I haven’t been to this part of northern Thailand for a number of years, and recently took the opportunity to revisit the region as part of the launch of our new overland tour from Mae Hong Son to Hanoi (or Luang Prabang).
For the Thais, Route 1095 from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son is as iconic as America’s Route 66. The mountain route, on a well paved road, does not cross the entire country, but with 1,864 curves is the most winding road in Thailand. Driving along the route is a unique experience, and one may even be rewarded with a certificate upon completion.
This journey brought back beautiful memories of my backpacker year more than three decades ago when I travelled through the region for the first time. I must admit that I love my ‘back to the future’ trips.
It takes about three hours to travel from the city of Chiang Mai heading northwest to Pai on Route 1095. The road starts to wind into the mountains after leaving Chiang Mai. The scenery is still as stunning with intensive and different shades of green from rice fields and plantations, lush bamboo forests, dense jungles, waterfalls and moss-covered walkways.
What has changed compared to 30 years ago is the coffee shop culture that has invaded Thailand. In the past Thai people hardly drank coffee, but they do now. It is thus not surprising to find quaint little coffee shops along the road, offering not only the addictive beverage but also cakes and snacks.
Did you know that Thailand produces its own coffee? Coffee plantations in the region grow mostly Arabica coffee beans, and they provide livelihood to entire communities. Nicely packed coffee beans or ground coffee is a great gift to take home, or as a branded giveaway for incentive groups.
The lovely and pretty small town of Pai is not just a meeting point for backpackers, but offers something for everyone. It is a far cry from busy Khao San Road in Bangkok or any other backpacker haven in Thailand. Outdoor enthusiasts will love the hiking possibilities, bicycling, motor biking, ATV, kayaking and river rafting, or swimming in creeks under waterfalls offered along the drive from Chiang Mai to Pai and Pai to Mae Hong Son.
In our itineraries we include nature walks of up to 1½ hours in the mountain national parks. We can adapt these activities to multi-hour adventure treks for fit travellers, or short walks along rivers for those who prefer to take it easy.
Pai’s night market has retained its quirky and delightful charm, and is a must visit for everyone. It has a unique atmosphere of the past with wooden houses, lovely shops, food stalls selling everything from socks to grilled chicken with papaya salad, and small coffee shops and bars to chill in.
There are good quality hotels in Pai that fit any budget for individual travellers and groups. Located in or near the town or overlooking rice fields with mountain scenery, many of these accommodations have swimming pools, and some with natural springs and spas – cool places to relax for a few days.
From Pai I continued on Route 1095 to Mae Hong Son, which took about 2½ hours. On the way I visited Tham Lod Cave, a tunnel system of natural caves with a river running through it. The cave is massive and spectacular, and even though it is touristy I recommend visitors to make a stop here. I love that the authorities have not installed artificial lighting in the cave. As in the days of old one is accompanied through the cave by local villagers holding oil lamps, giving the visit an adventurous and explorative feel. Don’t forget to bring good shoes as parts of the cave floors are slippery; flip-flops are a no-go here.
I usually don’t promote individual hotels or restaurants in my stories, but I have to mention Baan Keawmdra Restaurant housed in an old wooden house at the junction of Route 1095 to Tham Lod. Don’t miss eating here for it serves some of the best Thai food found in the country.
The city of Mae Hong Son, near the border with Myanmar, is a modern city and has a distinctly different character to Pai. It was my first glimpse of the Myanmar culture when I was backpacking through the region 30 years ago, as there are many Myanmar Buddhist temples here and in the surrounding region. Today, I still characterise the experience here as seeing ‘a little piece of Burma’.
Myanmar temples are in abundance here, and they are not museums but active places of worship for Buddhists. All visitors are welcome to the temples, but they must respect the local customs of taking off shoes when entering any building of worship.
At 6 a.m. daily the traditional alms-giving takes place in some of Mae Hong Son streets. Visitors are most welcome to participate in this activity when devotees place food into the monks’ bowls, and receive blessings from the monks in return.
6 a.m. is also the best time to visit Mae Hong Son’s morning market to catch all the interesting activities there. The market is really authentic with numerous sections displaying all types of goods, from fruits and vegetable to tofu and flowers. There is also a meat section, but is not for the faint hearted.
I also wish to mention the Mae Hong Son’s night market. It is worth the time to make your way down to the lake in the evening where the market takes place every night. Apart from exploring the market with local products on sale you also get to see the golden temples in the spotlight, offering yet another small glimpse of Myanmar.
My personal preferred way of getting around Mae Hong Son and the region is by bicycle. However, one has to be fit to bike up and down the mountain roads.
I have not mentioned villages and ethnic communities in my story. This was not the focus of my visit, but as many of you will know there are ethnic communities and villages not far off Route 1095 that welcome visitors.
If you are interested in our new Mae Hong Son to Hanoi (or Luang Prabang) overland tours please contact your Asian Trails specialist.
I believe the border between Myanmar and Thailand near Mae Hong Son will open in the near future, which will then enable visitors to travel overland from Inle Lake to Mae Hong Son and onwards to their preferred destinations.