Thursday, May 22, 2014

Mae Hong Son: The Land of 1864 Curves

Mae Hong Son! This north west district and city of Thailand has a lot of natural riches and tourist sights. Most of the tourists to Thailand stop their northern exploration with Chiang Mai, but that is where the journey to Mae Hong Son begins. If you yearn for pristine nature, lovely local people, fantastic forests, a myriad of tribal settlements, great adventure and lots of outdoor activities, then read on and know more about this mountainous region of Thailand.

Mae Hong Son Valley during sunset
The most popular way to explore the region of Mae Hong Son is by going on the Mae Hong Son loop. This route takes you through the cultural hub of Chiang Mai, the high and green Doi Inthanon national park, the scenic town of Mae Sariang, the charming province of Mae Hong Son, the insane cave system of Seppong and the lovely paddy fields of Pai.

Inside the beautiful Thampla Forest park near Mae Hong Son, Thailand
A lot of motorcycle enthusiasts prefer this route and its umpteen curves. If I am right, this is the most popular motorcycling route in Thailand. It is not just the motorcyclists, but even car and SUV owners seem to like driving on this scenic route. This second half of the loop from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai via Pai has a total of 1,864 curves and that is why Mae Hong Son, which is at the far end of this loop is fondly referred to as the ‘Land of 1864 curves’ and thus the title of my post.

The Myanmar style Wat Chong Klang of Mae Hong Son, Thailand
While one can easily take many pit stops on the way to Mae Hong Son and back, the idea of this post is to focus on the rich tourism opportunities in and around Mae Hong Son, the largest town on this loop. Well, lets set the right precedent. The reason I like Mae Hong Son the most is because of its rich association with neighboring Myanmar and this can be seen in its temple architecture, buildings, religion, people and more.

Dense Tropical forests of Mae Hong Son area, Thailand
The other thing that Mae Hong Son is really famous for is its diverse set of people. Due to its proximity to Burma, it has an interesting mix of Burmese, Shan, Thai and many hill tribe groups that include Black Karen, Red Karen, Long Necked Karen, Chinese Tribe, Akha and much more. The remote location of Mae Hong Son and its heady mix of people make it a top tourist attraction.

Baan Nai Sai - The long necked Karen village near Mae Hong Son, Thailand
Mae Hong Son is actually a very green valley that is surrounded by mountains and the border of Myanmar is to its west. Unlike the rest of Thailand, this place sees cold winters and warm summers. The entire town is built around the Nong Jong Kham Lake and temple. So, technically, this becomes like the heart of the city. All the guest houses and restaurants are located around this lake and the Burmese styled temples.

The Myanmar style Wat Chong Klang of Mae Hong Son, Thailand
It is during the evening hours that this entire area comes alive to sell souvenirs, local delicacies, handicrafts, precious stones and handicrafts. Local hill tribes come to this evening market and set up their stalls. I stayed in Mae Hong Son for 7 days and nights and this evening market was my go to place every evening.This is where you will get to appreciate the easy going culture of the people of Mae Hong Son.

Wat Phai Doi that overlooks Mae Hong Son
During the day, one can visit the beautiful Nong Jong Kham temple overlooking the lake and admire its rich Burmese history and heritage. Either during the sunrise hours or the sunset hours, one can climb up to the Wat Doi Kong Mu temple and see spectacular views of the city below. The Wat Doi Kong Mu temple showcases Burmese architecture too.

Long Necked Karen smiles for the camera
But, the main attraction around Mae Hong Son is visiting the remote hill tribe villages. This includes trekking in the green forests and mountains to these remote tribal villages and then spending time with the hill tribes in their village before moving forward to the next village on the next day. This form of rural tourism is one of Mae Hong Son’s top tourist buys.

Pha Sua Waterfall near Mae Hong Son, Thailand
In terms of scenic sights, the outskirts of Mae Hong Son boast of the multi-tiered Pha Sua waterfall, Tham Pla fish cave, natural hot water geysers and Tham Lod, the coffin cave in the Soppong area. Out of these, the Tham Pla fish cave is very popular with the local Thai tourists due to deep spiritual beliefs. All these sights can be either explored on a motorcycle or by car. Buses do take you near the destination, but last mile connectivity options are limited.

Karen tribal woman from near Mae Hong Son
So, you can see that the Land of 1864 curves is blessed in plenty. Do give it a try the next time you visit Thailand. You can either take a bus from Chiang Mai, rent a motorcycle or hire a car to explore the entire Mae Hong Son loop.

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