The most southerly coffee in Burma*

An essential part of life for an ex-pat in Thailand is the ‘visa run’. If you are one of the fortunates to have the ‘right’ visa then all you must suffer is a visit to the local immigration office every 90 days, but for the rest of us when the 3 month deadline rolls around it means a border crossing at the very least.
I won’t go into the in and outs of which visa is which and what hoops you need to jump through for each different category as I’d quite like you to keep reading without your brains slowly turning to mush and dribbling out your ears, suffice to say its complex but if you have any specific questions then feel free to leave them in the comments box and I’ll do my best to help out.
Of course the 3 of us are all here on slightly different visa categories and visa run schedules so that complicates matters somewhat, but we are slowly getting into the swing of things. Once you come to the acceptance that it makes no sense and there is nothing you can do to make it a logical process its a lot less stressful.
Once your particular set of hoops has been established and you know your schedule there are a myriad of travel options available to you and it can be a fantastic opportunity to see many different places this part of the world. Today I’m off on my first solo visa run to Myanmar ( the country formerly known as Burma ) to get that all important stamp in my passport which will allow me another 90 days grace in the Kingdom of Thailand.
This is not my first visa run as i had to take small person to the Thai consulate in Laos last november to get her education visa validated which I managed to co-ordinate with end of my first 3 month period and it was quite an experience. Once the correct dates were agreed with the school and all the paperwork had been checked, sent back for correction, re checked and signed we booked our trip. Now the easiest way to do a run to Laos is to fly direct from Chiang Mai to Vientiane, unfortunately its about 50 times the price as the cheapest way. Now had it just been myself then a £7 12 hour overnight bus ride would have been sufficient, but when you add a cranky small person to the equation it seemed a much less attractive option. Thankfully there is another way. A quick flight to the northern city of Udon Thani, then a bus ride to the romantically named Friendship Bridge, a stop to show passports and purchase exorbitant visas and then you are in to the Peoples Democratic Republic Laos.

But that is a tale for another time, today is Myanmar day.

There are numerous different companies running busses / taxis / private cars from chaing mai to Mae sai ( the most northerly town in Thailand ) at numerous different prices. After many hours researching the numerous different options i plumped for the ‘Green Line’ bus company for the exemplary reason that there is a ticket office just down the road from the house on my dog walking route. And so for the grand total of 508Thb ( just a shade under £10) my day return was booked. And so with passport, departure card and border crossing fee in hand I made my weary way to the arcade bus station on the outskirts of the city for an 8 am departure. As I had left plenty of time to get there, hubby please take note ( and thank you for hoofing me out of bed ), and the public transport gods were smiling I arrived only 40thb lighter and with 45 minutes to spare so I could enjoy a hearty breakfast and a much needed coffee before we left.

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Now if you ever happen to delve into the murky world of ex-pat Internet forums you will find a deluge of xenophobic bile and a bitterness that borders on hatred filling most of the discussion boards ( no, I don’t get it either), and the discussions on visa runs are no exception. With tales ( mostly made up, or at the very least heavily embellished ) of drunken or high bus drivers, unroadworthy filthy vehicles transporting livestock as well as passengers and a 7 car pile up on every street corner you may be a little concerned about the journey ahead, but I’m pleased to report that at 8am sharp and we were off in what was an extremely comfortable and new looking coach and not one of the uniformed staff looked even slightly tipsy. And there wasn’t a chicken in sight.

Now I had planned to spend the long journey indulging in my newest obsession of crochet and had packed ample balls of wool to keep me occupied both on the way there and the way back. Unfortunately I didn’t pack any hooks in my bag and I don’t know if you have ever tried to crochet without a hook so ill save you the time and tell you that you can’t. Thank heavens above for the simply breathtaking scenery that was speeding by.
As we rose on the winding mountain pass the jungle seemed to close in around us, the lush verdant vegetation growing thicker and wilder as we climbed higher and higher. The occasional break in the trees giving a glimpse of the horizon and the far away peaks still shrouded in mist we crested our peak and began out descent and once more my imagination ran off into the jungle to maraud with the monkeys therein.
When we broke through onto the plains my breath was stolen from me as I gazed upon a land ablaze. As far as the eye could see the ground was illuminated, dazzlingly bright scorching the eye and yet too beautiful to turn away from as the still surface water of the rice fields reflected the full glory of the fiercely burning morning sun. All too soon the rice fields gave way to the many towns and villages along the way, some no more than a collection of ramshackle food stalls and huts and others which have evolved from that into thriving market towns, owing in some small part I’m sure to their equidistance from large cities on what is one of the busiest visa run routes in the country.

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At every turn in the road there was something new to marvel at. The hilltop temples, the hot springs bursting through the earth to a height of around 5 meters, the statues, the buildings the vegetation. It’s a futile attempt to describe what I saw as my words are too flimsy and superficial to describe the depth of emotion one can feel from something as simple as the changing quality of the light as the sun cuts through the mist. Not quite as futile however as trying to photograph it from inside a swiftly moving coach.

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I must have dozed off at some point as the next thing I was fully aware of was the slowing of the coach as we reached the town of Mae Sai, the most northerly town in Thailand, and cruised gently into the most northerly bus station in Thailand, with what must be the most spectacular view of any coach station I’ve ever been to. Digbeth included.

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We were a little behind schedule, but no matter, just a quick hop to the border bridge and I’d probably still be able to squeeze 90 minutes of wandering about in another country before I’d have to turn tail and make my return. Rather sadly it was extremely busy at the border crossing and I had the added misfortune of getting stuck behind a large tour group of, how shall I put it…, underprepared American tourists who seemed to have had no experience of these silly little passport thingys and the ‘why on earth do we ALL need to show our passports and fill in these forms, surely if the tour group leader has done it then we all just go through because we are here in a group’ attitude really wasn’t speeding things along. ( I’m not being a travel snob here, I know that people who don’t gad about as much as we do may be unfamiliar with border crossing protocol, but when the little man with the sidearm tells you to do something- you do it first time of asking, you don’t keep asking him the same question over and over again in a louder and louder voice, he’ll eventually get cross and arrest you).

An hour later I left Thailand.

I almost wanted to be behind them again so I could see their faces when they realised that about 25 meters across the bridge they ALL had to pay 500thb each to a little Burmese man who would stamp your passport in order to show that you have legally entered another country and are therefore allowed back into Thailand .
Almost.
But thankfully I managed to dash ahead of them as they all stopped to pose in front of the “Most northerly point in Thailand” sign.

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The very lovely little man took my 500 and stamped my passport with a smile. I was officially in Myanmar. By this point I only had just over an hour to get back over the Thai border, get that all important date stamp and get back to the bus station so I decided not to run around the market I could see at the end of the road but to stop at the hotel between immigration offices and spend 20 minutes enjoying the most southernly coffee in Myanmar.

*I know it’s not called Burma anymore, its called Myanmar, so why does everyone still call the natives Burmese?

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Jer Gan Mài.

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