How to Visit Myanmar From Northern Thailand
When you are in northern Thailand, you are just a short hop across the border from a whole new world in Myanmar, and it's easy to make a short visit. There are three potential destinations for a day trip to get a glimpse of life on the other side, but you'll need to do some careful planning to make the most of your time. The first option is perfect if you're staying at the Centra by Centara Hotel Mae Sot which is about four hours' drive from Chiang Mai through amazing mountain scenery, and a great base for trekking or rafting adventures.
Mae Sot to Myawaddy
Mae Sot is the town on the Thai side of the border with Myanmar, while on the Burmese side is the town of Myawaddy. If you have a visa for Myanmar you can proceed further into the country to Mawlamyine, but don't worry if you don't have a visa -- you can still enter for the day without one. As of December 2019, you'll pay 500 baht to Myanmar immigration who will keep hold of your passport until you return, so your movements are limited to the town of Myawaddy.
The Moei river runs between the two towns, and the crossing is made at the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, which is just a short ride from the centre of Mae Sot. In Thailand, cars are driven on the left, while in Myanmar they drive on the right, so you can imagine the potential for confusion on the bridge itself. The switch is made halfway across -- and while you might imagine this remote crossing to be the kind of place that sees only a handful of vehicles each day, in fact it is the second most important land crossing between the two countries, and you'll see long queues of traffic stretching back on the Myanmar side waiting to enter Thailand.
Once you've crossed into Myanmar, you can find temples in the Burmese style where the focal point is a golden central stupa surrounded by the outer temple components. The best example would be Shwe Muay Wan Pagoda. It's easy to reach from anywhere in town, and since it draws relatively few foreign visitors, you might well have it to yourself. Remember to remove your footwear when walking around inside the complex.
Another option is the afternoon market, which is very much a local affair, and unlike many other border towns, hasn't yet become overwhelmed with goods of dubious origins. It offers an authentic window on Burmese life and for that reason shouldn't be missed.
Mae Sai to Tachileik
For travellers based in Chiang Rai, or perhaps in Chiang Mai at the Khum Phaya Resort & Spa -- a property in the Centara Boutique Collection -- the most convenient crossing point to Myanmar is probably at Mae Sai, which grants access to Tachileik.
Tachileik is well known as a market town where almost everything, or a Chinese copy, is available, including a number of product types that Thai customs officers most certainly will not allow back into Thailand. Sadly, these include items made from endangered animal species, and sometimes the animals themselves. Fake cigarettes are another problem, while weapons of different types are readily available, although once again you will not be able to bring any back to Thailand. The market is very popular with Thai day-trippers, and you will find a wide range of respectable products to buy if shopping is your thing.
Mae Sai is around four hours from Chiang Mai, or just ninety minutes from Chiang Rai. Crossing over to Tachileik can be done without a visa. You simply pay the fee to immigration, which was 500 baht in December 2019, and leave your passport with them until you return. If you don't have a Myanmar visa you can go no further than Tachileik, but if you do have a visa you may be permitted to fly domestically to another Burmese city. Onward travel by road is not acceptable to the authorities.
The final destination of note along the Burmese border is the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand share a border. This occurs at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers in the north of Chiang Rai province. It is possible to take boat trips that allow you to momentarily set foot on the soil of all three countries, but the main highlight of any visit to the area should be the Hall of Opium. This excellent museum explains the region's past as a hub for opium production, detailing how the product is processed and used, and also explaining the dangers of addiction.
If you choose to visit Myanmar at any of the border crossings listed, take note of the time the border closes each day. You wouldn't want to be caught on the wrong side overnight.
One final point to consider is money. Thai baht and US dollars are widely accepted in these border towns, but if you do obtain Burmese kyat, be aware that it is practically worthless outside Myanmar, so make sure that you change any that you have before you leave the country to return to Thailand.