Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Every-day-is-Friday five: things to do on the Mae Hong Son loop (other than trek in hilltribe villages).

So there's this 600km loop you can take around the area west of Chiang Mai. It's recommended for those with ample time who want to see the mountains of Thailand and experience more remote hilltribe villages on the borders of Burma-aka-Myanmar and Thailand.

We had our remote hilltribe village experience already, and regular readers will know how we feel about hilltribe tours. But we had ample time and we wanted to see the mountains and get some exposure to the Burmese culture in the more remote western areas. So off we went...

You already know that we liked Chiang Mai. As for the rest of the loop, we didn't really care for Pai proper (this hilarious post pretty much explains why)...

Pai's night market - for tourists only

... but we liked the countryside of Pai a lot. Mae Hong Son was quaint and we had fun motorbiking the mountain roads...

Jong Kham lakeside view in Mae Hong Son

could be anywhere right now

... but the more remote, more rustic Mae Sariang was definitely our favorite spot on the loop.

the mighty Yuam River in Mae Sariang

Our top recommendation should you choose to do this: rent a car. A motorbike will be painful (did we mention the whole loop is about 600km of really windy roads for a lot of those kms?) and although the buses are convenient and affordable, they only stop in major towns so you can't stop to admire that pretty waterfall or that neat national park, or eat at that cute little roadside noodle shop. With a car, your pretty/neat/cute options are endless.

Here are five other things we recommend if you want to avoid trekking (and hippies, and rasta bars, and hamburgers, and travelers in general):
  • Pai Canyon: one day we rented a motorbike and took a ride to what's described as "Pai's answer to the Grand Canyon" - once we got past the whole "Grand Canyon" comparison (it's so not), we appreciated how cool the "canyon" really was. We were a little on edge (no pun intended) walking on the ridges and scrambling up and down the bouldered trails, and we tried not to think about the fact that the paths we were walking on could probably disintegrate at any time... Aventura!
the king of all he surveys

"how do I get down?"

hard to see, but the drop on both sides: 30 meters
(feels like: 100 meters)

  • Waterfalls: Mae Yen waterfall on the outskirts of Pai was totally worth the six-hour soggy boot investment. It's a little tricky to find, but once you do, the trail is mostly flat and follows the river within some really gorgeous jungle. We saw no one on the way in, and just one strange guy in camouflage on the way out. (Luckily - or unluckily? - we didn't have surfer Bob's experience.)
river crossing #2 (of 24)

triple play at Mae Yen waterfall

not crossing the river for once

can't see the Patrick for the trees
    Pam Bok waterfall (on the way to Pai Canyon) was sorta cute; it's just a short walk to the falls and you can swim out and get a shower if you so choose. We did not so choose but the other four tourists visiting did.
not pictured: tourists
    Pha Sua waterfall near Mae Hong Son was definitely worth the motorbike investment. We were the only ones there, and we just sat for a while watching the dragonflies and listening to the falls and the creek. (While you're in the area, stop by the Chinese village bordering Burma as well as the bamboo gardens for a short nature walk.)
Pha Sua waterfall (low season)

the creek at Pha Sua

fall in July at the bamboo gardens?

  • National parks: there are several in the area, but the only ones we got to visit were Pha Sua NP mentioned above and Salawin NP in Mae Sariang. It's a 15 minute bike ride from town, and as promised by all the other bloggers whose reviews we read, the guards seemed surprised to see us and there really is just a 2km nature trail in the park. (What you won't find in the blogs: entrance is free.)  Despite the heat, the mossies, and the mud we enjoyed the short walk with our trail guide dog, and we hung out in the main area of the park for a bit staring at the lotus flowers and reading all the funny signs before heading back to town.
we were here
(we were also really sweaty so the picture is taken from afar)

he led us the whole 2km

third level of lotus: air
(second: in water,
first: underground)

just one of many

  • Wats: soooooo many wats. Our favorites were up on hills. We got up really early one morning to catch the sunrise (aka "fog") over Wat Phra That Kong Mu in Mae Hong Son, and one afternoon in Mae Sariang we walked our bikes up a steep hill to see Wat Chom Thong's tall Buddha.
misty morning Wat Phra That Kong Mu

can't see the Jen for the Buddha

  • Taking a few "Sundays": we spent an extra day in each town just because. We loved our peaceful guesthouse away from the main strip in Pai, and we stayed near a lake in Mae Hong Son and a river in Mae Sariang. We'd heard that folks in these parts were more stand-offish than the rest of Thailand, but everyone we encountered in all three towns were really friendly and we're glad we spent the extra day lounging around and trying some of the local food spots instead of the tourist restaurants.

Food notes:
  • Pai's Curry Shack is the place to be - this is a one-man show and his curries are divine, we ate here three of our four nights in Pai (the third night we succumbed to night market food, we didn't make that mistake again the fourth night!)
a man and a one-man show at The Curry Shack

khao soy curry at The Curry Shack
(we had it twice over three visits)

  • Pai's Witching Well featured kitschy signs and pricey, small, disappointing breakfasts
pretty, but otherwise meh

  • Pai Canyon's adventure featured a stop at a nameless roadside cafe for the best Tom Yum soup in the world
halfway between Pai and Pai Canyon
at the intersection on the left

  • Mae Hong Son's repeated restaurant was Salween River, which featured excellent Burmese and Thai foods (we ate here two of our three nights)
khao soy with chicken

Burmese green tea salad

  • we also ate at Mae Hong Son's Jiji, and it didn't wow us like Salween River the night before, hence no picture - but, to be fair, all we wanted at Jiji's was stir fry and both of ours were quite nice as far as stir fries go
  • Mae Sariang's Sunday night market was great - excellent curries in takeaway bags coupled with sweet sticky rice for dessert
wrapped in banana leaf of course
  • Mae Sariang's Sawadee had the benefit of good music, a river view, and location (it was right next to our hotel - quite handy during a rainstorm) but the food didn't really wow us
we mostly ate here in an attempt to avoid rice for once

Lodging notes:
  • Pai's Mr Jan's Guesthouse was amazing - set in a huge herb garden, it was quiet and peaceful and the perfect retreat to get away from tourists in elephant pants and "same same... but different" t-shirts
it was also a great place to drink this
(finishing bottle in one night not recommended)

  • Mae Hong Son's Johnnie House was great once we got our private ensuite room with lake view - the room with shared bathrooms (where we stayed for two nights) was cheap but not a room we would want to stay in again
hold out for the private ensuite with lake view

  • Mae Sariang's PS@Riverview was perfect - the older couple who ran it might not have been the best housekeepers, but they gave us free coffee and free bananas and recycled Economist magazines and the room was large and airy with a river view
and water buffalo TV every morning and afternoon!

Travel notes for our fellow RTWers:
  • from Chiang Mai we took an AC minibus (150b each, they run regularly from the Arcade Station until about 4pm)
  • we took local fan-only buses from Pai-Mae Hong Son (about 90b each, once a day at 11am) and Mae Hong Son-Mae Sariang (about 104b each, a few times a day in the morning). Both were perfectly comfortable
Pai-Mae Hong Son local bus
  • there is an amazing, giant, free blue/white map that we found in Mae Hong Son's tourist office (but you can probably find it in Pai or Mae Sariang too) - it has maps, accommodations, and restaurants for all three areas and it was super helpful
the cover looks like this
  • from Mae Sariang we opted to head south to Mae Sot (also known as Maesot, Mae Sod, Maesod) via songthaew... other than the cost (230b each) it wasn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be, the scenery is amazing and the locals are fun co-passengers

Now we go back to the plains, the heat, and Thai ruins - Sukothai, here we come!

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