Living Tranquil Road Trip; Mae Hong Son

We headed out on the Thailand roads again – this time our destination was to Mae Hong Son, in the far northwest of the country. We had visitors staying with us and it was an opportunity to explore this part of Thailand we had not visited.

There are two ways to drive to Mae Hong Son – via the well-known town, Pai, or via a much quieter and out-of-the-way, Mae Sariang – the later being our choice.  It is a slightly longer journey but has slightly fewer, more gentle curves. The road offers 1864 curves apparently – a bit of challenge to drive, very windy but with some very nice views.  It was after the rainy season so the outlook was lush, green and the forest covering now included pine trees.

Mae Hong Son Province is approximately 924 kilometres north of Bangkok. To the north and west it connects to  three states in the Myanmar (old Burma). Every district in Mae Hong Son Province shares a common border, measuring approximately 483 kilometres in total length, with Myanmar. The common border consists of approximately 326 km of land boundary and 157 km of river boundary (not counting the Salween River, 127 km and Moei River, 30 km).

Most of the areas of Mae Hong Son Province are the complex mountain ranges of the Thai highlands, parts of which are still covered with rain forest. Of the approximately 7 million rai of national forest reserves, it is estimated that 88 percent is pristine virgin forest. The population in the province consists largely of hill tribes (63 percent), that include the Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, Karen, and the Shan (Thai Yai). The province has the lowest population density of all the provinces of Thailand

After an early morning start we headed the wheels west toward Hot and then turned north on the road to Mae Hong Song, stopping at the quiet town of Mae Sariang.

We had a short look around and lunch in Mae Sariang, a small town alongside the Yuam River near the Myanmar border. The areas around Mae Sariang provide mountainous views and forested hills.

We then continued north to Khun Yuam a small town with an interesting history. There is a “Thai-Japan Friendship Memorial Hall”, a museum with a short introduction film about the history of world war II in this area of Thailand. Information indicated there were some 6000 Japanese stationed here, with 270,000 passing through on their way to or retreating from Burma (Myanmar today). This facility is about the history of the town & friendship between Thai and Japanese people who developed close ties – not about the war.

It was also a time to have a coffee & break from driving the many road curves.

We then detoured some 35 km from the Mae Hong Son highway and up into the highlands to see the Dok Bua Thong (in Thai), fields of “wild sunflowers”. These bloom in November and December and, since sunflowers are rare in these parts, are hugely popular with local tourists. 

The story goes that the flowers originated in Central America, but were apparently brought to Thailand and planted by missionaries in the mid-1900s. The flowers grow in several areas in Mae Hong Son province, but one of the most densely growing areas and popular is on the slopes of Doi Mae U-Kho, a short but hilly, winding drive from Khun Yuam Town. This was a particularly challenging road and upon arrival we all felt rather dizzy. It was scenic and a place for photos with great outlooks over the mountain ranges in the distance and lots of yellow wildflowers. The blue skies of the day became overcast when we arrived which hampered picture-taking.

Then it was onward as the light faded to Mae Hong Son town – enough of these curves already. After a late afternoon arrival we ventured from the hotel into Mae Hong Son town for dinner. The restaurant is by the lake and night markets. The menu was extensive and offered Shan food from Myanmar – so we enjoyed a wide selection that was really good. Restaurant was named after the 2815 km river that flows from China to Andaman Sea and creates a border between Myanmar and Mae Hong Son.

The next morning, after a great rest in our hotel, we explored a bit of Mae Hong Son town, whose nickname is “the city of three mists”. It is located in a remote, mountainous province in northern Thailand bordering Myanmar (Burma). Though sparsely populated, its ethnically diverse and home to hill tribes such as the Shan and Hmong. The capital is a gateway to the region’s hills. Mae Hong Son town was apparently originally established in the early 19th century as an elephant training camp as ordered by the then King of Chiang Mai.
Our first stop was to the morning market to explore and have some breakfast in the many eateries. Then it was a visit to the lakeside temple, Wat Jong Kam, set on the south side of Jong Kam lake in the middle of town where there was a school excursion taking place. Had a good chat with one of the school assistance, from a local hill tribe, who teaches English to local students. He spoke English well. We also went to the airport which was the quietest one I have every encountered, much like the town and streets. Then a coffee and chat to the cafe operator before heading out-of-town.
We headed the vehicle about 37 km out-of-town driving through more step, forested hills and sharp curves to Ban Rak Thai (literally “the Thai-loving village”), also known as Mae Aw village. It was settled by former Kuo Min Tang (Nationalist) fighters from Yunnan Province, China, after the Communist takeover of China. The population is about 800, mainly Chinese-born or Thai-born Chinese. Many signs are in Chinese, and much of the population speaks a heavily accented version of Mandarin Chinese. Here we stopped to look around, have a very lovely and too large lunch – dishes were enormous portion size.

On the road driving back to Mae Hong Son there was a sign for a lake with pine trees – so why not check it out. “Pang Oung”, as it is known, is a pretty and serene lake in a valley glittering with sunlight surrounded by mountain ranges. The area has an incredibly soothing atmosphere and is touted to draw comparison to Switzerland and New Zealand. Apparently some doubt that this natural beauty and serenity can be experienced in Thailand.  Well it can be!

Pang Oung, also called the Second Pang Tong Royal Project, is situatedabout 44 km from Mae Hong Son up some very narrow and hilly roads that pass through hill tribe villages and pine forests. Rafting in the lake is an option we didn’t take up but it is said to relax you and offers spectacular scenery. It reminded me of scenes of the forested lakes in Canada. There were some black swans swimming about as well. Camping is a common attraction here to experience the early morning mist on the water that is often photographed.

After our outing we took our time heading back to Mae Hong Son to explore and absorb the surroundings. We stopped at a road side waterfall for a break. Then stopped of at a small village of Su Tong Pae with a very long bamboo bridge that crosses a rice field to a temple, often seen in Thai movies. Simple in its construction. beautiful in its location – (particularly in the green season).

 

I included a picture of what it looks like in the green season – but we were visiting after the rice was harvested and dried off – so not as breathtaking. The bamboo bridge stretches for 500 metres across rice fields and the Mae Sa Nga River to link the temple at one end with the village of Kung Mai Saak at the other.

Here farmers were harvesting rice – the old-fashioned way by hand. Looked very hard work in the hot sun. We sat in the shade and had ice tea and watched the simple village life for a while before heading into town for a view of the setting sun.

When we arrived in town it was late afternoon and the sun would be setting soon. Standing on top of Doi Kong Mu hill that is visible from most places in Mae Hong Son town is the Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, a Burmese style temple, founded in 1860. The temple comprises of several structures including two chedis and two viharns.

The atmosphere atop the hill is one of tranquility and serenity. It was a lovely spot to look out over the distant hills to view the sunset. It also provided great views over the town and the airport in the middle. As darkness fell the town lights began to sparkle and it was down to the lakeside for dinner.

A great road journey for few days away exploring a very scenic, tranquil part of Thailand – Mae Hong Son province – that also provided new memories and great food. Then it was the homeward journey, over the hills and around the many curves – again!

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