Like many border post towns, Mae Sot is a place of ethnic diversity and cultural fusion.
It is the Easternmost point of Thailand and the gateway to the land of Myanmar (Burma). For many years, the town has been a base for Burmese refugees and displaced migrant workers coming to Thailand to earn a living. Because of this, the town has often been nicknamed ‘Little Burma’.
Over the past 20 years of turbulent history in Myanmar, many different ethnic minorities had suffered suppression from the Burmese government. The suppression and violence created a huge refugee situation in Thailand as people fled across the border in search of safety and a better life.
It has been estimated that there are still up to 200,000 Burmese scraping a living in Mae Sot today. Even though the refugees have been living in Thailand for many years, there is still a struggle against the Thai government for them to be allowed full Thai citizenship. To this day, Thailand does not recognise the concept of refugee status.
Walking around the streets and markets, you will notice a mix of Burmese ethnicities (of which there are said to be around 135) giving you the sense of the complexity of Burmese national identity. Some of the women wear Thanaka bark on their cheeks and the men wear the traditional Burmese longyi (wrap around skirt.).
Due to the large populations of refugees, the town has also been a base for foreign NGOs who work in many different areas; from healthcare and education.
Despite the lack of ‘tourist attractions’ (actual things to do) in Mae Sot, the town is a fascinating place to visit, simply for what the town stands for in terms of its’ interesting relationship with Burma. With an undercurrent of smuggling, crime and police bribery, the town has an atmospheric edge that is characteristic of border towns, particularly one that shares a border with a country that over the years has been so controversial, mysterious and largely unknown to the Western world.
Places to stay in Mae Sot:
Accommodation is very reasonably priced in Mae Sot and there are a few good quality, value for money guesthouses within walking distance of the main town. You can get a basic room for as little as 150 baht. One of our favourites is Ban Thai Guesthouse which costs 400 baht for a double room, very clean, attached bathroom and free WIFI. The staff are very friendly and have a lot of knowledge about the surrounding area.
Things to do:
Visit Borderline Art Gallery and Weave Shop: On the main road in Mae Sot, Borderline is a cafe, art gallery, shop and restaurant that has supported the Burmese refugee plight in Thailand through the years. Both Borderline and Weave sell fair trade handicraft goods that are made by Burmese refugees on the border. One of the biggest refugee camps in the area is the U.N run Mae La, of which there are estimated to be 45,000 people living here. Although the refugees here in Mae La are pleased that they are no longer fighting for their lives in war-torn Burma, the camp is ridden with boredom and complacency. NGO’s who work here try to encourage camp members to create extra incomes for their families and combat boredom by making handicrafts and artwork. The artwork is then sold for their profit at places in Mae Sot such as Borderline and Weave.
Visit the Mae Tao Clinic: Burmese born, Doctor Cynthia is famous and inspirational amongst the human rights movement in Burma. In 1989, she fled from her home village in the Karen state of Burma with a few medical supplies and set up a small clinic on the Thai border. It took her 10 days to arrive at her destination in Mae Sot. Today, the clinic has grown to take care of millions of displaced ethnic minority groups from Burma, who otherwise would have no access to healthcare whatsoever. Every day of the week, the clinic is packed to the seams with people in dire need of free health service and basic medicine, some of them living and working in the town of Mae Sot, some who have travelled for days through dense, malaria-infested jungle to visit the clinic. The clinic treats all ailments from people with malaria, HIV, cancer, land-mine victims and post-abortion patients. Doctor Cynthia also trains ‘backpack medics’ who are sent across the border to treat those Burmese people who live in inaccessible areas or are too weak to travel to the clinic themselves to receive medical care. Foreigners are able to tour the clinic and learn more about the incredible work that goes on here. An attitude of deep respect and awareness of the patients is essential for anyone considering a visit to the clinic.
Cycle to the Thai / Myanmar border: The Thai-Burmese border located on the River Moie separates the two towns of Mae Sot and Myawaddy. The border line is 6km away from the main town and can be cycled to in around half an hour. Gazing across the river to Burma gives you an intriguing, mysterious feeling. Small boats smuggling goods and people go back and to across the river hour upon hour and Burmese migrants sell cigarettes, alcohol, sex toys and other goods to people on the border.
Gorge on Burmese Food: Burmese food is different to any other cuisine in South East Asia; a unique fusion of Thai, Indian, Bangladeshi, Malaysian and many other influences. Each different ethnic group has their own unique special dish, from Shan rice to Karen curry. Must tries include the tea leaf salad, ginger salad, Shan rice, Burmese pumpkin curry, lentil and chickpea curry and the variety of spicy soups. For breakfast, head to the Muslim neighbourhood for chapatis, samosas and hot milky tea, the perfect start to the day. Borderline Cafe is great for lunch, whilst Burmese-run, Ayia Restaurant serves fantastic Burmese food in the evenings (though be prepared to wait a while to be served!) And, when you’ve had enough Burmese food, visit Casa Mia, the only Italian in town for delicious and traditional home-made pasta and pizza, cooked by Italian chef and Mae Sot expat.
Visit the local markets: Mae Sot’s bustling market is a great place to get a feel for the complex multi-cultural diversity of the town. Barter for a range of cheap goods, from Thanaka powder to cheap costume jewellery to Burmese longyis. Then, take a break and stop at a tea-house for a quick refreshment.
Motorbike to Pha Charoen Waterfall: An incredible 50 metre, 97-tier waterfall around a one hour drive from Mae Sot (33km) is well worth the journey. Unlike many of Thailand’s waterfalls, you won’t find hoards of tourists here and the trip makes for a great day-trip from Mae Sot.
You can catch a bus from Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai , which takes around 5-6 hours to reach Mae Sot direct. Buses usually leave at 6am and 8am daily. If you want to go later in the day, you can take the regular buses to Tak town, which is around a 4-hour journey, then take a mini-bus from Tak, which takes a further 2 hours. Coming back from Mae Sot to Chiang Mai, the buses are also 6am and 8am.
Where to go next?
- Myanmar: The border opened at Mae Sot in 2013, meaning that many tourists now take border runs to the Burmese town of Myawaddy. They cross the border here just for the day then enter back into Thailand to receive 15 days on their visas. You can also now cross here and enter deeper into the country for travel purposes, which was not permitted just a few years ago.
- Hpa An is the first destination you’ll come across when you cross the border to Myanmar. It’s a scruffy little town that boasts incredible scenery, the awesome Mount Zwegabin and some enormous caves.
- Chiang Mai, Thailand: Thailand’s cultural capital makes a great base to explore the North of Thailand.
- Mae Hong Son, Thailand: Continue North to Mae Hong Son via motorbike on what is famously known as the Mae Hong Son Loop, next stop Pai and Chiang Mai.