Where to eat and drink: Mae Sot

Mae Sot: Where to eat and drink

From frenetic markets to humble shops and restaurants set up to benefit the local refugees and migrants, food is perhaps the highlight of Mae Sot. Prepare your appetite for a wide range of culinary influences.

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Centrally located Borderline Cafe is a great place to start if you’re keen to sample Burmese cuisine. Set in an atmospheric “tea garden” with seating on floor cushions and proper tables, the cafe is part of a non-profit that also includes an adjacent shop, with the whole place staffed by Burmese migrants of various cultural stripes. The Northern Thai coffee, Burmese tea and mix of Burmese, Shan, Karen and Mon food are all terrific and reasonably priced. We savoured a hearty plate of le pha thote (pickled tea leaf salad) and a stack of Burmese-style samosas -- enough food to make us skip dinner for just 75 baht. It’s also possible to arrange cooking classes at Borderline.

Grazing at Borderline Cafe. : David Luekens.
Grazing at Borderline Cafe. Photo: David Luekens

Another excellent and notably traveller-friendly Burmese option is Wadee Restaurant, sporting tables spread over an inviting open-air terrace. The large menu includes a number of Burma’s most popular dishes, with English descriptions and photos, making this a great option if you’re looking to learn a thing or two about Burmese cuisine. We enjoyed the tart flavours of chin bow (sour leaf) and bamboo shoots in a dish called chin bow jaw. Running 40 to 100 baht, a number of curries and some vegetarian dishes are made with ingredients like goat, duck egg, fish roe and fresh green mango.

Burmese goodness at Wadee. : David Luekens.
Burmese goodness at Wadee. Photo: David Luekens

Moving into the predominantly Muslim southern part of town, a number of rich Burmese curries made with goat, chicken, beef and fish are sold in a more local-style setup at Matina, located directly across the street from the General Hospital’s huge sign. All of the options are displayed behind glass along the footpath and the chefs also run a Burmese-style tandoori grill. A few doors down from that, Amina Roddej is an open-fronted Muslim-Thai kitchen that makes a mean sup tang wua, tender oxtail soup, for 100 baht along with cheaper khao mok gai, Thai-Muslim biryani rice with chicken.

Oxtail soup at Amina Roddej. : David Luekens.
Oxtail soup at Amina Roddej. Photo: David Luekens

No-frills Burmese teashops and roti stalls dot the neighbourhood running west from Sripanich and Islam Bamroong roads to the Municipal Market area along Suksri Rat Uthit and Bun Rung roads. A famous local specialty is the fluffy roti baked along the inside walls of large clay pots and served with coffee at Roti Pae Ong -- get up early as it’s usually sold out by around 07:00. Often selling roti with a dash of sweetened condensed milk alongside sweet Burmese tea, samosa and other deep-fried goodies, the many Burmese teashops can usually be identified by groups of older men sitting around chatting or reading newspapers. Lucky Tea Garden is one good option with an English sign.

At Mae Sot's municipal market. : David Luekens.
At Mae Sot's municipal market. Photo: David Luekens

Heading back north towards Prasatwithi Road, the sprawling Municipal Market (Talad Sod) is the place to pick up fresh durian, lychee, rambutan and other fruits while glimpsing whole turmeric-soaked chickens, still-flapping river fish and some of the fresh and pickled ingredients used in Burmese cooking. Poke around at lunchtime and you’ll find Shan tofu noodles, Burmese mohinga (fish noodle soup) and Mon khanom jeen (sticky rice noodles with egg, fresh greens and watery yet flavourful curries) -- look for groups of migrants with white-powdered faces gathered around cramped little tables.

Mae Sot also has you covered if you’re coming from Burma and are ready to dive into Thai cuisine. Heading towards downtown from the border along the south side of Asia Highway, make a detour near the airport for fiery Isaan (Northeastern Thai) food at Gai Yang 34, a roadside eatery serving the namesake Isaan-style grilled chicken along with kor muu yang (grilled pork neck), chilli-laden som tam (papaya salad) and many other salads and soups that burst with flavour, all tempered by khao niao (sticky rice).

Khao soi stop at Tui Kao Soi. : David Luekens.
Khao soi stop at Tui Kao Soi. Photo: David Luekens

A good option for khao soi (Northern Thai curry chicken soup) is Tui Kao Soi, an open-fronted shop located towards the east side of downtown on Prasatwithi. Soaked in savoury orange curry broth, the fresh and crispy egg noodles join slow-roasted chicken that falls off the bone -- throw in a dash of roasted chilli sauce and pickled veggies to see why this dish has become the best-known representative of Northern Thai cuisine. A few doors down from Tui Khao Soi, Pad Thai Mae Sot serves tasty pad Thai with the slightly unusual addition of crispy or roasted pork out of the ground floor of a tiny wood shophouse.

Walk east on Prasatwithi from here and you’ll come to the small but lively night market, featuring a group of small eateries serving mostly Chinese-Thai street dishes like khao man gai (chicken rice) and khao ka muu (stewed pork shanks with rice) to spacious outdoor dining areas. If you’re in town on a weekend, pop over to the larger Saturday night market that sets up on a road running north from Intarakiree, marked by a Chinese gate just east of the police station. Here you’ll find countless stalls selling gai tort (deep-fried chicken), muu ping (grilled pork skewers), Thai sweets and many other Thai finger foods along with fresh juices and much more.

Pick your poison at Talad Baan Neua. : David Luekens.
Pick your poison at Talad Baan Neua. Photo: David Luekens

Travellers who are serious about Northern Thai cuisine should make a trip to Talad Baan Neua Market, a roofed market anchoring a community of Northern Thais on the east side of town. Look for a woman selling salads from large bowls in the front left corner if facing the market from the street; here we sampled delicious yum mod makham, a salad of young tamarind leaf mingling with dry spices. Walk a few paces from here to find proper Northern Thai soups and curries, including gaeng hang lay, a rich pork curry, and gaeng tae, an herbaceous vegetable and chicken curry, sold by a pair of smiley women. You’ll also find whole grilled fish and fruit among the abundant produce. There’s no on-site seating but the food is worth carrying back to your room and eating with your hands if need be.

We’ve also heard good things about Mai Thai, a more traveller-oriented restaurant serving Northern Thai dishes along with more standard Thai options on the same side lane as Ban Thai Guesthouse; there’s also low-key live music here in the evenings. Around the corner on Intarakiree, Suki Jay Yuu Jing is an all-vegetarian spot that specialises in hot pot, with a selection of veggies and meat substitutes cooked right at the table. If you could go for a bowl of pho, there’s also a Vietnamese place across the street.

For more of a splurge on a Thai meal, Khaomao Khaofang is worth a trip north up Highway 105. Local specialties include laap kua heng (dry-spice minced meat salad), gaeng pak siew (sour leaf curry) and mieng gai grob (chicken and a bunch of fresh ingredients wrapped in betel leaves or served on rice crackers). Expect to pay between 100 and 300 baht for generously sized dishes served in a spacious dining area with plenty of fountains and greenery.

Also worth a dinner trip to the north side of town is The Passport, a non-profit hospitality vocational school with a Western/Asian restaurant showcasing the skills of the migrant and refugee students. It was closed for renovations when we last passed through but we’ve heard that the food is great, and all proceeds go straight back into the school.

Mae Sot also boasts an exceptional selection of Western food. At its new location on Intarakiree Road, Famous Ray’s cooks up big and juicy burgers, including veggie burgers, along with other sandwiches, salads, Australian wines and Belgian beers. It’s not cheap, with burgers costing 100 to 200 baht, but a portion of the proceeds goes to a local charity.

A quick walk east of Famous Ray’s takes you to Mia Casa, a long-running Italian and Thai joint serving pizza and house-made spaghetti, tagliatelle, ravioli and lasagna, among others, with house-made sauces for a lot cheaper than you’d expect: seafood pasta dishes go for just 90 baht while most mains fetch less than 60 baht. Popular with NGO workers as well as Burmese and Thai locals, this is also a good place to grab a beer and spark up a conversation.

While we didn’t get around to trying them during our most recent visit, we’ve heard positive reports about the pizza at Pizzeria Angelo and the Mexican food at Krua Canadian, both located downtown on Intarakiree Road and doubling as pubs. There’s also the long-running SP Kitchen up on Asia Highway and Baifern Restaurant on Intarakiree Road, both offering a good mix of Burmese, Thai and Western dishes in traveller-oriented settings.

After dinner you could settle into Mestizo, a cosy bar with outdoor seating located right next to Baifern on Intarakiree. At research time there was a crew of younger Thais preparing to open a larger nightclub, complete with a small swimming pool, directly across the street from Mestizo.

Amina Roddej: Just off Sripanich Rd on the road shooting east from Mae Sot General Hospital’s large sign (look for a green and yellow sign out front and an English sign above the entrance). Open 06:00-17:00; T: (055) 515 203.
Baan Neua Market: East side of town near the corner of Intarakiree and Intarakiree Soi 19. Open 08:00-20:00 (come after 17:00 for the best selection of prepared foods).
Borderline Cafe: 674/14 Intarakiree Rd (just east of Wat Aranyakhet). Open Tues-Sun 07:30-09:00; closed Mon; T: (055) 546 584.
Famous Ray’s: Intarakiree Rd (just west of Casa Mia): Open 11:00-21:30; T: (090) 671 0251. Gai Yang 34: South side of Asia Highway just west of the airport (red and white sign in Thai; look for the “34”). Open for lunch and dinner.
Khaomao Khaofang: West side of Highway 105, around three km north of Asia Highway. Open 11:00-22:00; T: (055) 532 483.
Krua Canadian: Intarakiree Rd, opposite the police station. Open 07:00-14:00 / 17:00-22:00.
Lucky Tea Garden: Suksri Rat Uthit Rd, just west of the central fresh market. Open 06:00-18:00.
Mai Thai Restaurant: West side of town off Intarakiree Rd, next to Ban Thai Guesthouse and Ban Pruksa Guesthouse. Open 17:00-0:00.
Mia Casa: Intarakiree Rd, across from Phannu House; Open 08:00-21:30; T: (081) 533 7672.
Night market: Prasatwithi Rd, just east of Soi Wat Luang.
Pad Thai Mae Sot: Prasatwithi Rd, a few doors east of Tui Kao Soi on the left if walking east (sign in Thai; look for a tiny open-fronted wood shop with a large wok and a few tables). Open 12:00-21:00.
The Passport Restaurant: 507 Moo 10 (from Intarakiree Rd head north on Don Kaew Rd, cross Asia Highway and there’s a sign in English pointing up the road that runs north, next to a motorbike taxi stand). Open for dinner Thu, Fri, Sat only; T: (085) 725 7527 ; (080) 118 2651
Pizzeria Angelo: 674/15 Intarakiree Rd. Open 11:00-0:00.
Matina: Sripanich Rd, directly across from Mae Sot General Hospital (no English sign; look for the curry display case along the footpath). Open for lunch and dinner; T: (082) 396 5250 ; (091) 387 4386.
Roti Pae Ong: Sripanich Rd, about a half-km north of Mae Sot General Hospital. Open 05:00-08:00.
Suki Jay Yuu Jing: Corner of Intarakiree Rd and Don Kaew Rd (look for the word “Vegetarian” on a yellow sign). Open 08:00-21:00.
Tui Khao Soi: Prasatwithi Rd, just east of Sriphant Rd on the left if walking east (sign in Thai; look for the yellow egg noodles in the display case along the footpath). Open 08:00-14:00 / 16:00-22:00. T: (088) 293 9862.
Wadee Burmese Restaurant: Don Kaew Rd, just south of Asia Highway. Open 09:00-21:00; T: (081) 253 7050 ; (088) 817 9335.

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David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.