Aug 29 2013
Rumours have swirled for some time and we’ve frequently run across travellers who claim to have crossed the Burmese border at some remote crossing point but now it’s official: foreign tourists may enter the country at the Tachilek, Myawaddy and Kawthaung land entry points (from Thailand’s Mae Sai, Mae Sot and Ranong respectively).
The former and latter have been open for temporary visits to the immediate vicinity for some time and Thais have been free to enter at Myawaddy, but these crossings are now open for ordinary entry and exit; you can travel onwards into Burma from any of these points, and exit at whichever airport or land crossing takes your fancy. Be warned though that you will need to obtain a full tourist visa in advance. (It isn’t clear whether the old temporary, limited, pass system will still function or not.)
A fourth land entry point was to open yesterday (August 28) between Kanchanaburi province and Htee Khee town, though this is using the old temporary entry pass on arrival for a one-week stay — you would be required to exit at the same entry point.
So which crossing might be an option for you?
The Tachilek border crossing into Shan State, from Mae Sai in Chiang Rai, has long been a popular visa-run destination with 500 baht temporary passes allowing overnight stays in Tachilek town or even, if things were quiet, a quick trip up to nearby Kengtung (Kyaingtong). While Tachilek itself has little more than a huge border market to offer, it does have flight links to Mandalay and Heho, while the three-hour drive along a decent road up to Kengtung opens up awesome trekking potential with its myriad surrounding hilltribe villages. Kengtung has several okay hotels and an airport as well.
Air Bagan in theory fly thrice-weekly to Heho (stopping at both Kengtung and Tachilek) while Yangon Airways also claim to have thrice-weekly flights from both destinations to Heho via Mandalay. Indeed if you are planning onward travel from Tachilek, then this is your only option at present since the road west to Taungyii is not currently officially open to foreign visitors due to security concerns (as well as it being a terrible road).
The crossing point into Kayin or Karen State is at Myawaddy, from Mae Sot, so not quite so convenient for travellers, and once across the border your options are again limited. Though some spectacular mountain scenery lies in this eastern part of Karen State, much of the region outside of the main towns is still off limits. Myawaddy, as expected, has a large bustling border market, but not a lot else going for it, though it does have a “road” to the state capital Hpa-An as well as Moulmein (Mawlamyine) on the coast. (Moulmein is the nearest airport to the border.) The road is not in great shape and bus travel will be at the mercy of road and weather conditions.
The crossing to Burma’s southernmost point Kawthaung (formerly Victoria Point) from Ranong has also been a popular visa run route. It’s also been open for limited access for some time, allowing visitors to renew their Thai visa, splash some cash at the border casino or check out some of the spectacular beaches north of town. Though we have heard of travellers making it all the way to Rangoon, from here your official options are limited again due to road and security conditions. The Burmese government does not, at the time of writing, allow you to travel north by road to Mergui or Dawei. Furthermore since the local tourism infrastructure is — to say the least — basic, many of the myriad and unspoilt islands are badly served by boat and offer no accommodation. As far as visiting these islands, for now your best option is still to sign up for a liveaboard in Phuket or Khao Lak.
However there is some good news: Kawthaung has an airport! According to schedules (though Burmese domestic schedules are notoriously unreliable and pilots often don’t seem to know where they’re going until shortly before take off), planes do a daily circular route through Rangoon, Moulmein and/or Dawei, maybe Mergui and with luck Kawthaung. Don’t take our word as gospel for it though, and note that being in possession of a ticket means nothing.
These new border crossings are definitely a great step in the right direction, even if it doesn’t yet make all Burmese travel plain sailing. Do bear in mind that these crossings are all in very remote areas, domestic airlines will continue to have commercial considerations to take into account with their scheduling, and the Burmese government doesn’t have the money to construct lengthy road connections on their own — so things will change only slowly. If negotiations with Shan and Karen organisations continue to be fruitful and the demand is there, travel will continue to improve and areas will open up.
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