Pai Thailand Travel Guide | Mae Hong Son
These two small Northern towns have attracted the more adventurous travelers for years.
Mae Hong Son has developed more because it has small airport and now there are flights from Chiang Mai which remove the longer but more interesting road journey.
Pai is also now connected by air to Chiang Mai, although some would argue flying to either town defeats the idea of travelling in such beautiful countryside.
Both remain the kind of places for those who want to make that extra effort to see tribal Thailand and visit the mountain villages bordering Myanmar to see the traditional ways of villagers.
Some of the traditions may have been diluted by the regular arrival of curious tourists, and to some extent the Paduang tribe, whose long necked ladies remain a unique sight, have offered their traditions in exchange for tourist money.
It’s a debatable topic, but given that the alternative money source for these communities was the opium harvest, the fact that foreigners spend money here is no bad thing.
Getting to Pai and Mae Hong Son
Pai can be reached by road and very recently by air, from Chiang Mai.
The airline SGA is operating four times a day schedule to Pai using small commuter aircraft.
Potential passengers will find that Nok Air has a route to Pai, but a look at the schedule shows that the Nok flight is the same as the SGA flight.
This new route is quite innovative, and in its early days, so its success is still to be established. The flight takes just 30 minutes and the current price is 1,900 Baht one way.
Mae Hong Son has a better service as this includes a commuter service by Thai International. SGA also run this route, but be aware, that passengers cannot fly to Pai and then on to Mae Hong Son.
The Pai flight returns to Chiang Mai directly which is something of a surprise. On the Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son service, once again SGA and Nok share the route, but Thai have 3 separate flights a day direct to Mae Hong Son at a cost of around 3,500 Baht upwards, including taxes.
Journey time is 30 minutes. The airport at Mae Hong Son is wonderful and it could be described as ‘central’!
For many travelers the whole idea of going to the mountainous regions is to enjoy the scenery, and so prefer the road journey along Route 1095, through Pai and onto Mai Hong Son, although the MHS bus takes 8 hours.
The buses to Pai leave from Chiang Mai Arcade station. The better option is the mini van which has a journey time of 3-4 hours, against the ordinary bus which takes 5 hours. But, if the traveling is as important as getting there, then the bus is a rewarding experience, and is of course considerably cheaper than flying.
By Rental Car:
Chiang Mai airport has a good range of international car rental companies to choose from, along with some local ones. Pick ups are a good choice in this region, if there is an idea to drive on the rougher roads.
The cost of such a vehicle is quite reasonable at about 1500 Baht a day, and even an SUV will be around 2,000 Baht a day. Driving in this region is good and fun, although mountain roads have to be considered as needing some concentration.
The advantages are being able to stop where you want, stay overnight in Pai and then go onto Mae Hong Son at your leisure.
The good car rental companies provide new or air conditioned vehicles, and usually come with the insurance included. Fuel is relatively cheap at around 35 Baht a litre, so for a few people or even a couple, it’s a cost effective option.
An up to date driving license is required, along with credit cards and passport. They will take a copy of your passport, but don’t agree to leave this with the rental company, as there is no need.
If self drive is a bit of a worry, then most rental companies can provide a driver at an extra daily rate. The cost will be a pleasant surprise to Westerners!
Drivers would make their own arrangements for overnight stops and would not expect to stay in the same hotels as their clients. Often they stay with a friend or relative, although some are known to sleep in the vehicle.
What to See in Pai and Mae Hong Son - Attractions
Pai has good natural sights in the surrounding area:
Mo Paeng Waterfall: This is a pleasant 8 kilometre walk from the village. There are pools at the fsalls, so after the walk it’s a good place to cool off. The path takes visitors through Sahn and Lahu tribe villages. The falls can be reached by bicycle as well.
Tha Pai Hot Springs: South of the town, in the national park, the hot water springs are another good day out. The options are to enjoy the warm waters in the river or use one of the bathtubs built at the attraction. A bike ride is possible to this location as well.
Mae Yan Temple: It’s a bit of a hike to the mountain top temple, going up some 350 steps, but the views over the valley are fantastic
Luang Temple: This is the main temple of Pai, and has Shan style architecture. The temple is the location for any festivals taking place in Pai
Mae Hong Son is more developed and has a long standing tourism program in place. The most popular excursions are out to see the various tribal villages of the region. Although there has been development, the setting of the own and its close location to the Myanmar border make it an intriguing and interesting place to visit.
Hill Tribe Villages: The hill tribes come from a variety of origins – from China, Laos, Tibet and Myanmar. The tribes in the region are Lahu, Lawa, Karen, and Meo. Travel agencies, guest houses and TAT can arrange tours out to see the culture of these tribes and their often unique dress and traditions. The income generated by visitors is an important factor in the villagers, so travelers should be aware there is an expectancy to either buy handicrafts or make some donation to the local people.
The Paduang Longneck may be the most famous of the tribes I Thailand, due to the bizarre neck ring ornament worn by the ladies of the village. There is one older lady who has appeared on just about every postcard and publication relating to the longnecks. The wearing of the rings is voluntary and are first put in place from the age of about 7. Gradually the number of rings is increased as the girl gets older.
Trekking and Walking: The whole area around mae Hong Son is ideal for walks, and the more adventurous treks on foot. Tours can be one day affairs or there are more distant excursions lasting 2 or 3 days. On most of the treks, the routes will take walkers through villages, so this is a good way to see some of the less visited places. Some of the 2 and 3 day tours will include a number of activities such as rafting and elephant trekking. Mae Hong Son has a great choice for any of these activites
Elephant Trekking: Not the most comfortable form of travel, but great fun. The elephants trundle their way through the jungle, usually in groups of 3 or 4. It’s a bumpy ride but gives a good view of the environment
River Rafting: There are options for rafting on a traditional bamboo raft or the more modern rubber version. The rivers are quiet, and this is one of the most pleasant ways of seeing the surrounding environment. Along the river there may be wild elephants, monkeys and a variety of bird life.
Jong Kham Temple: Also the site of the Jong Klam temple, these are the oldest temples in Mae Hong Son. Located next to the Jong Kham Lake in the town centre which in itself is a lovely place to spend time in Mae Hong Son
Pha Bong Hot Springs: The springs are 12 kilometres from the town, in a national park. Bathing in the springs is possible, but this one is not as popular as the one near Pai.
Both Pai and Mae Hong Son have good cheap guest house accommodation with rooms as low as 350 baht a night. The average guest house is around 500-600 Baht for a room (note, not per person).
Where to stay
Maehongson has a higher number of proper hotels than Pai since it has had the airport running for some time now and is where visitors will find the higher quality places to stay, but costs are relatively low even for the bigger places.
For a good and convenient place then the Mountain Hill Resort has had good reviews. As an interesting alternative it is possible to get a homestay style house for up to 4 people.
Things to do
Markets: The food sold in the night markets is something to behold. All manner of insects and live bugs are on sale. It’s an interesting and adventurous evening out for anyone interested in local cuisine, as well as being extremely cheap. Budget travelers may want to choose the market vendors rather than go to one of the restaurants.
Restaurants: There’s a surprising variety of restaurants in Mae Hong Son, but again this is due to the higher number of foreign tourists visiting. The favourite for local foreigners is the Salween River which has Large screen TV and a mixed menu of Western and Thai food. Vegetarians are well catered for in most restaurants such as The Sunflower. There is Italian cuisine at La Tasca.
One of the beauties of a stay in Mae Hong Son is that it is a very compact little town, so everything is near at hand, including the airport!