One of my best memories traveling in Thailand was the night I stayed at a rural homestay in Ban Muang Pon Village in Mae Hon Song Province, Thailand.
I had been riding a motorcycle around Thailand for several weeks when I began to travel into Mae Hong Son province. I had done some research on rural home stays, but the online information was rather unreliable or sketchy so I had yet to really do a proper home stay on my trip. I heard about Ban Muang Pon first through a small “Off the Beaten Path” excerpt in Lonely Planet and knew I had to give it a try.
Ban Muang Pon is a small village 10 kilometers south of Khun Yuam and 80 kilometers south of the provincial capital Mae Hon Song. To get there, it is possible to ask to be dropped off on a Mae Hong Son or Khun Yuam bound bus, but I strongly advise making reservations beforehand just so someone is expecting you. The village has a local home stay program where visitors can stay with various families organized through one central office (though there is no physical office).
In theory it would be easy to call the office and make a reservation, but the reality is that reaching Ban Muang Pon can be much more difficult. First off, the number in Lonely Planet is disconnected so I had to Google around to find another number to call. When I did find a number, it was actually a co-workers number of the main lady who runs the home stay program. They both work in the local school, so this fellow teacher told me to hold on while she fetched the lady organizing the home stays.
As an aside, I speak relatively fluent Thai – yes this is quite random for a white man, but I lived in Thailand for a year teaching English and spent a lot of time studying Thai language while I was there. Fortunately knowing Thai helped a lot for this trip, but it is not prohibitive against going. You just need an open mind!
The lady running the home stay program, Fongjun Sirinoy, does not speak English really well, but she told me that if someone else got in contact with her, she could arrange for an English speaking family. Her mobile number is (087) 181-2286 and her email is email@example.com.
The morning before I arrived in Ban Muang Pon, I was able to get in touch with Fongjun and she told me to meet her at the local school later that afternoon so she could show me to her home.
When I finally arrived and met Fongjun, I have to say I could instantly tell I was going to enjoy this experience because of her electric personality. She showed me to my room which was in a separate addition they have built next to their traditional wooden home. As we began to walk up to the stairs to my room, I noticed a rustling in a cage beside the staircase. After taking a second look, I realized this home stay family had a massive pet monkey in their backyard! Intrigued, I asked all about the monkey and learned that they have had him for ten years and feed him rice! I wanted to play with him, but he smelled so bad I couldn’t stay by the cage for too long.
After showing me my room, Fongjun got me a big plate of bananas and tamarind fruits which were in season at the time in Thailand. I got to much down on the exotic fruits while using the free wifi to check my emails.
About an hour before dinner, Fongjun came up to my room to check on me and we got into a really interesting conversation about Tai Yai culture. Ban Muang Pon is a Tai Yai town. Tai Yai people are a hilltribe-type people from the Thai/Burmese mountain region around Mae Hong Son. My Thai certainly got tested during these conversations, but I managed to understand perhaps 80% of what Fongjun was telling me. She told me about her son and daughter who both live in Bangkok, and we shared stories about our respective love for nature and traveling. Her daughter works for the Thai National Park Service and gets to travel around Thailand visiting national parks. I’ve never been more jealous.
Tai Yai is quite an interesting culture. I made a joke that Tai Yai just means “big Thai people” because Tai sounds like Thai and Yai means big (sorry, if you know Thai it would be funny :P), but the reality is that Tai Yai is a very different culture with a completely different language. The students in school learn standard Thai and everyone in the village can speak standard Thai, but they usually communicate in Tai Yai language at home. Fongjun showed me some books written in Tai Yai. I still can’t believe its a real language because the writing was so curly and out of control. Fongjun even let me try on her husband’s traditional Tai Yai hat (lol).
After we had a good chat, it was time for dinner, and WOW was dinner good. I’ve never eaten so much. All of the food was traditional Tai Yai food which is actually a lot like Northern Thai food.
Even though we were mostly speaking in Thai, I would not let the language barrier discourage anyone from visiting Ban Muang Pon. Fongjun told me that she has had several western visitors before that spoke no Thai and they managed just fine. While you won’t be able to get the full low down on Tai Yai people, you will still have a very enjoyable time. If you stay longer too, the families can take guests on day trips to surrounding areas like the hot springs or national parks. Lots of these places are truly off the beaten path and without a Thai guide or ability to speak Thai, its very difficult to go. If you want the true experience of real Thailand, then definitely join the home stay families on some of these side trips.
After dinner I was stuffed and went to bed early only to get up and eat my heart out again for breakfast. With all the motorbiking I had ahead of me that day, I knew it would be good to get as much to eat as I could.
Over breakfast, I chatted a little more with my home stay family about my plans for Mae Hong Son and they gave me some really good recommendations about where to eat lunch when I got to the city. Side note: if you want the best khao soi on earth head over to Khao Soi Paa Noon in downtown Mae Hon Song.
After finishing breakfast Fongjun had to go to school to teach, but we managed to snap a quick pic together before she left. This homestay was one of the major highlights of my recent trip to Thailand and even now writing about it I want to go back. Getting lost in Mae Hong Son province is the best way to experience “authentic Thailand.” If you end up going, let me know how you liked it in the comments below!