By The Nation
With towering mountains, sprawling rice paddies and hot springs, Mae Hong Son is just the spot for a peaceful vacation
KNOWN AS the city of three mists, Mae Hong Son is the seat of the most mountainous province in Thailand and spoils the visitor with amazing views of sprawling mountain ranges and massive rice paddies, all of them shrouded in mist, making it a wonderful holiday destination even in summer.
Sitting on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, this highland served as an elephant camp before Chiang Mai’s last king Inthornwichayanon established it as a city in 1874. Today, it’s populated by eight hill tribes – Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu, Akha, Karen, Tai Yai and Chinese Yunnan – and despite a rise in international tourists, has managed to conserve both its charming culture and rural way of life.
The roads are full of twists and turns, making it something of a challenge for the carsick prone who have to spend at least five hours driving around 4,088 curves from Chiang Mai. Fortunately I am not among them so the ride is more of a smooth sleeping marathon to recharge my batteries after a long day.
We arrive in the late afternoon to be greeted by the stunning Tai Yai-style Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu on the summit of its namesake hill. Standing 1,300 above sea level, this venerable monastery is home to an assembly hall with a Burmese-style Buddha image and two beautiful whitewashed stupas that stand out against the bright blue sky.
Built in 1860 by Tai Yai merchant Jong Thong Su, Mae Hong Son’s biggest and oldest stupa is adorned with several octagonal-shaped tiers at the base and enshrines the ashes of Maudgalyayana, one of Buddha’s closest disciples, which were brought here from Myanmar.
Influenced by Mon-style architecture, the smaller structure was erected in 1874 by Mae Hong Son’s first ruler Phraya Singhanatraja to install the ashes of his son. Lions and Naga sculptures stand guard at each of the four corners.
Images of the stupa are still in our minds as we head up to the iconic Su Tong Pae Bridge early the following morning and join the daily ritual of almsgiving with villagers of Pang Moo district. The name, we’re told, refers to “fulfilled prayer” and this 500-metre woven bamboo walkway stretches across green rice fields and the Mae Sa Nga River to link the Phusama Buddhist Meditation Park with the hamlet of Ban Kung Mai Sak.
Tourists of every nationality and faith are invited to join the ritual and those come empty handed can buy rice, instant noodles, milk and water already packed in a plastic bag for Bt30. The enterprising villagers also offer colourful Lanna-style umbrellas for rent for those who want a lovely prop for their photos.
It’s a one-hour drive from the bridge to the Pang Ung Garden, often referred to as the Switzerland of Thailand. Situated on the banks of Huai Pang Tong Reservoir, it was set up in 1985 as part of the Pang Tong Royal Development Project.
Hemmed in by lush coniferous forests, it has become a popular camping spot and is the perfect place to spend a weekend. Every morning, the reservoir is blanketed with mist and the magical sight of the swans – both black and white – given by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit swimming in the cool waters.
The name combines the words for a shelter for woodsmen and a wetland in the northern dialect. This land was once covered with opium poppies and just as he did to combat the poppy growing areas in the Golden Triangle, His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej built a reservoir to support horticulture.
Thanks to the year-round cool climate, the garden now boasts several experimental plantations of temperate fruits and flowers such as avocado, persimmon, Chinese pear, Chinese bayberry, Alaba nuts, roses, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and orange trumpets.
Not too far away is Mhok Jum Pae district, home to Phuklon Country Club and its wide selection of mineral baths and spa treatments using the pure black mud from the hot springs bubbling away at 60 to 140 degrees Celsius.
Discovered in 1995 by French and Thai geologists, Phuklon is one of the world’s three natural mud hot springs following the Dead Sea in Israel and the mud from a Romanian dormant volcano. Flowing into a creek nearby, this hot spring is rich in beneficial minerals including calcium, bromine, chlorine, magnesium and potassium that get rid of germs while repairing and nourishing the skin.
“Every April, we dig the mud from hot spring and dry it. Our mud has no unpleasant smell of sulphur and has undergone a disinfection process to ensure safety for all types of skin. It is mixed with natural-flavoured yoghurt and Thai herbs like curcuma and lemongrass. We offer both facial and body mud treatments that are designed to clean, nourish and repair skin,” a staff member tells us.
Perfect for those with weary legs, the club also provides six mineral hot pools for foot bathing as well as outdoor and private pools for mineral body baths at 35 to 40 degrees Celsius that will help stimulate blood circulation and relieve stressed muscles. And going home doesn’t mean leaving empty handed. The club stocks a full range of mud and mineral products.
After a hot foot bath, we stroll to the Fish Cave, a pleasantly cool place to escape the summer heat. Tham Pla Nam Tok Phasuea National Park, as its known in Thai, is home to thousands of big soro brook carp that can be found in flowing water and rivers throughout Southeast Asia.
In Pang Ma Pha district, a Black Lahu community known as Ban Ja Bo has collaborated with the Thailand Community-Based Tourism Institute (CBT) to create homestays and interesting handicraft demonstrations as a way of conserving its unique cultural heritage and generate income.
Ban Ja Bo is home to 63 families, who live mostly off their livestock, rice and corn, and the 22 houses whose owners have been trained in homestay services. A night’s stay is priced Bt200 with meals costing an extra Bt100 and a fee of Bt50 for trekking based on distance. Travellers can design their own routes to explore Phu Pha Mok, crop rotations, open pigpens and the pre-history coffin cave.
Three handicraft workshops are available, offering the basics of making traditional costumes, handmade bamboo home furnishings and the Lahu-style khaen, a type of wooden flute.
“Women are responsible for sewing here. We cut and sew clothes for all our family members. They are adorned with ribbons and fabric in red, yellow, green, blue, white and black, inspired by pig blood, tea, vegetables, a New Year dessert called Khao Pook and the black pig,” Nakor Phraipetchrathip tells us.
“We also create a bamboo amulet with seven eyes called Ta Laeo. It’s placed over the door to dispel ghosts, misfortune and illness. The men produce khaens to use in religious ceremonies and celebrations.
We spend our evening browsing the walking street market in Pai district, today a trendy hangout among foreign tourists with beer bars, boutiques and stalls selling both local and Western delicacies.
Our last day starts at Nam Hoo Temple, believed to have been built by King Naresuan as a tribute to his older sister Phra Suphankanlaya. The temple was refurbished in 1932 by the monk Kruba Srivichia and a wooden Chiang Saen-style assembly hall was built to enshrine a Buddha statue called Aoon Muang, from whose head water flows. This is the third generation of the Singha Buddha made with bronze and with a hollowed head and top cover.
We spend the remainder of our stay cafe hopping enjoying the European architecture, home-made pastries and the romantic ambience of the hills.
IF YOU GO
>> Nok Air has three flights a week from Bangkok to Mae Hong Son. Buses travel regularly between Chiang Mai’s New Arcade Terminal and Mae Hong Son town.