Huay Pu Keng – another long neck village, bit more authentic. Actually, the most authentic of the ones I know. The area is 30 kilometers away from Mae Hong Son, in order to get to it you would have to charter a boat (the pier is merely out of the town) to go up the river Pai, close to the Burmese border.
Ban Rak Thai is a village founded by the Chinese partisans. The village and its residents could make a Hollywood blockbuster subject. They fought against Mao, then they had to deal with the Drugs War and the Thai bombarding only to find themselves in the ’70 in need to convert to a totally new way of living. They learned how to live on agriculture and eco-tourism. The village looks like a miniature China.
The Poy Sang Long Festival. If you get to Mae Hong Son in Marsh or at the very beginning of April you might see this live. The Festival of the Crystal sons is a Buddhist ritual originated in Burma – it marks the moment when young boys first go to the monastery to learn about Buddhism and “turn into good boys” as one mother once told me. It is a true colors and music show, something you don’t see every day.
From Mae Hong Son you can return to Chiang Mai either on the same road you came or you can go further South to Mae Sariang. A stop here will give you the chance to see the Salwin river (a brother of the Mekong and the Yangtze) and the exquisite Mae Sa Wannoi waterfall. Further on you can stop for a night at Ob Luang for some trekking and rafting (this last one should be booked in advance). If , on the other hand, you need to get back as soon as possible to Chiang Mai, you can fly Nok Air directly from Mae Hong Son.
The Norther loop: Lampang – Phayao – Chiang Rai – Phrao
Wait, what, you thought we are done? No way, there’s still plenty to see in Northern Thailand. For this route I would also recommend the self transportation method (aka car rental). Be careful, though, as the roads and the driving style, especially in Chiang Rai province, tend to be a bit crazy.
Lampang. The Northern loop starts with a short detour towards the South. On the way to Lampang you can stop at Thai Elephant Conservation Center, a true elephant sanctuary. Nakhon Lampang, the capital of the homonym province is worth visiting, especially if you go during the weekend. The main street in the old city, along the Wang river, turns into a wonderful bazaar where you can buy a lot of precious little souvenirs and handicrafts, plus eat Northern specialties right on the street.
Phayao – from Lampang you go North towards Chiang Rai. Stop for an hour in Phayao, another gingerbread town no foreign tourist seems to have heard about.
Mae Salong, Doi Angkang – yet another two mountainous resorts which are very popular among Thai tourists and almost unknown to the foreigners visiting this part of the world. The landscape is breathtaking. The area is populated by Karen, Lahu and Akha tribes.
Kok river, Ruammit and Thaton – you can take a boat from Chiang Rai for a trip on the Kok river up to Thaton. Stop at Ruammit village for an elephant ride. Thaton is a romantic little village in which the only attraction is the imposing Wat Thaton.
Tham Tab Tao is the mysterious temple found in between Fang (very close to Thaton) and Chiang Mai. Any return trip goes on this road so it would be a shame not to stop and pay respect to Buddha in this wonderful and peaceful location. I’ve visited the temple probably ten times and I have never seen a foreign tourist (other than the friends I personally took there).
Chiang Dao Cave – on the same Fang – Chiang Mai road, turn left and reach the largest cave in Thailand.
Phrao – nothing to do, just spend time watching the perfect green shades of the rice paddies or the beautiful sunset.Thailand photos PhraoThere are for sure other interesting places to visit in Northern Thailand, I mentioned only the ones which can be reached without deviating too far from the main roads. This way you can do the loops in 10-14 days.
How to reach Chiang Mai
By air to and from Chiang Mai
Air Asia: Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hat Yai, Phuket, Udon Thani, Ubon Rachathani.
Thai Airways: Bangkok
Nok Air: Bangkok, Mae Hong Son, Udon Thani
Bangkok Airways: Bangkok, Koh Samui
China Eastern Airlines: Kumming
Lao Aviation: Luang Prabang
Korean Air: Seoul
Air Asia and Nok Air also have daily flights between Chiang Rai and Bangkok. Nok Air flies Mae Hong Son – Chiang Mai.
By train, from Bangkok. The trip takes 12 to 14 hours, the delays are a sure thing. The wagons are not new but pretty clean and comfortable. The night train is the best choice as you get clean sheets, pillow and blanket and you can really have a good night sleep to your destination. There is no railway going further North from Chiang Mai.
By bus, from Bangkok. 9-10 hours with very new and comfortable buses.
A few words on accommodation
The cheapest options are to be found within the moat. Here is the so called tourist ghetto where the resorts, hotels, hostels and guest houses abound. You can pay 4-5 EUR a night for a relatively clean and comfortable room.
Tourists who are willing to pay more for their comfort usually head to the East of the city, in between the Night Bazaar and the Ping river where most of the 3 to 5 stars hotels are.
Whoever hit the jackpot can spend a few days at Mandarin Oriental – a resort with millions of qualities and one single downsize: it is located a bit far from the city.
Definitely worth trying the two Northern specialties: Khao Soi, a spicy noodle soup and Laap Moo Northern Style, a local adaptation of the Isaan pork salad.
If you are not into Thai food be sure you won’t be starving in Chiang Mai. There are plenty of options for pizza, Lebanese, steaks and so on. Just remember these two words: MAI PHET (“not spicy”).