In a nutshell
Mae Sai’s popularity among Western tourists is due to the fact that for decades it has been the only border crossing accessible for foreigners willing to visit Myanmar or heading there for a visa run overland.
Why go to Mae Sai
In recent years the opening of new crossing points more convenient if you’re coming from Bangkok or central Thailand, have caused a strong decrease in the number of Farangs (this is how the Thai people call Westerners) visiting Mae Sai. Nevertheless if you’re travelling the North of Thailand and spending some time in Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai you may want to have a quick look at a real border town, a local trade capital for Burmese and Chinese goods, with plenty of options for cheap shopping on both Thai and Myanmar sides of the river plus several worth visiting attractions in the vicinity – we are sure that Mae Sai will not disappoint you.
Located 60 km north of Chiang Rai, it is actually the northernmost town in Thailand; make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to take a picture with the sign that points it out.
When to go to Mae Sai
Mae Sai is best avoided during the rainy season (May – October), especially during the months of July and August. Stretched along the Mae Sai River, the banks are not high enough to contain the water after few days of strong rain, and in fact every year this causes at least a couple of floodings.
December and January instead are the coolest months of the year and hardly experience any rain at all. In the beginning of December the Mai Sai Tribe Festival takes place: ten ethnic groups from different villages in Chiang Rai province compete in various music and dancing shows and for 2 days a permanent food market will give you the chance to try a variety of local cuisines.
Where to stay in Mae Sai
Mae Sai can be considered a one-street town, developed along the main road coming from Chiang Rai and ending at the border. Take the left turn to the riverside street before the bridge and you’ll find a cluster of the cheapest guesthouses in town. Generally speaking they’re quite basic, but the setting is nice and you’re close to the market and the border. Expect to pay THB250/THB300 for a double room with a fan.
If you keep walking for a few hundred meters you’ll find Mae Sai Guesthouse, the oldest in town (it has been operating for more than 30 years now), but still remains a great place to stop – indeed, we always stay there while in Mae Sai. It offers a few bungalows in a nice location right on the river, friendly English- speaking staff and the view over Burma right in front of you – well, is there anything else you need while in Mae Sai? Some of the bungalows have been renewed; some others still preserve the authentic atmosphere of the days gone. They all come with a private bathroom with hot shower and rates start at THB300.
Note Remember to avoid any place close to the river during the rainy season. A few hours of heavy rain at night – and you can wake up with your room flooded.
For something more upmarket, check the main road. There you’ll find several bigger and more modern hotels aiming primarily at the Chinese tourists coming here to shop for jewellery and gems. Rooms are usually quite anonymous but clean, spacious, with air-cons, Wi-Fi, and breakfast included. Expect to pay a bit more than for similar solutions anywhere else in Thailand with rates starting at THB800.
Where to eat in Mae Sai
Even if there’s not a big choice when it comes to food, there are still enough options to make sure you’re not going to starve. Mae Sai doesn’t have a proper night market, but along the main road, especially close to the bridge, every evening several different stalls spring out to offer you simple and inexpensive food. Don’t expect a huge variety, but all the most common street food options are there including chicken and pork skewers, noodle soups, papaya salad or fried chicken.
If you walk away from the river for roughly one km, you’ll find quite a few simple Thai restaurants. Being a bit away from the tourists area, they don’t have any English menu and more than likely the staff don’t speak English at all, but you’ll find all the basic dishes of the Thai cuisine at THB40/THB50; fried rice, pad thai, pad kra pao (stir-fried pork or chicken with basil leafs, our favourite everyday meal).
Also on the same road but 2 km away from the bridge you’ll find 68 Corner Coffee&Bakery (2/7 m.3 Wiang-Pang-Kum, open every day 9.00am – 10.00pm). It’s a small but nice café offering halal food and a few Thai dishes along with delicious desserts.
How to get around Mae Sai
Everything in Mae Sai is close to the border and walking around is the best option that you have. Motorbike taxis are available but their customers are mainly locals and you will hardly need them unless you choose to stay in a hotel far away from the bridge. If you want to rent a motorbike to explore the surrounding area you can ask your guesthouse; rates are usually THB250 for a day.
How to get to and from Mae Sai
The bus station is located on the main road coming from Chiang Rai, 5 km out of town. From here you can get a public songthaew (THB15) that will drop you in town close to the bridge or a motorbike taxi (THB40) that will take you straight to your hotel. As soon as you get to the bus station, you realize what an important commercial trade town Mae Sai is; the number of buses connecting it to almost everywhere in Thailand is impressive, especially considering how remote and small this town is.
From Bangkok’s Morchit Bus Terminal several buses do the overnight trip to Mae Sai; the first departure is at 4.30pm and the last at 8.30pm. The whole trip takes roughly 12-13 hours. Tickets cost from THB620 for a VIP bus to THB1000 for a VIP24. Same prices and timetables for the way back to Bangkok.
From/to Chiang Rai local buses without air-con depart every half an hour from 5.30am until 8.00pm. The ticket is THB65 and it takes 1 hour to get to/from Mae Sai.
From/to Chiang Mai air-con buses depart all day long (last departure at 4.30pm) and the trip takes 5 hours. Tickets start at THB260 for an express bus, while the VIP one is THB420.
If you love border towns, a direct bus connects Mae Sai and Mae Sot. Tickets for this 10 hours trip will cost you THB520 and the bus leaves at 6.45am (7.00am in the opposite direction).
One daily bus connects Mae Sai to Isaan provinces stopping in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani.
Other options include Pattaya, Chonburi, and the southern cities of Chumpon, Surat Thani and Hat Yai. Check directly at the bus station for timetable and prices.
From a bus stop in town close to the border you can take a public blue songthaew to the Golden Triangle and Chiang Saen. Departures are frequent but only in the morning. The last ride is at 2.00pm.
Finally to cross the border to Myanmar you don’t need any transportation. The bridge is right in town and you can simply walk to Tachileik, the first town in Burma on the other side of the river.
Tip The Immigration will let you cross and have a look around for a few hours without any visa, but they’ll keep your passport and give it back to you when you re-enter Thailand. No visa and no stamp will be applied to your passport. If you’re here for a visa run, you will keep your passport and you’ll be granted a temporary visa for Myanmar valid for few hours as well. Please note that immigration rules are a lot stricter than few years ago and depending on your history of traveling in Thailand you can be refused re-entry in the Kingdom. If your plan is to keep traveling in Myanmar you need to have a valid Myanmar visa and you can apply for it at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok.
Is Mae Sai a safe place to travel?
Mae Sai is overall a safe place to travel. Use common sense and beware possible scams when buying gems on both sides of the border. If you’re planning a visa run, before exiting the country double-check with the immigration officer to make sure they will let you come back to Thailand or you might end up getting stuck between the two countries without a valid visa both for Myanmar and Thailand.