At the Thai part of the Andaman Sea's northern crest, the town of Ranong is Thailand's southern gateway to Burma. Although its ageing buildings and border outpost feel often give travellers mixed first impressions, anyone who takes the time to explore the town's lush natural surrounds and distinct mix of cultures will notice Ranong's charm.
Aside from being a port town with boats launching daily for the nearby islands of Ko Chang and Ko Phayam along with Burma, the Ranong area boasts some of Thailand's best natural hot springs, a couple of underrated national parks, and some winding roads through pristine mountains covered in jungle. Thailand's wettest province, Ranong receives 4,200 mm of rain annually with the rainy months from May to October seeing the brunt of it. Nobody likes a rainy day — especially when travelling — but Ranong's precipitation does keep its jungle more green and lush than perhaps anywhere else in Thailand, and the soft clouds of mist that often settle on the mountaintops make for enchanting photos.
Culturally, Ranong has a large population of Burmese and ethnic Chinese along with both Buddhist and Muslim Thais, and all of these influences are clearly visible on the town's main drag, Ruangrat Road. Many signs are written in Burmese as well as Thai, and there are some delicious Burmese curries and Chinese dumplings to be found.
Due largely to its closeness to the border and the visa runs to Burma that are possible here, Ranong also has a definite foreign expat presence. With plenty of guesthouses, travel companies and restaurants, the town is a relatively easy place for foreign travellers to make themselves at home. With a handful of dive operators using Ranong as a base, the town has also increasingly become a hub for divers intent on exploring the unspoiled dive sites of the Burma Banks and Mergui Archepelago. If the political situation in Burma continues to stabilise in coming years, there's little doubt that increasing numbers of travellers will pass through Ranong.
Ranong to Kawthaung border crossing
Though a longstanding and popular visa-run crossing -- being the closest to Phuket or Ko Samui-- the Ranong to Kawthaung border point is now fully open to foreign visitors with Burmese visas for onward travel into the country. This is very practical for anyone arriving from the south since Kawthaung, apart from being a cute little port town in its own right, is also the proud possessor of an airport with daily flights to Yangon.
As with all Burma land crossings there is no visa-on-arrival system in place (as of January 2016), though somewhat unusually you are permitted to stay up to two weeks in Kawthaung and its immediate vicinity without a visa. Your passport will be stamped in and out of Thailand and Burma but Kawthaung immigration will hold your passport until you leave for a flat fee of $10 regardless of whether you stay two hours or two weeks. Note that you may be asked for a photocopy of your passport. Legal environs should just include the scenic Maliwan Waterfall and hot springs after which there’s nothing much else other than 400 kilometres of oil palm plantations to Myeik anyway. This also allows for boat trips to nearby islands.
Though there were signs up at Thai immigration saying "no visa runs" we did see plenty of people on obvious day trips. If you’re equipped with a Burmese visa then there’s no charge for entry or exit other than transport costs. From central Ranong town, songthaew numbers 3 and 6 make their way down to Paknam Ranong, the town’s port and immigration point, for 20 baht. The actual Thai immigration office is at Saphan Pla Jetty behind a PTT station on the main road. Another sign stated that you would need to show proof of onward travel when entering Burma but nobody was interested when we crossed.
From here longtail boats make the 20-minute or so crossing of the wide and murky Kraburi Estuary for 100 baht per person each way. There are plenty of boats but they will wait to get at least four or five passengers; if you want a private one, expect to pay around 500 baht. The crossing is a scenic one, weaving your way first through Paknam Port as bold brahminy kites dive for fish just a few metres from your boat, before heading across the river mouth towards Kawthaung town nestled in the hills opposite. There’s a stop at a second Thai checkpoint perched on stilts over the water but foreigners aren’t required to disembark and ditto for a Burmese office also on stilts just before arriving at the Kawthaung jetty. The boatman will collect your passports to wave through the office window though it may be best to have a couple of spare photocopies just in case. Boats arrive in the centre of Kawthaung’s tiny but bustling waterfront where you’ll be greeted by eager moto and tuk tuk drivers who’ll take you to the hotel of your choice, including waiting outside the immigration office while you get your stamp, for 20 baht. The crossing is open 07:00-17:00.
By David Luekens. Last updated on 11th February, 2016.