In Part 1 of “Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop”, I wrote about what we did before we started our trip, our time at Doi Inthanon National Park and our stays in Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son. In Part 2, I’ll talk about when we visited a Karen (long neck) tribal village, our stay in the (former) hippie town Pai, the mountainous road back to Chiang Mai, and finish it all off with a list of tips to help you if you decide to do the Mae Hong Son loop yourself.
Visiting a Karen (long neck) Hill Tribe Village
From Mae Hong Son, we had two options for going to visit a Karen hill tribe village; a village that was 30 minutes away which most of the guided tours go to, or one that was an hour away and a bit off the beaten path. We initially went with the closer of the two, with the intention of trying to save time so we could explore more of Pai later on. The village that is frequented by the tour groups actually just has a single road (or alleyway) set aside for tourists to view the long necked women. Since we arrived at the village on our own, we had to pay 250 Baht ($8.30 USD) just to walk down “the road” where the women are. Before paying the entrance fee, we asked some of the other tourists how they liked the village experience. They said they felt like it was more of an exhibit than a village, and that they felt obliged to buy something that the long neck women were selling in exchange for taking their photo. This “village” seemed more like a staged event than an opportunity to learn about the Karen culture, so we decided to try the other, less touristy one.
The village we went to was an hour northwest of Mae Hong Son, and was quite a ways away from the main road. There were points when we were worried our rented Toyota Yaris wasn’t going to make it, as the dirt road was sometimes muddy with steep climbs. There were numerous chants of “come on Yaris, you got this one!” from both the front and back seat. After nearly getting stuck on multiple occasions, we finally made it to the village. We paid the 250 Baht entrance fee and got to see a more authentic Karen village, including the long neck women. The area was larger, with multiple houses, a church and even a school. The village wasn’t entirely occupied by just the long neck women, with some of the women instead displaying elongated ear lobes, rings around their calves, and even some in just plain clothes with no bodily adornments. Many of the women were congregating together while the long neck women would sit by their homes, with handmade goods on display for purchase. There was still a bit of a push to buy something from the women, but they were more than willing to pose for photos regardless. Some of them even had postcards in which they were the featured subjects taken when they were children. This village still had a little of the staged feel to it, but there was a more genuine and relaxed feel to it. We were happy to have had the opportunity to see these women in a more natural setting.
In the end, while our visit to Karen tribal village did have a little bit of the “human zoo” aspect to it, it would have been a shame not to experience the beauty and uniqueness of their culture. The reality is that the money the villages receive from tourism is one of the only ways the Karen have of supporting their community. Many of the Karen people are refugees from Myanmar where they have been persecuted and repressed by the government. As refugees in Thailand, they are unable to legally find work, making it difficult to sustain a decent livelihood.
The distance from Mae Hong Son to Pai was 110km according to the road signs, but because the road in between the two towns twisted and turned like a delicious pretzel, it took us about 3 hrs to complete the drive.
Back in the day, Pai was a popular hangout for hippie-type travelers looking for a cool place to chill out and relax. Fast forward a couple of decades and the town still maintains an artsy, chilled out vibe, just without as many “long hairs” running around. For us, Pai really was the gem of the Mae Hong Son loop, as it had a great blend of cheap eats, cool beats, and a great night market with lots of unique arts and crafts.
It wasn’t too difficult finding a place to stay in Pai, though the town sure was aware of its touristy status, reflective in the prices of our rooms. Due to Pai’s recent issues with travelers and drugs, many hostels or guesthouses sported signs warning about their zero tolerance for drug use. If you go to Pai, take the warnings seriously. Apparently the Pai police like to take people caught with drugs to the ATM for maximum withdrawals to “clear up” the situation.
But all of that aside, Pai had a really cool atmosphere and we really wish we had more than just one night to spend there. There was a lot of art and culture coursing through the town’s veins, and before we could even get in tune with the town’s cozy vibe we had to leave. Before we headed out of town though, we stopped at “Coffee in Love”, a popular café for couples with a splendid view of Pai and the surrounding mountains. With caffeine fueling our systems, we hopped back in the Yaris and began the drive back to Chiang Mai.
The Road Back to Chiang Mai
Once again, despite the distance from Pai to Chiang Mai only being 134km, the mountainous road meant the journey took us about 4 hours. The road really weaved back and forth, and the backseat passenger could have easily confused the car for a ship rolling through a storm at sea. The scenery was absolutely stunning however, and we found ourselves constantly pulling over to take pictures of the magnificence of northern Thailand. As we got back into Chiang Mai, the traffic became quite a bit more dense, and despite being worn down from the long drive, I had to keep my wits about me. There was no way I was going to get in an accident so close to the end.
Returning the car to the rental agency was relatively painless. It felt good to be back in Chiang Mai and not have to worry about the car anymore. The trip was a one-of-a-kind experience for us and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing more of northern Thailand.
Tips for Driving the Mae Hong Son Loop
- Even though the trip only takes 4 or 5 days, try to give yourself an extra day or two to enjoy more of Mae Hong Son or Pai.
- Make sure you have adequate clothing for the lower temperatures in the north. It isn’t freezing there, but you will definitely want pants and long sleeves at night.
- Pack mosquito repellant, sunscreen, and motion sickness medication if you are in a car and are easily nauseated.
- When renting your mode of transportation, be sure to fully document (photograph) the condition of the vehicle inside and out before you drive off the lot. Also, try to rent from companies that take a credit card number instead of holding your passport (note: you should NEVER leave your passport with anyone).
- Be aware that during holidays, renting motorcycles or cars in Chiang Mai can be a little more difficult than at other times. When we were ooking to rent a car, the King’s birthday celebrations were just wrapping up, so we couldn’t get a car until a day later, and even then it was a little more expensive then it normally would have cost (we paid $40 USD/day).
- Make sure your car or motorcycle has insurance! If the company says they have it, get them to show you the paperwork and be sure it is for the vehicle you’re rent.
- Drive carefully. For many Thai drivers, lanes are merely a suggestion, and dangerous passing techniques happen all over the place. Be on your guard when going over any hill, or coming around any curve where you can’t see much of the road ahead. Many times, a speeding car coming in the opposite direction will be in your lane.
- Try not to run your luck with drugs in Pai. The police have been known to make maximum ATM withdrawals from the bank accounts of people they catch with drugs.
- Most of all, have a great time. It’s a really great road trip!