Mae Hong Son

Nestled in a deep valley hemmed in by high mountain ranges, Mae Hong Son has long been isolated from the outside world. Virtually covered with mist throughout the year, the name refers to the fact that is terrain is highly suitable for the training of elephants.

Former governors of Chiang Mai used to organize the rounding up of wild elephants which were then trained before being sent to the capital for work. Today, Mae Hong Son is one of the “dream destinations” for visitors who are attracted by its cultural and natural wonders.

The small village of Soppong, situated northwest of Pai, is perched 700m up in the mountains, offering fine views of the beautiful surrounding teak forests and refreshingly, clean, crisp air. Although trekkers often pass through here on their way to visit local hilltribes, the village has a thriving market where local tribe people congregate daily.

Slightly north of the village is Tham Lod (Cut-through Cave), one of Southeast Asia’s largest cave system. Three adjoining caverns form a vast subterranean canyon, which is cut through by a large stream. Discoveries of artifacts and huge, roughly carved teak coffins indicate the caves were inhabited thousands of years ago. Rafting and elephants can be used to cross the streams.

Within town are some impressive temples. The teak temple of Wat Hua Wiang displays the Burmese-style multi-roofed design. The main chapel houses an important brass Buddha image brought over from Myanmar many centuries ago, Phra Chao Phla La Khaeng. Built in 1827 by the Shans, Wat Chong Kham features a multi-roofed chedi and houses a sacred 5-metered seated Buddha image. Also built in the late 19th century, the nearby Wat Chong Klang has distinctive white and gold chedis and painted glass panels depicting the jataka tales. Wat Doi Kong Mu sits on a hilltop on the western side of town and provides a great view of the city.

Originally a bathing pool for elephants, the Chong Kham Pond is centrally located and is particularly stunning in the early morning mists that engulfs the entire city.

Craft shops, restaurants, tour companies and other tourist-oriented service providers line the city’s main street of Khunlum Phraphat Road. Hilltribe textiles and antiques can be bought at stores on this road too. Crafts and Thai Lue fabrics can be found at the Night Bazaar on Singhanat Bamrung Rd. Also on this road, near the Khunlum Phraphat intersection, are traditional Shan teak houses.

Many tourists visit and photograph the “long neck women” living in the nearby vicinity. The Padaung women are distinguished by their long necks lengthened from childhood by brass rings.

East of the city, the town of Pai is regarded as one of the most tranquil and scenic spots in Northern Thailand, having many natural attractions such as hot springs. There is more activity here than in the provincial capital itself, being very popular with trekkers and lovers of mountain scenery. Originally an old Shan settlement, the town and surrounding areas have become populated by a diverse mix of Lisu and Lahu hilltribes, Muslims from Myanmar, and Yunnanese Chinese and officially became a district in 1911. The town’s Wat Nam Hu houses the sacred, 111-cm tall Luang Phor Une Muang from the Chiang Saen period. In 1972, a visiting monk from another province noticed the image’s head was particular moist. Upon a closer examination, he discovered the head was removable and hollow inside. But the inside was filled with water, which the monk proceeded to empty and thoroughly wiped dry the inside before closing the image’s head, tying it securely, and clocking all doors and windows. After 5 days had passed, the monk and other witnesses opened the pavilion and discovered the image’s head was full of water again.

The small park of Mae Surin National Park located south of the provincial city is a popular destination, with many mammals and birds living in the lowland forests. Highlights include the spectacular 100-m tall Mae Surin Waterfall, one of the highest in Thailand, and the Thung Bua Thong (Wild Sunflower Meadow) which carpets the hills with a vividly golden color when in full bloom during November and December. Rafting trips along the Pai River is also popular.

Way further south is the small pleasant town of Mae Sariang on the Yuam River. The area around Mae Sariang is mountainous and densely forested, with many windy roads. The town’s long historical links with nearby Myanmar is evident in the structural architectures, such as the multi-layered roofs and vividly orange and yellow chedis of the 19th century Wat Chong Sung and Wat Si Bunruang built in 1939. A large community of Burmese Muslims inhabits the town and the Karens, the area’s main ethnic group, are also often seen in town. A 45-minute journey from town will take you to Mae Sam Laep, the Karen settlement on the Myanmar border next to the Salaween River.

A short distance north of the city, the scenic spot of Tham Pla Forest Park (Fish Cave) is actually a pool and stream at the base of a limestone outcrop, not a cave, with huge carps living in it. Visitors buy papaya to feed the fishes and enjoy the peaceful surrounding gardens.

Northwest of Tham Pla, in the mountains near the Burmese borders, is the remote settlement built by members of the Kuomintang (KMT) called Mae Aw. The exiled Chinese soldiers of KMT, or Chinese Nationalist Army, migrated here after their defeat in China by Mao Tse-tung in 1949. The village offers a great insight into the life of an isolated border village and superb views of the area.

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