Chronologically, we’re about to jump back a few weeks, as I didn’t get around to mentioning that while staying in Chiang Rai, Thailand, we decided to travel up to Mae Sai and hop across the border into Burma (Myanmar) for a couple of hours.
We are fascinated by Burma. From our brush with Burmese culture and food (the food is amazing!) when staying in Mae Sot, we had started to read about the country. The human rights abuses that have gone on, and continue to go on today, are horrendous. This is a country with an amazing, diverse history that most people know very little about. The Top Gear lads recently went through Burma in a 2-part special episode and were lucky enough to visit parts of the Shan hills that are usually off-limits to visitors.
It’s only in the last few years that foreigners have really been able to enter Burma and travel through it, and it’s still quite limited. From Mae Sai, you can enter Burma for a while – but you have to stay in Tachilek and return to the border by 5pm. That’s not 5pm Thailand time – that’s 5pm Burma time, which is half an hour behind Thai time. Just because.
You can catch a public bus from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai. There are several “nice” first class buses but as it’s only 90 minutes or so, you might as well save money and see a bit of “real life” on the public bus. It cost 39baht and was delightful… people crammed into small spaces, strapping large boxes onto the side of the bus, jumping on and off without the bus ever slowing down, old ladies with their bare feet up on the seats opposite them… might not sound like your idea of paradise, but it’s where you get to watch how people live their everyday lives, rather than sitting in a pristine tourist box that cost ten times as much.
When you arrive at Mae Sai’s bus station, red songthaews (the little mini buses) are clearly labelled to the border for 15 baht. From what we saw of Mae Sai, which was basically a street leading up to Burma, it had markets, chemists, a shop selling honey products (including some VERY sweet honey drinks). At the end of the road is the ominous Myanmar border crossing.
As you cross the border, along with cars, you’ll notice that the traffic suddenly moves from being on the left to the right. Into the passport control room you go, and say the 500 baht fee to be given your temporary identity card. Somewhat terrifyingly, the Burmese military will keep your passport for the day.. so you’d better be back!
When you enter Tachilek, there are some temples that you can see. A few tour guides will offer to show you around, but we wanted to wander around the markets, hoping to find strange things being sold (like live animals and ivory… horrible, but seeing them openly sold gives my controlled British heart a naughty little thrill… does this make me a bad person?). Instead, approximately ten seconds after we were officially in Burma, it started raining.
And raining. We found a market stall selling umbrellas, who accepted Thai Baht, and bought ourselves one. As we tried not to get completely soaked, we took in a few market stalls, although nothing looked too fascinating. Men with cartons of cigarettes tried to persuade us to buy. We walked around for about an hour, just trying to find a restaurant. The roads were pretty badly maintained; we stumbled off high pavements a couple of times, avoided pothholes, and glanced into a few places that could have been restaurants but we weren’t sure. It kept raining.
Eventually we found a restaurant full of people- almost right back near the border crossing, but we’d missed it because we’d taken our first right into the market rather than carrying on a little and then turning right. The restaurant was nice – sheltered seating, monks chilling out, a few other tourists. We picked random things from the menu as we had no idea what to order (and didn’t sea any tea leaf salad), but for soup, tea, dessert and a main meal, we paid a total of 110 baht (£2 maybe)…
After our nice egg-topped meals, we didn’t really feel like exploring in the pouring rain, so we just decided to head back into Thailand, feeling a little defeated. We got our passports back and literally seconds after we got back into Thailand, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Ah, well, at least we got to extend our tourist visas by 15 days.
Somehow, this is the only photo (apart from food) I managed to take in Burma…
It’s a shame, as Burma looks like a beautiful country to visit, full of friendly people, lovely food, and bizarre measures of time and distance. Hopefully I’ll get to visit it properly one day, but for now at least I can kind of say I’ve been!