People who travel through Mae Hong Son get to open a portal and peer into one of the most unique places in Northern Thailand
But to live here is to throw open that door and truly experience the wondrous variety and natural rhythms of the province known both as "The Land of the Three Mists" and "The Switzerland of Thailand."
I first came to Mae Hong Son in 1996, on a week-long excursion during the Thai New Year, and wondered at the time how special it would be to live amidst the greenery, wooden houses, and mountains of this small town.
Now, that dream has become a reality.
This is my home now, among Shan people (also known as Thai Yai), hill tribe villagers, and a handful of other foreigners (refugee aid workers, U.N. personnel, and such). My residence, luckily enough, is an old teakwood house with porches and a grandfather clock that ticks away the time, and a yard of banana and mango trees.
Quite isolated in some respects, and yet readily accessible by plane or bus, Mae Hong Son leads a muffled life from the urbanity of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. There really is a sense of uniqueness to this province, a sense of mystique that opens like a Russian doll the longer you stay.
Mae Hong Son was the last province in the north to be brought into Thailand, and elements of that newness still reverberate. It is a polyglot of cultures and ethnicities tucked onto the border of Myanmar, in the midst of forest, mountain, and river.
The province is only a stone's throw from Chiang Mai, the regional metropolis and former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, and over 900 kilometers away from the bustling city of Bangkok. While many choose to come via airplane, the truly adventurous navigate the eight-hour winding road from Chiang Mai and experience the 1,865 switchbacks and hairpins through the mountains on the way here. The payoff for this car-sickness inducing route is the unlimited access to viewing points and scenic overlooks.
The ride, believe it or not, is worth it. Mae Hong Son is one of the most forested provinces in the nation (an estimated 75 percent of the province is mountain and forest), and the villages here are cut in the midst of this growth but never fully take over from it. Nature still rules, even as people try to cut deeper into the forest.
The mists that have evoked the province's nickname come throughout the year, often early in the morning - low-lying fog accompanying a cold season's chill, rain-clouds skirting the bases of mountains during the rainy season, and the lung-itchy smoke of the hot season's slash-and-burn fires. The town wakes up slowly in this mist, comes to life in the full heat of the day, and then quiets down well before 9 p.m.
Visitors usually get their first taste of the world of Mae Hong Son as they look down from the window of their airplane. On the way into the provincial capital, the aircraft glides over an endless green valley, into a picturesque city surrounding a large reservoir, bounded by mountains and rivers, and dirt roads that wind away into the void. The runway has traditionally been a sort of a town recreational park, and many people have come at sundown every day to jog and play sports, but the town has declared it off limits for safety reasons. A brand new grassy park along the river is about to open, but there are still joggers who run the roads next to the airport, perhaps not yet ready to say goodbye to their favorite exercise area.
The city has been doing a lot of building lately, restoration work mainly, but also brand new market buildings and government complexes. Luckily, they are maintaining the distinct Burmese-Northern Thai appearance, such as the green or red roofs, carved ornamental trimming, and sharper edges. You don't have to be an architectural buff to notice the differences here - even the Buddha images inside the temple are of Burmese-Shan design, with white oblong faces, and tremendous, elephantine ears. The two most popular glittering examples of this, the temples of Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang, sit next door to each other directly on the shores of the reservoir.
The capital city is spread around this reservoir, which was once used to bathe elephants bound for royal families in Chiang Mai, and there is a simple concrete walkway circumnavigating the boundary of it. One area, near the fountain, fills up with Tai Chi practitioners early in the evening. During special festivals, the reservoir becomes quite lively, as the city gathers, and during the New Year, there are boat races and kickboxing on logs above the water.
Looming above all is the temple of Wat Doi Kong Mu, a mountaintop Buddhist sanctuary 1300 meters above the town. Adherents and tourists climb the steps to this temple at all times of the day to catch the sight of flights landing and taking off, or either the sunrise or sunset. The two main chedis, both constructed by the first king of the town, form a highly-visible landmark, and the twinkling lights frame the temple at dusk.
Mae Hong Son is a melting pot of different cultures, blending the Shan, Karen, Hmong, Lawa, Lahu, and Lisu people. Streets are colorful affairs, as people from any one of these cultures ply their wares on street sidewalks and from shops. Most of these items are colored fabric handbags, hats, and purses. Other regional specialties include wood carvings, Shan woven field hats, Burmese puppets, lacquerware, and cheroots. By the main lake every day in town, Lisu women, clothed in their traditional black embroidered clothing, spread their blankets and sell handbags, hats and other woven masterpieces. Day in and day out, the woman appear in the morning mist and pack up to return to their villages at sunset.
The Shan are the foremost ethnic group, and make up 50 percent of all occupants of Mae Hong Son. The most distinctive clothing for females is the wide Chinese-like woven field hat, often worn with a sarong and short-sleeved embroidered blouse that traditionally fastens across the chest from left to right. The Shan have their own language, similar to Thai and Northern Thai, and own customs, the most important of which is Poi Sang Long, the yearly initiation of young boys into monasteries.
Poi Sang Long occurs in late March or early April during the school break. Boys, anywhere from 10-12 years old, are dressed as princes in silk and jewels, and are held aloft on shoulders by parents or relatives and paraded with drums and cymbals about the town for three days before their entrance into the monastery. This custom honors the Buddha's own son, who left a wealthy life behind and followed his father into a life of meditation.
Another distinctive holiday is Loy Krathong during the first full moon in November. In most places in Thailand, people celebrate by lighting candles and setting them afloat (on banana stalk holders) in rivers or lakes. Here, Mae Hong Soners release "sky candles," sending the light adrift by balloon with the wind from the summit of Wat Doi Kong Mu. The effect is as profound as the water ceremony, and further reaching, as the skies above light up above with countless floating candles.
Loy Krathong is also the beginning of the cold season. Mae Hong Son is one of the only places in the country which can reach 0 degrees Celsius during the cold season evenings, and the morning is almost always noticeably chilly from November to January. The local citizenry and visitors bundle up like snowmen at this point, riding about on motorcycles, often in full parkas.
The sharpness of the seasons is one of the subtle things that residents notice, along with a sometimes corresponding influx of tourists, (who mainly come during the cold season), and you can feel the change from cold season to hot, and from hot to the "Mango rains." Mae Hong Son seems to accentuate the seasonal patterns. Hot season can reach into the low 100's (Fahrenheit), the rains come particularly hard in May, and the cold season can indeed bring to mind thoughts of Switzerland, with cold temperatures on the mountains.
Most visitors to Mae Hong Son stay within the capital city area or head onward to the smaller but lively city of Pai, a sort of bohemian cultural Mecca where wayward modern Bangkokians and backpackers congregate. The nightlife in Pai includes a blues/jazz pub and several coffee houses and book shops catering to a more sophisticated crowd. Muslim culture has made obvious inroads here; one can hear the sound of the call to prayer at dusk while walking around the main market in town.
But there are plenty of other things to do then head straight to Pai.
For those seeking a sensual release, Mae Hong Son has some interesting choices. Besides the omnipresent Thai massage places, there are an unusual number of hot spring saunas. The best one, Pooklon Country Club, is just south of the capital city. At Pooklon, guests can avail themselves of the walk-around sauna room (an enclosed wooden walkway around a steaming sulfurous pond), mineral baths or pool, and face or body mud therapy, as well as the traditional massage. Other choices include mountain bike riding, horse riding, and a gold driving range. The resort has developed slowly over time, and little pieces, like the driving range, get added on all the time.
Tham Lot, near Pai, has one of the longest caverns in the country, and local guides lead groups in by boat or by foot to look at the stalactites and stalagmites there (pointing out such things as "UFO rock" and the cave paintings deep in the recesses). Other caves exist here and there, and form a popular escape from the heat.
Trekking is the main activity for those who come, and people can spend anywhere from a weekend to a week tramping through hill tribe areas, caves, waterfalls, and jungle. During the end of the rainy season, and in the cold season, raft trips open up, usually going from Pai to the main city.
One village, specifically geared for day visitors and seemingly on every tour agency's list, is the famous, or infamous, Paduang "long-necked" hill tribe, located just outside the provincial capital. Residents of this over-visited group, women whose necks are encased in golden metal coils, live in a partly secluded valley, but it has become its own cottage industry. Other more interesting, and seemingly more natural, opportunities exist out in the forests and mountains.
Mae Hong Son is a trekker's paradise, but adventuring is just one of many opportunities for vacationers. Casual sightseers can get their fill as well.
In November and early December, during the cold season, the hills south of the provincial capital become a feast for the eyes, as the annual Bua Tong Blossom Festival takes place. The hillsides play host to the golden Bua Tong flower, an oversized sunflower (technically known as the Mexican Sunflower Weed) that blooms only once a year. So many bloom at once that the hillsides become a sea of yellow for one month. Many head out with tents and spend the evening to catch the sunrise.
Other sightseeing opportunities exist on the winding roads toward the Burmese border. The village of Mae Aw, or Ban Rak Thai, again just outside the provincial capital, is a peaceful Chinese KMT village, also surrounding a mountain reservoir. The powerful scent of pine forest greets visitors as they ascend a mountain into the village, evoking anew the comparison to Switzerland. The former Chinese rebels now grow Oolong tea and that and other Chinese delicacies are available in shops throughout the village. An even quieter village, Ban Ruam Thai, is nearby, primarily a coffee-growing center and Royal Agricultural Project Center.
Because of the relative inaccessibility of all these sites, and of Mae Hong Son itself, there seems to be little threat of the province becoming overdeveloped, although that may change over time. Even with new buildings, or new resorts, the distinctive mix of culture and style will remain untouched for some time to come, giving Mae Hong Son its uniqueness and vibrancy.
Ba See Bua is one of the more famous Shan women in town, if simply for the fact that she has been featured on TV several times. Her Shan-style restaurant features many of the more popular dishes of the culture, heavy on the pork and "tua naw kep," or fermented Soya beans.
Sitting one day to a meal of Shan pork meatballs and vegetables, I asked her why she thought Mae Hong Son was special.
"You have good weather here, no thefts, no crime really," she said. "Everybody knows each other & it suits me well, and it's definitely not like other places."
As a fellow resident, I couldn't agree more.
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Published on 4/23/03