Mae Sai – Overview
Mae Sai is Thailand’s northernmost town and the starting point for exploring the Golden Triangle, Doi Tung and Mae Salong. It is also a good spot to observe border life, as Mae Sai is one of the few official crossings between Burma and Thailand. Do not expect lots of atmosphere, because the town is no more than a modern trading venue.
Foreigners are allowed to cross the border to Tachileik (town opposite Mae Sai, spelled Thakhilek by Thais), and then proceed to Kengtung, and on to Mengla, the Thai/Chinese border. It is also possible to travel from Mengla to Daluo and Jinghong in China, if you’ve arranged the necessary visa in advance. Traveling via Chiang Saen to China by boat is another and relatively easy way. Despite these possibilities, Thai tourists are much more common to see in Mae Sai than Farangs (Westerners).
In February 2001, the Burmese forces attacked and fired at Mae Sai, apparently in the pursuit of Shan State Army rebels, who managed to resist attacks by the Thai army. During the fights, all of Mae Sai was evacuated, and the Mae Sai border area was closed for a while. The passage was closed between May and October 2002, after a political dispute between the Thai and Myanmar governments. Additionally, the border crossing closed for a few days after a military coup in September 2006. Now, the border is open, but it’s always a good idea to check the current situation before traveling to Mae Sai.
Mae Sai is a lively town and one of the few known border towns between Thailand and Burma which has profited from legal and illegal trade.
The first impression Mae Sai gives is usually from the incredible wide main street that runs north-south through the city and ends at the bridge that spans the river and provides access to Burma.
The end of this street is the site of a huge market. The products available are many and varied with very heavy Burmese influence – clothes, beads, you name it – they have it all.
One of the more interesting pursuits in the town is to see what happens upriver from the bridge that spans the River Sai. During the day, boats ferry people and goods back and forth between Burma and Thailand.
Goods including alcohol and cigarettes pass under a matte look of the border guards and can be purchased at rock bottom prices.
If you plan to cross the river over to the Burmese town of Thachileik to have a look around for a bit you will find a Burmese version of Mae Sai – a city characterized by trade. There are plenty of shops selling smuggled goods and cheap Burmese goods, but if you expect some classic Burmese handicrafts, you will be disappointed.
Aside from Mae Sai’s proximity to Burma and the Golden Triangle, it’s really an attractive town. A large and diverse marketplace as mentioned above.
There are a few well-placed guest houses overlooking Burma, where you can focus on doing as little as possible for a few days and explore some of the surroundings here.
Mae Sai – Getting there
You can rent a car in Chiang Mai which is four hours away, or in any other city. Mae Sai is located 61 km from Chiang Rai on Highway No. 110
Buses from Chiang Rai are plenty (run every 10-15 minutes), cost 40 baht (one way) and it takes about 1.5 hours, while buses from Chiang Mai take about 4 hours (210 baht one way). All buses stop at a bus station south of Mae Sai, so you must continue to the town with red Songthaews waiting outside the bus station (fixed price, 20 baht per passenger). However, the blue Songthaews to/from the Golden Triangle and Chiang Saen depart from a place in the center of the city a few hundred yards down the road from the border.
Air Asia offers flights to Chiang Rai, and an easy way to get to Mae Sai is the daily flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. The flight takes a little over an hour and costs about 40 USD for a single ticket. From Chiang Rai International Airport, you can hire a taxi or tuk-tuk to take you to Chiang Rai bus station where you can catch a small bus to Mae Sai. Another option would be hiring a taxi to take you all the way to Mae Sai, which is about 45 minutes north of Chiang Rai.
Bus to/from BKK – Bus number: 957
Cost: VIP 24 seats – 890 baht with air-con (type 1) 574 baht with air-con and (type 2) – 447 baht
Mae Sai is a one street-town, so it is easy to reach everything on foot.
You can also rent a Honda motorcycle in Mae Sai. Renting a Honda 125 cc motorcycle can be easily done at the One & Only Honda dealer in Mae Sai which is less than a mile from the Burma/Thailand border crossing on the main road in Mae Sai. All that is required of you is that you leave your passport, fill out some brief paper work and pay the rent price, which is about 3 USD per day. It’s a little more difficult to rent a motorcycle if you are a Thai citizen, so it is best to use a foreign passport when you rent one. They will give you a map of Mae Sai and a helmet.
Mae Sai – Weather
It’s a little cooler in Mae Sai in the winter months, but that’s actually refreshing! If you’re used to the heat and humidity of Bangkok, it may be wise to bring a light jacket or sweater for the nights.
A rough estimate of the seasons is as follows:
November to February (drier and cooler season).
March to October (warmer and wetter season).
Mae Sai – Attractions
There is really only one place to visit in Mae Sai and many visitors walk right past it on their way to Burma. In Mae Sai, you can take a picture at the gate that marks Thailand’s northernmost point before crossing the bridge to Burma.
Cross the bridge to Tachileik, Myanmar (or as the Thais say, Tha Khi Lek). Admission is valid for up to 14 days and costs 500 baht or 17 USD. Travelers often use this opportunity to get their Thai visas renewed. Their passports are retained by immigration until you return to Thailand. In Tachilek market which is just across the border, you get attacked by a number of people offering cheap cigarettes, and Viagra/Cialis (if you’re older!). But the market is huge and you will see a significant difference in people, price, and culture, and additionally that it is a copy of Mae Sai market. From here you can travel as far as Kengtung (Thai Chiang Tung), 160 km away, but for traveling in the rest of Myanmar, you need to have arranged for a visa in advance. Some local NGOs are worth a visit to see some of their humanitarian work.
Temple Tham Pla/Monkey Cave Temple
Temple Tham Pla means fish tail and this temple you will find about 13 km south of Mae Sai. The temple is also known as Monkey Cave Temple after the monkeys who live here. They are usually not aggressive and reside only in an area near a pond on the road Kuan Yin. The temple is very well maintained with a very old laterite chedi, but beware of the unpredictable monkeys.
Mae Sai – Shopping
There are plenty of small shops on both sides of the street leading to the border crossing, which sell:
– Cheap jewelry, rubies, emeralds, and jade imported from Burma
– Cheap souvenirs as they are mostly imported from China
– Fresh sliced fruit
– Strawberry wine/juice
– And much more, such as jewelry, silk, linen, TV, VDO, Audio, VCD, DVD, and misc. Digital devices (almost everything is made in China), wall decorations, Chinese medicine, alcohol, cigarettes, dry foods such as dried shrimp and dried fish from Burma, etc.
There are no real stores in town, the shops that you find in here are for locals and there is nothing for tourists.
Mae Sai – Restaurants
The restaurant is located about 1 km up the road from the border crossing. When you walk in that direction you will also find some Thai restaurants around the same distance from the border crossing – the restaurants are quite far from the tourist shops. Kik Kok closes around 8 PM. The restaurant is run by Chinese people, serving a good, fairly cheap meal, and even serves alcohol if you want. The menus are also easy to understand because it is either written in English or they show pictures of the dishes.
This cozy restaurant is probably the best in the city. It is located on a slope that runs parallel to the road and about 1 km west of the main street, Pahonyothin Rd. It has a fantastic view of the narrow valley and you can see across the border to Burma which lights up at night. Make sure to try the smoked curry duck. The service can be slow, so this is not a restaurant you should visit if you are in a hurry.
Mae Salong Villa
Many of the people living in this area come from China. They fled after Mao’s regime took power and then stayed here. Thus, many of the stores have Chinese characters on them and you can find a real Chinese restaurant here with authentic Chinese specialties. The view of the mountains is very beautiful so try to sit outside if you can.
(They also offer rooms if you would like to sleep here).
Uncle George’s Café
Uncle George will be serving up delicious food while you enjoy yourself. It’s difficult to describe this place, but it seems to be one of the most exciting restaurants in Mae Sai. There is no guarantee that this restaurant will still be there when you visit, but it’s worth a visit just in case. There is a pool table in the restaurant, loud music is playing, and there is a small bar, and a cozy barbecue offering different assortments of meat, such as beef, pork, chicken, fish, and shrimp. There are all kinds of people here: Thai border guards, Western backpackers, and locals. They seem to really take the tourists into account.
Mae Sai – Nearby
Tachileik in Burma is a typical border town that only exists for trade. There is a huge market here which offers approximately what you’ll find in Thailand, in addition to selling a wide variety of products that can get you into a lot of trouble with your customs authority at home. As an example, pocket knives, guns, etc. Most people crossing the border to Myanmar are Thais going to buy pirated Chinese goods. You can find the latest DVDs here at prices from 40 baht, along with far too many prescription drugs (especially Viagra) and x-rated movies, and most are sold by very annoying street vendors with license. All this will give you are problems when you try to return to Thailand.
Mae Sai – Articles
One afternoon in Mae Sai …
…Is plenty. As mentioned above, there is not much to do in Mae Sai other than to cross the border. That said, if you’re there for an hour or two you should make an attempt to get up the steep stairs to the temple Pra That Doi WAO. The temple itself is nothing spectacular (although there is a statue of a large crab), but the view from the top is fantastic. If you do not enter Burma you can at least see what you’re missing from up there. It is very cheap to get there from Chiang Rai (39 baht by bus).
Golden Triangle Tour
Posted December 19, 2009
In contrast to Chiang Mai where there are lots of travel agencies that offer tours, it became clear to me when I walked around Chiang Rai, travel agents were a bit sparse. I only found a few and the cheapest I’ve found is a Golden Triangle Tour. The trip cost me 1200 baht which I thought was too much, but when I was offered the same exact trip for 1600 baht at other places and some other silly prices elsewhere, I took it for 1200 baht. Fortunately for me, two other people had bought the same trip which helped the price.
The trip started with the travel agent picking me up from my hotel in a lovely Ford 4×4. Then we drove out to get the other two people who were on my trip, and then we drove north to Doi Tung, where we visited the beautiful Mae Fah Luang Garden, which is part of a royal villa and was the last home to the Princess Mother (mother of King Rama IX). We visited the temple Tham Pla also known as Monkey Cave Temple. As the name suggests, it is home to several unpredictable monkeys that came up to us to get food. The temple itself was quite nice with a very old laterite chedi.
Then we went up to Mae Sai, the Thai/Burmese border where we went over to the Burmese town of Tachileik for a 24-hour permit, which cost us 500 baht extra. The permit was just a stamp in the passport and we visited a market that sells everything. It was very chaotic with lots of people trying to sell us cigarettes, Viagra, pocket knives, etc. But I did not buy anything. We crossed the border into the relative calm in Thailand and ate a lunch buffet, which was included in the price and was quite good.
After lunch we went back to the car and drove to the golden triangle town Sop Ruak, where we took photos in front of where the two rivers meet. We visited a museum about the opium trade that took place in the area. The museum was very good and we spent a long time looking around. Later, we took a short drive to Chiang Saen which is located further down the Mekong River. Here we visited an ancient temple called Wat Chedi Luang before we drove back to Chiang Rai. The trip was ok but nothing special and a bit too pricey, but if you have more time, it is probably best to try and visit the sites with own resources or by public transport.