RTW Budget Update: Southeast Asia

Our trip is now complete. Life is a little bit different here in the states (mostly much colder), but we’ll get to talking about that soon. For now, it’s time to take a look at how much we spent in Southeast Asia. This segment was the longest; all in, over 3.5 months. Originally it would have been a little bit shorter, but changes in plans to nix Australia and New Zealand put us in SEA for a while longer. More sunshine, more rice, more noodles, and more cheap beer is more my style. Let’s take a look at the numbers:

Part 1: Major Transportation

Transportation in Southeast Asia is made for the backpacker. Five hour bus rides can go for $10 or less; Taxis, tuk tuks, and songthaews can be had for just a few dollars, and some routes can be easily done on a train across Thailand and Vietnam. When we decided to nix Australia and New Zealand form the tail end of our trip, we were left with quite a big cushion in the budget. Because of this, we added a few flights to the mix rather than going overland and booked the best class bus or train when we could.

  • Estimated Expense: $2,400
  • Actual Expense: $1,358
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,042

Even still, we ended up on the right side of the line, well under budget.

Part 2: In-Country Costs

  • Estimated Expense: $12,320 (112 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$2,997

But just like before, we need to account for the fact that our budget was based on a different time period spent in Southeast Asia. We spent 11 days less than we planned and we should compare apples to apples.

  • Adjusted Estimated Expense: $11,110 (101 days at $55 / day / person)
  • Actual Expense: $9,323
  • Adjusted Variance (+Better / -Worse): +$1,787

We did really well in Southeast Asia. There were not too many times where we had to turn down an activity for the sake of money. We did everything we wanted to do and we ate everything we wanted to eat. We even stayed in some nicer hotels to mix things up a bit (but mostly because after several long months in hostels and dirty guest houses I needed a little bit of luxury in my life). We visited a rice farm and Kristin learned to weave and dye fabric in Laos. We did some snorkeling tours, some kayaking tours, and some food tours in Vietnam and Thailand. We ate at more upscale restaurants in Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok. All in, we lived with a whole lot less restrictions than we did in Europe and Africa and still came in far under budget.

True Cost for Southeast Asia: $46 / day / person

Ang-Thong-Marine-Park
Snorkeling in Ang Thong Marine Park
Krabi-Cavemen-Kayaking
Kayaking through caves near in Krabi Province in Thailand
Soul-Food-Bangkok
Full bar at Soul Food Mahanakorn in Bangok

How to Overspend in Thailand

On our first visit to Thailand, I want to say we were young and naive. It was several years ago, in 2011, and we were only 24 years old. We were starting to make more money in our respective careers and our pockets were as deep as ever. So when we visited Thailand with three other close friends, our spending habits were never kept in check. It was a short trip of course, just 12 days. And in those 12 days, we spent more than we would on our current “long-term” travel budget in over a month.

Bangkok-Skyline
The beautiful skyline of Bangkok, where it’s too easy to spend, spend, spend…

I found some notes on our spending, and part of me feels ashamed and maybe a little taken advantage of. On the positive side – I feel better now that we know better. We know how much things should cost and we know how to make our dollars work for us.

Looking at these numbers of past travels, it made me realize why so many locals try to scam the farang (Thai for western foreigners). On recent travels there have been all too many times where a taxi driver refused to take us when we asked him to run the meter, where a tuk-tuk tried to charge two to three times the going rate for a ride, and where we’ve walked by and peeked at the menus overpriced tourist-oriented restaurants. It’s just too easy for these guys to pass you up for a more unsuspecting visitor.

That’s exactly what we were on our first trip. Unsuspecting. Too charmed by the big smiles of the locals to think twice. And boy did they have their way with us.

Here’s a few notes that I found about our spending:

Beer

Singha-Beer
A big bottle of Singha beer from 7-11 for 55 baht ($1.69)

Our first night in Bangkok we arrived pretty late, about 11pm. Worn out by nearly 24 hours of travel, we asked the hotel for a place to go to grab a drink. We were in Silom. Just go down this road, turn right, and there’s a night market. We walked in the night and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Before long we had arrived at the night market. Turns out we were in Patpong. One of the seedy centers of Bangkok’s red light districts.

We sat down, ordered five Chang beers (the favorite of backpackers), and watched the working girls try to entice customers.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 800 baht (160 baht each) + a 25% tip = 1,000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: At a 7-11, five cans of Chang would cost 175 baht (35 baht each). At a normal bar, it would go for about 250 baht (50 baht each) + 10 – 20 baht as a tip = 270 baht (~$8.50).

Tipping for Tours

In Chiang Mai, we did a tour that included an elephant camp (which we shouldn’t have done in the first place, but that’s a story for another day), a ride on a bamboo raft, a nice lunch, and a nice minibus to drive us around for the day. The tour cost was a little overpriced, but not grossly. We spent 8,755 baht total, coming in at about 1,750 baht each for the day.

But here’s where we spent too much – tipping the driver and our guide for the day.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 500 baht for the guide + 500 baht for the driver = 1000 baht (~$30).
  • The Real Cost: Thai people do not tip often. When they do at restaurants, it’s likely only leaving the change and maybe 20 baht maximum. Although now with western influence, and likely due to America’s extravagant tipping culture, many locals working in the tourism industry come to expect a tip. Nowadays, I would go with something much more modest – 100 or 200 baht for the guide (if they were really good) and maybe 100 baht for the driver = 300 baht maximum (~$9.25).

Laundry

While in Phuket, we were lucky enough to have a Thai friend set us up with a beautiful room in a luxury resort for something like $40 a night. Just 1/4 or 1/5 the going rate for the room. But with a luxury room, comes luxury prices on everything else.

We had our laundry done at the hotel. Of course, being a nice hotel, they charged by the piece. Shirts had a fixed rate, shorts had a fixed rate, underwear, socks, and so on and so on.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 1,350 baht (~$41.75) for a couple of day’s worth of clothing for five people.
  • The Real Cost: Most local shops in Thailand do laundry based on weight. Some charging as little as 20 baht / kg and some as much as 50 baht / kg. For several day’s worth of clothes, I’m guessing we had about 5 kg max. At an average rate of 35 baht / kg, that bag of laundry should have only cost us 175 baht (~$5.50).

Food

Kanom-Jeen
Kanom Jeen found at a local market for 20 baht ($.60)
Nam-Prick-Aung
Nam Prick Aung at a local restaurant for 70 baht ($2.15)

They say Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. It’s true, you can eat great food for real cheap. But for a first time visitor, this can be intimidating. Some worry about cleanliness, some worry about the sheer act of sitting on tiny stools on the sidewalk, and some worry about not knowing how to order. So they eat in fancy tourist-oriented restaurants, with English speaking staff, English menus, and pretty decorations.

One meal at this same luxury resort I mentioned, was all that. Albeit delicious, it cost us a small fortune. We ate in a private room and we had dish after dish of excellently prepared Thai food brought to our table.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 7,000 baht to feed 8 people (875 baht / person).
  • The Real Cost: There is such a wealth of food options to satisfy any budget. On the street we can eat for 50 baht / person. At a local restaurant, we can eat 100 baht / person. Even at a nicely decorated, modern restaurant, we can eat for 200 baht / person.

Transportation

Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers are notorious in Bangkok for trying to overcharge. Taxis don’t want to run their meters and tuk-tuks want to charge double or triple the going rate. We were staying in Sukhumvit and wanted to go to the boxing match at Lumphini Stadium. It’s just a short 4km drive and we jumped in the first taxi that was willing to take us.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: 250 baht.
  • The Real Cost: Taxis in Bangkok are super cheap if you can get them to run the meter and take a reasonable route to your destination. Frankly, I think the reason that taxis try to overcharge so much is that the meter rate is just too low. A four km ride should cost you 35 baht for the flag, including the 1st kilometer, and then just 5 baht for each additional kilometer. Total cost for 4 km = 50 baht.

Note: In comparison, the going rate in Vietnam is about 12,000 dong for the flag (19 baht) and then 16,000 dong per kilometer (25 baht). Seriously, Bangkok: you need to raise your taxi rates.

Foreign Transaction Fees and ATMs

This last misstep isn’t a Thailand problem, but a global problem. Banks in the US are notorious for finding a way to charge fees for nearly everything they can. And for an expensive international trip, these fees can add up.

  • The Unsuspecting Farang Cost: $5 for each ATM withdrawal; 3% on all credit card transactions.
  • The Real Cost: Now that we are on a long term trip, we managed to find ways to avoid these fees. Imagine if we had to pay 3% in foreign transaction fees on $10,000 in spend – $300 in unnecessary costs. Instead, we have credit cards that do not charge this fee at all. No foreign transaction fees anywhere. Kristin’s Capital One VentureOne card has no annual fee. Mine, however, charges $85 annually, but I get all sorts of good stuff from Marriott that makes up for that fee. In addition, we have a checking account through Charles Schwab that refunds all of our ATM fees. So the real cost of bank fees for traveling internationally – $0.

The Wrong Way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang

It’s been done many times before. The tour groups have long pushed this route along the banana pancake trail and it’s in every guidebook on ‘an experience not to be missed’. The slow boat down the Mekong starts just over the border of Thailand and Laos and takes you into Luang Prabang. It’s a long journey, but after our mis-adventures in Africa I assumed we could handle it.

Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong (morning of Day 1)

The trip started easy enough out of the bus station in Chiang Rai: we showed up, hopped on a rickety, old bus and were off. This was a local bus, however, and with all things local come surprises. Just outside of the bus station we were waved down by someone trying to a hitch a ride. He had his pickup filled with produce, some rice, maybe a few motorbike parts, and a few boxes of who knows what. We loaded up, he hopped on, and we continued down the pothole-filled roller coaster road to Chiang Kong. 65 baht lighter, and 3 hours and a sore back later we had reached the Thai frontier.

Crossing the Border (afternoon of Day 1)

I was looking forward to a nice, easy border crossing into Laos, leaving us enough time to buy tickets for the next day’s slow boat. But after getting off the bus, we were accosted by tuk tuk drivers eager to take us to the new bridge in town. Just a short two weeks earlier the Thai-Laos friendship bridge had been opened, closing the old boat crossing in town, and sending Thais and farang alike 10km out of town to the new land crossing. So Kristin, myself, and a curious Turkish guy, who spoke no English, hitched a ride across the border with a smiley tuk tuk driver who must have been super excited about all the new business that would be coming his way.

Chiang-Kong-New-Border-Crossing
The brand new border crossing in Chiang Kong

We arrived at the crossing 15 minutes later and I’ve got to say, the new buildings and bridge are quite impressive. Nothing like the land crossings we had seen before, and brand-spankin’ new. There was no funny business after that and we exited Thailand, payed 20 baht for a shuttle across no man’s land, got our visas processed into Laos for $35 each, and continued onto Huay Xai.

Huay Xai to Pakbeng (Day 2)

For some, Huay Xai may warrant a stop over for more than a night. We met a German fellow who was there for the Gibbon Experience, a highly-rated trek to swim under waterfalls, zipline through the jungle, sleep in tree houses, and for the lucky- spot some local gibbons. But we had places to be and headed for the boat landing to buy tickets. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day and we made plans to get up early the next morning to make sure we got a nice seat and not one crouched inside the engine compartment as we had heard from others. Our hotel did offer to buy tickets for us at $40 a pop, including a nice $12.50 commission above the normal price of $27.50 (220,000 kip). How nice of them, but I’ll pass.

Huay-Xai-Slow-Boat-Ticket-Office
Posted ticket prices in Huay Xai

Instead, at 8:00 am flat the next morning we made our way back to the boat landing. We were the first to arrive. No sign of life besides a guy stripped down to his underwear bathing in the river. Eventually we found a guy hiding behind the ticket office and bought tickets for the day’s boat. And then we waited. And waited some more. Some people showed up. More waiting. We loaded our bags on the boat. And continued to wait. At 1:00 pm, with 200 people and 2 boats loaded up we were finally starting our journey on the slow boat down the Mekong.

Slow-Boat-Local-Lao
Locals on a neighboring boat as we depart

It was peaceful. The sun was shining and we gazed at the sparkling temples on the hillside. We laughed at a few Thai and French children warm up to each other and then laugh and play while running up and down the aisles. But not more than an hour or two later I had gotten bored. I started to take swigs of the Thai whiskey that I had bought the night before. I ate the chicken sandwich we bought before leaving. I practiced some Thai. I went and bought an overpriced coke and then poured a liberal amount of whiskey into the can. Kristin gave me dirty looks while telling me that I looked like an alcoholic. I fell asleep.

Kids-on-Slow-Boat
These Thai and French kids kept the boat entertained with their shenanigans

As the day wore the sun started to hide behind the hillside. It started to get cold and I began a ritual of 15 minutes in my seat and then another 15 minutes hovered over the exhaust pipe of the engine trying to stay warm. Eventually, just a short 7 hour hours after we had left Huay Xai, we were pulling into Pakbeng.

Sunset-on-Mekong-Slow-Boat
A beautiful, but chilly view from the boat

It was dark, we couldn’t see much, but we eventually found our bags and made our way up the hill to the guesthouse that I had emailed. I should have expected it in a town like this, but we were told that the place was completely booked up and they had no record of my emails. We were out of luck and stumbled around to other places in the area trying to find a place to sleep to no avail. The one place we found with availability told us $45 / night. Another couple had just wandered into this place at the same time as us and told us they scouted the other side of town without any luck on availability. So we spent the money for a night’s sleep, an amount that we haven’t spent on a room since we were in Europe.

We ate an Indian restaurant while enjoying some Beer Lao. Our server was wearing a Cleveland Indians hat and I told him I liked it. He smiled and walked away, likely not understanding what I was saying. We watched a 10 year old cooking in the kitchen and eventually our food had arrived. The “mixed salad” was a sliced up tomato and cucumber arranged on a plate. The “naan” was a flour tortilla. Before arriving in Pakbeng, we had heard people describe the place as a bit of a hole. I’d have to agree.

Pakbeng to Luang Prabang (Day 3)

The next morning we loaded up and headed to the docks for our second day on the slow boat. This day was colder, partly due to the fact that we were leaving first thing in the morning and partly due to complete lack of sunshine. I repeated my routine from the prior day- a little whiskey, a little Thai practice, a walk back to the engine room to warm up. Nothing eventful on this trip, and I spent a lot of the time staring at the map trying to figure out how far we had traveled and when we were going to arrive.

Boat-Landing-Mekong

At 4:00 pm, we were pulling into the outskirts of Luang Prabang. The boat dock has changed a little bit from what I had read and we weren’t landing directly in town. Instead, we fumbled up a muddy hill where tuk tuks were waiting to take us the 15 minutes into town where we were dropped off at the entry of the night market.

Conclusion

This trip took us 3 full days. Some describe the journey as either love it or hate, and I fell in the latter category. I was left sick for a week afterwards and we didn’t see too much along the way. So my recommendation for the trip- take a bus to Chiang Mai and catch the 1 hr direct flight into Luang Prabang. And then if you’re itching for a ride on the Mekong, hire a boat from town to take you to the Pak Ou caves. I wrote previously about a journey that we did the right way, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This time, however, we clearly took the wrong way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.

Chiang Rai’s Enchanted Garden

It was our last night in Chiang Rai and we wandered the streets of the city searching for something sweet. Something that I’ve found us doing often due to Kristin’s sweet tooth. As we turned the corner a few minutes from the clock tower, we encountered a small crowd of people strolling under bright lights in Flag and Lamp Park. Because we happened to be in town during the city’s annual flower festival that’s only on for a few weeks in the end of December to early January.

We had heard that it was happening, but come on – how interesting can a flower festival be? Turns out, it’s well worth a trip. We strolled around the fairyland amongst the locals and admired the mist fall slowly over the freshly planted, enchanted gardens. Trimmed neatly and placed deliberately. After seeing this, I’ll admit in the manliest way possible… flowers can be really beautiful. Maybe I’ll take up gardening when we get back to Chicago.

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival
Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Templed Out in Thailand

On our first visit to Thailand, we hit several of the major temples around the country. Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Chedi Luang to name a few. It was exotic, fascinating, and we wanted more. These glittering relics provide the first euphoric feeling of being in a foreign land- different from the towering sky scrapers of the Windy City and begging us to discover more of Thailand’s ancient culture.

But over time, the small temples in each and every town around the country leaves you with a little bit of deja vu: lots of architecture, lots of Buddhas. Maybe saying that makes me a little ignorant of the culture. These are places of worship, after all. Sacred to the local people and visited often, for prayer and to provide offerings. But as an outsider, hitting up the major temple in each town is moving down in priority on my ‘to-do’ list.

That was until we came to Chiang Rai. For us, this city wasn’t just a stopover on our way to the Laos border. We came to see a temple, the White Temple, rumored to be different than the rest. We told the owner of our hotel that we needed some scooters to go visit Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and she pushed us to check out Baan Dam (the Black House) as well. And that’s what we did.

We mounted our little motorbikes for the first time and fumbled around trying to figure out how to start them. Did I mention I’ve never driven a motorbike before? Turned out to be easy enough and after a brief practice run around the block a few times we headed down the back roads to the White Temple.

Chiang-Rai-Scooter-Kristin
Mounted and…
Chiang-Rai-Scooter-Nick
Ready to ride

It’s a quick drive, and before we knew it we had met up with the crowds of tourists in front of Wat Rong Khun. The temple is the work of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a well-known painter from the area. In the past he had been criticized for his contemporary work, but over time became more accepted. I can understand why. Inside the temple is a wax monk that looked so real I had to stare at it awhile to make sure he wasn’t going to blink. And along the back wall is a large wall depicting many “good vs. evil” characters in modern culture: The Matrix, Freddie Kruger, the Twin Towers, Star Wars, Angry Birds, Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, and more. But the locals amongst us sat praying as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

Wat-Rong-Khun-White-Temple-Wooden-Shutters

Wat-Rong-Khun-White-Temple-50-50
Wat-Rong-Khun-White-Temple-Entrance

There are no pictures allowed inside, but if you Google the temple you’ll get a few hits from those who didn’t abide by the rules.

After wandering around the grounds trying to make sense of what we just saw, we strapped on our helmets again and headed north to the Black House. It’s not a long ride, but without our handy City Maps 2Go app it would have been difficult to find. Signs are all in Thai and it’s hidden down a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the highway.

The Black House is not a temple, but rather an artist’s museum (or more of a complex) of sorts. Thawan Duchanee’s estate feels drastically different than what we had just experienced at the White Temple. While Wat Rong Khun seemed to tell us that good will prevail, Baan Dam took us to the dark side. Be warned.

Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Main-House
Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Sunlight

Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Snake-Skin

Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Horns
Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Small-House

Mae Hong Son Loop: Pai

We stayed at the Aqua Resort in Pai, just a bit out of the main town but in a quiet area. I think this place used to be a resort. Unfortunately, it just isn’t what it presumably used to be. If you look at it from far away it seems beautiful but the closer you get the more that image and the physical place itself deteriorates. It did have some really warm blankets, but having the bathroom outside was a bust.

Seeing as Pai is the hippy spot, and seeing as we’re not hippies, we decided to only stay one night then head straight to Chiang Rai. I think a mix of road weariness and hatred of tie dye led us to that decision. We took the night to visit the night market. For dinner we sought out Na’s Kitchen which is supposed to be one of the best places in town. I finally ordered a whole fried fish and it was delicious.

Thai Fried Fish
Fried fish at Na’s Kitchen

On the way out of town the next morning we happened upon a strawberry farm which was quite . . . unique. A fun place to stretch your legs and peak around. Also, their strawberry muffins are totally worth it.

Love Strawberry Pai Farm
Love Strawberry Pai Farm

The Pai Canyon is also on the way out of town and although we were there on a misty morning it is an interesting place. If you’re brave enough you can walk along the ridges and go into the canyon but if you have stupid slippery shoes like me you probably won’t be able to go very far until you realize your straddling a dangerous line. Have fun, but be careful!

Pai Canyon Nick Leaning
Nick looking over the canyon
Pai Canyon Trail
Pai Canyon trail

Road Conditions: fair to good

This post is part of six of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son Loop: Soppong

We made the decision, since we assumed there is not much going on in Soppong, to take a day long detour from Mae Hong Son north to the Pang Ung Forest and then further north, almost to the border, to Rak Thai. The forest was our lunch stop. It was peaceful and pretty but I thought there was going to be more in the way of hiking trails. There weren’t. There were rafts for rent which would have probably been a nice ride. If you have the time I think it’s pretty enough to deserve a visit.

Pang Ung Reservoir Forest
Pang Ung Reservoir Forest
Pang Ung Reservoir Raft
Rafting on the reservoir

Rak Thai is tiny, as are most of these small towns. It seems that every shop there sells all kinds of dried things so if you’re in the market for a snack this is a good place to get out. Most of the shop-owners will let you try a piece of the dried fruit/vegetable so you can make up your mind. We tried a bunch of stuff and decided on some sour plums; the dried tomatoes were . . . interesting.

Valley House Coffee Rak Thai Thailand
Hipster coffee house in Rak Thai

After that detour we made it to Soppong. They have a small night market, but besides that the food options are slim. Although our guesthouse had a kitchen we decided to check out dinner at the Soppong River Inn just for a change of scenery. It was peaceful and delicious, probably much like it would have been at our guesthouse.

As a side-note, and if you’re interested in mediation, Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery sits between Mae Hong Son and Soppong. We stopped there to look around and saw a lot of mute people in white flowy robes looking bored, confused, and at peace?

There are not many places to stay in Soppong. Maybe two or three other guesthouses along the main drag. And Soppong consists only of the main drag. Little Eden was very nice, the owner/manager speaks beautiful English and you have a range of rooms to choose from ranging from a little bungalow to, I believe, a whole house. We chose the in between and were quite happy.

If you walk to the back of the Little Eden property there is a whole trail back into the wilderness you can wander on for about an hour. It seems like there are several branch off trails but we tried to stay on the main one. The trail markings aren’t great and we got lost once but it was a nice walk and ends in a garden.

Little Eden Guesthouse Soppong Thailand
Little Eden Guesthouse on the river
Little Eden Loop Trail Soppong Thailand
Little Eden loop trail

The following morning we left Soppong and drove 20 minutes north to visit the Tham Lot cave. We were originally going to stay at the Cave Lodge but decided to just see the cave and go on to Pai. The tour of the cave is no longer than two hours and there just didn’t seem to be enough to do to warrant an overnight stay.

To go into the cave you need to hire a guide. Once you pay at the main desk a guide is assigned to you. The tours last about an hour or so depending if you visit all three caves or just caves two & three. You can also decide if you want to take the raft back or walk back.

The tour itself left a lot to be desired. It would have been better if we spoke Thai since our tour guide spoke no English. Therefore, there was no education involved. She pointed at formations that looked like popcorn and said ‘popcorn’ and formations that looked like a crocodile and said ‘crocodile.’ There were a few signs teaching you the difference between stalagmites and stalagtites, again, but let’s face it, I will never be able to remember which is which.

There is also a peculiar thing that happens at night at the mouth of the cave where swifts and bats exchange places. Although we didn’t see that, I don’t think I’d be able to take it depending how long it takes. The smell of there poo, that was everywhere in that part of the cage was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to get out. Maybe caves just aren’t my thing.

Tham Lot Cave Soppong Thailand Raft Driver
Tham Lot Cave
Tham Lot Cave Kris Riding Bamboo Raft
Riding the bamboo raft in Tham Lot Cave

Road conditions: fair to good

This post is part of five of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son Loop: MHS

We decided before setting out that we were going to stop at Pha Bong Hot Springs along the way. This is about 10KM south of Mae Hong Son and you could easily backtrack if you’re already in town. We opted for the massage and the foot soak. The hot springs are hot! There is a bath or big bath option but we took a peak inside the bathrooms and they looked a little iffy in terms of cleanliness. The foot soak is only 20baht per person and you can just hang out with your feet out however long you’d like.

Pha Bong Hot Springs Foot Soak
Pha Bong Hot Springs Foot Soak
Pha Bong Hot Springs
Pha Bong Hot Springs

For the bird lover in all of you, there’s a bird watching sanctuary just north of Khun Yuam. Seeing as we forgot our binocs, we opted to continue on.

Once we arrived in town we checked into Piya Guesthouse. Very nice. Big room with couch. Very clean room and bathroom, private little outside sitting area, swimming pool, right next to lake and night market. Cheap for what you get.

We spent our first night in town visiting Wat Doi Kong Mu which overlooks the town and is a great place to take in the sunset. It was seriously beautiful and I highly recommend going up there to watch the sun go down. We stumbled upon an alternative way to the top which is probably actually faster than taking the weaving paved pathway. Here’s how you get there. Once you turn onto the road up to the top hang a right into what looks like an old temple under construction. There are stairs a little further on that look a little more like ruins than stairs. That’s what you want. Once the stairs end, continue on the scenic route through the brush and you’ll eventually meet up with the paved road.

Old Stairs to Wat Doi Kong Mu
Old stairs to Wat Doi Kong Mu
Before Sunset Coffee Umbrellas
Umbrellas at Before Sunset Coffee

We got a table at Before Sunset Café but get there early because there are only a few tables on the deck itself. There is also a viewing platform a little higher up the hill if you want completely uninterrupted views. It might behoove you to bring a headlamp or flashlight for the walk down. Definitely stay up there until the lights come on.

Before Sunset Coffee Mae Hong Son
Before Sunset Coffee
Mae Hong Son Sunset Umbrella
Mae Hong Son sunset
Wat Doi Kong Mu at dusk
Wat Doi Kong Mu at dusk
Wat Doi Kong Mu After Dark
Wat Doi Kong Mu after dark

We headed to Salween café for dinner. They serve up Thai and Burmese food. We decided to try the tea leaf salad which was delicious. We also had the country chicken soup and chili con carne. Both very good. The night market is buzzing right outside our guesthouse and around the lake. Plenty of food and trinkets to buy here.

The following day in Mae Hong Son we took it easy. In the morning, we started out for the morning market located on Phanich Wattana Road. There are some stalls on the street leading up to the market, but then it turns inside a large roofed complex and sells everything from produce to clothing. There aren’t so many options for food on the spot but we found some khow pad moo and some version of noodle soup for breakfast. Both were good.

Kanom Jeen Mae Hong Son Morning Market
Kanom Jeen at Morning Market

We covered the main street of town in a short period of time but stumbled upon a Mae Hong Son tourist center called Maehongson Living Museum. They have some great brochures outlining the major shops on the main drag – Singhanat Bamrung- along with all the tourist-y like things you can do involving trekking and biking and cooking school and everything involving a lot of cash. Their website is informative as well and is probably a good starting point for anyone visiting Mae Hong Son. I wish we would have planned it sooner.

Road conditions to Mae Hong Son: excellent!

This post is part of four of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son Loop: Khun Yaum

During the months of November/December the wild sunflower fields are supposed to be in bloom. We took a detour on our way to Khun Yuam (sunflower fields are marked on the map) but, alas, we were just a little too late. There were still a few here and there but most of the flowers had already bloomed.

Sunflower Fields Khun Yuam
These fields are in bloom in November
Sunflowers Khun Yuam Thailand
Sunflowers

Once in Khum Yuam we checked into our hotel, The Yoont Hotel. It was nice enough, although the hot water in the shower was lacking. A little convenient store in the hotel is open until 10PM which is, well, convenient. The breakfast doesn’t consist of much, coffee and toast, so we stopped to grab some fruit from a roadside stand once we were on the road the next day.

The front desk manager did provide a bunch of information. He told us about a nice spot to watch the sunset. It is in the nearby little village of Bon Thapae. Here, the sun sets over the rice paddies next to Wat Tor Pae. While we lost our way and didn’t get to see the sun set, we did make it there to spend a few peaceful minutes in the dusky early evening. Here are the directions so you don’t have to miss it like we did: Heading south from the heart of Khun Yuam keep your eyes peeled for the 7/11. Turn right on the street right after the 7/11. There will be a sign pointing to Bon Thapae. Follow that road into town and turn left following the sign (pictured below) to the temple. Walk toward the back of the temple for a nice little seating area to look out onto the rice paddies. It is really a peaceful way to spend some time.

Wat Tor Pae Khun Yuam Directions
The sign to the temple
Wat Tor Pae Khun Yuam Sunset
Sunset at Wat Tor Pae

Khun Yuam also has a night market (in an open lot next to that corner where you turned down to Bon Thapae) complete with neon lights and a bouncy castle. It is small but you’ll find many meats and things on sticks as well as some dessert and clothing, hair accessories, blankets, and even mattresses. You could easily find enough for dinner here if you’re not particularly picky or you can head down the road to an open-air restaurant that is supposedly open until 10PM (this restaurant is located about 1KM south of Yoont Hotel).

Night Market Khun Yuam Thailand
Night market in Khun Yuam

Of course, if you’re a history buff, you can always pay a visit to the Thai-Japan Memorial Museum. We skipped that though and continued on to Mae Hong Son.

Road conditons: poor; potholes everywhere; drive slow, homie.

This post is part of three of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son Loop: Mae Chaem

Before making our way to Mae Chaem, we detoured to Doi Inthanon to seek out the highest point in Thailand. After paying 200baht each, 30baht for the car and struggling up to the top with our smoking engine we finally made it!

Doi Inthanon Stupa
Doi Inthanon Stupa
Elephant statue at Doi Inthanon
Elephant statue at Doi Inthanon
Doi Inthanon Highest Point in Thailand
The highest point in Thailand.

Sidenote: On the way up the mountain, soon after you stop to pay for entrance, there is a left hand turn that will take you to some hot springs. This also happens to be the road to Mae Chaem. Go to Doi Inthanon first and then to the hot springs (if you were planning on going there too) so you don’t have to backtrack.

Mae Chaem is a small town and apart from finding much needed coolant at a roadside repair shop, there wasn’t much else to see. We continued to our waiting bungalow at Hot Coffee which is a few kilometers north of Mae Chaem. We chose this place based off a fellow traveler’s recommendation. It’s a lovely little stop off on the side of the road. Little bungalows right on the river, good food (kitchen open ‘til about 8), and all the profits from the shop goes toward the orphanage that is located behind its grounds. The only problem with our stay was that it was cold (probably 45 degrees) and there was no heat. Bring blankets, bring layers, bring feety pajamas. Also, the bungalows are clean and very nice but are bare minimum. After dark, there is not much in the way of entertainment. So bring a good book and a headlamp. Or bring blankets and have a few beers on your balcony complete with two chairs and a table. Or, if you’re lucky, you can hear the little kids in the orphanage singing. When we were there they sang us to sleep with Christmas carols.

It’s worth noting that we booked a bungalow. There are rooms inside the main house that would probably be warmer in this weather but we didn’t realize it was going to be so cold at night. There is a fan in the bungalow for warm weather but no heater.

Hot Coffee Bungalows
Two bungalows at Hot Coffee

Hot Coffee also offers some rafting options if you’re feeling like a little adventure after a restful night’s sleep. We were considering going on an hour raft ride (self guided/500baht) but it was just too cold. Would have definitely done it if the weather cooperated.

Road conditions: fair to Mae Chaem, poor after Mae Chaem

This post is part of two of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.