Border Crossing: Mae Sai, Thailand to Tachileik, Myanmar.

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The Tachileik border crossing is located near Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, some 250km north of Chiang Mai. Crossing overland at Mae Sai border is a popular border run from Thailand, as you can enter into Myanmar without a visa if you are entering back into Thailand on the same day.

Location-wise, the close(ish) proximity of Mae Sai to Chiang Mai (the largest city in Northern Thailand) makes the border crossing a convenient visa run for travellers in Thailand. And so in theory, popping over the border into Myanmar for the day in order to be stamped in and out of Thailand is reasonably straightforward.

However, the concept of visa runs between Thailand and Myanmar is one that is subject to change at short notice. And there is no shortage of conflicting information to read through online when you do start researching if this border crossing is possible at the time of your visit. But, if you are in Northern Thailand and have a desire to touch your feet onto Burmese soil, or are curious about food or culture in Myanmar and want an available glimpse (or, if you are counting countries based on passport stamps), the Mae Sai to Tachileik crossing is possible as a foreigner.

Contents

Based on our experience (in June 2019) it is possible to cross the border between Thailand and Myanmar as a day trip, without a visa for Myanmar. The rules as we understood them at the time are as strict as they are subject to change.

With this style of ‘visa run‘ border crossing (regardless of whether or not you are actually needing to renew your Thai visa) you cannot leave the Tachileik area within Myanmar. You cannot use this border crossing to enter Myanmar and continue forward travel within the country. But you can cross the border, and with a few tips you can be more prepared.

The streets of Tachileik are easy to explore on foot.

About Tachileik

Tachileik is the closest town to the border in the Shan State of eastern Myanmar. As soon as you arrive in Mae Sai, on the Thailand side of the border, you will see Burmese culture. Women and men walking around in longyi (sarongs) and with their faces painted with thanaka (a natural beauty product made from grinding the bark of a tree). For years, Tachileik was the main overland border crossing point, and so the town is large in size compared to many Asian border crossing towns.

Thai bhat is the de facto currency in Tacheliek. And you can great people in either Burmese (‘mingalabar’) or Thai (everyone speaks Thai). A lot of locals making the crossing in either direction are crossing the border to buy or sell goods. Tachileik is renowned for cheap, counterfeit goods, of which you will be offered immediately on arrival in Myanmar.

There are some temples to see in Tachileik, and options for eating Burmese food. You can read more about our time in Tachileik here.

Getting to the Mae Sai border

This is the fun part! We had rented a car in Thailand that we had for three weeks (through rentalcars.com) though couldn’t cross the border by car. Instead, we left the car in Chiang Rai and started our 24 hour journey from there.

From our homestay in Chiang Rai we got a local tuk tuk to the Chiang Rai Bus Station.

At the Chiang Rai bus station it is easy to find the buses heading to Mae Sai. (Note: the signs on the bus are in Thai, but if you walk around the front of the buses you will see some sign cards in English as well). They are parked together and depart regularly, waiting for enough of the bus to be full before leaving the station.

Chiang Rai bus station getting a bus to the Mae Sai border crossing to Myanmar.
The bus to Mae Sai parked at Chiang Rai bus station.

We grabbed the back seat (not our normal choice) as all the doors and windows were wide open. It seemed to be the coolest place to sit. The journey from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai takes about 1 hour 30 minutes by bus.

At Mae Sai, the last stop for the bus is at the Mae Sai bus station 5km from the border checkpoint. There are are few songthaew (the little shared buses) lined up at the bus terminal (an open carpark). A ride costs 30 Bhat and takes 10 minutes to the border.

There, the songthaew will drop you right outside the border crossing, and you can enter the terminal area on foot.

Mae Sai border side

The town of Mae Sai is the northern most city in Thailand. On arrival by bus, it appears to be one long road surrounded by open air market stalls. There are a few temples around, and a bit of traffic, but the main bustle of Mae Sai is centred around the market sprawling from the border crossing checkpoint.

The border crossing on the Thai side is straightforward. You will be given an immigration form to fill out, and you will need your completed departure card to hand over as well. (Hang on to this when you are given it on arrival in Thailand. Though don’t panic if you have lost it. There are some available at the checkpoint).

There is no departure fee leaving the Thailand side.

Walking in No Man’s Land between the Thai and Myanmar immigration checkpoints.

Tachileik border side

Getting to the Tachileik immigration side, you need to walk the 100m across the bridge from one side to the other.

You will be waved in to enter the Myanmar immigration office. We entered and sat down with the immigration officer who checked over all of our forms and confirmed we could exit Myanmar the following day and enter back into Thailand. You need to pay the 500 THB entry fee in cash. Or, you can pay $10 USD per person (make sure you have the correct change). Note: This is the cheaper option. You don’t need extra passport photos for this entry as they will take your photo with a webcam.

The immigration staff will keep your passport. (It will quite literally be bundled with a rubber band and stacked with the other passports entering that day). And you will be issued with a visiting pass which is valid for between 1 to 14 days. The visiting pass is clearly stated as only valid for the Tachileik district.

Tips for entering at Tachileik

  • Currency: You are in Tachileik, which is Myanmar, but shops and markets accept Thai Bhat. You don’t need to exchange Thai currency prior to crossing the border. We carried the usual amount of cash for accommodation and food for a couple of days, plus our standard emergency USD. We were able to pay for the hotel by card, and it is also possible to prepay the hotel online. (Note: Do double check this at the time of your crossing to make sure the information is still relevant).
  • Driving: A random but interesting note, is that the two countries drive on different sides of the road. Thailand drives on the left; Myanmar on the right. As you walk across the bridge between the two immigration terminals you will see cars literally crossing over to the other side of the road! And you need to as well. Follow the locals, and halfway across you can dodge the haphazard (but slow) traffic and walk across to the other side.
  • Safety: The Tachileik Market is one of the sights of Tachileik, though it is notorious for pick pocketing. We weren’t planning on visiting this with the kids, especially after what I had read online, and were put off even further after speaking to an older traveler at the border. He said he had been crossing this border for years but would never go to the markets after having his bag cut underneath. In hindsight, I kind of still wish we had gone as I feel like we missed out on the markets (and we love markets!). But hindsight is a very safe call… We didn’t go in and so I can’t comment/recommend personally. Make sensible and personal choices.
Quiet streets in Tachileik.

Transport in Tachileik

Once in Tachileik, if you are completing this border crossing as a ‘visa run’ like we were, you cannot leave the Tachileik district. On arrival in Myanmar, as soon as you walk out of the immigration area and off the border bridge, you are on a fairly main street. There are tuk tuks driving around, the odd taxi, and plenty of drivers trying to compete for your taxi fare. We found it easy to negotiate a tuk tuk fare with a driver, and paid 70 THB to be taken to our hotel.

As far as the sights of Tachileik, the main things to see are: Elephant Temple, Shwedagon Pagoda (Golden Temple) and the markets (if you are keen). All of those are within walking distance of the border crossing. The Shwedagon Pagoda has a great view over the city from it’s position on top of a hill. Even if you are only visiting Tachileik for a few hours I recommend walking up to the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Where we stayed

Tachileik: Golden Cherry Hotel

The Golden Cherry hotel is conveniently located in Tachileik. Although we got a tuk tuk from the border crossing on arrival, we explored Tachileik on foot from there on. The staff at the hotel were lovely, and we were welcomed and well looked after. The night we were staying there was a big gala happening in the large park just opposite the hotel which was an added bonus.

View of Tachileik, Myanmar from our hotel room at Golden Cherry Hotel in Tachileik.
The view over Tachileik from our hotel room at Golden Cherry Hotel.

A reminder: Crossing an international border anywhere is a serious time. You are handing over your passport, and entering and exiting into a whole different country, culture and regulations. The Mae Sai border crossing is not a mainstream tourist crossing. It does require a bit of planning and research before hand. In saying that, we found the whole experience of crossing the border into Myanmar smooth. And we did it on foot with two young kids in tow.

It turned out to be a different experience of travel and gave us confidence for future overland crossings. (Remember, we come from an island country where anywhere we go we have to fly!). So if you are looking for a unique experience to add to your Thailand itinerary then I reckon this fits the bill for the North. And if you are keen, confident and a little bit travel-mad then I would say, it’s perfect.

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