For a long time, the small far northern town of Mae Sai was the only Thai border crossing that consistently allowed foreign tourists to enter Burma. Admittedly it was only for the day — you could either deposit your passport at immigration, pay some cash and wander around the Burmese border town of Tachileik for a bit.
What made the town famous among expats and long-term visitors though, was to take your passport with you and get new exit and entry stamps for Thailand, in the so-called visa run. Nowadays, pre-equipped with a Burmese visa, you can travel onwards into Burma from Tachileik or, if having already travelled around Burma, re-enter Thailand at this point.
Due to good transport links to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai as well as being the terminus of a wide modern highway from Bangkok, Mae Sai has also been the main trading and commercial hub between Thailand and Burma in recent times. It’s a hectic town with cars, pick-up trucks, bikes, hand carts and passengers queuing up either side of the short bridge that crosses the narrow Sai River separating the two neighbours, while almost every available inch of town is given over to trading.
Unless you are either shopping for cheap Chinese goods in the markets, crossing over to Burma for whatever reason, or just intrigued to see Thailand’s northernmost point (a sign just down the lane to the left of the bridge indicates the precise position), then the town does not hold much interest to the casual traveller and is largely devoid of any charm.
The quiet hills behind however do have a couple of scenic temples with good views. The more local-style Doi Wao Market to the west of the main drag is interesting enough and there’s one atmospheric and eponymously named little riverside guesthouse. Both food and accommodation options are somewhat limited and most nearby sights are probably best visited from alternative neighbouring towns. Spectacular Doi Tung is an easy day trip from Chiang Rai; Sob Ruak (the officially designated Golden Triangle), is closer to charming Chiang Saen and Tachileik itself, while not Burma’s tourism high spot, is an improvement on Mae Sai and allows easy access to Kengtung.
Mae Sai is strung out along four-lane Route 1, which ends abruptly at the immigration checkpoint and the narrow bridge crossing the Sai River. Markets spread out on the west side and around the bridge while residential areas lie behind the main street of Phaholyothin. The winding riverside lane, Sailomjoy, heads off west passing the access road to hilltop Wat Tham Pha Chom, continuing to cute Mae Sai Guesthouse. Even if you don’t want to stay here, this is the best destination for a stroll. Banks and the police station are located along the main strip just before the bridge. The post office and bus station are situated at the southern limits of the town, also on the main highway, as is the Lotus super store. The town’s hospital is out this way too, but bear in mind you’re only an hour from Chiang Rai for probably better treatment.
Heading south on Route 1 for about 60 kilometres gets you to Chiang Rai city, while east along Route 1290 takes you to Sob Ruak and Chiang Saen, 30 and 40 kilometres away respectively. Country Route 1041 winds its way through some villages before rejoining Route 1290 around half way to Chiang Saen if you want to take a scenic route. Just a couple of kilometres east of town on Route 1041 is a new (as of 2015) bridge connecting Thailand to Burma. You’ll notice the queue of trucks and tankers waiting at customs; this is principally, for now, a goods crossing. Tourists still exit Thailand by the old bridge in town.
For Mae Salong and all points west, go south to Pasang sub-district, where you’ll see the turn-off (Route 1130), up the mountain. Back Route 1149 leads southwest out of Mae Sai and hugs the border to the west of Doi Tung before climbing up to emerge near the Doi Tung stupa (Wat Prathat Doi Tung). We were warned off this one in late 2015 by locals and police because the road is very steep and in poor condition. Better to take Route 1, 18 clicks south, where you’ll see well surfaced Route 1149 climbing up to Doi Tung and Mae Fah Luang.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.