sign in a cave in Laos

19 August 2008

Mae Hong Son - Fish Cave (Star)

L I F E S T Y L E Travel & Adventure
Saturday February 4, 2006

Wats the draw?

By Liz Price

The mountain road was full of twists and turns. Rain was pouring down and mist obscured the view. I was hoping to get some good photos but the weather was preventing this. The constant turning of the car meant I could never keep the camera steady. We were on the winding road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand.

Luckily, the driver was competent and we negotiated the bends with relative ease. I read in the guidebook that it takes six hours by bus to do the 245km distance. Fortunately, we travelled at a faster pace.

Mae Hong Son is Thailand’s northern border city, hidden between towering mountains of densely forested slopes.

Just 30 years ago, this province was little known to tourists. It was home to hill tribesmen, opium armies, Burmese border patrols and the Thai military, who were involved in year-round fights with the drug barons.

(Above & below) Wats of Mae Hong Son. —Pictures by LIZ PRICE

Impenetrable jungle covered the misty mountains and only the tribesmen and drug caravans knew the way through. But that has all changed and today, Mae Hong Son is a peaceful tourist centre, known for its scenery and culture. The drug lords moved across the border to Myanmar, and much of the province’s income is derived from supplying them with rice and consumer goods.

The people of Mae Hong Son consist of the Shans who live in the city and the hill tribe people who live in remote mountain villages where their lifestyle has changed little in hundreds of years.

The Shan originated from Myanmar. The hill tribes consist of the Karen, Lisu, Mhong, Lahu and Lua. Both groups have their own distinctive customs, traditions, lilting dialect, architecture and delicious cuisine.

Throughout the year, Mae Hong Son holds many festivals and events. There are different dances, rituals and ceremonies, and even different kinds of food.

The city is covered in mist all year long, and is nicknamed “the City of Three Mists”. This is because it has dewy mist in the winter, forest fire mist in the summer and rainy mist in the rainy season.

The best time to visit is between November and March, as it’s relatively dry then.

On our first morning we drove up the Doi Kong Mu hill to see the temple and look at the view. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu (also known as Wat Phai Doi) is a Shan-built temple sitting atop the 1500m hill. It has two stupas dating back to 1860 and 1874. The view from the wat was stunning. There was a sea of mist but the fog soon lifted, revealing a view of the town. The airport runway was devoid of life, but there are at least four flights a day to Chiang Mai.

In the southern part of town are two wats situated by a large pond. Wat Jong Kham was built almost 200 years ago by the Shan. Wat Jong Klang has some century-old paintings. In some areas in this wat, women are forbidden to enter.

Mae Hong Son isn’t known for its gastronomic delights, but there are many places to eat. There is also an increasing number of bakeries and other places providing farang (mat salleh) food. Many farangs come to this area for trekking and there are more and more guesthouses, restaurants and tour operators opening up to serve them.

We stayed in Rooks Resort at the south end of town, and, according to the guidebook, it’s “the top end in town”.

Several European holidaymakers were enjoying the swimming pool but I found it too cold to take a dip.

The town is mostly used as a base for activities such as trekking and rafting. The nearby Mae Hong Son River is used for rafting and boating tours. You can go for an elephant ride or for the more active, trekking is very popular. Several guesthouses and tour agents in town arrange treks.

Typical rates for treks are 400B-500B a day (RM40-RM50), which last three to five days. You sleep and eat in the hill tribe villages. The Padaung Karen villages with the so-called giraffe-necked women are especially popular. Alternatively, you can visit Karen villages without a guide by walking two hours out of town. Guesthouses will supply a map and the roads are well signposted.

Further from town are hot springs and the Tham Plaa National Park with the famous Fish Cave. Some of the most beautiful scenery is along the road to Pai. You can stay in traditional Shan villages and trek through forests along mountain paths, and see clear mountain streams and stunning limestone caves.

So even though the town of Mae Hong Son isn’t packed with tourist attractions, there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy within its vicinity W

Travel tips

From Chiang Mai, go by plane or bus to Mae Hong Son.

Accommodation ranges from budget to top end. There are many travel agents where you can arrange tours. The best time to go is from November to March.

Related Stories:
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