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Retire to Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Dream Haven For The Intrepid Retiree

1,864. That’s how many times the road curves along the beautiful Mae Hong Son loop in northwestern Thailand,” writes Asia Correspondent Wendy Justice.

“It isn’t far from Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s largest city, to Mae Hong Son, but, geographically and culturally, it’s a world away. Chiang Mai is the big city by comparison, Mae Hong Son the peaceful, remote mountain town.

“My recent visit was my second. My husband and I were here four years ago and liked it enough to want to return and linger. Surrounded by some of Thailand’s highest mountains and set in a valley amid lush upland jungle, Mae Hong Son may well be the prettiest town in this entire country. Offering small town living combined with an Old West ambiance and a distinctively Oriental flare, Mae Hong Son has a lot to offer the intrepid retiree.

“Mae Hong Son is located just under 200 miles from Chiang Mai, yet the drive along well-maintained paved roads takes five hours by car at least, as there are few stretches along the way without a twist or a turn. The road is steep in places and full of hairpin curves and switchbacks as it clings to the heavily forested slopes. Traveling it, you pass beautiful limestone mountains, dramatic valleys, caves beckoning exploration, and full, fast-running rivers.

“Northwest Thailand is home to many ethnic minorities. In Mae Hong Son, the Shan, who came from Burma years ago, outnumber the ethnic Thais. As a result, the cuisine in this part of the country is more Burmese than Thai and features foods found nowhere else in Thailand.

“So many cities in Thailand are constructed of concrete and brick, because these materials provide strong structures. Mae Hong Son has resisted the transition to concrete. Situated amidst a dense subtropical jungle, this is a town built of teak. This dark and dense wood is not only durable, but also beautiful.

“The other good news about housing in this part of Thailand is that it can be very inexpensive. The challenge is finding an available place to rent. The local population of fewer than 10,000 people is very stable, meaning houses don’t often become available. Further frustrating the would-be renter, there are no property agents or relocation specialists and no local newspaper. Restaurants sometimes post notices for rentals, and you see signs advertising listings (usually in Thai) tacked on telephone poles, but word-of-mouth is the best way to find a place to live.

“The town is the administrative and commercial center of Mae Hong Son province, meaning the infrastructure is more extensive than you might expect for a place this size. There are several banks and ATMs, a full-service hospital, a supermarket, a department store, gas stations, and so on. High-speed Internet is available throughout the town, and Mae Hong Son even has its own airport, with regularly scheduled flights to Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

The large and beautifully ornate Shan-style Buddhist temple in the center of town, set to one side of the lake that forms the heart of this town, is a main attraction.

“Mae Hong Son isn’t your typical overseas retirement haven. This part of Thailand is a dream destination for the more intrepid would-be retiree abroad. You don’t come to Mae Hong Son to swing in a hammock (though you could do that, too, I guess). You come here to bike the surrounding roads and trails, to trek to hill-tribe villages, to hike to the area waterfalls, to explore the caves, to raft the rivers…

“This is also coffee country, and the mountain plantations are great places to visit. Have a cup of coffee sitting next to the tree where the beans grew.

“Mae Hong Son Province is the site of several large refugee camps. Many of Burma’s ethnic minorities, fleeing persecution, forced labor, and deprivation in their homeland, have sought sanctuary in this region. Thailand has not granted citizenship to the refugees but has allowed them to remain here, housing them in camps that are open for visitors. The residents offer trinkets for sale, but, more than that, they’re interested in opportunities to interact with the outside world. Many of them have never left the camps and meeting them is a chance to sit down and socialize with someone with a completely different perspective on this world.

“Mae Hong Son is a small town. You may see this as a plus, and it can be, but it comes with disadvantages. Living here, you’d want to speak some of the local Thai language or at least know someone who speaks it and who can translate for you. You would almost certainly need to have a Thai speaker help you to rent a house and negotiate the lease terms. There is a small and transient foreign community here made up mainly of people affiliated with one of several NGO’s that provide support to the refugee camps. But there’s no congregation of foreign residents and no expat clubs or gathering places. You see some tourists, but not as many as you see elsewhere in Thailand, because, bottom line, this region is remote.

“Mae Hong Son is small enough to get around with only a bicycle. There are car rental agencies in town for when you want to take a longer trip (into Chiang Mai, for example).

“This is a place where you could live year-round. You’d enjoy cool days and nights in winter (it gets chilly, but it’ll never snow here) and hot days and cool nights in summer.

“You could live here year-round…but would you want to? I’m more intrigued and infatuated with Mae Hong Son following this second visit, but, again, this town isn’t for everyone. If you like the sound of the place but are unfamiliar with Southeast Asia in general or northern Thailand in particular (much, much different than Bangkok or the southern beaches), plan a trip to Chiang Mai. Base yourself there while exploring the entire region. While long-term rentals can be hard to come by, you’ll have no trouble finding a hotel or guesthouse.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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