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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.

Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son

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.

Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son

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.

Mae Hong Son Mud Spa

Mae Hong Son Mud Spa

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.

Mae_Hong-Song
Mae_Hong-Song
Mae_Hong-Song

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.

Mae Hong Son Thampla

Mae Hong Son Thampla

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.

Mae Hong Son Thampla

Mae Hong Son Thampla

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.

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Templesthe only elephant I’ll ride!

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

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.

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

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.

Mae Hong Son Temples

Mae Hong Son Temples

After one last lap around riverside Wat Jong Klang and Jong Kham, we splurged on pizza and mojitos before heading to bed early.

Mae Hong Son

Mae Hong Son

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.

Mae_Hong-Song
Mae_Hong-Song

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.

Mae Hong Son

Any of you readers been to visit the Long Neck Karen? What was your impression?

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38 Comments...
  • Emma
    March 26 2013

    I totally misread that, and thought that fish lettuce was a new species of fish that I’d never heard of before… I think I need a coffee!

    And I’m with you on the whole clothing in temples issue. It was one of my pet peeves when I lived in Thailand and would be interested in reading a full post on it.

    BTW, these posts really make me want to go back to Thailand and explore the north as I never made it that far before.

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      Hahaha… fish lettuce. Love it! Yeah I’m really dying to do a “What to Wear in Thailand” post and am kicking myself for never really aking photos of what I’m wearing! I’ll have to dig through old photos, hopefully I have some examples.

  • Annie of TravelShus
    March 26 2013

    I loved this town so much. The Wat by the lake was so beautiful I sat there and just stared at. Took millions of photos. Glad you enjoyed!
    Annie of TravelShus recently posted..Photo Inspiration: Nuruosmaniye Mosque, Istanbul

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      Me too! I woke up before everyone (as usual) and just sat working on the balcony of our guesthouse, staring at the wat. One of my favorite offices of the month!

  • cosmoHallitan
    March 26 2013

    Great post! This makes me want to go back and see more of Thailand! And I love that the boys joined you for mud masks 🙂
    cosmoHallitan recently posted..Palaces of Seoul: Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      For me this trip was all about going back and experiencing the places I had missed in the past 🙂 I’d encourage anyone to do the same!

  • Jade
    March 26 2013

    Mae Hong Son looks beautiful!
    I am really loving the coverage of Northern Thailand and cannot wait to here about the Philippines!
    Jade recently posted..Memory Lane Monday: Monkey Island

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      Thanks Jade! I am pretty behind so there are more Thailand posts to come, but we’ll get to Philippines eventually 🙂

  • OMG I’m in love and I’ve never been!!! What a fabulous place! Love the pics as usual.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..Cayman Islands: Day 2 (Part 3)

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      I think you would like it Andi, except I realized when I was recommending it to another friend that your usual caliber of beautiful boutique hotel does not exist here! Someone needs to open one, STAT! 🙂

  • Dad
    March 26 2013

    OK, the reference to projectile vomiting was TMI. The rant about the way dumb tourists dress was right on and should be repeated as often as necessary (btw, you look fabulous in the picture at the temple) and I want a triptych of the mud facial. Love Dad

  • Dad
    March 26 2013

    …one more thing, the pictures of MM make the name more obvious

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      I explained it in the first post he appeared in 🙂

  • Julie
    March 26 2013

    What do the yellow scarves on the trees signify? The scenery looks beautiful but I’m also a sucker for any place not covered in snow right now. A “what not to wear” in Thailand post would be great if you get a minute.
    Julie recently posted..Places I Would Rather be on Monday Morning: Snowny Swiss Alps

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      I believe, but I’m not 100% certain, that those trees have been blessed by monks. I saw a documentary in which this method of blessing trees by wrapping them with the scarves was used to try to stop a deforestation project in Thailand!

  • Jenna
    March 27 2013

    The views from the hike look amazing–definitely worth the hike! And, you can’t go wrong with a cheap spa treatment. A mud mask would be fun! 🙂
    Jenna recently posted..A Walk Through Ghent

    • Alex
      March 27 2013

      I’m definitely determined to find another full body mud spa again some day… that was insane! Maybe if I ever head back to Vietnam I’ll make a point to go back to Nha Trang 🙂

  • It’s a good you guys stayed ’til the lights came on- looks beautiful!

    P.S. I like your Dad’s comments on your posts haha
    Maki | Moon River Travels recently posted..FLORIDA | ST. AUGUSTINE

    • Alex
      March 29 2013

      Ha, thanks! I’ve often had readers comment that they feel like they know my family through all their comments here 🙂

  • Micamyx|Senyorita
    March 28 2013

    The second photo is really postcard worthy! Love the photos. Now I want to go back to Thailand I only managed to visit Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

    OT: How’s your stay in the Philippines so far? Just send me a message once you’re back in Manila 😀
    Micamyx|Senyorita recently posted..Camp Bandilaan: Conquering Siquijor’s Highest Peak

    • Alex
      March 29 2013

      I can’t believe my stay is almost over! Unfortunately I’m only oh-so-briefly passing through Manila — I fly in on the 31st and fly out of Clark the morning of the 1st, so I think I’m going to have to spend the night at the airport ugh.

  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown
    March 28 2013

    I have been waiting and waiting for Burma posts! WOW! It is stunning. Can’t wait to see more of it!
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Hey stranger. It’s been awhile.

    • Alex
      March 29 2013

      Unfortunately, this is close as I got to Burma! 🙁 Oh well, another trip.

  • Frank
    April 1 2013

    Do you ever have any issues renting scooters? Taking to two wheels is one of the things I really want to do on my visit but I’ve ready horror stories about shady rental places, passport ransom, etc.

    Do you hand over your passports when you rent scooters, or is the overall experience generally pretty stress free?

    • Alex
      April 1 2013

      I’m sad to say that the worst place for this is Koh Tao. It is scam city and I recommend EXTREME caution renting a bike there. If you are staying a month or longer I highly recommend buying one and reselling it when you leave. For shorter times, I’ve sent people to Mint Kitchen next to Roctopus dive shop — they are good people. But yeah, you’ll have to leave your passport everywhere.

      Other places in Southeast Asia I’ve never worried, some don’t even ask for a passport and barely glance at it when you return it!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    April 2 2013

    This place looks sooo nice. Love the hill top temple. Really have to make northern Thailand my next travel destination!
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Everest Base Camp chronicles

  • Patrick
    April 6 2013

    Mae Hong Son indeed is a nice place to get away from most of the tourists. I just arrived today and it’s just very relaxed at the lake.

    I do the Mae Hong Son Loop by motorbike by the way, which is a great way to explore the area (if you like motorbikes).
    Rafting from Pai doesn’t sound too bad either though 😉
    Patrick recently posted..#68 Waitomo Caves – Abseilen in eine vergessene Welt

    • Alex
      April 7 2013

      I do love motorbikes and at first I wanted to drive that route… but I’m glad I didn’t 🙂 I did a little bit of it when I rented bikes in Mae Hong Son and it was so windy I was on edge the whole time! I don’t know if I would have been able to relax enough to enjoy it. Rafting felt fairly adventurous as well anyway!

  • Martina
    November 7 2014

    Hey again Alex 🙂

    Wow, Mae Hong Son looks interesting! Your pictures really show how it’s a blend of Thailand and Myanmar/Burma – the architecture looks like a fusion, like it would fit into Chiang Mai or Yangon, but would stand out in either as well.

    I love the place with the mud, and the spot with the fish. They look gorgeous! And I share your frustrations about people not dressing right at temples – people need to take their cues from the people around them, surprisingly enough they also find it hot, but they don’t need to bare their midriff!

    Martina 🙂
    Martina recently posted..Racing round Vanua Levu – discovering the hidden beauty of Fiji’s North

    • Alex
      November 8 2014

      I’ve been meaning to write a post on what to wear in Thailand for ages, thank you for the reminder! And yes, Mae Hong Son is pretty amazing.

  • Ruth
    July 12 2015

    It looks beautiful and is definitely somewhere I want to visit. We live in Central Thailand and want to explore more of the northern provinces 🙂

    The clothing things always bugs me, there seems to be an idea that anything goes in Thailand but it is in fact a very conservative culture and Buddhism is a major part of the culture and people’s lives. But anyway…. you have convinced me to take a trip to Mae Hong Son!

    • Alex
      July 13 2015

      Oh, that will be an awesome trip for you! I really enjoyed Mae Hong Son. And yes, I’ve been meaning to do a “what to wear in Thailand” post for ages!

  • Thanks for the tips! I am in Mae Hong Son now. It’s awesome and definitely refreshing from Pai/Chiang Mai. Going to try out the mud mask and the hot springs! Your temple hike is also a good idea 😉 beautiful photos!

    • Alex
      October 27 2015

      Thanks Sasha. I loved that mud spa so much! Hope you have an equally good time there!

  • Alex
    December 9 2015

    Hi Alex, would you recommend going to Mae Hong Son for someone who wasn’t going to do the rafting trip? I can’t tell if it’s worth it from your post and was hoping to get a blunt opinion. Thanks
    Alex recently posted..Tastiest Food in Germany

    • Alex
      December 10 2015

      I think it depends on your timing. I loved Mae Hong Son as it was something totally different from what I’ve seen in other parts of Thailand but if you were on short time I’d say it’s cuttable. Hope that helps!

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