Two days of rafting through the jungle spit us out into the remote provincial capital of Mae Hong Son. This scenic town is nestled in Northwest Thailand, just miles from the Burmese border. I’ve had Mae Hong Son on my travel wish list ever since I first saw photos of the Shan-style temples ringing the lake that defines the center of town.
They delivered. In contrast to nearby Chiang Mai, a major Thai city, or Pai, a farang-friendly hippie hideout, Mae Hong Son is a notably Burmese influenced town. While it’s a popular destination with domestic tourists, it’s a refreshing step away from the intensity of the backpacker trail.
Mae Hong Son proper can be explored in less than an hour, so on our only full day in the area, Drew, MM and I hopped on rental motorbikes to explore the outskirts of town.
First stop: the mud spa! After an hour-long drive to the middle of nowhere, we came upon a The Country Mudspa. I was hoping for another muddy day like the one I had in Vietnam last year, but unfortunately full body treatments were out of my price range. Yet for a mere 80 baht — less than $3USD — we indulged in mud masks and a mineral foot bath. Ya’ll know how I feel about my Southeast Asia spa treatments.
The mud in the nearby region is claimed to be one of the three best “health mud” spots in the world. Um, don’t ask me for details. All I know is that once the mud dried facial movements became strained — I had a peek into the lives of heavily Botox-ed women everywhere.
Next up was a windy drive to the mystical Thampla fish cave. Originally I had dreamed of riding from Chiang Mai to Pai and onto Mae Hong Son by motorbike, and was quite crushed when it didn’t work out. This tiny taste of the route convinced me that things had all worked out for the best — it was a windy, hilly drive that had my heart resting firmly in my throat. I breathed a sigh of I-didn’t-die relief when we reached the National Park.
To be honest, the cave was a little underwhelming. Sure, it was fun to feed the fish lettuce, but the cave was quite mini and the lettuce routine grew old fast. You win some, you lose some.
Back in town MM and I dropped Drew at the bus station and set off for a sunset hike up to Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu. It was the kind of stroll that reminds you exactly how out of shape you are in painful detail, but rewards you with views that stretch all the way to Burma. Luckily, there were a fair amount of distractions along the way.
The chedis were stunning, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Thailand. The influence of the neighbor to the West is abundantly clear at this peaceful hilltop retreat. For me, it was the highlight of our short time in Mae Hong Son. With minimal pleading, I was able to convince MM that we should stay up top until the lights came on — and it was worth it.
Allow me to momentarily mount my virtual soapbox. The photo below is an example of how you should dress at temples in Thailand — shoulders covered, knee-length bottoms. Outside of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, where ankle-length attire is strictly enforced, I have seen a parade of bikini tops and booty shorts that would make Nana Plaza girls blush. Remember that these are religious sites, and your modesty will be much appreciated. I’ve been meaning to post on this subject for a while (and have collected a fair amount of sneaky camera evidence!) but this short rant should do for now.
After one last lap around riverside Wat Jong Klang and Jong Kham, we splurged on pizza and mojitos before heading to bed early.
That pizza would come back to haunt us. Mere hours after turning in, I was jolted awake by that horrible familiar feeling of nausea. Soon I was huddled on the floor of the tile bathroom in the full throes of food poisoning, which MM joined me in a few hours later. We spent the night and next morning competing for title of Most Miserable Travel Buddy.
Funny enough (if you can find a way to see several hours of projectile vomiting amusing), we had been very conflicted over how to spend our final morning. Mae Hong Son’s most popular tourist attraction is actually a functioning refugee camp for the Long Neck Karen refugees from Burma. Those who support tourists visiting the camps tout it as a positive way for the refugees to earn money, and a way for them to interact with the outside world. Critics call it a glorified human zoo. Even at dinner the night before we had been undecided, vowing to go with our guts the next morning. Well, our guts spoke loudly — we would not be visiting the Long Neck Karen. I think the universe chose well for us, though I wish it could have found a more pleasant way to deliver the message.
My 48 hours in Mae Hong Son was short but very sweet. Only a few hours from Pai by bus (or two days by river raft!) its a worthwhile trip for those who need a break from the Banana Pancake Trail, a refreshing breath of mountain air, or to be inspired by heartbreakingly beautiful scenery. Just stay far, far away from the pizzas.
Any of you readers been to visit the Long Neck Karen? What was your impression?