Mae Hong Son lies in a forested valley, surrounded by soaring verdant hills and just about lives up to its claim of being the ‘Switzerland of Thailand’. The road from Pai is continuous switchback, cutting through spectacular scenery and communities of diverse ethnicities. On a clear day, the short flight from Chiang Mai is breathtaking – the plane crosses a range of high hills before spiralling down into a tight series of continuous banks, depositing its passengers almost in the middle of the town. An excellent centre for trekking, the town is changing rapidly (some would say has changed) from a backpackers’ hideaway to a tour centre, with the construction of two major hotels and a proliferation of ‘resort’-style hotels. Despite this, Mae Hong Son still manages to retain peaceful, upland vibe.
Background Mae Hong Son Province is about as far removed from ‘Thailand’ as you are likely to get, with only an estimated 2% of the population here being ethnic Thais. The great majority belong to one of the various hilltribes: mostly Karen, but also Lisu, Hmong and Lahu. Mae Hong Son has always been caught between the competing powers of Burma and Siam/Thailand. For much of recent history the area has been under the (loose) control of various Burmese kingdoms. The influence of Burmese culture is also clearly reflected in the architecture of the town’s many monasteries.
Mae Hong Son also has a murky reputation for illegal logging; this area has some of the richest forests in the country. At the beginning of 1998, revelations surfaced about an alleged massive bribe to officials of the Royal Forestry Department, to overlook logging in the Salween conservation area. Sights Most postcards of the town picture the lake, with Wat Jong Klang, a Burmese wat, in the background. It is particularly beautiful in the early morning, when mist rises off the lake. Wat Jong Klang started life as a rest pavilion for monks on pilgrimage, with a wat being built by the Shans living in the area between 1867 and 1871. The monastery contains some 50 carved Burmese tukata(wooden dolls) depicting characters from the Jataka stories, as well as a series of mediocre painted glass panels.
In the same compound is Wat Jong Kham, which contains a large seated Buddha. Wat Hua Wiang, next to the market, contains an important Burmese-style brass Buddha image – the Phra Chao Phla La Khaeng. It is said that the image was cast in nine pieces in Burma and brought to Mae Hong Son along the Pai River. Doi Kong Mu, the hill overlooking the town, provides superb views of the valley and is home to the Burmese-style Wat Phrathat Doi Kong Mu, constructed by the first King of Mae Hong Son in the mid-19th century. At the foot of Doi Kung Mu Hill is Wat Phra Non, which contains a 12-m-long Burmese-style reclining Buddha. The main fresh marketin town is on Phanit Watana Road, next to Wat Hua Wiang. The usual commodities from slippery catfish to synthetic clothing are sold here, together with some produce from Burma.
Around Mae Hong Son Mae Aw, officially known in Thailand as Ban Rak Thai, is a Hmong and KMT (Kuomintang – the remnants of Chiang Kai Shek’s army) village in the mountains, 22 km north of Mae Hong Son, on the border with Burma. (Chiang Kai Shek was the Chinese Republican leader who fought the Communists and then fled to Taiwan when the latter were victorious. Remnants of his army and supporters also took refuge in Thailand.) There are stunning views over Burma and the trip here is worthwhile in itself Tham Plaa(Fish Cave), 16 km northeast of town off Route 1095, is another worthwhile excursion, which can be combined with a trip to Mae Aw. The name of the cave refers to the numbers of carp that live in the cave pools – several hundred, some exceeding 1 m in length. The carp are believed to be sacred.
From the gate, a path leads across a river to the cave. Khun Yuam and Muang Pon Roughly halfway between Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son is the bustling market town of Khun Yuam. The town itself has few attractions yet it is an engaging and friendly place to stop off for a couple of days if you want to make a slow meander through this part of the country. Most of the people who live here are Karen, Shan or Hmong. There is a pretty Hmong/Burmese-style temple 5 km to the west at Wat To Phae, which is worth a look; it houses a 150-year-old tapestry just to the side of the main altar. There is also a War Museum, which focuses on the plight of Japanese soldiers during World War Two. Thousands died here as Khun Yuam was home to a Japanese army hospital. The museum houses a collection of poignant artefacts left behind by the dying soldiers.
The nearby Shan village of Muang Pon, about 15 km to the south of Khun Yuam on the road to Mae Sariang, hosts an excellent homestay programme that is run, managed and owned by local people. Stay here for a few days and you’ll get a chance to engage in a genuine encounter with local people a million miles from the usual intrusions of a ‘hilltribe’ trek. Nearby you’ll find hot springs, mountain walks and a small hilltop temple.