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.
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.
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 and Europe.
Many refugees and migrants have been sold into human trafficking, part of an illicit trade that passes through Mae Sot and also deals in drugs, wildlife and gems. But there are plenty of people doing good here as well.
Just west of town, the Mae Tao Clinic provides free medical care for those in need; Youth Connect runs a migrant training program with help from 80 local businesses; and larger organisations like The Border Consortium work to meet the basic needs of camp populations. Travellers looking to lend a hand while learning more about the refugee crisis, which gets very little international attention, should patronise non-profit cafes and shops including Borderline, WEAVE and Passport.
Mae Sot / Myawaddy is a popular border crossing for travellers who are keen to visit Burma fresh off its transition to democracy. Pass through the Moei River checkpoint and cross the Tenassarim Hills on the way to Hpa-an, Mawlamyine and the upper Andaman Sea coast, which is a half-day ride from Yangon. If coming from Burma you could continue east to Sukhothai, north to Mae Sariang or south into the remote mountains of Umphang, home to the stupendous Thi Lor Su Waterfall. Other waterfalls, hot springs, temples and hill-tribe villages can be hit as day trips from Mae Sot.
Located some 500 kilometres northwest of Bangkok, 400 kilometres east of Yangon and 350 kilometres south of Chiang Mai, Mae Sot straddles the Thai/Burma border on the western edge of Tak province in the Moei River valley, which dips between mountain ranges on either side. Precise figures are impossible to fine but the city’s population may top 100,000.
Mae Sot is arranged in an east-to-west configuration around two parallel streets: Intarakiree and Prasatwithi. Forming the downtown area, both of these have plenty of shops, restaurants, a couple of internet cafes (including one across from Mia Casa Restaurant) and several banks and ATMs. The police station sits at the centre of town on Intarakiree and a tourist police office is located further east near Intarakiree Soi 24. The large Mae Sot General Hospital is found to the southeast of town off Sripanich Road, while the smaller Pawo Hospital stands further southwest off Chidlom Road.
Marked by a blue gate with Thai script next to the Landfair Shopping Centre in downtown Mae Sot, the central Municipal Market area shoots south off Prasatwithi and includes several roofed markets along with countless stalls dug into a tangle of lanes. This area should not be missed. Continue south and turn west on Chidlom Road or east on Suksri Rat Uthit Road (it’s the same road with different names depending on the direction) and you’ll enter a large Muslim area with several mosques and cafes serving roti and sweet Burmese tea.
East of downtown, Intarakiree crosses a canal bridge and enters a quieter area settled mainly by Northern Thais. Head west from downtown on Intarakiree and you’ll pass many of Mae Sot’s guesthouses, hotels and traveller-oriented restaurants and bars before emerging onto the Asia Highway (aka Route 12) near the bus station, which is just east of the airport. From here it’s another four kilometres west to Rim Moei Market and the border.
Mae Sot’s tightly packed streets are not well signposted; we suggest picking up one of Borderline Cafe’s terrific maps to help you navigate.
From Mae Sot you can take Highway 105 north to Mae Sariang and Mae Hong Son, or Highway 1090 (the “Death Highway”) south to Umphang. Mae Sot is out of the way if coming from anywhere else in Thailand, though it’s easy enough to get here from Sukhothai, Kamphaeng Phet and Tak town, all of which are located on or near the major bus routes between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Mae Sot or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Mae Sot. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Mae Sot. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Mae Sot, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 30th May, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.