Border Crossing from Mae Sai to Tachileik, Burma: Travel and Visa Info 2016
Visitors to North Thailand and expats who are semi-resident, and who wish to stay longer than the current period of their single or multiple entry visa allows, often make use of an interesting opportunity that involves travelling to the town of Mae Sai, which sits on the Thai side of the border with Burma, (or Myanmar, to give it its official name). From there, they cross the border via the Thai and Myanmar Border Control posts for a day trip (or longer - up to 14 days if they like) to the adjoining Burmese town of Tachileik (or Tachilek), before returning to Mae Sai later in the day.
Mae Sai's main claim to fame is that it's the most northerly point in Thailand. It's not noted for its tourist attractions, and most Thais and foreigners who come here do so in order to cross over to Burma.
There are some fairly cheap, standard quality hotels, such as Top North hotel which is on the same road as the border crossing, literally a couple of minutes walk from the large blue-roofed immigration building that you must pass through if crossing to Burma. If you intend to stay overnight in Mae Sai, expect to pay around 500 baht ($17) for a night in a room with aircon plus cable TV, and usually unreliable WiFi. There are also some fairly basic (room and fan) type guest houses by the river, which is the geographical border with Burma, for around 200 baht. Turn left at the border control to find them. A few more upmarket hotels can be found behind the main road still within walking distance of the Border Control.
Although, the town isn't particularly interesting, the surrounding countryside is picturesque and could be worth exploring if you have time. Just make sure you don't stray into Burma illegally.
In the town and also within walking distance from the Thai border control, Doi Wao Temple is worth a visit. It's high on a hill. You can climb the countless stairs to the temple or pay 10 baht to be taken up by road on the back of a motorbike. The temple is interesting and so are the views towards Mae Sai and beyond, or in the opposite direction to the town of Tachilek and the Burmese hills, dotted with temples.
Travel to Mae Sai
Most people get there by public bus from the northern cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Buses are safe, inexpensive and quite frequent with various 'classes' costing between 160 - 350 baht for the five hour trip from Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Station (via Chiang Rai) or the approximately two hour trip from Chiang Rai's two public bus stations. Book in advance if possible as the buses fill up quite quickly.
When you arrive at Mae Sai bus station (which is a little out of the way), you'll see a couple of red van-like 'passenger service vehicles' (songtaew) that are available to take you to the main street (that leads to the border control) for 15 Baht (10 baht for kids).
Many people do this trip as a 'visa run' from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in a single day. You need to be back at Mae Sai in time for the last bus at 4:30 pm - and you almost certainly need to have booked it in advance otherwise it'll be full.
Some tour companies in both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai offer a day trip minibus service to the border and back for around 500 baht from Chiangmai (less from Chiang Rai). The driver will wait in Mae Sai while you cross to Burma for a couple of hours. These can be booked from various guest houses or travel agents and will pick you up at your guest house or hotel.
Crossing the Border
Crossing the border is simple. Follow the signs at the immigration checkpoint and present your passport to get stamped out of Thailand. Don't forget to fill out the Thai departure card which is stapled inside your passport.
Then walk across the bridge that crosses the River Sai and pass through the entrance with the sign "The Republic of the Union of Myanmar" - the official name for Burma.
Again following the signs, present your passport to the Myanmar Immigration officers, who will charge 500 baht for an entry permit valid for 14 days. The option to pay $10 in US currency is no longer available (not surprising as $10 is worth only 350 baht these days, but see the comment below from John who reckons it's still possible if you tell Immigration that you have no Thai baht). On payment of the required fee, the Myanmar immigration officer then issues a pass but hangs on to your passport until your return. Leave the immigration office and you're in the Burmese town of Tachileik. Whether you stay for 1 day or 14, you can't visit any other part of Myanmar apart from Tachileik and Kengtung Districts. To visit other parts of Myanmar requires a visa obtained beforehand.
Thai people aren't required to pay the 500 baht but must first get a form from the 'ampur' (district office) by presenting their ID card and paying 30 baht. (Thai Passports aren't used at this border control). The office is situated 2 km from the border control on the same road (just off the road, in fact). The procedure only takes a couple of minutes. You can get there by motorcycle taxi near the border control for 20 baht. The driver will wait and take you back to the border control if you like.
Tachileik, Burma (Myanmar)
The town of Tachileik (or Tachilek) is in an area of Eastern Burma known as the Shan State. The first thing to grab your attention are the hordes of friendly, but high pressure, tour guides and sellers offering extremely cheap counterfeit goods ranging from Marlboro to Viagra, of varying quality and safety. They have a good understanding of English apart from the word NO. If you do buy anything, be mindful of Thailand's Customs regulations when returning. Checks are rare but they can confiscate any counterfeit goods if they have a mind to, and certain drugs (e.g., diazepam) are illegal in Thailand without a prescription (even though it's available 'over the counter' at certain Thai pharmacies).
Thai currency is accepted everywhere. There's no need to bother with currency exchange.
There are some interesting temples you can visit while you're there. Shwe Dagon Pagoda is on a hillside, within walking distance (although it's quite a steep hill to climb), and affords good views across Tachileik and the Burmese hills on one side and Mae Sai on the other. Otherwise just walk around the town and soak up the uniquely Burmese atmosphere. The sellers all congregate at the entry point so, having left them behind, you'll be left in relative peace to explore the town at your leisure on foot, or, alternatively, you can book a cycle taxi for an hour or so for a 100 - 150 Thai baht that will take you to that temple (Shwe Dagon) and a couple of others close by. They'll offer to take you other places too, included in the price, such as a long-necked Karen village, but there's an entrance fee. Or to a precious stones dealer, (which earns the driver a cut if you buy something).
Just make sure you're back at the border control before 6pm, and well before 4:30pm, if you want to catch the last scheduled bus to Chiangmai, which will get you back around 9 pm (or 6:30 to Chiang Rai).
Returning to Thailand
There are no Thai consular services in Tachileik, so you can't get a Thai visa here. You either have to have one already, obtained from elsewhere, or else enter Thailand under their "visa waiver scheme".
New Rules - May and August 2014
However, as of May 2014, Thai Immigration have been clamping down on those who continually exit and immediately return without visas via land crossings for the purpose of extending their stay for a further 15 days each time under Thailand's visa waiver scheme. This means that those without visas won't automatically be granted entry, although they have also announced they'll apply the ruling on a case by case basis.
The rule is:
Tourists attempting to re-enter Thailand without a visa after having just completed a stay in the country will NOT be allowed to do so.
At any other land crossing, this wouldn't normally be an insurmountable problem as you could always apply for a Thai tourist visa in whichever of the other neighbouring countries that you've stranded yourself in. In Tachileik that's not possible, and it's further complicated by the fact that (unless you have a previously obtained Myanmar visa) your Myanmar entry stamp doesn't allow you to travel outside of the Tachileik/ Kengchung districts. It's a stalemate situation, and one side or the other would eventually have to grudgingly waive the rules to resolve the situation.
Assuming, you still have a current multiple-entry (tourist or non-immigrant) visa, simply cross back over the bridge, collect your passport at the Myanmar Immigration office and carry on (and cross the road) to the Thai border control. Arrival cards are available at the counter before you go through to the passport control window.
If this is your first visa run on a multiple entry visa, you will be given permission to re-enter the country for 90 days if the visa is a non-immigrant visa, or 60 days (or 30 days depending on your nationality) if you have a tourist visa. There are signs asking you to show that you have sufficient funds to support yourself while in Thailand - officially, for non-immigrant or tourist visas, it's 20,000 baht, (in cash or in a Thai bank) and 10,000 if you have a transit visa. They never ask, though, despite the signs, (unless maybe you look like you don't have it). There is an ATM just outside, so, if they did ask, and you didn't have it, they would probably let you withdraw cash from the ATM.
Not far from the exit are some waiting red 'songtaew' mini buses available to take you back to the main bus station, for 15 baht.