For long term travellers deciding to make Chiang Mai their temporary home the northern Thai border town of Mae Sai will become a familiar place. Many expats living in the north of Thailand will visit there two or three times a year; crossing the bridge and stepping a hundred metres over the border into Myanmar to extend their 30 days in Thailand or renew their two plus one month tourist visas.
Usain Bolt could do the whole thing in under twenty seconds, plus whatever time it takes to hand over $10 and wait for his passport to be stamped. On our numerous trips to give money to a smiley Burmese man in a white uniform we averaged about five or six minutes in Myanmar, a bit longer if we pop across the road to the duty free shop.
For most travellers and expats there are three ways to get to Mae Sai. The most adventurous option is to hire a scooter and ride to the border like Erin and Simon did. As I have trouble riding for more than half an hour without crashing in to a milk float, breaking suddenly – to avoid smashing into a wall – and going over the handlebars, riding the wrong way down a one way street or doing an unintentional wheelie and flipping an unsuspecting girlfriend off the back and watching her roll down a hill (yup, I’ve done all this in the half dozen or so times I’ve ridden a scooter, moped or motorbike), we decided against this route.
Instead, we organised the chore of our visa run via an agency, paying LCMT Tour 550 baht to pick us up at our accommodation in a minivan, ditch us as close to the border as possible and take us home again. Plenty of other agencies around town can do the same but ever busy Varinthon, the owner of LCMT, is efficient, the friendliest and the cheapest agent we found.
Update: The visa rules have changed a couple of times since we wrote this post. Currently border runs are restricted to two in a calendar year. Fewer agencies, including LCMT Tour, now offer a mini van service and prices have risen from that given above. Last time we did this trip by mini van we did so with Chiang Mai Visa Run. The price was 990 baht when we last checked.
Taking a local bus is the third route to the border but once the price of a songthaew or tuk tuk to the bus station is factored in (the price rises when the drivers learn you are headed to the Arcade Bus Station) plus transport from the bus station in Mae Sai to the border, the price difference is negligible and the journey a little more hassle. But should you intend to spend a few hours in Tachileik, on the Burmese side of the border, this is the only option for those without their own transport.
We tend to do this when we don’t want to get up early, leaving in the afternoon on the Green Bus to spend a night in Chiang Rai and heading for the border and back to Chiang Mai the next day.
(Note: We have British and Irish passports. Most people reading this will experience the same rules as we do but the rules will differ for some nationalities)
The Chiang Mai to Mae Sai Visa Run by Minivan
Our minivan driver picked us up at our accommodation at around 7.30am. There are always plenty of people in Chiang Mai needing to renew their visas so expect the bus to be full. Tip: If you suffer from motion sickness do not sit at the back (guess where we sat?)
After a while driving around Chiang Mai picking up the rest of the passengers the Farang Express hits the road to Mae Sai. The first part of the journey is on bendy roads. This is where any motion sickness will kick in so it is a relief to stop at these hot springs for 15 minutes, even if they are a massive tourist trap. Signs announcing ‘Free Foot’ indicate you can stick your feet into warm pools of water.
The minivan gets to Mae Sai and the border at around noon, allowing us an hour to complete all the formalities. We pile off the bus and head to Thai passport control on the left (coming back in shortly via Thai Immigration on the right). Opening hours are 6.30 am to 6.30 pm.
Yay, time to get rid of that annoying slip of paper that’s been stapled in my passport for the past two months. Queues are usually pretty tame and you shouldn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes – most likely less.
Walk halfway across this bridge and you are in Myanmar. Myanmar immigration is at the far end on the right. Pay the smiley man in a white uniform 500 baht or $10 ($10 works out cheapest at the moment) and be on your way. If paying in dollars notes should be blemish free and issued after 2006. The Burmese are VERY fussy about this. If you want to stay in Burma for a few hours the Burmese authorities will keep hold of your passport and issue an ID card. With the issue of more documents it is possible to stay for up to 14 days – though visitors can only venture as far as Kengtung, around 50-60 miles away. Make sure to bring 3 passport sized photos should you intend on staying in Myanmar.
Five minutes after leaving Thailand and we are here, filling out that annoying slip of paper ready to be stapled in our passport for the next two months. We were renewing our Tourist Visas (which have to be obtained at an Embassy or Consulate elsewhere – we got ours in Savannakhet, Laos – it’s not possible to get one here).
After going through Thai Immigration (again, no photos) we are back in Mae Sai and can remain in Thailand for another two months (three, if we extend our visa at Chiang Mai Immigration). Visa free entry will give an extra 30 days.
Right, where’s that van? Only four hours (with a 15 minute break) until we get back home to Chiang Mai.
Having been there before we didn’t mind only spending around 15 minutes in Myanmar on our (at the time of writing) three visa runs, but if you haven’t been to Burma it will be a great shame if this is your only experience of the country. For more information on visiting Myanmar please see Myanmar: Why on Earth Would We Want to go There?