Thirty years ago, very few tourists knew about Mae Hong Son, one of the most remote provinces in Thailand.
"There was really no reason to get here," said Chintana Suwawan, managing director of Window of Thailand, a luxury tour operator based in Chiang Mai, as she looked out over the northern Thai province, located about 500 miles from Bangkok.
That changed in 1990, when "Air America" came out. The movie, which starred Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as pilots during the Vietnam War, was shot in Mae Hong Son.
"That started to bring more people," Suwawan said. "That brought Mae Hong Son to the world; both Thai and international tourists started to come to Mae Hong Son and Pai [cities]."
Among the must-see sites in Mae Hong Son city are Wat Chong Kham and Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu temples, which offer spectacular up-close views of stupas as well as picturesque, panoramic views of the city.
Most of the temples in Mae Hong Son and Pai were influenced by the Shan people. Known as Mandalay style for the city in Myanmar, the temples date back about 150 years, when Mae Hong Son became a city. The same style can be found in Myanmar because of the Shan people, Suwawa said.
Su Tong Pae Bridge is the longest bamboo bridge in Thailand. Photo Credit: Kristi Eaton
The Su Tong Pae Bridge is a site for travelers who enjoy quirky destinations or moments of quiet solitude. The bridge, located in the village of Kung Mai Sak, links the village with a meditation center. It's the longest bamboo bridge in Thailand, and Buddhist monks in orange robes regularly walk the bridge to return to the meditation center. Visitors who walk the bridge might also see farmers tending to the rice paddy fields.
On the drive from the city of Mae Hong Son to Pai is the small district of Pang Mapha, home to hill tribe villages, including ethnic Lisu, Red and Black Lahu, Karen and Hmong. The area is much less touristy than Pai and open and inviting. Several tour operators offer excursions among the hill tribes.
A 90-year-old woman from the Black Lahu hill tribe shared her life story during an excursion to Pang Mapha province. Photo Credit: Kristi Eaton
During my visit to the area as part of a sponsored trip by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, I met a 90-year-old woman from the Black Lahu tribe. With smiles and twinkling eyes, she allowed us into her home and shared her life story as a guide translated.
Later, we watched as other Black Lahu tribe members played instruments made out of bamboo and admired their handcrafted clothing. To become fully immersed, travelers can participate in homestays with local villagers.
Pai, meanwhile, is a small, tourist-friendly town located about 70 miles from Mae Hong Son city. It's known for breathtaking waterfalls, off-roading and other adventure activities.
Window of Thailand offers a variety of tours, including adventure, culture and heritage and bird-watching. To learn more, visit www.windowofthailand.com.