We were in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks on a Habitat for Humanity build project. Myself and two of my teammates decided to take one of our free days and go to Myanmar. All three of us share the desire to collect passport stamps and take pics of interesting signs around the world. A day trip would satisfy that.
I’d heard about expats going from Chiang Mai to Myanmar on visa runs, which is where someone whose visa is set to expire will exit the country at a border town, turn around, come back in and get a new stamp, allowing them to stay for another 30-180 days, depending on the rules for tourist visas in the original country. Of course, we weren’t interested in all of that. We just wanted to spend the day across the border.
Thai officials have cracked down over the past year with regard to visa runs. They have to stamp you out of the country, taking your departure card that was stapled into your passport upon your origin arrival. If you cannot prove to them upon your exit (and intended same-day return) that you have no intention of staying for an indefinite period of time in Thailand, they will not let you out of the country.
The trip from Chiang Mai to Myanmar is about a 4.5 hour bus ride. It’s hilly, curvy, has lots of police check points that can take anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, and is just plain exhausting. The a/c is set at the lowest temp possible, and you can almost literally see your breath. We took the VIP bus which means that it was air conditioned (we got our money’s worth), had comfortable and reclining seats (yes, they were), and free bottled water and cookies (the Thai version of Oreos and Nutter Butters). During the last 45 minutes of the trip, the bus would stop about every 500 meters to let people on and off. The police checkpoints are interesting, as the dogs search the luggage holds and police officers come aboard the bus. At every stop, at least two people were hauled off the bus, about half of which were allowed back on after a few minutes of questioning.
The bus departed the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai on time (0800), which is a miracle in and of itself. As someone who is OCD about punctuality, this was much appreciated. But as we were fighting our way in rush hour traffic out of Chiang Mai, there was a weird sound/feeling with the bus, almost like it wouldn’t shift out of second gear. I know something about mechanics, and I just felt something wasn’t right. My guess was validated and confirmed when we detoured into a maintenance facility for the bus company, whereupon we were told to get off and switch busses. So after this 45 minute delay, we were on our way again. One interesting thing to note about the bus ticket receipts is the date printed on them. The year was 2559, which is the Thai year. Many receipts in Thailand are printed this way, with others printing the traditional year of 2016.
During the police stops and while stopping at the bus terminals in two other towns, I started talking to an American guy sitting behind me. He’s originally from Louisiana but has lived in Thailand for 20 years and is married to a Thai woman. After explaining what we were doing, he called his wife (who was at home) and talked to her in Thai. The only English word he said was “Americans,” referring to us. He hung up and explained that he’d be getting off about 30 minutes prior to the bus reaching the last stop at the border town of Mae Sai. The Mae Sai bus terminal and the actual border is about five kilometers away, so you have to take a taxi. He told us to wait for him there and he’d bring his car to pick us up, along with his wife. He explained that she’d be able to get us through the border without any hassle.
True to their word, when we got off at the last stop, they pulled up in their gray Nissan just as they said they would. They took us to the border where she found someone with a copy machine (some things you just accept and don’t ask about) where we each made two color copies of our passports for immigration officials. She took us to the border crossing and talked to the Thai officials, where they then led us to the front of the line, stamped us out, and told us to have a nice day. They were very, very polite. The American and his wife told us they were going shopping and we set a time and place to meet again a few hours later to take us back to the bus station.
The Myanmar immigration officials were also very polite. Being a border town and issuing day visas (as opposed to tourist visas which require an application and fee), it’s common practice for Myanmar to keep your passport at the immigration checkpoint and issue you a day visa card. While I would have done this, albeit with some apprehension, it certainly wasn’t my first choice. This requires that you stop back at the checkpoint to (hopefully) retrieve your passport before entering the Thai customs office. But for some reason the Myanmar officials stamped us into the country and also stamped us out at the same time and gave our passports back to us. Awesome!! This kind gesture now saved us the hassle of having to go through the immigration line on our way out and back into Thailand.
So we were now officially in Myanmar and one of our goals was now met: the passport stamp. Even though crossing the border for the day isn’t really seeing the true Myanmar, we could at least say we’ve been there and have a stamp to prove it. The stamp said we were in Myanmar, but we hadn’t officially crossed the border saying we were in Myanmar. We had to stop for pics before we took that step.
There’s a bridge that connects the two countries. The small river between Thailand and Myanmar is more like a sewage drain — dry, dirty, smelly. There’s a couple of interesting notes about that 75 meter walk out of one country and into another. First, the time drops back 30 minutes as you enter Myanmar. Second, cars in Thailand drive on the left side of the road, and cars in Myanmar drive on the right side. So traffic between the two countries has to switch on the bridge. It’s quite interesting to watch, as seen in this link.
We crossed over and were immediately hit with every conceivable counterfeit item. And begging. The socioeconomic divide is stark between the two countries. Who knew a bridge could divide two classes of people? Your heart wants to help everyone, but you have to just learn to not make eye contact and keep walking. What we spent just this day on a holiday would probably cover their entire wages for a month. But we can’t help everyone, and you just have to learn to accept the reality. I’m not saying the guilt doesn’t hit you repeatedly, but the world is a cruel place, and there was nothing I or we could do.
We walked into town and stopped in some various shops. None of the shops had much. We kept walking. Oh look! Another temple. We were a little templed-out from being in Thailand. We talked to a few people and kept walking. It was about 40 degrees Celsius that day. There was nothing to drink. I couldn’t even find a Coke, let alone some (pure) bottled water. We finally found a restaurant that looked like it catered to the former expat visa run crowd. Of course, now that visa runs were banned, it was kind of empty, but it looked like our best and safest bet. The name was called T-Bone Steak. Yes, they sold T-bone steaks, but that was also the actual name of the place. For $4 USD, we got a steak, seven french fries, and a salad. We didn’t eat the salad as we had no idea of the quality of the water used to wash it (if they even washed it).
We walked around a little more then decided to head back to Thailand. I snapped a few pics of signs, breezed through customs, and then it was back to the bus station for the long ride back to Chiang Mai. We got back late. After being on the bus/meat locker, it was refreshing to step off in Chiang Mai where it was still 30 degrees Celsius at 2200 at night. We were hungry. Matt and I went to McDonald’s straightaway, while Eric met up with some others from the team at a bar down the street from the hotel. Overall, a long and exhausting day, but well worth the adventure. Spending an extended period of time in Myanmar is on my to-do list.