Running to Mae Sai

by Kenneth Champeon, Mar 15, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Mae Sai

It may seem paradoxical, but if you are an expatriate you may have to leave your foreign home in order to live in it. In Thailand, unless you have the foresight to get a non-immigrant visa, you may have to leave every thirty or ninety days. This reminder that one is neither a tourist nor a citizen, but some intermediate being, has come to be known as the 'visa run,' as the trip generally has no other, more edifying purpose. Instead, it often takes the character of a 'run' to the corner store for staples unexpectedly depleted. That said, the visa run also opens up to the expat, who otherwise might not make the trip, a handful of locales as captivating as the country en route. The visa run to Mae Sai is one example.

Mae Sai is four hours north by road from Chiang Mai and is therefore the closest visa run destination for the city's expatriates. Located within the notorious Golden Triangle*, Mae Sai borders on the village of Tachilek, Burma. Unfortunately, the trip up and back virtually exhausts the daylight hours, so few expats do little more in Burma than eat a bowl of Burmese noodle soup, or wander around the village market. This run has consequently earned the code name 'Lunch in Burma.'

Not to slight Burma, of course. The noodle soup is a welcome, slightly more turbid and flavorful variation on Thailand's own gooay teeo, and it is pleasant to sit in the dilapidated shops serving it up and chat with its friendly vendors. Pleasant too is trawling Tachilek market and wondering at how different in dress and facial characteristics are the Burmese from the Thais, just a narrow river's breadth away. There is, however, a rather alarming proportion of the market dedicated to military surplus and toy machine guns; and, in any case, the visa to Burma is only for the day. Political troubles in Burma aside, one best - one must - be going!

Mae Sai itself is exemplified by the market and shops running along the main road where it intersects the border. Here one can find all manner of consumer electronic goods, stuffed animals, and Lanna-style clothing, all occasionally appearing within the same diminutive stall. From this vantage one can also see the verdant hills behind Tachilek serving as a backdrop for a spectacular gilt pagoda, emblem of Burmese culture and religion.

But it is the road of the run that occupies the most time and contains the greatest beauty. The northern hills, textured by an infinite variety of tropical vegetation, surpass grandeur; the endless rice paddies, through which their farmers serenely wade, recall the Asia of explorers' florid memoirs; and the misty valleys, disturbed only by the road and its demanding curves, diminish any imaginable Shangri-La.

While the drive itself is not always a salve for the nerves, often the noise and pace of the cities at either end is rendered absurd by the slowness and silence of the lush world in between. One is wont to ponder, that perhaps the next visa run should be a gallop or a stroll.

*At the time of this writing (7 March 2001), the border at Mae Sai is closed due to skirmishes resulting from the drug trade.