The small town of Mae Sot will one day be part of the route that will take overland travelers from Istanbul to Singapore. See it before that happens.
by Harold Stephens
It’s a small town, interesting enough for its remoteness and its location right on the Thai–Burmese border. That being said, one might hardly imagine that in the near—hopefully very near—future, this town, called Mae Sot, will be one of the busiest and most important border towns in Thailand.
That’s a broad statement, but it’s a fact. Why’s that? Mae Sot will one day form part of Asia’s great Route 1, which will take overland travelers all the way from Istanbul to Singapore. It’s not just wishful thinking. The Thai–Myanmar Friendship Bridge was completed in 1996 and already links Mae Sot with Myawadi and the highway west to Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Yangon. Unfortunately, the route is not yet open to international travel. We have to admit, though, the route does present an exciting prospect for future overland travel. At the moment foreigners can go no farther than Myawadi. All that’s needed is for Myanmar to get its act together.
So why go to Mae Sot if you cannot travel all the way to Istanbul? If for no other reason than to say, in the days to come, that “I was in Mae Sot back when…”
But there are other reasons, too. One is the drive over Road 105 that takes the motorist over a scenic winding road that leads to Mae Sot and the border, a few kilometers beyond the town. An interesting stop en route is the spirit house below Phawoh Mountain, where truck drivers make offerings for a safe passage. Road 105 sweeps through forests into a peaceful valley dotted with miniature farmhouses, white chedis, and ornate Burmese-style temples.
Mae Sot is not a “bustling little town” as I read in one guidebook. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see a town in Thailand that looks as they all must have looked a few generations ago. By all means, park your car and take a walk through the streets. You will quickly notice that the town is an interesting mixture of races. The photographer will have a delight and can take pictures of Burmese men in their longyi (sarongs), Hmong and Karen women in traditional hill-tribe dress, and Thai army rangers doing their shopping. Shop signs along the streets are in Thai, Burmese, and Chinese. Most of the temple architecture in Mae Sot is Burmese. The town’s Burmese population is largely Muslim, while those living outside town are Buddhist, and the Karen are mostly Christian. Don’t forget to visit the market behind the Siam Hotel where you can find more than food. And would you believe Mae Sot also boasts of a landing strip for light airplanes?
You will hear, of course, that Mae Sot is the center of the black-market trade between Myanmar and Thailand, which may be true, but for the casual visitor it’s not obvious and, certainly, not worth investigating. It’s no secret that Mae Sot has also become the most important jade and gem center along the border, with most of the trade controlled by Chinese and Indian immigrants from Myanmar. In fact, it’s known for its big Thai–Burmese gem fair held in April. At this same time, Burmese boxers meet for an annual Thai boxing competition, held somewhere outside town in the traditional style. Matches are fought in a circular ring and go for five rounds; the first four rounds last three minutes, while the fifth has no time limit. Hands bound in hemp, the boxers fight till first blood or knockout.
After seeing the town, take a drive to the Moei River, which is spanned by the Friendship Bridge. The road to the right of the bridge is quite amazing for its shops, mainly teak carvings and woodwork, and its Burmese tapestries and woven cloth. I cannot visit the place without driving back to Bangkok with a load of teak, and once I even had to hire a truck to follow me. The carvings are some of the cheapest you can find in Thailand, with everything from small-carved elephants to whole bedroom sets and wall-size, floor-to-ceiling decorations. If for nothing else but this, the trip to Mae Spot is worth it.
If you want to cross over the bridge and take a peek at Myanmar, the fee for a day crossing is USD 10 for foreigners, and the border is open 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; check with the tourist police before doing so.
Myawadi is a fairly typical Burmese town, loaded with monasteries and temples. The most important temple is Shwe Muay Wan, a traditional bell-shaped stupa gilded with many kilos of gold and topped by more than 1,600 precious and semiprecious gems. And they tell me the stones and gold are real. Surrounding the main stupa are 28 smaller stupas, and these in turn are encircled by 12 larger ones; you need a guidebook to understand them all. Fascinating for visitors at the southern side of town are Myawadi’s 1,000-year-old city walls, which were probably erected by the early Mon inhabitants. At the moment it’s not legal to travel beyond Myawadi, but let’s hope in a few years that will change.
One last note: if time permits, visit Wat Phra That Doi Din Kiu, a forest temple a few kilometers northwest of Mae Sot, on a 300-meter high hill overlooking Mae Nam Moei and Myanmar. A small chedi mounted on what looks like a boulder that has been balanced on the edge of a cliff is one of the attractions, and is reminiscent of the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Myanmar. The trail makes for an interesting hike. You can get a great view of a teak forest across the river in Myanmar. Who said teak is gone? There are a couple of small limestone caves in the side of the hill, on the way to the peak. The dirt road that leads to the wat from Ban Mae Tao passes through a couple of Karen villages.
Don’t forget your camera. You will get photographs like you never imagined. One advantage of driving is many hill tribe folk come down to the roadside to see the foreigners passing. They don’t mind having their pictures taken. After all, there are so few tourists, and you will be the attraction. Smile.