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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Thailand | Road to Pai & Mae Hong Song

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

To experience the scenic, but treacherous Road to Pai, we decided to take a break from renting motorbikes, and instead rented a car ($30/USD per day) for our road trip to the northwest part of Thailand, toward Myanmar. It was a curvy and windy drive, but the experiences we had over those three days were some of our top highlights in Thailand.

Chiang Mai - Monks Food Gathering

However, that morning before we left, I woke up early to walk to the area where the monks go out and gather food from the local food vendors. Each morning the monks go out with a large pot and then go to various food vendors. As they walked from vendor to vendor, individuals presented the monk a variety of food goods; after which the monk chants a blessing to them. The monks then take the food back to their temple as an offering to the various Buddhas and those in need.

Bouping Palace

Around 8:30 a.m. we loaded up our economy Toyota Prius and started out on our trip. We started out by going to the Bouping Palace, which is the summer resort for the king and other premier guests of Thailand. However, none of the buildings were open so we mostly just walked around viewing the gardens and landscaping around the grounds.

Curvy and Winding Roads to Pai

The trip to the northwest was about 230 km, but took over 7 hours to get there because they were winding mountain roads. However, 'winding' is not even a good description of these was a constant stream of turns the entire way with several hairpin turns. They say that there are over 1,800 curves on that stretch from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son; and we believe it. Kudos to the person who had to count them though!

We stopped for a few scenery shots including a WWII Memorial Bridge.

We arrived in Mae Hong Son around 7 p.m. right when it was starting to get dark out and found a place to stay for the night. We grabbed dinner at a nice restaurant in town to enjoy some of the Northern Thai specialty dishes. I had "kaew meow", which is egg noodles in a curry sauce. I always has to ask for the non-spicy version, but even the non-spicy versions have a "kick" to them. We then checked out the local night market that was right next to our hostel, Piyu Guesthouse.

There were some incredible views of Mae Hong Son at sunrise.

Karen Long Neck Hilltribe Village

The next morning we headed out to the area outside of Mae Hong Son. We first went to one of the Karen Long Neck Hilltribe villages that was near Hia Dua. This village was started as an area for Burmese refugees to come. Since they are not legally allowed to work in Thailand this provides them the opportunity to sell some of their crafts. However, what is most interesting about this group is that the women have elongated their necks with the use of a neck-band over the course of their lives, starting when they are young. The women were interesting to see and it was educational to see how these people lived, but it felt somewhat like a 'human zoo' as you had to pay 250 Baht per person to enter. However, they said that the money goes toward providing for their families and for the children's education, which makes it worth it.

The hilltribe people live in such basic and simple conditions, with a basic wooden stilt house for shelter and no screens on their windows. What we enjoyed most about the visit was watching the everyday life of the village people. The children played outside without a worry in the world and little farm animals were everywhere, including several mother hens with their chicks following underneath their wings.

Elephant Ride

On the way back from the hilltribe village, we stopped at a place to ride the elephants. Alex and I shared one elephant and went on a 1 hour trail ride through a patch of the forest nearby. It was only 500 Baht for both of us (or about $15 USD) and we were even lucky enough to actually be able to ride on our elephant for 1 hour and 20 minutes...maybe it was because our elephant was a slow walker. On the way back our elephant trainer let Alex sit on the neck of the elephant and ride it that way and then I got to switch with him halfway back. It was a ton of fun and one of the highlights of our entire trip. The elephant even walked us through part of a creek.

For his work, we brought along some mangoes to feed the elephant part way through the trip. He could definitely tell that we had something in our bags when we first arrived as his trunk came over the fence when we walked up. After we fed him from on top of his head, he kept bringing his trunk back to ask for more. So after we were completely finished we felt he deserved some extra treats and bought some of the sugar cane from them. The elephant was pretty happy with us. [To avoid any confusion, the child in the photos is not ours....right as we were about to depart, the elephant was turned around and the little boy was added to our ride.]

Tham Lot Cave

We drove back to Mae Hong Son and had lunch at a local café and then started to drive back to Soppong, which was an area that we wanted to stay in for the night to visit some hilltribes and explore some of the caves. As we were driving through the area, we took a spur off the main road and headed around we found a remote little village where we saw several houses that had signs saying they had home stays. We inquired with one family and he said it was only 200 Baht, so we signed up for the adventure. For the remaining part of the afternoon we went to Tham Lot cave nearby and went with a lantern guide and explored a large cave. We traveled by a flatbed bamboo raft from one cave to another. Since it was the dry season the water levels were pretty low, but in the wet season it sounds like many of the areas of the cave have waterfalls coming down.

Home Stay

We stopped for dinner before heading back to our home stay and when we arrived the family was eating dinner. The family was of the Shan descent, which are a major ethnic group in this region of Thailand. However, the father, spoke only tiny amounts of English, and also living with him was his wife and two sons (age 8 and 12) as well as one of the grandmothers. Unfortunately, since he couldn't speak much English it was hard to ask questions to get more information. The stilt house was pretty basic and we slept in a small room to one side of the stairs, with only some mats to lay out as our mattress and no screen windows. To the other side of the stairs was their main living room area that housed their TV and then there was a small room with a curtain for one bedroom; then it appeared that the boys slept on a mat in the living room at night. They had a separate hut outside the house that was their kitchen area and to eat they sat on the floor around a small table. The bathroom was also just an outhouse where you had to pour water down the toilet in order to flush it.

That evening we mostly just sat outside on their picnic table and headed to bed early. The one good thing about having no technology is that you always get your full night of sleep. However, again at this home stay, it made us realize how many amenities that we really have compared to some of these people. Later the husband and wife started up a bonfire to burn some of the brush they had gathered in their yard. They weren't the only people burning brush though, at night one could especially see all the hillside fires burning brush or clearing some land. We found it unusual that they would have so many fires going during the drier part of the year, but it seems to be a popular way to clean-up areas.

In the morning we had breakfast with the family in their kitchen hut and enjoyed a really good dish of fried rice with egg. However, I think they made the breakfast especially for us because the other family members ate another dish.

Ko Lo & Diamond Caves

After breakfast we headed out to a remote area to explore some of the caves - Ko Lo cave and Diamond Cave -- since our host was a local cave guide. The caves were somewhat similar to the one we went to the day before but it was even more authentic because we were the only three people in the cave.

Ko Lo Cave

Diamond Cave

When we originally arrived the previous day we had asked him about the caves and he told us he was a local guide so we agreed to go on a tour with him, but then in the afternoon we found the Tham Lot cave and decided to go to that. So when we got back the previous night we told him that we would have to leave early in the morning and wouldn't be able to do the cave tour; however, later he brought out some photos of the caves to show us, so we felt bad that we had cancelled and decided to go a little earlier than we originally planned the next morning so we could help provide some supplemental income to his family. We explored the two different caves for about 1 1/2 hours and I was glad that we had a guide because it would had been easy to get lost in the dark caves with so many different paths. After we arrived back at the house, we paid him for our guided trip to the cave, which he had told us would be 100 Baht per person. However, because of the language barrier we didn't realize that it was 100 Baht per cave, so when he asked us if we wanted to go see another one we agreed. Then we also found out that there was a 100 Baht charge for breakfast that morning. Although there were some surprises in the charges, we felt the stay and the guided visits were well worth the value and that he and his family deserved every baht of it!

Lisu Hilltribe Village

We started the drive back to Chiang Mai and along the way stopped at another hilltribe village of the Lisu people. These people are descendants of Tibet, but now live in Yunnan, China and northern Thailand. It was again fun to walk around the village and this time we didn't have to pay an entrance fee. However, the young children have caught on quickly and after we snapped a photo of a couple of rowdy boys playing they held out their hands and said "10 Baht, 10 Baht." Some of the women and men of this hilltribe village still wear some of their traditional clothing -- the men/boys wear green or blue baggy pants that gather at their knees and the women wear black tops and skirts with some very colorful lines accenting their top.

After our stop we continued and found a spot along the river where we could go for a short dip - it felt nice to do so in the heat of the day. We arrived back in Chiang Mai 5 p.m., dropped off the rental car and started to search for a place to stay for the night.

Chiang Mai Market

Sunday night was the evening of the weekly market in Chiang Mai. We explored the market for a while and didn't realize how large it really was until we started to walk around. The streets were so crowded (it was in a 6 x 2 block area) that it seemed like everyone from Chiang Mai and the surrounding area was there -- along with every tourist currently in the city. They had food vendors, craft vendors, clothing vendors, street entertainers and almost anything else you can think of! The city even closed off several streets for the market. We got some local specialties like several sausages, some Thai noodles, fried banana, strawberries, homemade coconut ice cream and some really good ancient ice cream, which was a block of ice cream on a stick.

Hockey in Thailand

The search for our last night of accommodation in Thailand was like none other, because Alex had some very specific requirements for our hostel. You see the biggest hockey game of the decade was going to be broadcast from the Olympics at 3:30 a.m. our time, so he wanted to find a place that had a TV and ESPN cable channel, which was broadcasting the games over here. We stopped at about 5 places and unfortunately none of them had ESPN on their cable network. So instead, at 4:30 a.m. on Monday morning we headed out to a 24 hour Internet café and watched the third period and sudden-death overtime from a live streaming video on the Internet. Luckily, the result was well worth the early morning and Canada pulled out with the win. Otherwise, it would have been a bad day for the Canadian fellow.

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