Once upon a time, on the northern border between Thailand and Burma there was a "wild west town" full of smugglers, refugees, soldiers, hill tribes and mysterious "business men". Travelling at night was dangerous and tourists were rare. The town was inaccessible except for a single road, built in 1965, winding over the mountains and onwards to Burma.
Over the years the town has opened up. A regular air service started from the precarious landing strip and a couple of decent hotels opened up. Tourists tired of busy Chiang Mai began to favour the upspoilt hill resort destination of Mae Hong Son.
This mountainous and thickly forested area is Thailand's north-western province. Mae Hong Son is 270km by road from Chiang Mai using the shorter northern route, or 370km via the southern route. During the winter, around January and February, nights can be quite chilly with the temperature dropping to 4 or 5oC.
Situated in a small valley in the middle of the mountains the scenery adds to the attraction. Any time of year, mists and clouds roll down the hill slopes to shroud the town in a soft white fog. The town is often called Muang Sam Moke, "City of the Three Mists".
It is believed that the local elephants gave the name to the town. In the 1830's a party hunting for wild elephants was sent to the area and a training ground was set up, Mae Rong Son, which eventually became Mae Hong Son. This legend, however does not explain why some of the temples in the town are several hundred years old.
Best time to visit Mae Hong Son is from November to March. During the rainy season which lasts from June to October travelling off the beaten track can become difficult.
Buses leave Chiang Mai three times per day for the 8 hours trip to Mae Hong Son. A much quicker way to travel is to take one of Thai International's flights from Chiang Mai International Airport. Flight time is about 35 minutes. If you are flying from Bangkok you will have to change planes in Chiang Mai.
Staying in the town is like stepping back in time, a vision of how Chiang Mai, or Chiang Rai might have been 20 years ago. Mae Hong Son is still a country town, a perfect antidote to the stress and hurry of Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
The town isn't very big so walking is a practical means of getting around during the cooler months, but can become trying in summer when temperatures hover around 40oC. You will find plenty of songthaews available for short or long journeys.