We hadn’t initially put Myanmar on our Asia itinerary for our gap year travels. It was only when we started looking in to our overland route in Northern Thailand that we considered crossing the border into Myanmar with kids through the Tachileik border crossing. We had been to Myanmar before, and hence it caught our attention again, and we wondered if we could make it work. Could you really cross the border into Myanmar without a visa? Could we give the kids a small glimpse of a culture we had held so closely?
So this visit to Myanmar was different.
- Short. We didn’t have a visa, so made the crossing in to Myanmar mimicking a Thai ‘visa run’ at the Tachileik border crossing.
- Exciting – we couldn’t wait to be ‘back in Myanmar’!
- Memorable – everything we hoped it would be (we found Burmese curry, beer, and thanaka!)
And a lot about the adventure of getting there!
What we actually did…
From Chiang Rai we hopped on a local bus to the most Northern Thai border town of Mae Sai. At the bus stop there we grabbed a songthaew shared taxi to the border crossing, hopping out close to the border post at Mae Sai. From there, we crossed over on foot at the Tachileik border crossing, a border town in the Eastern Shan State of Myanmar.
^^ Thats us, leaving Chiang Rai to cross the border into Myanmar with kids; with equally assumed trust in the open doors and lack of windows for air conditioning, and the sign-language purchase of a ฿35 (NZD$1.45) bus ticket…
In Mae Sai we found a songthaew (shared taxi) from the bus station to the town centre…
And crossed over from Thailand into Myanmar, via the Mae Sai-Tachileik border crossing; walking across the Friendship Bridge on foot.
[Interesting to see the cars (and people) crossing over on to the other side of the road halfway across the bridge… Thailand drives on the left; Myanmar on the right!].
5 Things to do in Tachileik
As soon as we arrived in the Thai border town of Mae Sai, we could see Burmese culture. Men and women in ‘longyi’ (sarong-like wraps), and with ‘thanaka’ on their faces.
As you cross the border into Myanmar it is everywhere; a distinctive feature of the culture, and one of the most memorable for me. Thanaka is a thick, yellowish paste made from ground bark, and is wet with water and applied like make-up for cosmetic effect, and as a natural sunscreen and beauty product.
On our first outing we met a lady at the temple, who grabbed us aside and made up a paste for Oscar and I…
I know you are meant to wait for it to dry; but how do we look?!
Explore Tachileik on foot
The border town of Tachileik is easy to explore on foot. We did get a tuk tuk from the border crossing to our hotel, but then set out (with directions from the friendly hotel staff) to find Burmese curry, and check out the temples they recommended.
The streets are easy to walk around (despite lack of footpaths) and locals are friendly. Keep an eye out for the ‘petrol station’ set ups on the road front of tiny shops… Bottles of petrol in recycled plastic bottles!
Visit the Elephant Temple
The Dhammayon Temple (also known as Elephant Temple) is a beautiful Buddhist temple in Tachileik. I couldn’t find much information online about the history of the temple, but it is striking and easily recognisable by its bright, pastel green colour. Dhammayon translates as ‘temple’, so the Dhammayon Temple literally means the township temple.
Walk up to Shwedagon Pagoda
Find Burmese food to eat
We love Burmese food. It is an interesting mixture of cuisine with influences from Southeast Asian cultures, India and China. Burmese curries are often served like Indian Thali, with a selection of small dishes and condiments to go with the curries and rice. We might have had high expectations of finding it, but this is what we set out looking for in Tachileik. And we kind of did! Tachileik doesn’t appear to have a grand selection of obvious restaurants that cater to tourists, but that is more often than not a good thing. It means you can follow the locals, and sit down for a meal somewhere you might not otherwise find.
For street food in Tachileik there are vendors lining the road near the markets. Or, if you are in luck like us you might have timed your trip perfectly with a large market gala and find street food (and bouncy castles) galore!
Where we stayed
- Tachelik: Golden Cherry Hotel [huge room, very friendly staff, good location for a base to explore the town from and close to small restaurants and basic convenience stores; NZD $114 p/n].
One thing that challenged us…
You have to give over your passport at the border to Tachilek. (This is never an easy feeling!). We already knew this was standard practice as part of the visa run, but it was still slightly unnerving trying to explain to the border guards on the Myanmar side that we wanted to stay the night in Tachileik…. “Why?” They couldn’t quite understand why anyone would want to stay there!
On reading up about Tachileik, it doesn’t have the most settled of history. At one point in time was a border crossing renowned for opium smuggling and trade of illegal wares. As a result, the reputation of visa-run travel here has diminished.
All we wanted was to show our boys some memories from our travels in Myanmar. But to do so, obviously we needed to make sure it was a safe option for family travel. After looking into it we deemed it safe based on the most recent posts and online information we could find about the Tachileik border crossing as a visa run. And we set off, ultimately on the hunt for thanaka, Burmese curry, and the golden stupa at the top of the hill… which we found!
Overall, making a ‘visa run’ style adventure over the border into Myanmar was one of the most memorable adventures from our time in Asia!