For travelers in northern Thailand who want to extend their stay, making the trip to Mae Sai to leave and re-enter Thailand is the most convenient way to do so. Travelers can get an entrance stamp (technically a visa exemption, not an actual visa) that allows them to stay 14 more days in the country, and they may usually do this 3-4 times before officials will tell them that they won't be re-admitted again.
This trip is also commonly made by temporary residents and expats in the region who must leave and re-enter the country every two to three months as required by their visas. However there are no consulates in either Mae Sai or Tachileik, the adjacent border town in Myanmar so it is not possible to get a visa for Thailand on this trip.
There are no air or train connections to Mae Sai, so the only options for reaching the town are by public bus, private minibus, car or motorbike.
Taking a Public Bus to Mae Sai
Whether taking a public bus, rented car or motorbike, travelers planning to spend a night along the way are advised to stay in Chiang Rai rather than Mae Sai. There is comparatively little for travelers to see or do there and few accommodations.
The first matter is getting to the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai, which is a few kilometers northeast of the old city on Kaew Nawarat Road. One option is to take a red truck, also known as a songtaew trucks. For those staying in the old city the best place to catch a songtaew trucks headed to the bus station is on Chang Moi Road. This is outside the moat to the east of the old city and one block north of Thapae Gate. It should cost 40 baht from here. Another option is to take a tuk-tuk to the station for around 100 baht. Songtaew trucks or tuk-tuk drivers may ask for more during rush-hour traffic as they will have to spend more time waiting.
At the time of writing the Arcade station was the major station in Chiang Mai, though the smaller Chang Puak station handled a few routes around the province. A few new terminals are expected to open near the Arcade station on Kaew Nawarat Road.
Travelers can book tickets at the station days in advance, which will save some stress and likely some waiting time on the day of the trip.
Public Bus Option 1: Chiang Mai - Mae Sai
Direct buses to Mae Sai, operated by the Green Bus Company, are convenient but tend to fill up quickly. Travelers who haven't pre-booked tickets at the station may find that they have to wait a few hours for the next available bus. Tickets are between 150 and 350 THB as of 2011, depending on class of seat and bus.
Depending on the class of their ticket, travelers can expect to receive some complimentary drinks and snacks soon after the bus has departed. The bus makes one stop midway between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and another stop in Chiang Rai. Travelers can buy snacks and drinks and use the bathroom during these stops.
Public Bus Option 2: Chiang Mai - Chiang Rai - Mae Sai
The Green Bus Company also runs from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, and it is comparatively easy to get a ticket on these buses as they leave more frequently. Curiously, the tickets are the same price as the direct bus to Mae Sai. Tickets are 330/212/165 baht (VIP/1st/2nd). A few other companies also travel this route, but they do not have English signs and are harder to track down at the bus station. Still, travelers facing a long wait for a Green Bus may ask around to see if anything else is available.
As above, travelers can expect to receive some drinks and snacks after the bus has left. The bus will make one stop in the middle of the trip for snacks and a bathroom break.
Be sure not to get off the bus when it stops at the newer Chiang Rai bus terminal outside town. Stay on until the last stop at the old bus terminal in the center of Chiang Rai, from which the Mae Sai buses leave. Local buses, which can only charitably be called second class, depart every 30 minutes to 1 hour and a ticket costs around 40 baht.
Mae Sai Bus Station to the Myanmar Border
Whether the traveler has taken option 1 or 2, they will end up at Mae Sai bus station. There should be red songtaew trucks waiting here to ferry people to the border. The ride costs 15 baht and takes about 10 minutes. It stops near a street-side produce market, just a short walk from the Thai immigration checkpoint.
Taking a Private Minibus to Mae Sai
Numerous tour companies in Chiang Mai sell tickets on minibuses that make the trip to Mae Sai and back in one day. The trip takes 4-5 hours each way. Tickets cost 600-700 baht as of 2011, and must be booked at least a day ahead of time, though sometimes the buses may be full several days in advance.
Some companies ask travelers to meet at their office in the morning, while others will pick customers up at their guesthouses. The latter option can be more convenient, but those who are picked up first will have an extra 20-30 minute ride around the old city until all the passengers are collected. If there are delays in picking up the riders the bus may get caught in rush hour traffic on the way out of Chiang Mai.
Minibuses carry 10-12 travelers and are air-conditioned - sometimes excessively so. It makes one rest stop along the way where passengers can use the bathroom and buy drinks and snacks. It tackles the twisty roads at faster speeds than the public bus, so it can be more uncomfortable for people nursing a hangover or other illness, especially seated at the rear of the minibus.
The bus driver will drop off the passengers in Mae Sai close to the border and set a time and place for them to meet for the ride back. Travelers should be sure to factor in plenty of time for waiting at the border crossing on the way back so as not to be late.
Taking a Rental Car to Mae Sai
It is also possible to rent a car for the day. As a car can be rented for around 1,000 THB/day plus the cost of gasoline. This can be the least expensive as well as fastest way for a group to make the visa run. Travelers can leave the city around 6am before the 7am rush hour and make good time to the border, returning well before the rush hour of about 4pm.
The price of rental will generally include insurance. It is standard practice to deposit a passport when renting a car, but since the traveler will need their passport for the border run many shops will accept a photocopy of the passport and a cash deposit. The deposit will vary depending upon the shop, but expect to deposit 5,000 baht or more.
There are guarded parking lots in Mae Sai near the border where travelers can safely leave their vehicle. The parking fee is around 40 baht for cars.
Taking a Rental Motorbike to Mae Sai
For those seeking more exciting transportation, the visa run can also be a good occasion to try renting one of the more powerful motorbikes available in Chiang Mai. These are generally 400cc or higher and cost 800-1000 baht per day to rent. They are powerful enough to accelerate and brake quickly to adapt to traffic conditions. Their wide seats make the long trip more comfortable and the handlebars vibrate less, which keeps the driver's hands from going numb.
A lower class of bikes includes the Honda Phantom and Honda Steed, which are from 175 to around 250 cc. These are a bit cheaper to rent but are still powerful enough to safely maneuver in traffic. They also have wide seats and steady handlebars.
Travelers may attempt the trip on a 125cc Honda, but it is not recommended. It would be necessary to stay on the shoulder throughout the trip, as the bike is not powerful enough to maneuver in the fast lane among speeding trucks, buses and cars. The bike is even slower when laden with two travelers carrying bags. The seat is less comfortable and the handlebars vibrate, making driving gloves necessary. Travelers planning to take the trip this way should at least go slowly and stop for a night or two along the way. These bikes cost around 150 baht per day to rent.
Traveling to Mae Sai by motorbike is not advisable for inexperienced riders, whether on a big bike or a small Honda. They will not know how to handle a more powerful bike, while they will have trouble negotiating traffic with a smaller bike.
Remember to check the weather reports before deciding to take on the trip. If rain is expected, reconsider taking a bike. It the sun will be out, bring sunblock and a long-sleeve shirt or jacket.
As with rental cars insurance is generally included in the price, though travelers should double-check before renting a bike. Most shops will accept a passport copy and a cash deposit for travelers making the visa run. The deposit will usually be at least 5,000 baht.
Travelers can park their bike at a guarded parking lot near the border for about 20 baht. It's also possible to park at a restaurant for a few hours, as long as the traveler eats a meal there in return.
Crossing the Border into Myanmar
After getting the exit stamp and leaving the Thai immigration office, travelers cross a short bridge. The immigration office of Myanmar is on the right side of the road.
After filling out a brief form travelers must pay either $10 or 500 baht. As 500 baht converts to nearly $17 (as of mid-2011), immigration officials commonly invent numerous and creative reasons for why they can't accept the particular US bank notes that the traveler is carrying. However, travelers with firm resolve are usually able to eventually get through despite paying the cheaper fee.
Travelers can make a few preparations to avoid headaches in this process. Have a crisp and clean $10 bill. Travelers can get these at currency exchange shops and banks in Chiang Mai. Failing this the jewelry shops in Mae Sai may also have dollars for exchange. However spotless the bill may be, officials may still disingenuously insist that they cannot accept bills with the old design or the new design, whichever one the traveler happens to have.
Travelers should hide their baht before going through so they can pretend not to have any to give. It can also be easier at the front of a long line, as the officials will be in a bigger hurry and won't have much time to harass the traveler to get more money.
Smile and remain polite throughout, and showing up clean and in presentable clothing can have a positive impact.
Travelers may simply get their stamps into and out of Myanmar and return immediately to Thailand. In this case, they should tell the immigration official that they do not want to shop.
Travelers can pick up a few things at the market here for significantly cheaper than they can be found in Thailand. DVDs are on sale for 25-30 baht each, and liquor and cigarettes are much less expensive than they are across the border. Be wary of electronics at steep discounts. In both Tachileik and Mae Sai, look for roasted chestnuts, a specialty snack that may be more difficult to find in other regions of Thailand.
Crossing the Border into Thailand and Returning to Chiang Mai
Travelers who have entered Tachilek should walk out on the right side of the bridge until they reach the border post. They will then turn in their temporary pass and their passport will be returned. Continue across the bridge and cross to the left to go through Thai immigration. Be sure to have the arrival card filled out before reaching the immigration desk.
After exiting the immigration office, minibus travelers should continue to their scheduled meeting point. Travelers using the public buses can find red songtaew trucks waiting to take them to the bus station for 15 baht. From here it is possible to buy a direct ticket to Chiang Mai or, if the bus is full, to Chiang Rai. There are frequent buses from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai. songtaew trucks frequently pick up travelers from the Chiang Mai bus station. A ride to Thapae Gate costs 20 baht. Be sure to confirm this before getting in the truck, as some drivers may try to get more money for the trip.