Pangmapha (ปางมะผ้า) is a district in Mae Hong Son Province. Within the district is Soppong (สบป่อง), a small town with a predominantly ethnic Shan and hill tribe population on the road between Pai and Mae Hong Son. Pangmapha is less touristy and has a more traditional feel than Pai while boasting some excellent natural caves and interesting hill tribe villages.
Pangmapha is in northwestern Mae Hong Son Province, along the border with Burma. Better known is Soppong, a small village in a small valley in the Pangmapha District. Soppong is on the main road, between Pai and Mae Hong Son on the Mae Hong Son Loop. The village is a trading and market centre for the many hill tribe villages that populate the area. There are about 350 homes in the whole village area. The population is about 40% hill tribe (mostly Karen, Lisu and Lahu), 40% Burmese Shan, 20% Thai, as well as few Haw Chinese Muslim families.
The area does not attract many visitors, in contrast to Pai, 45 km away, which has become crowded with tourists and now contains more than 300 guesthouses and hotels. There are several guesthouses and restaurants in Pangmapha, but very few tourist-oriented businesses and shops, thus lending a traditional feel to the area. There are several ATMs in the village centre, but if your time is limited you might want to bring enough baht as they sometimes don't work for a several days due to failing connections.
The area offers fantastic do-it-yourself trekking in the abundance of mountains, caves, rivers, and jungle. Information on what to do and where to go is offered at "Border Bar" in the centre of the village, across from the market and bus stop, as well as at the guesthouses. The Cave Lodge has a particular abundance of information and organises a wide range of guided trips as well.
Buses depart from Chiang Mai throughout the day, and are available as either a bus or minibus. The buses cost 95 baht, are fairly cramped, fan only, and take about 6-7 hours. The mini-buses, in contrast, cost 250 baht, have much more comfortable seats, are air-conditioned, and take 4-5 hours. They have racks on top for luggage, so you will not have to buy an extra seat for your backpack as you have to on some other routes. The schedule for the two are as follows:
Minibus: 06:30 / 07:30 / 08:30 / 09:30 / 10:30 / 11:30 / 12:30 / 13:30 / 14:30
Regular bus: 07:00 / 09:30 / 12:30
From Pai: private minibuses leave from the small station next to walking street every hour or two and cost 100 baht, though the staff may try to ask for 150 baht. These do book out sometimes. Public buses or vans apparently leave from in front of the same bus stop, reportedly 60Baht.
Motorbike rentals for 200 baht per day are available at the Castrol Bike Point shop. Motorbike taxi drivers linger right in front of the market, and they have established set fares to most possible locations (e.g., 70 baht to Tham Lot or the Cave Lodge).
A car ride is available if you have lot of luggage or for small groups. The fare to the main cave or the nearby lodge is 300 baht. Ask at the bus station and the guy who runs it will get his car out for you.
- Tham Lot Cave (The fare to Tham Lot Cave, a trip of 10 km, is about 70 baht, one way after haggling). The largest cave opening in SE Asia with a river passing through the cave that can be explored with local guides (1-3 persons, 150 baht) on bamboo rafts (1-3 persons, 300 baht). At the exit you can walk back (12 min), or you can book the return trip for 400 baht. When you get to the exit at sunset (18:00) you can see hundred thousands of swifts returning to the cave, followed by bats exiting for the night, a spectacular view! You don't have to pay for that (yet), just walk outside to the exit (12 min). Bring a torch for the walk back and don't forget your insect repellent. Also, Phi Man cave contains many stone age coffins inside the cave. Guides are mandatory, and there must be a ratio of no more than 3 people to one guide.
- The area also features some of the best tropical forests in north Thailand with many day hikes possible to explore the jungle, do some bird watching, and see dozens of varieties of wild orchids.
- Many hill tribe villages are in the area, including Lisu, Red and Black Lahu, Karen, and Hmong. Several can be reached on foot from the main village of Soppong.
Most guest houses will offer guided tours, either private or in small groups. The Cave Lodge (see the sleep section) has an extensive range of activities to offer and can provide detailed information and tips if you want to head out alone.
- Caving. Caving options are extensive, as there are several "wild" or undeveloped caves around that are fairly easy to reach on foot but still pretty off the beaten track in terms of visitors and spectacular to see. If you're not an experienced caver, consider joining a guided trek. If you do want to explore caves on your own, don't go all alone and make sure to bring strong lights, spare batteries and sufficient water. Also, make sure your guesthouse knows where you're headed.
- Flying Turtle Cooking School, Soppong-Tham Lot Rd (1.5 km towards Tham Lot. Driveway is just before the Chinese temple on the right), ☏ . 09:00-15:30. Thai cooking classes with an organic garden on a lovely hillside just outside Soppong.
- Hiking. A highly popular activity, offering great panoramas, thick jungle and interesting hill tribe villages to explore. Other popular hiking destinations include the many undeveloped caves in the area and the so-called "Big Knob", a distinctively shaped mountain.
- Kayaking. A fun way to see some of the beautiful nature around. There are many kinds of kayaking adventures to choose from, depending on your experience, fitness and budget and ranging from short trips through Tham Lot and a few kilometres after (suitable for beginners) to more challenging multiple day tours. Take into account that the water levels drop come dry season, exposing countless rocks in the stream on which especially beginners will often get stuck and struggle. As this can be rather demanding, physically, beginners might want to try a short route to start with. If you're not too confident of yourself, ask to sit in the boat of one of the guides.
Hill tribe people set up in some public areas, and are eager to sell their crafts. A travelling market is set up every Tuesday morning along the road in the main market area, with hill tribe people coming down from the mountains to sell their produce and wares.
The guest houses and bars mentioned in the sections below all serve food as well, so make sure to check out those listings too. Overall, the food you'll find is simple but good, with some traditional Shan dishes here and there as well as a few Western options on the menus.
- Jungle House (300 m N of the bus station on the left side of the road). Restaurant attached to the Jungle Guesthouse providing home cooked Thai meals and bread baked by Da on premises. Shakes and hot tea available to sip on the deck while overlooking the garden.
- Nong Luk restaurant in the village closest to Tham Lot cave (Soppong north), you pass it on the way to the cave. Reasonable local restaurant, some western food available. 40-80 baht.
- Seven Elephants Café, 358 Moo 1, Soppong (500 m from the market, on the right in the direction of Mae Hong Son), ☏ . 07:00-20:00. At Soppong River Inn, the Seven Elephants Café includes an espresso bar, special cocktails, and a menu containing Western, Southeast Asian, and local Shan specialities. Dining is available inside the café or outside in the tropical gardens.
There are a few guesthouses around, and expectations are that others will follow as visitor numbers increase. Nights are cool here all year, so while most rooms come without air conditioning, it's unlikely you'll miss it much.
- Cave Lodge (approximately 10 km from the Soppong bus stop, close to Tham Lot; moto taxi is around 60 baht after haggling). Quiet, relaxing riverside with a nice tree house-like common area and a restaurant (open till 20:00). A great base to explore the natural surroundings and several caves on foot and sitting around the small fireplace in the middle of the common area is a great way to meet other backpackers. The lodging is basic but all in all, this is a rather unique place to stay. It also offers traditional Shan massage (200 baht for an hour) and a rudimentary but memorable Shan herbal sauna. From Soppong bus station you can get here by private truck (300 baht) or on the back of a motorbike taxi (70 baht). Dorms start at 180 baht, simple bungalows with private bathroom are 700 baht..
- 1 Soppong River Inn, ☏ . This is surely one the more comfortable places to stay. Natural accommodations in tropical gardens along the Lang River with a teak deck overhanging the river. Rooms and cottages range from standard to luxury with air conditioning. 700-2,450 baht.
As in many regional Thai towns, there are many stray or pet dogs roaming the streets. The dogs are territorial and can be aggressive, especially at night, when in a pack, or when you are walking/cycling alone.