Mae Hong Son: The end of the road

For those of you who need to see it all – what’s behind that last mountain, past that final valley, under that cotton shirt – then take a trip to the end of the road, Mae Hong Son.  Nestled in the north east of Thailand close to the Burmese border, this small town sits in a picturesque valley, surrounded by thick jungle, majestic mist shrouded mountains and roaring waterfalls.

The town is made up mostly of Burmese Shan and Thai hill tribe people.  It provides a perfect place to relax for a few days and enjoy nature.  You can choose to chill and watch the simple daily life of the mountain tribes or, for the more adventurous, take a hike into the mountains visiting small villages, magnificent caves, roaring rivers and untamed wildlife surrounded by lush jungle.

I can tell you now that there is absolutely nothing gay about Mae Hong Son.  But that being said, as with the rest of Thailand, the “mai pen rai” (no problem) attitude prevails and nobody will bat an eyelid if you are with your partner (although public displays of affections (kissing) are frowned upon in Thai society regardless of sexual persuasion).

I first went to Mae Hong Son to visit friends who were living and working there.  I enjoyed a couple of days of relaxation – reading, wandering through the markets (there is an interesting night market at the lake where you can buy art and handcrafts from hill tribe people), photographing beautiful people and scenery and eating wonderful northern food – before my friend asked me if I’d like to ride a mountain bike to the popular highland town of Pai 150km away.  Despite not having ridden a bike in 10 years I’m never one to miss an adventure and readily agreed.  Besides, I thought, how difficult could 150km be?  If a car can drive it in a few hours then surely I could ride it in a day.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The day started off great.  After an easy ride mostly flat and downhill we arrived at the Fish Cave (Thumpla cave), located 17km from Mae Hong Son.  Here a small stream flows into a hidden underground cave.  Thousands of fish follow the stream into the cave, never to return.  Nobody knows why.  It was nice for a short break but otherwise unremarkable.

A short ride later we arrived at Pha Sua waterfall, a very pretty 6 level waterfall with some great rainforest trails to hike.  We stopped for a quick swim.  At this point, having already covering 24km in such a short time, I was feeling quite good about the ride.

From here on things became a little tough as we reached an 8km uphill stretch.  Not being used to riding up hills, I had to resort to pushing the bike most of the way, much to the chagrin of my friend.  After an hour and a half of this we reached the top of the range and were treated to a fabulous view of the surrounding mountains and rainforest, as well as a long downhill stretch, much to my delight.

I’m sure you can guess what happened next….another stretch of pure incline.  This time it was 12km!  I almost cried.  I soldiered on, pushing my bike the entire way, collapsing every 15 minutes or so from intense cramps in my legs.

We finally made it to the top and enjoyed the views as we coasted down another long stretch.  I figured that by now we must be at least half way and that, having already traversed 2 mountain ranges, it would be mostly downhill from here.  Sadly, this wasn’t the case.   When faced with the next sign proclaiming 11km of uphill winding roads, I collapsed, a broken man.  After pleading with my friend, he finally gave in and agreed to throw our bikes on top of a local bus returning to Mae Hong Son.

It was a tough but enjoyable day.  I’d love to have another crack at completing the ride however next time I’ll make sure I’ve trained beforehand.

If you have a spirit of adventure and the time then get to Mae Hong Son, a fascinating province of temples, hot springs, hill tribe villages, trekking, rafting, national parks, and even an annual reggae festival.  And if you can plan your trip for April you may be able to experience one of the most colorful and interesting (and least well-known) festivals of northern Thailand, the annual novice ordination ceremony (Poy Sang Long Festival) for young men declaring their intentions to become Buddhist monks (see the link below).

You can fly to Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai or take a mini bus from Chiang Mai (about 6 hours and 300 baht/$10).  If you’re crazy enough to try to ride to Pai, many guest houses offer mountain bikes for hire.