Mae Salong Travel Guide
If you asked me to name my favorite place in Thailand, I would tell you Mae Salong. Sure the beaches are spectacular, but to me there isn’t a single other place like Mae Salong in all of Thailand. It’s definitely a ‘must do’ on your trip. You won’t hear much about Mae Salong, because so few tourists know anything about it or ever travel there. I have visited this beautiful town on five different occasions, and everyone I recommend it to has spoken highly of their time there.
Located on top of Doi Mae Salong Mountain in Northern Thailand, this small, quiet, village is referred to as ‘Little Switzerland’ by tourists. Over the last 5 years, I have watched this tiny town transform into a developing tourist attraction. This has both pro’s and con’s of course. The local hill tribe communities residing on this mountain benefit from the increased tourist exposure and money. I’ve watched their homes change from basic bamboo huts to solid concrete structures in just a few years. As with most places, an increase in tourism typically means a decrease in traditional practices and values, so I urge you to visit Mae Salong sooner than later.
How to Get To Mae Salong
From Chiang Rai: From the bus station in Chiang Rai you will need to go to Platform 5 and purchase a bus ticket to Mae Sai. You will need to tell the driver you want to be dropped off at Pasang/Mae Salong however, and not continue the whole way to Mae Sai. The bus will literally drop you off on the side of the road, next to a convenience shop. There will be few, if any, people who speak English. If you walk around to the side of the convenience store, you will find a blue ‘songthaew’ truck. That is your ride up the mountain. If you do not see the truck, tell someone around you that you are going to Mae Salong, they will point you in the right direction. You must reach this stop by 4pm or you risk not making it up to Mae Salong that night. The trip usually costs around 60 baht ($2) per person, but if no one else wants to go, the driver will ask you to pay the whole cost (around 500 baht or $15). The scenic trip winds along roads for about an hour, before reaching the town. The whole trip from Chiang Rai will take you approximately 2 1/2 hours.
For the timetable for all Chiang Rai buses and destinations, visit here.
From Chiang Mai: The trip to Mae Salong from Chiang Rai is a little more time consuming. Total travel time will take you approximately 5 hours. There are several interesting places to stay a long the way; such as Chiang Dao, Fang, or Tha Ton if you want to break the trip up. First start at the Chiang Mai bus station where you will buy a ticket to either Chiang Dao (roughly 1 1/2 hours) or Fang (roughly 3 hours. If you’re travelling straight through to Mae Salong, then I recommend purchasing your ticket to Fang (the bus will also stop in Chiang Dao). When you arrive in Fang you will transfer to a yellow songthaew where you can purchase transfer to Tha Ton (about 1 to 1 1/2 hours). Once in Tha Ton, you will need to look for either a blue, red, or yellow songthaew that has a destination of Mae Salong. You should arrive in Tha Ton before 12pm to guarantee your trip up to Mae Salong (60 baht or $2 per person). However, if you arrive later, you may need to negotiate a solo trip up the mountain, which will cost you the total price of the vehicle, 500 baht or $15. The trip takes approximately 1 hour. The roads are winding but the views are spectacular. Hopefully you share a ride with local people so you can practice your Thai and exchange smiles of excitement as you make your way up the mountain.
For the timetable for all Chiang Mai buses and destinations, visit here.
Where to Stay In Mae Salong
For the budget traveler:
Shin- Sane Guesthouse: This small, centrally located guesthouse is the original hotel of Mae Salong, and the backpacker guesthouse of choice. The owner is friendly and willing to help with all your needs. He will offer you a basic map of the town and has motorbikes to rent. Rooms range from 100 baht ($3) for a shared toilet to 300 baht ($9) for a bungalow with private toilet. The rooms are slightly outdated, but as of April 2016 he had knocked most of his bungalows down for re-modeling. The restaurant attached is one of the best in town, and unbelievable cheap. It’s also one of the only places to drink a beer (the town pretty much closes down around 8pm every night), but he has plenty and let’s you hang out as long as you’d like.
For the mid-range traveler:
Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel: My hotel of choice! Rooms range in price depending on the season (500 baht to 1,500 baht), but you can’t get a better view than this hotel. The rooms are large and modern, and there is not a single room without a view. With the provided local tea and large balcony, you may never want to leave your room.
Little Home Guesthouse: Next door to the Shin-Sane, and a little more expensive (500-1,000 baht depending on the season). The rooms are clean and spacious. The last time I checked they had a variety of room styles, ranging from hotel rooms to bungalows.
For the up-scale traveler:
Several expensive resorts have gone up in Mae Salong since my first arrival in 2011. I don’t have them all listed but you can easily travel to Mae Salong and choose the one that best fits your needs. I have never stayed in the following hotels but can guarantee they are gorgeous.
Where to Eat In Mae Salong
Shin Sane Guesthouse: For cheap local eats and beer. The outdoor restaurants sits up above the road providing a perfect spot for people watching.
Sweet Mae Salong: Located across the street from the Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel. This quaint little coffee shops makes homemade desserts that are to die for, as well as lattes or cappuccinos. They have a small food menu as well. The highlight of the place is the back porch overlooking the mountains covered with tea plantations.
Yunnanese Noodles: On the left hand side as you make your way towards the 7/11 from the Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel. This small restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the owner creates the most delicious noodle soup in all of Thailand.
What to Do In Mae Salong
Get lost in the tea plantations: The mountains of Mae Salong are covered in tea plantations, having replaced opium plantations years ago. Most of the tea plantations are accessible to walk through or even take a private tour. I recommend 101 Tea Plantation, owned by the Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel. They have a variety of teas, dried fruits, and kombucha to sample.
Climb 700 stairs to Wat Santikhiri Temple (or drive your motorbike): This newly re-modeled temple is breathtaking. Covered in mosaic pieces and surrounded by colorful flowers and palm trees, this temple has a view of the entire town of Mae Salong. Arrive early to catch the sunrise and the mist blanketing the mountains.
Visit the Abandoned Tea House Factory: Okay, it’s not really abandoned, and they keep updating it every year. But no one is ever there, its not open for business, and you can wander around alone for hours. The tea houses are gigantic, possibly once created to be fully functioning tea shops. The view (as seen in the headlining photo) covers most of Mae Salong.
Visit the Tea Shops Along the Main Road: There are probably 40-50 tea shops in Mae Salong that line the single street winding through town. Stop in for free tea samples, dried fruit, local wine or liquor, and a variety of nuts and seeds. Attempt a conversation with the friendly locals, who speak more Chinese than Thai.
Visit a Local Hill Tribe Community: There are four or five different hill tribe communities spread out around the mountains of Mae Salong. You can easily ride a motorbike through the different villages and stop for a coffee, tea, or a quick bite to eat if you find a shop. If you rent a motorbike from the Shin Sane Guesthouse he will give you a map of the routes you can take. Some of the local women come into the village to sell their handicrafts as well. They can be a bit pushy, but just politely tell them you’re not interested. Or, if you are, this is a great place to buy quality goods at low prices.
Moving on? Head back to Chiang Rai (2 hours) or move onto Chiang Dao (3.5 hours) or Chiang Mai (5 hours)