In a nutshell
Mae Hong Son is a small town in the North West of Thailand that has a population of just 7,000 permanent residents. It’s a relaxed and less touristy destination for those who want to explore a more rural side to the Thailand countryside and mountains.
Why go to Mae Hong Son
The main attraction for most visitors is to take part in some of the excellent trekking available and to enjoy time away from the hustle and bustle of most of Thailand’s other, more traveller friendly, spots like Chinag Mai or Pai.
The town itself is located quite near to the border with Myanmar and if you’re looking to get off the beaten track it’s the perfect place to explore the countryside, meet local villagers and hill tribes, and to visit authentic temples that haven’t become part of the tourist trail.
The main thing to do in Mae Hong Son for tourists visiting the area is to enjoy some trekking and walking in the hills. A guided trekking tour that lasts a day is usually the preferred option, and many will give you the option to meet local Karen tribes and get to know more about their traditions, customs and ways of life. The countryside here is very beautiful, so if you’re here in good weather it really is a great spot to get some trekking in.
As well as this, there are a couple of other spots both in the town and on the outskirts that are worth checking out on your visit. Outside of the town there is a picturesque bamboo bridge that links two small villages, and a couple of beautiful temples that it is worth visiting. There’s also a living museum which is very interesting and well worth seeing for an hour or two to learn more about the local culture and traditions, as well as the opportunity to take boat trips along the river. This can be a nice alternative to trekking if you’re not feeling so energetic, and offers some great views of the rural scenery.
A little further outside of town there are some further attractions if you have a bit more time to explore. There’s a popular mud spa which offers various treatments and is a good place to relax and unwind for an afternoon in the Thai countryside, whilst there are also some pretty waterfalls and other areas of natural beauty to take in.
When to go to Mae Hong Son
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Similarly to the rest of the Northern Thailand, the best time to visit Mae Hong Son is between November and February. Nights can be chilly during this time and the rolling hills around the town are at their best with flowering bright yellow Mexican sunflower and red stars of giant poinsettia appearing right before Christmas time.
Where to stay in Mae Hong Son
When it comes to accommodation, there’s a surprising amount of places to stay in Mae Hong Son for somewhere that’s not such a prominent fixture on the tourist trail through Thailand. It tends to be easier to book your accommodation in advance, although you can just turn up and see what’s available on the day.
Most accommodation in Mae Hong Son is fairly non-descript, so don’t expect too much, and sometimes you’ll find prices are elevated for tourists - meaning that you’ll probably be paying a fair amount over the odds for somewhere that is very basic. Several mid range options exist in various spots around the town, whilst there are also many backpacker type hostels and guesthouses to choose from. The main issue seems to be that most properties designed for tourists aren’t exactly what you’d call well maintained - and if you’re looking to stay somewhere a bit nicer you’re probably best off picking a resort outside of the town itself.
Where to eat in Mae Hong Son
The lake is a central point when it comes to picturesque spots in the town, and is a hub of local activity. It’s here that you’ll find the night market, which as well as various food and snacks, also sells interesting handicraft items and souvenirs. The local hill tribe people come down to Mae Hong Son to sell their wares to tourists in the area.
How to get around Mae Hong Son
As the town itself is so small it’s easy to get around on foot, and no local transportation is needed to see most of the main attractions, with most opting for tours or walking. Some people do like to hire bicycles and cycle around the town and local area which is a pleasant option if it’s not too hot!
How to get to and from Mae Hong Son
There is a small airport, so when it comes to reaching Mae Hong Son the most efficient and quick way to do so is to catch a short flight from Chiang Mai with Kan Air or Bangkok Air, which should take around 30 minutes or so. These flights can be booked online or with local travel agents. Prices do fluctuate and can be anywhere between THB1000 and THB2000. Advance booking is always a good idea.
If a flight is out of your budget or you would rather take a more scenic route, there are several other options available. If you have a car available and are confident driving on mountain roads that aren’t always in the best condition then there is a direct route from Bangkok of over 900 km that passes either through Tak (Route 108) or through Chiang Mai (Route 11). If you’re already in Chiang Mai and want to drive from there it’s around a 5-6 hour journey although this can be slower accounting for poor weather conditions.
There are also a few different options to reach Mae Hong Son by bus. A mini van is the preferred option for most travellers as it takes only 5-6 hours and is air conditioned, whilst the buses that run to the town are usually expected to take 7-8 hours due to numerous stops and the difficulty of navigating winding roads in such a large vehicle. The air-conditioned mini buses cost around THB250 on average. They pass via Pai where you can split your journey.
Once you’re finished in Mae Hong Son, most people tend to head back to either Pai or Chiang Mai to continue exploring Northern Thailand, or head onwards to Bangkok and onto their next destination from here.
Is Mae Hong Son safe?
It is. The main danger comes from riding a motorbike in the countryside as the roads are serpentine and can get slippery when wet.
Mae Hong Son station guide
Mae Hong Son - Bus
Buses run from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai at regular intervals, and there are two routes available. One route goes via through Pai (a very popular tourist destination) and the other through Mae Sariang. A regular bus will take at least seven to eight hours, but a faster more expensive option is to take a minibus. There are overnight buses from Mae Hong Son to Bangkok’s Mochit bus terminal; these take approximately 15 hours. Depending on the season, buses can fill up quickly and it’s a good idea to book online ahead of time to ensure a seat. There are also flights from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son.
The bus station in Mae Hong Son itself is fairly new, with not much in the way of shops and restaurants around it. The station is about a 15-minute walk in the southwest direction from the centre of town, but local transport is on hand for those who do not wish to walk. The town offers a good selection of eateries and accommodation options at various budget levels. There is also an interesting night market.
Northern Thailand itself is known to be a beautiful place, but Mae Hong Son seems to take the cake. An absolute dream come true in terms of beauty, many foreigners and Thais flock to the region for the beautiful countryside, and the mist enshrouded mountains where tribal villages dot the landscape.
The name Mae Hong Son refers to the terrain and its suitability for elephant training, and this area is well known for elephant trekking, elephant camps, and more. The architecture in the area seems almost untouched by modern influences, showcasing Lanna style houses and temples, and offering many natural wonders such as hot springs, trekking, rafting, beautiful national parks and more.
Khun Yuam - Bus
Khun Yuam is a small market town in the Yuam River valley in Mae Hong Son province. Local villagers come to Khun Yuam to buy and sell goods and the market is of interest. Located halfway along the route between Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang, Khun Yuam is a nice location for a brief stop to break up your travelling. Although there is not much to do in way of tourist attractions, the town does offer many cheap local eateries and one or two nice guesthouses at a budget-friendly price.
The road from Khun Yuam to Mae Chaem and Doi Inthanon is an incredibly scenic mountain route and can be accessed from the town. Also nearby is the Mae Surin waterfall, which is approximately 100m high and is set in the national park of the same name. Local songthaews may be able to take visitors there.
The small bus station itself is rather typical of sleepy rural towns such as this and offers limited amenities, such as a snack shop and toilets. All buses and songthaews running between Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang stop here.
Mae Sariang - Bus
Mae Sariang falls on the Mae Hong Son Loop in Mae Hong Son province. Travellers can easily travel further north (approximately three hours) to Mae Hong Son, or south to Chiang Mai city (approximately four hours). Buses to these centres depart in both directions each day in the morning hours. Those heading to Bangkok can take overnight buses; these take approximately 11 hours to reach the capital. Mae Sariang is also linked to the border town of Mae Sot by local songthaew.
Mae Sariang is not a very large town and it is easy to walk anywhere, or hire a pushbike for the day. There is a modest selection of places to eat and to stay here.
Mae Sariang sits along the Yuam River near the Myanmar border, and this shows in its Burmese architecture. To the south of town lie both Salawin and Mae Ngao national parks, which boast beautiful, mountainous jungle throughout.
There is a cultural museum which features presentations about the lives of tribal people, and showcases One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) merchandise. Hilltribe villages and hot springs are also in the area, and many travellers enjoy this area for trekking excursions and the pure simplicity of beautiful surroundings in a quaint, cultural, local Thai village.
Mae La Noi - Bus
Mae La Noi is a rural town in northwest Thailand situated on Highway 108. This route links Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. The town is a good base for visiting the villages of hilltribes such as the Karen and the Shan as well as Lum Nam Kong National Park. Another local attraction is the famed Kaew Komol cave.
Mae La Noi is 750kms from Bangkok. The usual route for travellers is to take a bus from Bangkok’s Mochit terminal to the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai and then change to a service for Mae Hong Son that goes via Mae Sariang. Mae La Noi is 30kms from the latter and takes about 30 minutes to get to.