Mae Hong Son, the area colored red on the map below, is in Thailand's northwest. The provincial capital and main town is also called Mae Hong Son, a place name you'll sometimes see written as a single word: Maehongson. It's a small town but an important transportation hub. Because the settlement (population under 10,000) is very pleasant in its own right, many travelers base themselves here while exploring the region.
Getting to Mae Hong Son
The town has good bus links with Chiang Mai. These services (many of which are actually minivans rather than conventional buses) go both north via Pai and south via Mae Sariang, so it's possible to complete the famous Mae Hong Son Loop by public transportation. Allow eight hours to get to/from Chiang Mai whether you're taking the southern route or the northern route. There's a lot of excellent hilly scenery and the road includes hundreds of curves; those susceptible to motion sickness should think twice before exploring this part of the world. Each afternoon, two buses set out from Mae Hong Son for Bangkok, arriving around breakfast time.
Sleeping and Eating
A perennial favorite with backpackers is Friend House (20 Thanon Pandit Jong Kham, near the southern end of the road). A simple but solid teak building, Friend House has very basic but clean rooms. No TV or refrigerator but good WiFi. Try to get one of the upstairs rooms (a few have their own bathrooms and cost 300 baht per night) as they're quieter and you'll get a view of Nong Jong Kham. If you want to go a bit up market, try Piya Guest House (1/1 Thanon Kunlum Prapat), which is just as close to the center of action and has a small swimming pool.
The single best restaurant is probably Salween River Restaurant and Bar (23 Thanon Pandit Jong Kham, just across the road from Friend House and a few meters closer to the lake). There's a good range of local dishes, but if it's familiar Western food you're craving, this is the place to get a fix of baked potatoes or chili con carne. If you simply want to sink a few beers while gazing at the illuminated temples on the south side of Nong Jong Kham, Sunflower Cafe (you can't miss it) is a good bet. Sunflower also does Western and local food.
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The town's sights
As in many Thai towns, temples and markets are major attractions. Of the former, the must-see is Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, a longish hike or a short motorbike ride from the town centre. The shrine itself isn't very exciting, but the views from this hill are lovely, especially as the sun sets over the hills which separate the town from Myanmar. Try to get here before 4 p.m.; bring some snacks as you're sure to hang around for a while. Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang are side by side on the southern shore of Nong Jong Kham, and thanks to nightime illumination are much photographed (see right).
Exploring the hinterland
Being situated in a rugged part of Thailand and close to several hill tribes (among them the Karen, Lahu and Lisu), Mae Hong Son is a good place to find a guide and organize a jungle trek. One of the best is Mr. La, who speaks good English and can be found most evenings at Sunflower Cafe. He's passionate about nature and conservation, and can introduce many of the trees, plants and birds you'll see in the forest. Treks typically last two or three days and include a stay in a remote hill-tribe settlement - like the one pictured here - far from any roads. Be prepared to walk for six or more hours each day.
Pha Bong Hot Springs is a stress-free 12 km south of the town; simply follow the main road toward Mae Sariang, and you'll find it on your right, less than 100 m from the turnoff. The scalding-hot main pool is not for bathing in - there are private rooms (150 to 400 baht each) and an outdoor swimming pool (20 baht per adult, half that for children) where you can soak.
Getting to Mae Aw takes much longer and is a far more challenging ride, but the scenery en route is excellent. This village (also known as Ban Rak Thai, sometimes spelled Banruktai) is quite different to other places in the region because of its unique history. As you may know, in 1949 Mao Zedong's Communists defeated the KMT (Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist Party) and founded of the People's Republic of China (PRC). While the bulk of the KMT, including its leadership, relocated to Taiwan, some units in the southwest retreated in northern Burma (now known as Myanmar), from where they continued the anti-communist struggle. Neither Burma nor the PRC was happy about this, and in 1957 the KMT soldiers were forced to retreat again, this time into Thailand. Like many farmers in China and Taiwan, their descendants make a living by growing tea. The semi-Chinese atmosphere of this place draws quite a few foreign and Thai tourists.
This video offers a good visual introduction to the town and its surroundings: