Mae Sot

Mae Sot

Bustling on the Burma border

Simmering on the Thai side of the Burma border, Mae Sot is a mixed cultural stew that makes for an invigorating few days of eating, shopping and exploring. The full-scale opening of an overland border crossing from Thailand to Burma in 2013 turned this once-distant outpost into a convenient stop for travellers planning to visit both countries. For the culinary and culturally inclined, Mae Sot is also worth a trip from elsewhere in Thailand.

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Wander into the pulsing downtown markets and you might forget which side of the border you’re on. Burmese vendors display colourful Burmese-style clothes to the thanaka-powdered faces of Karen, Mon, Shan and other ethnic minority groups from across the border. Muser mountain folk interact with Muslims from Burma, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan as Western NGO workers greet Thai citizens who trace their roots to China, Isaan and Chiang Mai. Throw in increasing numbers of travellers from around the globe and you’ve got a fascinating mix of people.

Old house, Mae Sot. : David Luekens.
Old house, Mae Sot. Photo: David Luekens

The best way to absorb all of these cultural influences is to eat, and then eat some more. Bite into unleavened Burmese and Indian breads, rich Burmese curries, delicate Shan salads, aromatic Northern Thai soups and handmade Italian pasta -- and don’t be surprised if you put on a kilo or two. At night you can settle into a low-key pub to chat up the NGO workers and volunteers who assist the area’s many refugees and economic migrants from Burma.

Mae Sot sits roughly at the centre of a northwestern Thai region that hosts over 120,000 refugees in 10 rudimentary camps at any given time. The mostly Karen refugees fled from a complex armed conflict between Burmese government forces and the militant wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) that’s blighted their homeland since World War II. The largest camp, Mae La, is located around 60 kilometres north of Mae Sot and serves as a precarious home to some 40,000 refugees, a handful of whom await resettlement in the US ... Travelfish members only (Full text is around 800 words.)

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