Mae Sot - Not a White, Sandy Beach
When most people think of Thailand, they think of white, sandy beaches and large international resorts. Once you get off the well-beaten tourist trails, you will be in for some great surprises and experiences. It is very easy to fly from Bangkok to Changmai, both popular destinations for those seeking warm tropical holidays in exotic lands. However, there is a more interesting route to follow if you want a little adventure along the way. along with some great memories.
Instead of flying, head north by bus towards Chang Mai and make your way to the small town of Mae Sot. It is quite inexpensive and, for very little extra money, you can pick up first class tickets. The first half of the trip could be anywhere in rural North America, open fields, small towns, and wooded areas. The second half was both spectacular and nerve-racking. It is not a trip for the weak-kneed or those susceptible to motion sickness! We climbed and climbed and climbed and ….S curve after S curve, up one side and down the other, very mountainous forested countryside. It is worth the trip just for the scenery and the exciting bus ride to get there! Staying in Mae Sot and visiting the schools and the area was definitely a highlight of one of our trips to Thailand.
Mae Sot is probably not a place that anybody would visit unless it was on the way to somewhere else! Although it is not a popular tourist destination, it is well worth a visit, if only to experience a small Thai village with a difference, outside the usual tourist destinations. We ended up deciding to visit the town because my nephew was teaching at one of the schools for Burmese migrant workers’ children. He was working as a volunteer and it gave us an opportunity to get the inside scoop of life and work inside a very different world from what we were used to.
Mae Sot is the location where Asian Highway AH1 links between Thailand and Burma; thus it is one of the most important gateways to Burma. The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge crossing the Moei River was constructed in 1997 completing the link between the two countries. Legal border crossings take place on the bridge. On either side of the bridge all day, rubber inner tubes carry Burmese back and forth illegally under the watchful eyes of the border police. For the most part, nobody seems too concerned about it all. Apparently a little money changes hands here and there depending on the day and the moods of the people involved. Many cross to work in Mae Sot by day and return home at night.
The city itself is a mixture of Burmese, Thai and Karen peoples and culture. The Karen people are a large ethnic group that represents 7% of the Burmese (Myanmar) population, living in the south and southeast. Since 1949 they have been defending themselves from persecution perpetrated and supported by the Burmese central government. As a result, many have become internally displaced persons within the mountainous regions of their homeland, or have fled across the border into Thailand. Because Mae Sot is one of the major centers located on the Burma-Thai border, there has been a massive influx of refugees and immigrants. This has led to a population that is no longer a Thai majority.
Because of the large numbers of registered and unregistered refugees in and around Mae Sot, there a large number of expat volunteers working (is this an oxymoron?) and living in the area. Many are based in the numerous refugee camps and others are teaching in the migrant worker schools. At night, they gather in several bars around the town and make for an interesting group to mingle with. It is not that difficult to visit the schools in the area but visiting the refugee camps requires special permits.
It was very interesting walking around Mae Sot. We drank Burmese coffee, and ate a great mixture of Indian, Burmese and Thai food sprinkled with the odd meal at one of the local western restaurants. There are many beautiful local items for sale in the markets and shops, including some wonderful Burmese arts and crafts at the many local galleries. Taking a walking or scooter tour of the town soon gives you an insight to the diversity of the area. Tourists in the city seem to be next to non-.existent, which is also a refreshing change. One has to admire the work done by the many volunteers and paid workers dealing with the Burmese. It takes a special kind of person to do the work they are doing under the working conditions they are in.
Renting a couple of scooters made all the difference in being able to see the area. We even managed a couple of trips to the local watering holes and met a bunch of the local foreigners living and working in the area. Of course getting back home at night was a little trickier since we had to ride on the back of a couple of newfound friends’ bicycles at 12 at night through the streets of Mae Sot. Public transport is not exactly an option at that hour. The tuk tuk drivers are fast asleep by then. This place is far from a 24-7 busy metropolis!
Visiting Mae Sot was definitely a highlight of our trip to Thailand. It gave us an insight to life in a small town that is a major hub for volunteer workers. For the most part, other than watching small news flashes on television over the years, I knew next to nothing about the plight of the people in this small, fairly remote area of the world.
- Borderline Café, Shop and Gallery, Mae Sot, Thailand
Borderline Café, Shop and Gallery, Mae Sot, Thailand - website includes a beautiful online catalog featuring a variety of Burmese crafts.
- AAPP Website
Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma)
- Burma Volunteer Program
A volunteer program in Thailand that serves populations from Burma on the Thailand-Burma border.