The town at the end of the road
Published/Last edited or updated: 18th March, 2021
In 20 years’ time there will probably be a new Friendship Bridge and a four-lane highway linking Chiang Mai to Mandalay through Mae Sam Laep, but for now this remote little border outpost is the end of the road. Head west from Mae Sariang town along Route 1194 for what is officially 45 kilometres but which, with all the hills and bends, certainly feels like a lot more, until the road runs out. You’ll see a collection of wooden huts clinging precariously to the steep hillside overloooking the Salween River, and Burma on the far bank. Welcome to Mae Sam Laep.
The drive alone is spectacular. First, there’s a fertile valley filled with tiny villages and farmland, then pretty much untouched jungle-clad hills until a few huts in a ravine, where the small Sam Laep stream tumbles into the Salween to announce the start of the village. It’s very easy to miss!
The river, winding its way across the Shan plateau after entering Burma from China’s Yunnan province, forms the border for only a short distance before heading southeast to emerge at Mawlamyine. On the opposite bank to Mae Sam Laep is hills and forest with just a small police (or army) outpost in sight. The bamboo shacks are still surrounded by a old-style wooden pallisade.
The village consists of one-storey, mostly wooden houses and shops lining a single concrete track that zigzags its way down to the riverside. Here you’ll find a couple of rice and noodle shops filled with monks, policemen, boatmen and the occasional (mostly local) tourist; some general stores sell goods to local Karen villagers and presumably Karen villagers from across the river plus of course there’s a boat pier. In most other countries they’d all be selling postcards, ice creams and inflatable rubber rings.
Other than “because it’s there” and of course the delightful scenery, the boat pier is Mae Sam Laep’s only tourist draw. There is an actual ticket office staffed by police but hanging around on the waterfront for more than a couple of minutes will no doubt see you approached, in gentle fashion, by a touting boatman. A standard boat ride up the scenic river will set you back 600 baht for an hour, and considering that the boats can seat up to 10 that’s a good deal. You may be able to find some accommodating local tourists to share a boat with, but the boatmen are obviously going to try to get you to hire your own.
You can go on longer trips to villages up or downstream and a two-hour plus ride north to Tha Ta Fang, where there’s a village, and a very rough, largely unsealed road, suitable only for experienced motor-bikers and most likely impassable in wet season, leading back to Mae Sariang and Salween (Salawin) national park substation with camping ground. This should set you back 1,200 to 1,400 baht. There’s no Golden Triangle-style speedboats here and the long thin wooden boats will chug gently past some spectacular, and almost completely untouched, hill and forest landscapes. The boats have roofs and if you’re lucky they may even dig you up a lifejacket.
There used to be a lot of these atmospheric, remote, end-of-the-road style places in Thailand but these days there are fewer and fewer. So take an extra day in Mae Sariang to check it out; you can take in the Salween national park along the way, you’ll find noodles and simple rice dishes for a riverside lunch, and hourly songthaews from Mae Sariang market cost just 70 baht. Don’t miss the last one, since there is no accommodation in Mae Sam Laep.
If you’re travelling by motorbike, take care. When we visited in mid-2015 the road was under construction and a long way off being finished. While the first section is a relatively good sealed road through a flat valley, the second and longest part is non-stop mountains with non-stop descents, climbs and bends and was largely unsealed. Furthermore there are few villages — and none at all on the latter, mountainous stretch — so few opportunities to buy petrol or fix a flat. Still, it’s a beautiful journey — just do it carefully!
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.