Mae Sai is the northernmost town of Thailand. It's notorious for shopping, because here one get's a number of goods who come exclusively from Burma/Myanmar and are not available elsewhere in Thailand. Here is one of the two land-border crossing points from Thailand to Burma/Myanmar (the other one is at Kawthaung, neighbouring Ranong Province). Therefore it's a possibility to make here a 'Thai Visa Run' for getting a new Thai visa.
I should add at this point that the preferred currency in Tachileik is Thai baht and not the Burmese / Myanmar kyat. That means there is no money change necessary.
One can even cross Burma/Myanmar and travel to China, but in this case the Chinese visa must have been arranged before. It's also possible to travel a very limited bit into Burma/Myanmar itself (see: Travelling to inner Burma).
Tachileik town as a target for visiting / sightseeing is rather boring and not really worth the effort to go here.
Maybe it's worth to be mentioned that in Tachileik traffic is on the right side, while it is on the left in Thailand.
Thai Visa Run
The border is open daily from 6am to 6pm. Burmese time is half an hour behind (at 6pm in Thailand it's 5:30pm in Tachileik). The Burmese authorities demand a 500 baht visa fee. What they refuse to explain, even when I three times asked them for, is that one can alternatively pay them 10 $US . That's about 300 Baht, merely almost half the value. The Burmese officials don't want that, because the difference of 200 Baht each tourist pays more, if not being informed, moves, that's highly probable, into their pockets.
If one comes with a fifty dollar bill, the Burmese officials refuse to take it. They claim, they wouldn't have change. I don't believe them. Every small street vendor in Southeast Asia has change for what he sells. The government of Burma won't have change at the border checkpoint? On my last visa run there I insisted, and they even sent me back to Thailand. There, of course, I missed the Burmese visa what is stupidly a condition to get another Thai visa. I tried to get change in Mae Sai, but on sundays all the banks are closed. I am also not sure if the banks have dollar bills - that's not so easy to get in Thailand. Well, I went back then to the Burmese officials and still insisted on my right. They weren't happy with the situation, and after a while another guy appeared and offered me to change money. I gave him the bill and within less than a minute he came back with five ten dollar bills. I got my visa and that it was.
The guy who changed the money was another official in civil clothing, whom I didn't see before. He was very friendly and helpful. The two officials in the office were pretty stubborn. I guess it was a variation of the old game 'good cop - bad cop'. Pretty little assholes they are. Let's face the truth: they cheat every day a considerable number of tourists and travellers.
Remarkable also that the guys who arrange the visa stamps do not wear uniforms, as it is normal for officers at any borderpoint of an half-way organized country.
The traveller gets here a 14 days visa for Burma. The authorities keep the travellers passport at the border station and hand out a substitute identification card (called 'entry permit').
A similar game is played in Kawthaung, but here in Tachileik it's tougher, for the officials really deny the cheaper alternative.
The Thai officials, by the way, appeared supportive and understanding therefore. One of them tried to manage a money change, but he failed because he couldn't find someone who had the adequate dollar sum.
What to do in Tachileik
iPads and smart phones in a mixed shop on Tachileik's market. Image by Asienreisender, 2012
First, Tachileik has a big market for counterfeited merchandise made in China or Taiwan. Many of these things are not or not so easy to get in Thailand. Might be that Thailand controls more strictly according to the WTO agreements. There are also border controls and, what I saw first time in February 2013, a number of forbidden items displayed in glass cupboards.
Especially counterfeited up-to-date smartphones like Apple's G4 or Samsungs galaxy are to get for far less than 100 euros. I saw also iPad's for some 80 to 90 euros (incl. keyboards and a nice cover.) The question is of course the quality. I just checked a few devices a bit and saw big differences among them. Some seem to be really good, close to the original, others have obviously failures (the touchscreen only works when pressing it strongly, operating systems break down quickly etc.
A real price-performance check would be only possible when comparing a counterfeited device for a certain time systematically with an original. In fact, I personally don't trust the real brands, their products are frequently annoyingly bad in quality, particularly the software; not to mention the faked ones.
By the way, it's pretty much the same stuff here as I saw it in many places in north Laos. It's all coming from Yunnan/China.
Second, Tachileik is a place for gambling. Thai People love gambling, and it's illegal in Thailand. To gamble in a casino they have to go abroad (or gambling in a hidden, illegal casino in Thailand, what's more risky and for insiders). So, Tachileik is a place which provides some casinos and where Thai People can follow their passion (or obsession).
Third, one can do a bit of sightseeing in Tachileik.
Sightseeing in Tachileik
To make it short, Tachileik is noisy, dirty, has too much traffic and nothing particular what would be worth a visit. The people here are completely different from the people on the other side of the Nam Ruak (river) in Thailand. Although it's part of the Shan territory, and the Shan are ethnically Thais. I guess, the British brought many people from other parts of their empire to Tachileik and mixed the ethnics quite up here. Many of the inhabitants look to me rather like Bangladeshi or Pakistani, Indian Muslims. Many of them want to sell day tours or trips to tourists, or their goods as counterfeited western cigarettes like 'Marlboro' or 'West', viagra ("Cheap, cheap, cheap, brother!" or even prostitutes. Their selling methods are quite aggressive, far more than I am used to in Thailand and more than I still feel convenient with.
When entering the town coming from the border bridge one heads to a roundabout. Before it, right hand, leads a stairway down to the market mentioned above. At the roundabout turning left leads to a few guesthouses / hotels in the sideroads; following the mainroad leads outside town soon. It's not allowed to leave the town here. A military post is checking traffic and sends one back.
Heading north of the roundabout leads out of town into a hilly surrounding. A cemetery, some small temples, a school and orphanage and an Akha village.
Climbing up to the 'Hotel Golden Triangle' the dirt road behind it leads onto a hill with a view over the city and into a poor neighbourhood. The dog's are quite aggressive there.
Turning right at the roundabout means following the main road. It streches for kilometers parallel to the Nam Ruak River respectively the country's border to the east. It's dirty and there is too much traffic. It's also the way to the bus station to Kengtung and Mengla. Turning right and soon left again leads through some sideroads. They are even dirtier than the mainroad. Here one can visit some temples and Tachileik's Shwedagon Pagoda. It's nothing spectacular, and I would say most Thai temples are nicer than the ones in Tachileik. The pagoda is on a hill, surrounded by a big square and some sidebuildings. A lot of stuff is sold there as well and sometimes there are celebrations. Although it's nothing particular, however, if one is interested to have a stroll in Tachileik he or she could go here.
A bit northeast of the pagoda is a golf course and behind it is an old hotel (Regina). In the hotel is one of the casinos where Thai People go for gambling. Roulette, Black Jack and a variety of other games is offered. Meanwhile they put also different gambling machines in another room.
It's always interesting in foreign places to just sit in a restaurant with a good view to the outside and watch streetlife. It's buzzing and lively all around in Tachileik. I always enjoyed to sit at the Thai side of the river in Mae Sai in one of the restaurants close to the border bridge, watching what's going on on and below the bridge. On the bridge is the official traffic, while below the bridge is all the smuggling going on. The guys must have an 'agreement' with the officers to let them go to and fro the border, carrying bags and boxes all the time like ants, passing the river barefoot.
There are two ways up to Tachileiks Shwedagon Pagoda, a western and an eastern one. When I came down from the pagoda, using the western road downwards I turned right, the way upwards to another temple, close by the pagoda. Suddenly two dogs appeared. A big fat one and a bigger, fatter one. Generally I have no problems with dogs, let them bark if they mean to, and keep calm, going my way. The two approached me quickly, the fatter one waggling it's tail. They came quickly close to me - I don't like that very much, but I was in such a situation many times already and nothing happened. This time - surprise, surprise - they both simultaneously bit me. The fatter one in my upper left leg, the other one in my hip. I shouted to them and they went on short distance, bumming around me. I expected a second attack and thought about what to do. Since I had nothing to defend myself, the only possibility would have been to kick them in their snouts - but a woman who witnessed the incident helped me out and kept them on distance. For this time I resigned to visit the temple.
At another temple before I went around the main building and at the back of it two dogs suddenly approached - but they were chained. I quickly went a few steps back out of their range. I don't know what happens with the temple dogs in Tachileik, that they are so bad. In Thailand it's said that sometimes some of the monks make the dogs bad and train them to attack foreigners.
Drugs in Tachileik
The Golden Triangle, of which Tachileik is part of, is notorious for drugs since the American Vietnam War. To finance the 'Secret War', the CIA boosted the drug industries in this area. In the 1970s, most of the world's heroin came from here (now it's Afghanistan, where America fights another of it's many, many wars, what for an accident...).
In the post Vietnam War years Thailand took much efforts to fight poppy production - with good results. The Thai government gave the local farmers opportunities to make an income with conventional farming (see also 'Opium and Heroin in Mae Salong'). But in Laos and particularly Burma/Myanmar drug production is still a big thing. The production changed also in what for drugs are produced - nowadays it's less marihuana, opium and heroin but new designer drugs as yaba or crystal meth (called 'ice'). That then comes in great amounts over the border into Thailand and get's further distributed through the neighbouring countries.
The 'United Wa State Army' is said where the biggest drug cartel in Burma's Shan state, of which Tachileik is part of. I am pretty sure it would be quite easy to get drugs in Tachileik; one just had to ask one of the many self-declared guides behind the customs office. They long to make any business. But, it's highly dangerous, on both sides of the border. The punishments are draconic, in most of the countries here. In Thailand one can come into jail for years for the possession of even a small amount of drugs, even if it is only marihuana. In Burma one couldn't be sure that the drug dealer is not itself a policeman who first sells the stuff and later arranges a raid and arrest for his customer. Bringing drugs over the border is no good idea at all. Besides, I would also question the quality of the stuff.
One can seriously question the drug politics of the states. Drug consumption is clearly no criminal act. It also doesn't lead necessarily to criminal acts, secondarily. It might be a health problem, in certain cases a social problem, in many cases it's no problem at all. It's just criminalized by the official laws. In the same time the official trade with psychotropics produced in the pharmaceutical industries is legal and promoted by commercials and advertisements. Doctors get trained to sell as much of the poisonous crap as they can. And what about alcohol? Well, states and their laws don't solve problems, they rather create problems.
Travelling to inner Burma
It's possible to travel further into Burma/Myanmar. Only on one road to the north, to Mengla at the Chinese border. It's not possible to go to the east, to Mandalay. Shan territory is insurgency territory. The Burmese government does not control it. But the route to the north seems to be save now. At least there are buses going to Mengla. Some 167 kilometers north of Tachileik, on the route to Mengla, lies Kengtung, a remote and almost forgotten place of former Lanna (with some historical significance). It's situated around a lake, having old, charming Buddhist temples and British colonial architecture, being on an altitude of 1,200 meters above sea level, providing a moderate, sometimes quite cool climate. For it's remotness there is absolutely no mass tourism to expect. But there is one peculiar condition to consider...
One can not go by it's own. The Burmese authorities insist on that you have to have a 'guide' with you. One pays the guide a 1,000 baht per day and his transport costs, his accommodation and food. By the way, for transport you as a foreigner pay much more than a local, at least the double price (400 Thai baht). However, let's face how things are.
You don't need a guide. If you want a guide, you could hire a local one. But an official guide is mandatory. In other words, you have to travel together with an officer of the Burmese secret police and even have to pay for him. It's his duty to shield you from closer contact to local people and further probably to spy on you. You can not get rid of him in your time in Kengtung, because it's his job to check you all the time. How does that sound?