Thailand Travel: How to Make a Visa Run to Mae Sai
For the thousands of expats living in northern Thailand and the millions of tourists coming through the area every year, Mae Sai is by far the easiest place to make the regular and bothersome "border run." The whole trip can be completed in a day if you want, or it can be a short trip with a stop in Chiang Rai to see the famous White Temple or in Chiang Saen to see the sparse ruins of a 7th-century city.
Do you want to get over and get back to Chiang Mai before happy hour is over? Would you prefer the slower route, with cheaper buses and stopovers along the way? This article tells what to do and what to expect during the Mae Sai visa run, and also gives a few travel options of varying speeds and costs.
Note: To keep things simple, I've decided to only list prices in Thai baht. You can use this Currency Converter for reference.
Minibus from Chiang Mai: The Easy Option
Travel agents throughout the eastern half of the old city sell tickets for the one-day border run trip to Mae Sai. You'll pack into an air-conditioned minivan with about ten other backpackers early in the morning. You may meet at the tour office, or some companies may pick you up at your guesthouse. The ride to Mae Sai will take about 4-5 hours including a rest stop along the way.
After you stamp out of Thailand you'll walk across a short bridge over a small muddy river before arriving at the Myanmar border post. Cross over to the right-hand side of the bridge for the entry station. After paying a 500-baht fee and taking a photo you'll be issued a temporary pass which will allow you to wander around Tachileik to shop for a while. Ask the tour operator whether you'll have time to shop. There's a pretty extensive market to the right of the bridge where you can stock up on cheap DVDs (25-30 baht each), CDs, handicrafts, clothes and such.
When you're finished shopping, just get back up onto the bridge and walk on the right side to the exit station. Hand the official your pass and they will hand back your passport with your entry and exit stamp already entered. Then walk back over the bridge, switch to the left-hand sidewalk, and re-enter Thailand. Meet your bus at wherever your driver has told you to, then take the 4-5 hour ride back home.
Total cost: ~600 baht (minibus ticket) + 500 baht (entry to Myanmar)
Do-It-Yourself Public Bus Trip: The Flexible Option
Taking local buses can be cheaper than the minibus and also gives you more flexibility for stopping to see Chiang Rai or Chiang Saen. If you fancy doing things the "local way," this is how to do it.
The first step is getting to the bus station in Chiang Mai. You may be able to convince a sorngthaew (red truck) to take you there from inside the old city. However, it is easiest to catch one on Chang Moi Road, just one block north of Thapae Gate, outside the old city moat. It should cost about 40 baht per person to get to the bus station.
Chiang Mai - Mae Sai
At the bus station, head to the Green Bus ticket counter. (Green Bus Schedule) There are two options to get from here to Mae Sai:
Option 1: You can buy a ticket straight to Mae Sai (330/212/165 baht: VIP/1st/2nd class; 6 hours), though these buses tend to fill quickly. It's best to book a day ahead. If you try to buy a ticket on the same day, you may have to wait for the next bus or two until there is an open seat.
Option 2: You can buy a ticket to Chiang Rai (330/212/165 baht: VIP/1st/2nd class; 5 hours) and then catch a normal Chiang Rai-Mae Sai bus (~40 baht; 1.5 hours) from there. It's comparatively easy to get a ticket to Chiang Rai as there are many more buses running this route. Buses also leave regularly from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai, so it's easy to get a seat on one of these buses. One important note on the Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai bus is not to get off at the newer bus terminal south of the city center. The bus will stop here first, but stay on until the final stop at the old bus station in the city center. The buses to Mae Sai leave from here.
Mae Sai Bus Station - Tachileik - Mae Sai Bus Station
Whether you take option 1 or 2, you'll end up at the Mae Sai bus station. From here it's a 15-baht sorngthaew ride to the border. Once you're at the border, it works just as in the section above. An advantage of DIY-ing is that you can stay in Tachileik as long as you like. The pass you receive at the border actually lasts for 15 days, so you can hang around and explore the town if you like. You can also travel to two further towns, Kengtung and Mong La, though you'll need to arrange permits to do so.
After crossing back into Thailand, continue walking south on the left-hand side of the road until you see some red sorngthaew parked. They are usually waiting to take people from the border to the bus station.
Mae Sai - Chiang Mai
From here you can go back directly to Chiang Mai if can catch the Green Bus. Otherwise, take the normal bus (~40 baht) back to the old Chiang Rai bus station. You can then catch one of the regular Green Bus trips to Chiang Mai. When you arrive in Chiang Mai, a sorngthaew from the bus station to Thapae Gate, at the east of the old city, should be 20 baht.
Total cost: 90 baht (sorngthaew rides) + 330-660 baht (bus tickets) + 500 baht (entry to Myanmar)
Note: You can also take a tuk-tuk to the bus station in Chiang Mai. I've never done this, but I figure it would cost around 100 baht from the old city.