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Mae Hong Son’s Big 6

The diverse citizenry of Mae Hong Son, northwest Thailand, ensures tantalising experiences with exotic flavours and vibrant colours. Here are six attractions that offer an insight into the area’s social and cultural milieu. 

Words & Photography: Ira De Reuver

There are no less than 1,864 bends along the mountainous road from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Encircled by lush natural jungle, the City of Three Mists lies in a quaint valley in northwest Thailand.

     Here, you’ll be welcomed by a small and friendly town of low-rise buildings where traditional wooden houses are fused with modern brick buildings. The whole town is a showcase of trees, plants and multicoloured flowers.

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Hmong hill tribe embroidered children’s shoes.

     Beyond Mae Hong Son’s aesthetic appeal, you’ll quickly notice an intriguing mix of different cultures. Around half of the population here originates from Myanmar, while the remainder comes predominantly from northern Thai hill tribes, including Karen, Lisu and Hmong. Just a small percentage of the inhabitants are Thai.

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Mahout Su bathes elephant Phu Ka Pong at Phetours Elephant Camp in Mae Hong Son.

     The town’s close geographic proximity to the border of Myanmar is the obvious reason for its large concentration of Myanmarese residents, while the hill tribes have inhabited this area for thousands of years. It is a little known fact that the town was established in 1831 when the Prince of Chiang Mai selected the area as a training camp for elephants captured from the surrounding jungle.

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Shan women picking tea leaves at Ban Rak Thai village.

     The Shan people from Myanmar were invited here due to their exceptional skills as mahouts, and to hunt and train elephants for battle and work in the capital. Elephants remain an important part of the local economy as elephant riding is a popular tourist activity often combined with trekking, overnight hill-tribe home stays and rafting on the Pai River.

“BEYOND MAE HONG SON’S AESTHETIC APPEAL, YOU’LL QUICKLY NOTICE AN INTRIGUING MIX OF DIFFERENT CULTURES. AROUND HALF OF THE POPULATION HERE ORIGINATES FROM MYANMAR, WHILE THE REMAINDER COMES PREDOMINANTLY FROM NORTHERN THAI HILL TRIBES, INCLUDING KAREN, LISU AND HMONG.”

CHANG POWER

Phe Fukiadthanchai is the owner of an elephant camp located on the road to Huay Sa Tao village. He started training as a mahout at the age of 15, as his parents worked in the logging industry. When no more permits were granted as a result of forest protection projects, many elephants (or chang in the Thai language) were out of work. This led to elephants being used to provide rides for tourists.

     “We have eight elephants; each of them eats around 150kgs per day – mainly sugarcane and corn leaves,” Phe explains.

     Mahouts and their elephants practically live together. One might wonder how such large and strong animals can be so obedient. “Chang obedience comes from happiness,” Phe says. “To keep the elephants happy, it is essential that they live in the jungle and close to a water source for bathing. They need a good connection with their mahouts as the elephants depend on them completely. When all these needs are met, there is never a necessity for discipline”.

     Phe introduces me to Phu Ka Pong, the elephant he has worked with since he began training. The big bull looks adorable as he chews a bundle of corn leaves with his ears flapping. The 42-year-old Phu Ka Pong later gets a bath by a mahout named Su. After filling his trunk with water, it looks as if Phu Ka Pong is going to spray the water over his back. Instead, he turns his trunk in the direction of some visitors and treats them to a ‘refreshing elephant shower’. Su is laughing, so it’s likely he secretly gave the elephant the command bon soong meaning ‘spray’.

     The language used by mahouts to communicate with their elephants comprises sounds, words and body language. You could fill a dictionary with the many commands used by the mahouts.

     After the entertaining bath, Su prepares Phu Ka Pong for a ride in the jungle with two Dutch tourists. Once they are seated, Su shouts pai to go forward, and off they go. It is said that there are only 5,000 elephants left in Thailand, of which roughly half of them are domesticated, so the elephant camps and the mahouts have a very important duty to keep them all happy, healthy and safe.

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A gold plated banyan tree outside Wat Phra That Doi Kong Ma. This iconic temple houses two Myanmarese-style chedis or pagodas. The larger chedi was built in 1860 and houses the ashes of Phra Moggalana, one of the disciples of the Buddha. The smaller one was built in 1874 by the ruler of Mae Hong Son – Phya Singhanat Racha.


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The influence of Chinese architectural elements on this Buddhist temple reflects the ethnic composition of the locals.

TEMPLE HOPPING

Next, I visit a Chinese temple in town that has been under construction for years. The project is finally nearing completion. Screaming bright colours and ornaments depicting dragons and snakes demand almost instant attention. The dragon is a legendary creature in Chinese mythology; it symbolises power, strength, wisdom and good luck. In front of the main temple, there is an ornate courtyard that is dominated by two huge stone statues of turtles with dragon-like heads. Giving these figures a firm rub is said to bring good luck.

     Most local temples in Mae Hong Son are strongly influenced by Burmese Shan Buddhism. Located high above the city, Wat Doi Kong Mu is considered an important place for offerings to Lord Buddha. The temple was built about 150 years ago. Erected by the first governor of Mae Hong Son, it reflects the strong Myanmarese influence of those long gone days. Frequently visited by locals at the end of their working day, the temple’s highlights are its two white Shan-style pagodas. The temple affords an exceptional aerial view of the city and the surrounding Shan hills, and is especially worthwhile visiting at sunset.

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Dutch tourists releasing a candle-lit khom loy into the sky. It is believed that misfortune flies away with the khom loy.

     At another temple called Wat Chong Klang, visitors can release candle-lit khom loy (sky lanterns) into the sky. Elsewhere, this is usually done during Loy Krathong, the festival of light that is celebrated on the full moon day in November. But here, Buddhist novice monks will happily assist visitors to light a candle and attach it to the underside of their ‘hot-air balloon’ made of paper. After holding it for a while, the balloon fills up with hot air from the candle. As it is released into the early evening sky, it is believed that misfortune flies away with the khom loy.

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English tourist Eli Maddock having a facial treatment at Phu Klon Mud Spa.

TIME FOR A MUD BATH

Everyone deserves to be pampered once in a while, and few things are more relaxing than a trip to a spa. For thousands of years, people all over the world have believed in the healing powers of mud and natural hot springs. Cleopatra and Queen Sheba used mud baths to enhance their acclaimed beauty. Nestled amongst the stunning rice fields and hills some 15kms outside of Mae Hong Son, Phu Klon Mud Spa offers facial and full body treatments.

     Phu Klon is geographically located on a mud source and a natural mineral spring. Rising together with the mineral water, the boiling black mud is clean, free of any sulfur odours, and full of healthy minerals for improved skin and blood circulation. While it may seem dirty at first, the mud not only nourishes and cleanses the skin, but helps moisturise it too. It’s not a fancy or luxurious spa, but your skin will feel glorious after the treatment and a refreshing dip in the mineral water pool here.

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A Shan woman preparing deep-fried mushrooms at a street market in the town.

CULINARY DELIGHTS

At around five o’clock in the afternoon, as a group of locals practise tai chi at a park on the lakeshore, the opposite side of the lake shows a buzzing hive of activity. People have started setting up food stalls for the evening market.

     The market is held during the busy winter months, and the eclectic mix of Myanmarese Shan people, hill tribe folks and Thai people ensures a broad selection of delicious treats. Popular delights include laap mu, a spicy pork salad with mint; pla pao, a salt-crusted grilled fish stuffed with lemongrass; som tam, a green papaya salad; and khao som, translated as sour rice. Khao som is a Shan favourite, and features small rice balls mixed with turmeric and tomato, and eaten with chilies and green peas. Another popular treat is a mixture of deep fried papaya, pumpkin and mushroom, all washed down with a revitalising fresh mixed fruit shake.

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Sesame oil is still produced the old way at Sudanee Khumdee’s workshop where a water buffalo pushes a cold press to extract the oil from the seeds.

OPEN SESAME

Next up, I drop by the sesame oil workshop of Sudanee Khumdee to see how sesame is harvested. The workshop is a family business; Sudanee and her brother began producing sesame oil 20 years ago. The oil is used for cooking, as well as making shampoos, soaps, lotions and massage oils. Their products are sold all over Thailand.

     Sesame indicum is one of the oldest oilseed crops known, and has been used in domestic production for over 3,000 years. Sesame has one of the highest oil contents of any seed, and is a common ingredient in various cuisines. Healthy locally-produced sesame seed snacks are readily available in town.

     The seeds and oil are a nutritional goldmine with a rich nutty flavour. “First, we dry the unshelled black seeds in the sun for five days, then the seeds are put in the cold press to produce oil,” Sudanee explains.

     In Sudanee’s workshop are Marowe, a water buffalo, and Ap, his caretaker. Marowe is strapped in to push the cold press and he walks in circles for about four hours every working day. Marowe walks painstakingly slow and whenever Ap loses his attention or needs to do something else, Marowe immediately stops moving. When Ap yells ‘Huh-Huh’, the buffalo starts walking again. “He walks the equivalent of six kilometres to transform 15kgs of black sesame seeds into three to four kilogrammes of oil,” Sudanee tells me.

“FEATURED COLOURS FOR THE CLOTHING ARE BLACK, WHITE AND RED. ACCORDING TO NAW, THESE ARE THE KARENNI’S FAVOURITE COLOURS, AND ARE SEEN AS SYMBOLS OF COURAGE.”

TRIBAL ARTISTRY

The Red Karen, also known as Karenni, is a subgroup of the Karen people, a Sino-Tibetan people living mostly in the Kayah State of Myanmar. A little outside of Mae Hong Son, in Papu village, there is a stretch of weaving workshops where you can admire their unique fabrics.

     Here, I meet a weaver named Naw, who is working on a scarf. “As a young girl, I learned how to weave from my grandmother. Starting at five years of age, I used to pretend I was playing,” she reminisces.

     The cotton is spun into thread and the dye is concocted from natural elements like seeds, leaves, tree bark and spices.

     Featured colours for the clothing are black, white and red. According to Naw, these are the Karenni’s favourite colours, and are seen as symbols of courage.

     With its intriguing sights, flavours, colours and experiences, Mae Hong Son offers an exotic journey for the senses. 

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EXCITED TO TASTE THE EXOTIC FLAVOURS OF MAE HONG SON VIA CHIANG MAI?

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