Located just 6km from Burma, and 100km west of Tak, MAE SOT is very much a border town, populated by a rich ethnic mix of Burmese, Karen, Hmong and Thais (plus a lively injection of committed NGO expats). It is dependent on its thriving trade in Burmese gems and teak as well as, reportedly, on an even more lucrative cross-border black market in drugs, labourers and sex workers. For the casual visitor, however, it’s a relaxed place to hang out, with a burgeoning number of good restaurants to enjoy, albeit no real sights. The short ride to the border market provides additional, if low-key, interest, and there are several caves and waterfalls within day-tripping distance.
Mae Sot’s main selling point, though, is as a stopover on the way to Umphang, a remote village 164km further south, which is starting to get a name as a centre for interesting rafting and trekking adventures. The journey to Umphang takes at least four hours in a bumpy songthaew, so it’s usually worth staying the night in Mae Sot; you can also organize treks to Umphang through Mae Sot tour operators. If you need to change money for the trip, you should do so in Mae Sot as there are no exchange facilities anywhere in Umphang.
Over the last two decades the Burmese population of Mae Sot and its environs has swelled enormously (see Refugees from Burma: the Karen) and the Burmese influence in Mae Sot is palpable in everything from food to fashions; many of the guesthouses are run by Burmese staff, who often speak good English, and the only real sights in the town are its handful of glittering Burmese-style temples.