Ban Rak Thai is a true hidden gem of Thailand. Located in the north of the country by the Myanmar border, this tranquil traditional village of 1,000 people is set around a beautiful reservoir and surrounded by lush tea plantations. Its name means “Thai-loving village”, a reference to Chinese nationalists from Yunnan who seeked refuge here after the communist takeover. Today, Ban Rak Thai is still very much connected to the China of old with stunning Yunnanese architecture dotted around the lake.
How to Reach Ban Rak Thai
There are four ways to get to Ban Rak Thai. The first is from Pai which takes two and half hours by car or three hours by motorbike/scooter. Just follow Highway 1095 north and take the turn-off at Route 4001 until you reach the village. The road down 4001 narrows but it’s nothing an experienced motorcyclist can’t handle. To make the most of the day from Pai, you would need to leave early and ideally ride back while there is still daylight.
The second option is going from Mae Hong Son City. This takes at least an hour by car or just over an hour by motorbike/scooter. Head north out of the city on Route 108 until it connects up with Highway 1095, and again take the Route 4001 turn-off. While the distance to Ban Rak Thai from Mae Hong Son City is shorter, Pai is a better destination to base yourself in as it’s nestled in a mountain valley and the Walking Street is buzzing with action.
A cool alternative to both of these is staying close and taking a day trip the following morning. That is what we did. We booked a night at Sang Poy Cottage as part of our Mae Hong Son Loop and rode our bikes on the roughly 40-minute journey to Ban Rak Thai. Sang Poy Cottage turned out to be a great find. The views from the restaurant over the fields are lovely, the staff are super friendly, the prices are reasonable and the rooms offer a little slice of luxury on your motorbike adventure. Highly recommended!
The final option is booking a tour. This can be done from Pai or Mae Hong Son City. You also might be wondering if it’s possible to reach Ban Rak Thai from Chiang Mai? The answer is yes it’s doable but not on a day trip. Over 240 kilometers of windy roads means it will take five hours to get there. If you manage to find accommodation in Ban Rak Thai then you could consider it, otherwise make plans in line with the other options above.
My top recommendation is incorporating Ban Rak Thai into the Mae Hong Son Loop – a thrilling road trip which can be done in four or five days. We did the loop anti-clockwise: hiring motorbikes from Chiang Mai, riding to Pai, staying overnight at Song Poy Cottage, visiting Ban Rak Thai and then cutting across the loop to the Mae Chaem District where we visited Doi Inthanon National Park before returning back to Chiang Mai. It was such an incredible experience, full of hair-pin turns and breathtaking views!
Can You Park in Ban Rak Thai?
When we arrived in Ban Rak Thai, we simply cruised to a parking zone in the main area of town by the lake and a security guard of some sort guided us in. Of course, we had to pay a small fee but our bikes were parked safely for the entire day. As a general rule, we don’t think you need to worry about parking here. The village is welcoming to tourists and will probably always accommodate daytrippers, whether they arrive in cars or motorbikes.
Best Things To Do in Ban Rak Thai
Eat a Traditional Yunnanese Meal
By the time we reached Ban Rak Thai, it was safe to say we were ravenous! There is something about riding motorbikes across windy roads for long distances that really builds up your appetite! We found a restaurant next to Leewine Coffee and ordered a set-menu that included all sorts of hearty dishes (none of which I can remember the name of). But one pork leg dish was extremely tasty and the meat fell off the bone, with a broth that almost tasted like KFC. Maybe this is where the Colonel got his secret recipe from!
Get your Caffeine Fix at Leewine Coffee
One of the most Instagrammable spots in the village is Leewine Coffee. The cafe has seating both inside and outside, where you can soak up lakeside views. Small Chinese boats are also docked below the cafe, adding even more character to a photo-op. Capturing images from Leewine is spectacular in the early morning when fog hovers over the lake or during golden hour when the waters change color from the sun’s reflection.
Walk a Full Lap of the Lake Reservoir
Taking a full lap of the reservoir gives you the opportunity to see different vantage points of the lake and mountains, admire the architecture, check out some of the accommodation and take photos. Be sure to head up to the famous lookout platform where you can get an unobstructed view of the traditional Yunnanese houses surrounded by tea plantations. Some of these houses can even be booked for an overnight stay, but from my experience it seems they are fully reserved months in advance.
When to Visit Ban Rak Thai
The best time to visit Northern Thailand is from November to March during the dry season or “winter” as the locals call it. We took on the Mae Hong Son Loop in December and the weather was perfect. It was warm in Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Chaem but got colder the further north we ventured – including Ban Rak Thai and especially Doi Inthanon National Park. That being said, when the sun came out in Ban Rak Thai, we were comfortable wearing t-shirts and even worked up a sweat walking around the lake!
Final important tip: make sure you plan your trip well before April because it’s common every year for the local farmers in the north to start burning crop residue. This can create hazy skies. Nothing would be worse than planning a trip to Northern Thailand only to have it ruined by pollution. Apart from that, Ban Rak Thai is a magical destination to visit for the day or for a few nights if you can find accommodation. Enjoy this hidden gem!