There are several ways to make a visa run if you’re living in Chiang Mai. An afternoon in Myanmar is probably the cheapest and quickest. I found the culture in Myanmar fascinating, and I wish I had spent more than just a couple hours there.
Getting to the Border from Chiang Mai
As confusing as the public transportation in Thailand can seem, it’s actually fairly easy to get to the Myanmar border. In Chiang Mai, you want to get the Green Bus to Chiang Rai. Sometimes you can get the next bus that’s leaving, yet it’s not unusual for everything to be booked for a couple days. If you’re going for your visa run, definitely take this into account and don’t wait until the last day. You could face serious fines or worse. If you want to do your border run in a single day, it’s possible but you’ll have to get the first bus in the morning, and this one tends to sell out faster (with all the other expats going for their run). The bus fare is 140-220 baht ($4.50-$7.15). There is also a bus directly from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai. I found that one often sold out, but you could always book it in advance. It’s 3 and a half hours to Chiang Rai.
Once in Chiang Rai, head to stance 7 at the bus station. The Mae Sai bus there leaves every 20 minutes or so. The fare for this one is a mere 39 baht ($1.20) and takes an hour and 45 minutes. In Mae Sai, it wasn’t hard to find the red bus (songthaew) headed to the border. They assume everyone getting off the bus wants it, although there are the usual rogue taxis trying to charge a fortune. The correct bus is only 15 baht ($.50). It dropped me off just a few feet away from the Friendship Bridge, and a few minutes later I was entering country #49 in my travels.
On the Thai side of the border, all I needed to do was present my passport and filled-out departure slip. The immigration officer stamped me out of the country without comment. On Myanmar’s side of the border, I left my passport with the Immigration Officer, along with $10 USD (or you can pay 500 baht, but that’s $16.30). I was assured the passport would be waiting for me when I was ready to leave Myanmar, and I was given a one-day entry slip for my afternoon in Myanmar.
While Mae Sai appears to be one big city spanning both sides of the Ruak River, the half in Myanmar is called Tachileik. With a population of just over 50,000, it’s main purpose is a shopping district for Thais, Chinese and other foreigners in the region. I didn’t actually explore that far into the town, but I did wander down a couple of the market streets. They were full of clothing, electronics, luggage, perfumes, foodstuffs, etc. In truth, it wasn’t very different from most other markets I’d seen in SE Asia, except perhaps slightly rougher. There was a feeling in the town of simplicity. No one appeared to be moving with a purpose. Kids played in the streets or slept under stall counters while their parents were engaged on their phones or halfheartedly hawking their wares.
Only a small fraction of the streets in Tachileik appear on Google Maps, and it’s easy to imagine the town being far grander than it is. The houses hiding behind the market stalls are representative of the British occupation in 1893. Several of the buildings could easily have been hotels with a dozen or more concrete balustrade balconies rising above the street. It was hard to tell if any of the buildings were in use. As much as I love exploring urban ruins, they were anything but inviting, and I’d heard of vague rumors of drug running in Tachileik.
While tuk-tuks were driving about on the streets, there were also dozens of ancient cycle rickshaws available. They looked like a combination of bicycle and chariot, and constructed sometime in the 19th century. I didn’t see a lot of drivers about, nor did I plan to travel far from the Friendship Bridge. I just wanted to get an idea of the culture of Myanmar.
Lunch at Valentine
Not far from the Friendship Bridge, I found a relatively large restaurant/cafe for lunch. In Chiang Mai, I was a big fan of Nong Bee’s Burmese Restaurant, so I was already a little familiar with Burmese food. That was a good thing too. The menu, while translated into English, was quite ambiguous. Perhaps it was just for the tourists, but the cafe kept putting different plates of food on the table and then would charge me at the end of the meal for anything I took. Considering how cheap and tasty it was, I didn’t mind.
I ended up with a couple small samosa-like savory pastries, a noodle dish and a tea-leaf salad. I was familiar with the salad from my cafe in Chiang Mai, but the other two items were new to me. I don’t think I could accurately identify the ingredients of the pasta dish, beyond it being very, very spicy! Well, it was topped with hard-boiled egg and parsley or cilantro, but there was another strange flavor too, plus something crunchy to the point of being gritty. In hindsight, I’m not sure if I want to know the ingredients.
Despite the mystery, the food was quite good and I ate as much as I could, having ordered slightly too much. The menu didn’t have any prices on it, but the final bill was less than $5. It seemed to be a place that either locals or Thais frequented. Obviously it’s had to judge the local cuisine from just one meal in my afternoon in Myanmar, but I’d still recommend this restaurant if you’re passing through.
Getting My Visa
On the way back to Thailand, I collected my passport from the Myanmar border. In Thailand, I had the misfortune of arriving just behind a large Chinese tour coming into the country. Luckily, it didn’t take long to process them. I’d heard others spent an hour at the border, but I was through in 15 minutes! The disadvantage of doing a border run by land is you can only do it twice in a year. That was my first of the year, and I did another in April to Laos.
For the whole trip, including the $10 fee to enter Myanmar and my meals and snacks at 7-11, Valentine and the Chiang Rai night bazaar, I spent less than $30. That’s a lot cheaper than a round-trip flight out of the country would cost! Of course, my favorite border run from Chiang Mai is the Slow Boat in Laos, and that’s what I did in April. Altogether, I spent over five months in Thailand this year. While I do love the country, Chiang Mai isn’t what it used to be.
Plans for the Future
I certainly do plan to return to Myanmar in the near future, or at least when I make it back to SE Asia. Three years ago, I helped to train a group of Burmese students in English so they could go on to become nurses in the smaller villages of the country. As a side note, it’s actually incorrect to call them Burmese as they’re not part of the Bamar people, but there’s not actually a name of all the people in Myanmar that doesn’t apply to a single tribe. Myanmarese might be more correct, yet I’ve yet to find a local who called themselves that. But I digress.
I’d love to go to Myanmar and help someday setting up the doctors clinics, or perhaps establishing a school. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are a lot of English language schools yet in the county. That’s definitely something up my alley that I could set up. But in the meanwhile, I have some big plans in the north of the UK. Stay tuned!
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If you’re looking for more attractions north of Chiang Mai, here are some more stories.
- A Day in Baandam – Thailand’s Ultra-Eccentric Black House Museum
- 5 Ways to Skip the Massive Crowds at the White Temple in Chiang Rai
- A Day Exploring the Sai Ngam Hot Springs and Pai Canyon – Pai Part 1
- Christmas in the Hippie Village of Pai and a Secret Waterfall, Pai Part 2
Finally here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.
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