Now that Myanmar’s borders with Thailand are officially open to foreigners, it is a great opportunity to plan that overland backpacking journey that you always thought about.
Myanmar has in the past year or two opened many of its land borders with neighbouring countries to tourists. Only the land border with Bangladesh remains closed to foreigners. All the others, including one with China and one with India, are possible to use (albeit with various difficulties).
With Thailand, the border crossing at Mae Sot/Myawaddy is the best route into the country, as it is strategically positioned closest to Yangon and the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo. It is also a popular option for “visa runs”. If you then wanted to explore the rest of Myanmar on a backpacking circuit that incorporates Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake, you could exit the country overland back into Thailand at the Tachileik/Mae Sai border crossing, which is closest to Inle Lake (I think you will need to fly from Inle Lake’s local airport at Heho to Tachileik as travel for foreigners is restricted to and from the Tachileik area by bus). This exit will mean you are fairly close to the far-northern Thai city of Chiang Rai, so you have basically backpacked on a horseshoe route beginning and ending at different places in Thailand (both popular backpacker hideouts) while taking in the major sights of Myanmar as well!
There is actually a 5km distance between “downtown” Mae Sot and the actual border crossing, so walking is not advised. Some tuk tuk drivers tried to charge me upwards of 150 Baht for the ride to the border, but as it is a journey that needs to be made, perhaps you just have to bite your lip and pay the price! I certainly did!
There is hardly any accommodation in Mae Sot, so finding a room for an overnight stay may be extremely difficult if the border crossing is not open when you arrive in the evening (the Thai side is open from 6am-6pm). However, there is a market near the border crossing that is very popular with backpackers, and you can usually find some good food and interesting souvenirs here from both sides of the border.
When you get to the Thai customs office at the border, situated before crossing the Friendship Bridge, you must give them your Myanmar Visa and you will be asked how long to intend to stay in Myanmar. I just picked a random number of 14 days (must be under 28 days). Then you get your passport stamped by Thai exit customs and on to the Friendship Bridge you go! Next stop Myanmar! Remember that there is no Visa on Arrival for most nationalities in Myanmar, so you must obtain one before trying to enter the country (regardless of it it’s by air or overland).
The Moei River separates the Mae Sot district of Thailand and the town of Myawaddy in Myanmar. The river is crossed by using the Friendship Bridge, which was built in 1997 to ease diplomatic relations between the two countries (and to cut back on illegal immigration).
Everybody seems to walk across the bridge, but it is very busy with traffic, and I nearly got mowed down a few times early on (this is pretty normal in SE Asia, right?). Luckily for most of the walk, there is a proper pathway separated from the road – but keep an eye out for cyclists nonetheless! The notoriety of this border crossing is pretty cool, and you can see young Thais with their girlfriends and boyfriends on backpacking trips taking selfies as they cross the Friendship Bridge – just like international tourists do!
Upon arrival at the Myanmar Immigration desk, you will be prompted to fill in a form with some basic details, one detail of which is how you intend to leave the country after your designated time is up. If you are merely border hopping for the afternoon before returning to Thailand, then you cannot leave Myanmar apart from at the exit you wrote on your visa form. I have been informed that if you intend to travel around Myanmar and then return to Thailand overland at a later date, then you can leave Myanmar at any border (preferably further north at Tachileik).
I was surprised at just how friendly the Burmese people were here at Myawaddy border crossing. They were genuinely helpful towards me as a solo traveller who couldn’t speak a word of their language! In addition, I was not aware of any scams that operate at this border crossing, unlike some of the others in South East Asia, such as Aranyaprathet/Poipet between Thailand and Cambodia, or Voueng Kam/Dom Kralor between Laos and Cambodia. All things considered, I had a stress-free time at Mae Sot, and the hardest thing for me was actually safely negotiating the Friendship Bridge on a very stuffy and humid morning!
Once clear of the immigration formalities, I discovered that life on the Myanmar side of the border is even more hectic than on the Thai side (yes, that is possible!). Even local Burmese and Thai people don’t seem to know what they are doing! It was a little worrying to think that Myanmar and Thailand also drive on opposite sides of the road so you have to get used to the change whether you are a driver or not (ah, so that’s why it gets so hectic across the bridge?!). Also remember that Myanmar is 30 minutes behind Thailand on the world clock, so adjust your watches accordingly and don’t get caught out if you’re going to catch a bus onwards to another town!
For travellers wishing to travel to Yangon, it will take around 10 hours by bus from Myawaddy once you’ve entered the country. I am aware of one bus that runs on this route, but it is not daily (every other day). The price is typically 9,000 Kyat per person. From Yangon, you then have the chance of undertaking the popular journey to the temples of Bagan.