MAE HONG SON, capital of Thailand's northwesternmost province, sports more nicknames than a town of ten thousand people seems to deserve. In Thai, it's the "City of Three Mists": set deep in a mountain valley, Mae Hong Son is often swathed in mist. In former times, the town, which wasn't connected to the outside world by a paved road until 1968, was known as "Siberia" to the troublesome politicians and government officials who were exiled here from Bangkok. Nowadays, thanks to its mountainous surroundings, it's increasingly billed as the "Switzerland of Thailand": eighty percent of Mae Hong Son province is on a slope of more than 45 degrees.
To match the hype, Mae Hong Son has become one of the most popular tourist centres in the country, with plenty of guest houses scenically sited around Jong Kham Lake and on the slopes of Doi Kong Mu, plus several luxury hotels. Most backpackers come here for trekking and day-hiking in the beautiful countryside, others just for the cool climate and lazy upcountry atmosphere. The town is still sleepy enough to hole up in for a quiet week, though in the high season (Nov– Feb) swarms of minibuses disgorge tour groups who hunt in packs through the souvenir stalls and fill up the restaurants.
Beyond the typical concrete boxes in the centre, Mae Hong Son sprawls lazily across the valley floor and up the lower slopes of Doi Kong Mu to the west, trees poking through at every opportunity to remind you that open country is only a stone's throw away. Plenty of traditional buildings remain – wooden shophouses with balconies, shutters and corrugated-iron roof decorations, homes thatched with leaves and fitted with herringbone-patterned window panels.
Thai Yai (aka Shan) people account for half the population of Mae Hong Son province and bring a strong Burmese flavour to Mae Hong Son's temples and festivals. The other half of the province's population is made up of various hill tribes (a large number of Karen, as well as Lisu, Hmong and Lawa), with a tiny minority of Thais concentrated in the provincial capital.