100 baht for foreigners.
Nahm Dtok Mae Surin Waterfall
The 80 meter-tall Nahm Dtok Mae Surin Waterfall is often called the tallest waterfall in Thailand and though we can’t confirm this, we believe it. Unlike many tall waterfalls in the area, Mae Surin is a single-tier cascade – one long drop.
The waterfall is located in the Nam Dtok Mae Surin National Park, a stretch of preserved land that runs from the east of Mae Hong Son town down to just north of Highway 1263, the road to the back of Doi Inthanon.
The waterfall (the nahm dtok – you get the idea now, no?) is located in the southeastern corner of the park and is visible from the area around the park headquarters and parking lot.
The trek in to the bottom of the waterfall takes two hours, roundtrip, but it’s worth it to see the water up close – be careful if you go in the rainy season, as the trail is steep.
There is also a shorter nature trail, complete with a little English signage, that tells you a bit about the unique dipterocarp (you don’t have to pronounce it) forests of northern Thailand.
There are some Karenni and Hmong villages around the park, and these are worth pausing in if you have the time – just to see what life is like there.
Admission to the park was free when we went, but there was an unmanned checkpoint on the road into the park that may charge fees sometimes.
Mae Hong Son
The town of Mae Hong Son is actually further into the province, if you’re coming from Chiang Mai, than either Pai or Mae Sariang, but it’s a great hub for jumping off towards waterfalls, national parks, or the Pang Ung or Ban Rak Thai area. It’s also a common stop for the night if you’re driving from Pai to Mae Sariang (or the reverse).
One of the best is the Pha Suea Waterfall. Only 40 minutes north of the town of Mae Hong Son, it’s a beautiful jungle waterfall.
Off the beaten path, you won’t see tour buses like at the waterfalls near Chiang Mai, but it’s still much more accessible than Nam Dtok Mae Surin or others in Mae Hong Son. The cascades are 15-20 meters tall, and when in full flow, the wide swath of water looks like a billowing sheet.
A deck high above the waterfall offers a view of the whole cascade from far away, but be sure to walk all the way in to see it up close. Get your feet wet and enjoy it, though in the rainy season we were told the rocks can be treacherous. That being said, rainy season, between July and November, is easily the best time to visit, when the waterfall is most impressive.
After Pha Suea, Mae Hong Son is the home base for some of northern Thailand’s best trekking.
The town has tour agencies that are happy to arrange a guide for you, and treks can range from day hikes to multi-night homestays in rural villages. Take a look at Rose Garden Tours in town, or ask around at your guesthouse. The quality of the experience can really depend on your guide, so ask to meet them and talk a bit before booking if possible.
One of the nicest places to eat in the town of Mae Hong Son is Bai Fern Restaurant, a northern Thai restaurant that does great renditions of local traditional recipes. They have live music in the evenings.
For Burmese food, Shan food, and exceptionally good versions of Thai classics, try the Salween Restaurant. This popular lunch spot with some stylish decor serves great khao soi coconut chicken noodle curry, as well as some more foreigner-friendly versions of Burmese salads (less oily and a bit milder – we liked them just fine). They also offer a few Western dishes – the pizzas looked good, but we didn’t get a chance to try them.
For a unique cultural experience, try the Look Tai Guest House. This homestay offers a chance to learn about the Shan ethnic group, their food and traditions. There’s no website, but try calling them (+66 844064108) or ask in town – it’s located just around the block from the police station.
Mae Hong Son is a 15 hour bus ride from Bangkok, but most travelers come from Chiang Mai. It takes 5.5 hours by minibus (silver van) from Chiang Mai and costs 250 baht.
It’s worth noting that you can purchase a ticket for the northern route – that goes via Pai – or the southern route – that goes via Mae Sariang. The two are about equal in length, though the north is a little faster.
Some people call Pang Ung “the Switzerland of Thailand” because this little lake town in the mountains sometimes gets so cold in the winter that frost (or ice?) forms on the waterfront. We can’t verify these rumors, but at over 1000 meters above sea level, this high-altitude getaway offers a beautiful place to relax, unlike any in Thailand.
The evergreen trees along the lakefront feel practically temperate, and it’s set up as a truly easy place to while away a few hours or a couple days. The lake is home to some diverse and active bird life, including a few black swans.
The highlight of a trip to Pang Ung is the sunrise over the lakefront – the mist rising up, the light coming through the pine and fir trees, and, as with all the best destinations in northern Thailand, sharing the incredible experience with a cohort of intrepid Thai adventurers.
We consider it a sign that you’re in the right place. Given this, it’s best if you can stay the night.
The easiest place to stay might be the campground on the lakeside. With tents already set up and ready to go, you can just show up and rent one – bedding included.
If it’s high season (winter) call ahead or have someone who speaks Thai do it for you. It’s a great Thai camping scene of muh ghata (do-it-yourself pork barbecue), and the sunset can be a great wash of colors as well.
If you’re looking to stay overnight but would rather get a sense of the local culture and not stay in a tent, Lung Soi Nguen Homestay Pang Oung offers lodging right near the lake. The family that runs it is hospitable and happy to see foreigners appreciating their town and way of life.
Ban Rak Thai
The small town of Ban Rak Thai is a quiet, calm settlement on the edge of Myanmar. A diverse place, it was allegedly founded by the Kuo Min Tang Chinese nationalists, but it’s also a hub for Shan, Karen and other ethnic groups.
The hills around the town are filled with tea plantations and terraced farms. But don’t wander too far – get turned around up there and you might end up in Myanmar (they’d prefer if you have a visa I guess – and the border isn’t officially open to foreigners).
A great stop in town is the Lee Wine Rak Thai Resort – a winery and tea plantation that offers tastings and informal tours.
Staying the night near the Ban Rak Thai lake is a great option – both for sunrise and sunset – and Lee Wine Rak offers chalets set amid the rows of tea plants. Call ahead to reserve. Rooms cost 600-1000 baht per night.
The Mong Homestay Resort is also a lovely spot between Ban Rak Thai and Pang Ung and offers a great way to get to know one of the local cultures and stay up in the mountains.
The Mong people (not always the same as Hmong, but in this case, we think it is) live primarily along a belt of highlands that spans southwestern China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Though the name sounds a bit like you’re trying to “have your cake and eat it too” (Homestay? Resort? I wish my home was a resort) the experience is welcoming and rewarding, despite the off-the-beaten-path location.
If you’re passing through the north of Mae Hong Son, Lod Cave is an essential stop – companies run tours from Mae Hong Son and Pai, but it’s best to stop by on your own.
The cave stretches for over a kilometer and is over 50 meters tall in the largest chamber.
A stream runs through the middle, with beautiful limestone shapes reaching up the sides above the water.
You do need a guide to explore the cave, but most tours will take you in on a bamboo raft and guide you up to the rocks beyond. A guide costs 150 baht and a raft starts at 400 baht.
Chances are you don’t need us to tell you about Pai, the second most popular tourist destination in northern Thailand, after Chiang Mai.
It’s a hub for seeing some nice waterfalls and getting up to Lod Cave (see below), but most tourists now seem to just come to relax and enjoy the food and artistic culture of the town.
Pai may be overrun with tourists, but as long as you aren’t expecting a remote mountain town, and are prepared for most people you talk to to be foreigners, not Thai, it’s a great spot to rest for a few days.
A guide to Pai could go on forever, so we’ll keep this very brief – once you’re in town, you’ll have no trouble finding things to do and places to eat.
What to do:
Tour agencies and travel blogs will tout plenty of options, but there are actually a small set of things worth doing outside of Pai.
First is waterfalls: head to Mor Pang, 20 minutes from town, for a few beautiful pools to swim in and a natural waterslide. The other best option is Mae Yen, a more remote waterfall that takes a 2-3 hour hike to reach (one-way). The trail is well-marked.
Second is white water river rafting: if you’re going to pay money to do one tour in Pai, this is it.
As far as outdoor adventures in northern Thailand, this might be the most fun you can have for the least effort.
Northern Thailand has plenty of navigable white water rivers, but Pai is one of the few places to find regular tours for most of the year (the rivers near Mae Sariang may dry up or become a lot less fun in dry season). Head to Thai Adventure Rafting for the details.
Beyond those, Pai Canyon is a great spot for sunset or sunrise, but only really if you have your own transportation – it wouldn’t be worth a tour.
In town, your best options are cooking classes and yoga courses.
There are plenty of choices for both, but try Wok N Roll for the former, Sawasdee Pai for the latter.
Beyond that, you can easily spend an afternoon browsing through the local boutiques and arts and crafts stores. These are really where the unique side of Pai is on display – though it sometimes might not feel like you’re in Thailand, the town has now become a mecca for Thai artists with their own vision for a creative community.
If you’re looking for a good night out on the town, Pai also has some phenomenal live music. Head to Mojo Cafe for blues and jazz in a small spot that spills out onto a branch of the Walking Street.
Jazz House is a larger, slightly more low-key option with a bohemian ambiance and plenty of food on offer as well. No cover for either, music runs from 8 or 9 PM until midnight.
Where to stay:
Re-Wild House offers some of the nicer bungalows in Pai, up away from the town about a 15 minute walk. The space is beautiful and it’s small enough that it doesn’t feel like you’re staying with a pack of tourists. The in-house breakfast is an amazing spread of fresh fruit and homemade jams and peanut butter.
If you prefer to stay in town, Pai Village is our pick – the bungalows might be nicer than Re-Wild, but it’s a much larger place and the huts are packed in just a little bit. Though it’s on one of the main walking streets in town, the bungalows are far enough back to still be quiet and peaceful – just try to get a good deal by booking last minute or for mid-week on Booking.com or Agoda.
Where to eat:
Lemon Thyme is the best breakfast and brunch in town, with benedicts, home fry potatoes and gorgeous stacks of french toast.
The best coffee in town might just be The Pedlar, a new specialty coffee spot up past the top of Walking Street. They also do great Western breakfasts.
For Thai food, do Dang Thai Food or Pen’s Kitchen.
The main attraction as far as food in Pai however, is probably the Walking Street night market.
The whole town turns around for this market, with two or three streets blocked off for pedestrians and vendors. This is the only night market in northern Thailand where I’ve seen bruschetta, garlic bread, falafel, avocado salad… the list goes on. It starts at around 6:30 PM.
One quick note for those who might enjoy some fine dining in Pai: head to Silhouette for remarkably good Italian food, wine, craft cocktails and a great setting.
It’s not even that expensive, for what you’re getting – two can have dinner and drinks for less than 1,000 baht. If that sounds at all appealing, trust me – you’ll always remember a dinner at Silhouette.
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