Circled by rugged mountains in Thailand’s far-flung north-west, Mae Hong Son is one of the country’s most intriguing destinations. This picturesque town takes a little effort to reach but it’s a road well worth travelling. A highlight of the region’s cultural calendar is the fascinating and incredibly colourful Shan ordination ceremony known as ‘Poy Sang Long‘ (also written as ‘Poi Sang Long‘). Intrepid writer and photographer Mick Shippen went in search of these ‘precious gems’.
Many a travel writer has put pen to paper to wax lyrical about the journey being more important than the destination. But in the case of Mae Hong Son, the two are equally matched. The diminutive provincial capital is pinned to the top of a road fabled among motorcyclists who named it the Mae Hong Son Loop; a 37o mile (600 kilometre) stretch of sinuous tarmac that boasts an incredible 1,864 bends, many of them hairpin.
The rollercoaster ride winds its way across thickly forested mountains, past viewpoints that look out on an endless Tolkienesque landscape populated by exotic hilltribes, through remote towns and villages before descending into a valley carpeted with rice fields and eventually drawing into Mae Hong Son town. Rise early to traverse this route, and the road will snake its way up through the clouds until an ephemeral downy duvet of mist pierced by jagged peaks is revealed. It’s a truly fabulous sight and one that earned Mae Hong Son province the moniker, The Land of Three Mists.
Bordering Shan State in Myanmar, the area had been settled by the Shan, or Tai Yai as they are also known, long before the present-day borders of Thailand were established. The earliest mention of a town called Mae Hong Son can be found in transcripts from 1830 that detail a royal expedition sent from Chiang Mai to round up wild elephants. A century later, hill tribes such as Lisu from eastern Tibet, Lahu and Yao from China and Myanmar, as well as Haw Chinese Muslim traders from China’s Yunnan province, migrated into the region.
Today, the town of just 7,000 inhabitants is still distinctly different to anywhere else in Thailand. This is particularly evident with the temple architecture. Like Thais, the Shan are predominantly Buddhist, but their temples can be distinguished by elaborate tiered roofs. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu is a fine example. Perched upon a hilltop and offering a fabulous vantage point from which to view the town, the temple is lavishly decorated. Wat Jong Kham and neighbouring Wat Jong Klang next to the scenic lake are also fine examples of Shan-style temples. Dating from 1867, Wat Jong Klang is perhaps the most interesting of the two because it houses a collection of wooden dolls and a display of panels painted with tales from Buddhist scriptures. By night, however, illuminated by spotlights and with reflections of their golden chedi spires shimmering on the lake, both temples look equally resplendent.
The culture and traditions of the Shan come to the fore in early April during a spectacular festival called Poy Sang Long or Precious Gems. The colourful three-day event is held at temples in the town and in outlying villages to celebrate the ordination of young Shan boys into the monkhood. As many as 40 or 50 boys aged 7 to 14 years old take part in elaborate ceremonies and parades. For each family, it is an important merit-making ritual and a time of great pride. On the first day, close relatives gather in the temple courtyard to shave the heads of the young boys, allowing the hair to fall into a lotus leaf on the boy’s lap. This is this first important step in becoming a novice monk and symbolises the renouncement of worldly goods and letting go of the ego.
The following day at 4 a.m., each boy gets made up with lipstick, eye shadow, rouge and tanaka, a yellow face powder made from the bark of a tree, then dressed like young princes in brightly coloured clothes.
For the next three days wherever they go they are kept off the ground, carried on the shoulders of their father or uncle. Mornings start with prayer and religious instruction in the temple, followed by a feast.
They are then paraded through the town on the shoulders of relatives and under the shade of golden umbrellas as sang long or precious gems. Back at the temple, boisterous dancing and celebration continues into the night.
On the final day, the glittering costumes are exchanged for saffron robes, the boys’ eyebrows are shaved off and they are welcomed into the monkhood, staying at the temple for two or three weeks before returning home to their families.
Visitors to Mae Hong Son can also explore its fabulous culinary landscape and sample delicious local fare. As you may expect in this cultural melting pot of a town, the food on offer here and at nearby markets and restaurants is as diverse and fascinating as the people.
Northern favourites include sai oua, herb-rich pork sausages often served with pork rinds, blanched vegetables and a spicy grilled green chili dip called nam prik num. There’s also the comforting kanom cheen nam ngeo, rice noodles and vegetables with a light pork and tomato curry soup ladled over the top. In the morning, culinary exploration can continue at Mae Hong Son’s fresh market where vendors serve up the breakfast of champions, khao furn, a Shan dish of rice or egg noodles with a thick porridge made from yellow split peas, and other delights rarely found elsewhere in Thailand.
With its outstanding natural beauty, fascinating ethnic cultures and cuisines, Mae Hong Son is a unique destination that awaits discovery.
This year’s Poy Sang Long Festival will be held in Mae Hong Son from April 3-5, 2020.
All images in this article are copyright of Mick Shippen and used here with kind permission.
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Freelance writer & photographer
Mick Shippen is a writer and award-winning photographer from the UK. He is the author and photographer of several books including the ‘Enchanting Asia’ series. Known for his colourful, exuberant photos of South-East Asia, Mick’s images have appeared in a number of publications including Vanity Fair, NatGeo Traveller, the UK’s Sunday Times Magazine, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday, and numerous cookery books.