Things to do in Mae Sariang
Table of Contents
A Short History of Mae Sariang
Hminelongyi or Muang Yuam
Mae Sariang is a district in Mae Hong Son Province. Not many companies offer Mae Sariang Tours because it is a bit of a forgotten destination in North Thailand. I hope this comprehensive list of Mae Sariang attractions will persuade you to spend some time in this charming town with its beautiful surroundings.
Not much is known about the early history of this town that was known in the past as Hminelongyi or Muang Yuam. Mae Sariang was until the early 20th century the capital of Mae Hong Son, which was a part of Monthon Phayap. The town Mae Hong Son then became the administrative center of the area that was known at that time at the Salween.
I have put together a list of Mae Sariang attractions. These also include attractions of Mae La Noi, which is about 30 km from Mae Sariang. We are adding more attractions of Mae Sariang regularly.
Fantastic things to do in and around Mae Sariang
Wat Sri Bunruang
This temple in Mae Sariang originally was known as Chong Mak Kaeng because of a large tamarind tree that is on the compound. In 1887 people renamed the temple Wat Sri Bunruang. It is a beautiful temple with Shan (Tai Yai) and Burmese influences, located not far from the Yuam River and right next to Wat Jong Soong. The Burmese temple architecture of Wat Sri Bunruang is stunning.
Wat Supan Rangsri
This temple is also known as Wat Chong Kham or Wat Jongkham. I recently noticed a large meeting of Christian Karen people at Wat Supan Rangsri. The temple has a beautiful chedi and is located on the Yuam River.
The former office of the Royal Forestry Department
Mae Sariang was a major center of the teak logging industry at the turn of the 20th century. The British Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC) was active in Mae Hong Son province until 1930 when their concession expired. To control and tax the teak industry the Royal Forestry Department opened this office in 1900.
A caretaker now lives in the house, which is probably only used for special events. If you are interested in history we can include the Forestry Department Office in your itinerary. The office of the BBTC was very close to the office of the Royal Forestry Department but has been demolished.
The Buddha Handprint is a couple of km outside of Mae Sariang. You have to follow road 105 to Sop Moei. Turn left into a small road that becomes very steep until you see a parking place. The shrine consists of the ‘impression’ of the hand in rock covered by a cement sala. I had seen quite a few Buddha footprints but never a handprint.
This sala has an inscription in the Northern Thai language, which states that a certain Mr. Intang built this sala in 1937. Around the sala, there are walking trails and a small cave. When I visited the cave in 2018 I was attacked by very aggressive wasps so be very careful.
Boat trip on the Salawin River
This is one of the best boat trips I made in North Thailand, an absolute must-do when you are in Mae Sariang. It is only a 45-minute drive to Ban Mae Sam Laep on the Salawin River. The river, also known as the Salween, forms the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The Burmese name of the river is the Thanlyin River.
At Ban Mae Sam Laep, there is no border crossing, also not for locals. You have to charter a local boat to take you to Sop Moei and back. It is a breathtaking boat ride of about 45 mins. At Sop Moei you can get off at the beach and walk to a Karen village.
The rivers diverge
This is also the place where the Salawin River stops being the border. It diverges into Myanmar. The Moei River forms the border between Myanmar and Thailand from this point onwards. Then it is time to return to Ban Mae Sam Laep. The scenery at times is breathtaking. Our journey to Doi Inthanon and Mae Sariang features this fantastic trip. The boat trip on the Salawin to Sop Moei is one of the biggest attractions of Mae Sariang. It should feature in all Mae Sariang Tours.
Wat Chom Thong
Wat Chom Thong is another temple in Mae Sariang that is worth a visit. This temple is just outside of town on a hill overlooking the Yuam valley and the town. American anthropologist Charles Keyes made a number of photos of this temple in 1967/68. On his pictures only the two old chedis are visible. Since then they have added a sitting Buddha statue with a Naga staircase and a viharn. The temple offers nice views.
Wat Phrathat Chom Mon
Wat Phrathat Chom Mon is outside of town on a small hill. A Naga staircase covered with moss takes you to a lovely white chedi. On our most recent visit in December 2020, we noticed that reconstruction of the staircase was underway. The staircase has 349 steps.
According to information at the temple, it dates back to the period of King Naresuan the Great, who ruled the Ayutthaya Kingdom from 1590 until 1605. Mon people established this temple. In 1914 Karen people built a new pagoda on top of the original, now ruined pagoda. In 1997 another reconstruction took place. From the chedi, you have some great views of Mae Sariang and the surrounding rice paddies. At the ground level, there is an old wooden viharn.
Wat Tham Phra
I visited this cave temple about ten years ago. It is about 5 km outside of Mae Sariang. A narrow road leads to what is becoming a major complex. Wat Tham Phra is also known as Wat Tham Ngow, which translates as the temple of the cave of rhizome, which is a kind of subterranean plant.
Ten years ago it was a sober cave where a couple of solitary monks were living. Since then they have added statues and buildings. During our most recent visit, we noticed major construction going on. A viharn surrounded by Buddha statues is almost finished. Although the romanticism of a cave temple has been lost completely, the temple is worth a visit if you have the time. You can enjoy some lovely views of the countryside.
Mae Sawan Noi Waterfall
These falls are in the Mae Yuam Forest Reserve. It on the right side of road 108 if you approach Mae Sariang from Hot. It is about 20 km before you reach Mae Sariang. Signs along the road indicate how you get to the waterfall.
The waterfall is set in a lush green forest and has nine steps. Forestry Department officials have constructed steps and trails in order to get from step to step. Especially in the rainy season, the Mae Sawan Noi waterfall is quite spectacular and pretty.
Wat Kittiwong is architecturally not the most interesting temple in Mae Sariang. It is the place though where the Red Cliff manuscripts are being kept. Charles Keyes took part in an expedition in June 1968 to find old manuscripts that were supposed to be hidden in a cave along the Salawin River.
By foot and by elephant a group including Keyes traveled to the cave where they found six large wooden boxes filled with “bai laan”, which palm leaf manuscripts. They took with them as many as they could back to Mae Sariang. At Wat Kittiwong a group of monks studied these manuscripts and found out that most of them were about 200 years old.
Keyes wrote an article titled “New evidence on Thai frontier history” for the Siam Society Journal in 1970. The boxes with the manuscripts are stored behind the main altar in the viharn of Wat Kittiwong. The manuscripts are written in the old Lanna alphabet, which is also used to write the Tai Lue and Tai Khün.
Baan La Up (Lawa)
Baan La Up is a Lawa village in the mountains in Mae La Noi district. It is about 50km from Mae Sariang. A visit to Baan La Up can be combined with visits to Baan Dong, another Lawa village, and Baan Huay Horm, a Karen village. The road from Mae La Noi town to Baan La Up offers fantastic scenery.
Baan La Up has become popular with local tourists in recent years and is famous for its high-quality silverware. There are homestays at Baan La Up. The village features in our Journey to Doi Inthanon and Mae Sariang trip, one of our Mae Sariang Tours, just like the Karen village Baan Huay Horm and another Lawa village Baan Dong.
Baan Huay Horm (Karen)
Baan Huay Horm, a Karen village, is only a couple of km from Baan La Up. This pretty village has made a name for itself because it produces high-quality coffee beans. The word goes that the village provides beans to the Starbucks coffee chain in Thailand. You indeed can drink some outstanding coffee in Baan Huay Horm and it also has a comfortable homestay, if you want to stay overnight. Baan Huay Horm features in our Mae Sariang Loop tour, another of our Mae Sariang tours.
Baan Dong (Lawa)
Baan Dong is a Lawa village in Mae La Noi district. It is close to Baan La Up, another Lawa village, and Baan Huay Horm, a Karen village. Most people skip Baan Dong but we like this village very much. We will bring you to Lawa textile artisans in Baan Dong. They will show you their skills and textiles.
Baan Dong also has some of the most beautiful rice terraces in Mae La Noi district. Besides that, there is a Royal Project at Baan Dong. Missionaries have been very active in this village: many of the Lawa people are Christian.
Wat Wohankhun, a forgotten Shan chedi
You will not find any information on this temple in guide books. Wat Wohankhun itself is left of the road 108 to Mae La Noi. What is interesting are the ruins of two structures on a hill on the right side of the road. It is a bit of a climb but it is worth it. There are two ruins on this little hill. The one on the top is an old Shan chedi. For the second chedi, you have to walk down through the bush which might be a bit difficult.
Charles Keyes wrote in his field notes of October 1967: “We first climbed up an old chedi on top of a hill near the wat. It is built in the traditional Shan style and appears to be relatively old, partially because there was an old laterite path leading up to it.”…….”The chedi seemed to be in poor repair. Lower down on the slope was another more recent chedi. Čit said that he thought it was probably the reliquary for the ashes of some abbot of the wat below who died within the more recent past.” I was elated to be able to find both chedis. Wat Wohankhun features in our Mae Sariang tours.
The lost Buddha statues of Wat Mae La Luang
American Anthropologist Charles Keyes took a picture of the ruins of Wat Mae La Luang in January 1968. Initially, I could only find the chedi which has been renovated but not the Buddha statues. During a second visit I went to the viharn of the temple and showed the picture to a monk. The Buddha statues, which look much bigger on the Keyes picture, are now inside a house. I have not been able to find out more about the age of the chedi and the Buddha statues. The photos from Charles Keyes come from the Research Works website of the University of Washington.
Salawin National Park
The Salawin (or Salween) national forest reserve became a national park in 1994 after the Thai government had issued a logging ban in 1989. This park covers parts of the Sob Moei and Mae Sariang districts and has a total area of 751 sq km. It borders Myanmar, separated from Thailand by the Salawin or Salween river. Just north of the park is the Salawin Wildlife Sanctuary, established in 1978.
The park and the wildlife sanctuary made headlines in 1997 when authorities uncovered an illegal logging scandal in which forestry and military officials were involved. Allegedly about a third of the trees were logged in that period.
Not much is known about the state of the wildlife sanctuary, which covers an area of 875 sq km. The national park offers accommodation in the form of five bungalows near its headquarters. In 2018 park authorities established a nature trail of about 2 km, which starts and ends just behind the headquarters. Apart from this there are no organized tours in the park at the moment. I visited the park in December 2020.
The new Mae Sariang National Park
The Mae Sariang National Park is a new protected area, about 10 km north of Mae Sariang, just off the road 108 to Mae La Noi. The inauguration of this park has not been announced yet. At the entrance, there were a couple of wooden buildings with information. There is no proper visitor center yet nor any other facilities.
At the provisional visitor center, there are a couple of maps that give an idea of the location and the size of the park. There are two areas, separated by the Mae Sariang to Hot road (no.108), totally more than 350 sq km. These are areas are roughly north- and southeast of the town. It is good news that there will be a new national park in Mae Hong Son province. From the future visitor center, I walked into the forest a couple of 100 meters which was nice. We will keep you updated about the Mae Sariang National Park.
Wat Chom Kitti
The Wat Chom Kitti is about 5 km on a hill, outside of Mae Sariang. It is most likely a Thai temple as opposed to many Shan and Burmese temples in Mae Hong Son province. The road leading to the temple is short, narrow, and very steep. About halfway you will see two sitting Buddha statues. There is a small white chedi at the end of the road. The main attraction of the temple is the view over the Yuam valley and the mountain scenery. According to information at the temple, it is almost 300 years old. There is a standing Buddha statue a bit higher up and some other buildings.
The Mae Sariang Museum
The Mae Sariang Museum is a beautiful building you will notice right away when you arrive. It is on the corner of Wiang Mai road, the main road of the town, and road 108, which veers off to the north. I visited this small museum more than ten years ago for the first time. It was a small museum with interesting exhibits on the history and culture of Shan (Tai Yai) people and on the more recent history of teak logging.
Sadly enough the museum has been empty for a number of years. On my last visit in December 2020, I could peer into the rooms that are totally empty. The building itself is in good shape, fortunately. Let’s hope someone will take the initiative to restore the museum to its former glory.
The Mae Sariang airport
The airport is not one of the main Mae Sariang attractions unless you have a penchant for abandoned runways (which, by the way, I have). Thailand’s Aerial Transport Company developed the Mae Sariang airstrip to expand its mail and passenger service. According to Allied intelligence reports from June 1940, the Mae Sariang airstrip was operational.
World War Two
During World War Two allied planes bombed and strafed the Mae Sariang airstrip but the airfield never became a serious strategic target. In Allied intelligence reports, the surface of the runway is described as “cleared scrub” and “rolled earth”. It was unsuitable for Japanese aircraft according to an American intelligence report from 1945. The website Lanna in World War Two gives excellent information about this period.
The movie Air America
From old timetables I can deduct that Thai Airways flew roughly from 1954 until 1971 once or twice a week on Mae Sariang with a Douglas DC-3. Scenes of the 1990 movie “Air America”, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey jr, were shot at the Mae Sariang airstrip. The crash landing scene, starting at about 2.15 in this video, was probably shot at the airstrip.
The airfield in 2020
Sometime between 2003 and 2007, they paved the runway looking at the website of the Thai Flying Club. At this moment there are no flights to Mae Sariang. What looks like the terminal building has become a breeding place for fighting cocks. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon locals are exercising on the runway.
Cycling in Mae Sariang
Riding a bicycle is the best way to explore Mae Sariang and its direct surroundings. If you don’t go too far out of town it is mostly flat. Mae Sariang is a small town and you are out of town in a whisker. In the Mae Yuam (Yuam River) Valley, there are numerous Thai and Karen villages. The Riverhouse Resort and other accommodations have bicycles and there are a number of bicycle shops. You can of course also bring your own bicycle which I always do.
Karen villages in Mae Sariang district
Within cycling or driving distance of Mae Sariang, there are many Karen villages. In town, there are Karen churches and community centers. Missionaries, mostly American, have been very active in Mae Sariang for decades. Many Karen people have converted to Christianity. During our Mae Sariang tours, we will visit Karen villages such as Baan Phamolo, which has a textile weaving center. In town, you usually will see Karen people, sometimes in their traditional dress.
Wat Phrathat Dong Kham, the ruined chedi of Baan Nam Dip
The ruined chedi of Baan Nam Dip is likely the oldest structure in Mae Sariang district. Baan Nam Dip is about 4 km outside Mae Sariang. The chedi is on the compound of the Baan Nam Dip secondary school. Keyes took a photo in 1967, which shows the chedi in poor shape. It has been renovated since then.
On September 11, 1967, American anthropologist Charles Keyes visited Baan Nam Dip. He met the Kamnan, the head of the tambon (sub-district), which is a group of villages. Keyes wrote:
“He also took us to look at an old chedi near the school grounds which is interesting in that it attests to a long history in Mae Sariang than exists in the written records and in that it does not appear (to my untrained eye) to be Burmese in style. The Kamnan also pointed out another on the hill above the village which is definitely of Burmese style.” (Keyes fieldnotes September 1967)
The chedi on the hill is Wat Chom Kitti.
Wat Phrathat Dong Kham
According to an article from the Thai language newspaper Chiang Mai News this chedi dates from the reign of King Tilokarat (1441-1487) the 12th ruler of the Mengrai dynasty. The Fine Arts Department restorated the chedi in 2005.
The full name of this chedi is Phrathat Dong Kham. There used to be a temple called Wat Kham at this location. Only the chedi and the walls of the temple remain. I didn’t notice the walls when I was there but I will certainly go back there to check.
On March 8 this year a “Phrathat Dong Kham water sprinkling ceremony” took place. That seems to be an annual event.
The Mae Sariang Mosque
Mae Sariang has a Muslim community that is fully integrated. According to information at the Mae Sariang Mosque people from Chittagong started to migrate to Mae Sariang in 1852. They were traders and established their first mosque in 1876. Chittagong was in a part of British India that became East Pakistan in 1947 and ultimately Bangla Desh in 1971.