Two main roads head in opposite directions from Chiang Mai over the western mountains, meeting each other in Mae Hong Son, at the heart of Thailand’s most remote province – and offering the irresistible prospect of tying the highways together into a 600km loop. The towns en route give a taste of Burma to the west, but the journey itself, winding over implausibly steep forested mountains and through tightly hemmed farming valleys, is what will stick in the mind.
The southern leg of the route, Highway 108, first passes Doi Inthanon National Park, with its twisting curves, lofty views over half of northern Thailand and enough waterfalls to last a lifetime; from here, with your own vehicle you could shortcut the southernmost part of the loop by taking the paved but very winding Routes 1088 and 1263 from Mae Chaem to Khun Yuam. Sticking to the main loop, however, you’ll next reach Mae Sariang, an important town for trade across the Burmese border and a gentle, low-key base for trekking and trips on the Salween River. The provincial capital, Mae Hong Son, roughly at the midpoint of the loop, is a more developed hub for exploring the area’s mountains, rivers and waterfalls, though it can become frantic with tour groups in the cool season, especially on November and December weekends when the sunflowers are out.
The northern leg follows Route 1095, much of which was established by the Japanese army to move troops and supplies into Burma after its invasion of Thailand during World War II. The road heads northeast out of Mae Hong Son towards the market town of Soppong, whose surroundings feature beautiful caves (notably Tham Lot), appealing accommodation and stunning scenery to trek, cycle or kayak through. Halfway back towards Chiang Mai from Mae Hong Son is Pai, a cosy, cosmopolitan and hugely popular tourist hangout with plenty of activities and some gentle walking trails in the surrounding valley.
Mae Sariang’s location close to the Burmese border makes it an ideal base for exploring some lesser-travelled areas. The centrally located Northwest Guest House organizes local tours, such as boat trips on the Salween River and three-day treks into the wild countryside along the Burmese border near Mae Sam Laeb, including the Salween boat trip (around B2500/person based on a group of two; cheaper in a larger group). The friendly and helpful owner, Tuk Ta, can arrange trips to suit your needs, and is open to offering discounts.
Mae Hong Son’s most famous and colourful festival is Poy Sang Long, held over the first weekend of April, which celebrates the ordination into the monkhood, for the duration of the schools’ long vacation, of Thai Yai boys between the ages of 7 and 14. Similar rituals take place in other northern Thai towns at this time, but the Mae Hong Son version is given a unique flavour by its Thai Yai elements. On the first day of the festival, the boys have their heads shaved and are anointed with turmeric and dressed up in the colours of a Thai Yai prince, with traditional accessories: long white socks, plenty of jewellery, a headcloth decorated with fresh flowers, a golden umbrella and heavy face make-up. They are then announced to the guardian spirit of the town and taken around the temples. The second day brings general merry-making and a spectacular parade, headed by a drummer and a richly decorated riderless horse, which is believed to carry the town’s guardian spirit. The boys, still in their finery, are each carried on the shoulders of a chaperone, accompanied by musicians and bearers of traditional offerings. In the evening, the novices tuck into a sumptuous meal, waited on by their parents and relatives, before the ordination ceremony in the temple on the third day.
Scenic boat trips on the Pai River start from Huai Deua, 7km southwest of town near the Mae Hong Son Resort. Any travel agent can fix up an organized tour, but the cheapest way to do it is to rent a motorbike and approach the owners at Huai Deua boat station yourself. Twenty minutes downriver from Huai Deua (B600) will get you to the “long-neck” village of Ban Nam Phiang Din, but you’re better off enjoying the river for its own sake, as it scythes its way between cliffs and forests towards the nearby Burmese border.
A small stretch of the Pai River to the northwest of Mae Hong Son is clear enough of rocks to allow safe clearance for bamboo rafts. The journey takes between one and one-and-a-half hours, as the rafts glide down the gentle river, partly hemmed in by steep wooded hills, and it can be combined with an hour-long elephant ride through the jungle and a relatively easy three- to four-hour trek. Rose Garden Travel can fix this combined trip up for you, including all transfers, for B1450 per person (cheaper if you have a big group).
The most famous – and notorious – of the Mae Hong Son area’s spectacles is its contingent of “long-neck” women, members of the tiny Kayan Lahwi tribe of Burma (sometimes called Padaung) who have come across to Thailand to escape Burmese repression. Though the women’s necks appear to be stretched to 30cm and more by a column of brass rings, the “long-neck” tag is a technical misnomer: a National Geographic team once X-rayed one of the women and found that instead of stretching out her neck, the pressure of eleven pounds of brass had simply squashed her collarbones and ribs. Girls of the tribe start wearing the rings from about the age of 6, adding one or two each year up to the age of 16 or so. Once fastened, the rings are for life, for to remove a full stack may eventually cause the collapse of the neck and suffocation – in the past, removal was a punishment for adultery.
The origin of the ring-wearing ritual remains unclear, despite an embarrassment of plausible explanations. Kayan Lahwi legend says that the mother of their tribe was a dragon with a long, beautiful neck, and that their unique custom is an imitation of her. Tour guides will tell you the practice is intended to enhance the women’s beauty. In Burma, where it is now outlawed as barbaric, it’s variously claimed that ring-wearing arose out of a need to protect women from tiger attacks or to deform the wearers so that the Burmese court would not kidnap them for concubines.
In spite of their handicap (they have to use straws to drink, for example), the women are able to carry out some kind of an ordinary life: they can marry and have children, and they’re able to weave and sew, although these days they spend most of their time posing like circus freaks for photographs. Only half of the Kayan Lahwi women now lengthen their necks; left to follow its own course, the custom would probably die out, but the influence of tourism may well keep it alive for some time yet. The villages in Mae Hong Son, and now also in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces, where they live, are set up by Thai entrepreneurs as a money-making venture (visitors are charged B500 to enter these villages). At least, contrary to many reports, the “long necks” are not held as slaves – they are each paid a living wage of about B1500 per month – though their plight as refugees is certainly precarious and vulnerable. Since 2005, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has been offering permanent resettlement in third countries for about twenty Kayan Lahwi. However, the authorities in Thailand, where the “long necks” bring in a huge amount of tourist dollars every year, have refused to sign the necessary paperwork on a technicality. Our advice (see Tours and trekking around Mae Hong Son) is not to visit the villages.
The owners of Cave Lodge can provide plenty of useful information about Tham Lot and other caves in the region, and organize robust, active guided trips (from B600/person, including equipment and lunch). They also offer kayaking, including trips through Tham Lot, plus 6km of fun rapids (in the rainy and cool seasons; from B650). Maps for self-guided walking from the lodge to local Thai Yai, Karen, Lahu and Lisu villages are available, as well as local, English-speaking guides for full-on trekking (typically B2500 for 3 days). Other activities include learning to weave or cook, mountain-biking and bird-watching.