Since August 13, 2014, Thai Immigration no longer allows crossing the border at Mae Sai and back for the purpose of getting a new visa exemption (aka “visa on arrival”). You can only exit and re-enter through Mae Sai if you already have a valid visa for when you return to Thailand. If you don’t have a multiple-entry visa in your passport, this method will not work and Thai Immigration will prevent you from leaving through the Mae Sai-Tachileik checkpoint.
If you’re staying in Thailand for an extended length of time, there will come a day when you need to do a border run and refresh your Thai visa. If you’re based in Chiang Mai, the most convenient border crossing is the border town of Mae Sai, right across the border from the Burmese town of Tachileik. You can do this run on the same day, leaving in the morning and coming back early evening.
Border Runs Explained
While a visa run involves leaving Thailand to apply for a Thai visa abroad or simply get a new visa exemption, a border run just involves stepping out of Thailand so you can activate a new entry on an existing visa.
One instance when you will need to do a border run is with a multiple-entry tourist visa. Each entry is valid for two months, and can be extended to three months. But once that first entry expires, you’ll need to leave Thailand to activate the second entry, and so on.
For instance, let’s assume you have a Thai double entry tourist visa; you will need to pay close attention to the following dates:
When calculating the date of your border run, pay close attention to the “Enter Before” date. You need to re-enter Thailand before this date, otherwise your Thai visa will be expired.
Got all that? Alright, let’s get down to business!
Step 1: Visit the Bus Terminal Ahead of Time
You will need to buy your bus tickets in advance, as tickets sell out quickly. Ideally, go two or three days ahead, especially if you plan on traveling around holidays or long weekends. You have two options when traveling to Mae Sai for a border run.
The first one involves booking a seat on a minibus, which can be done through various tourist agencies in the Old City. This option is slightly cheaper. They’ll pick you up at your guesthouse and drive you all the way to immigration, but there are some drawbacks. For starters, minibus are cramped and make for a very uncomfortable ride. Second, the minibus drivers are notorious for driving like maniacs.
A more comfortable and safer option is to book a ticket with a reputed company such as Green Bus. You will need to get to the bus station by yourself, but that’s a minor discomfort considering the eight hours of travel you need to do to get to Mae Sai and back. I’ll only discuss the Green Bus option in this blog post.
Green Bus departs from Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3, northeast of the Old City. This terminal is also known as the Arcade Bus Terminal. Terminals 2 and 3 are at the Arcade Bus Terminal, across the street from one another. (Terminal 1, covering travel within the province of Chiang Mai, is just outside the Old City’s north gate.)
To get to Chiang Mai Bus Terminal 3, flag down a songthaew and ask for “Arcade Bus Terminal.” If they agree and don’t quote you a price, jump on board and expect to pay 20B. Otherwise, they may quote you a high price, which you should bargain. For one person it would be unreasonable to pay more than 40B, especially if you speak a little Thai. If you’re leaving from the Old City, it’s entirely possible to pay 20B.
Step 2: Purchase Bus Tickets
When you come into Bus Terminal 3, the Green Bus counter is immediately to your left.
Green Bus are your standard Thai VIP bus line. The buses are air conditioned and drive pretty safely by Thailand’s (admittedly low) standards. They serve a small snack including a bottle of water on the bus.
VIP seats are larger and more comfortable, and cost around 360B, while regular seats are more cramped and will set you back about 230B. In my experience, because the VIP seats are at the front, the VIP seats have bone-chilling AC while the regular seats will have you simmering in your own sweat. My recommendation is to splurge on the VIP seats and bring warm clothes. I’m not kidding: plan as if you’ll be sitting in a fridge for four-five hours.
Time-wise, your best option for a one-day border run is to book the 8:00 a.m. bus to Mae Sai, and return on the 3:30 p.m. The ride takes approximately four and a half hours, leaving about three hours to cross the Thai-Myanmar border and back. That might sound like a lot, but considering you’ll have to go twice through Thai immigration, your schedule might be tighter than you’d think. Not only that, but you have to go to and from the border by songthaew. You can make it back for the 2:30 p.m. bus but you won’t have time to relax. Better to leave three hours and grab an iced tea in Myanmar, in my opinion.
Once you have you’ve made your choice and booked your bus ticket, you can grab a songthaew back into town. Avoid those in the parking lot next to the bus station, as they’ll quote you an outrageous price. Instead, flag a songthaew as it drops passengers right in front of the main entrance.
Step 3: Make Your Way to the Border
Don’t be surprised if the bus departs a bit late. Expect to get to Mae Sai in around four and a half hours. Enjoy the Thai mountain roads, and don’t stress too much about the driving! The bus stops in Chiang Rai, but they really don’t stay there very long. Don’t linger too long in the terminal or you’ll risk the bus leaving without you.
Once you get in Mae Sai, you’ll have to grab a red songthaew that will take you to the border. As indicated on signs everywhere, these songthaews cost 15B one way, so don’t expect to pay a baht more.
At the border, you’ll go through the typical Thai immigration exit checkpoint, turn in your departure card, and get stamped out. Next, walk across the bridge, admire the “Northernmost Point in Thailand,” and go through Myanmar immigration.
Step 4: Enter Myanmar
Getting the Myanmar entry visa will cost you 500B, payable in baht. Here, you have the choice of going right back out, or going to Myanmar for quick shopping or eating.
If you want to visit the Burmese border town of Tachileik, tell the immigration officers you’re going shopping, and they’ll probably exchange your passport for an entry permit with your picture on it. They’ll give your passport back when you leave Myanmar. Sometimes they’ll just give entry and exit stamps right away, so you don’t even need to stop on your way back out. If you just want to re-enter Thailand right away, tell them you’re doing a border run, and they’ll let you hold on to your passport and exit right away.
I personally recommend visiting Tachileik at least once. There’s not that much to do, but it’s still a nice break from sitting on a bus for hours. All the shops near the border take Thai currency, and the prices in shops are about the same as in Thailand. There’s a market and a few interesting stores; when I visited Tachileik with Helene, we found a cool little Indian sweets shop, as well as a good Burmese restaurant within walking distance of the border crossing. It made for a quick but memorable hour in Myanmar.
Whatever you do, plan to go through immigration again at least an hour before your bus is scheduled to leave Mae Sai. This will give you time to go through Thai immigration and catch a songthaew back to the bus station. Thai immigration can be notoriously slow, so better safe than sorry. This is especially true on weekends.
Step 5: Catch the Bus Back to Chiang Mai
Go through Myanmar immigration again, and trade your entry permit for your passport, if they issued a permit. Otherwise, you can just go through.
On the Thai side of the bridge, look for the counter giving out arrival cards, and fill one out.
The songthaews back to the bus station depart at the same spot they dropped you at, on the left side of the street coming from the border. The ride back is also 15B, and takes about fifteen minutes depending on traffic. The songthaews depart when they have enough people, so you might have to wait a few minutes.
Back at the bus station, the only thing left to do is freeze or sweat, depending on which seat you bought.
Lots of effort for a little stamp, eh? I like to think of it as a tax for living in Thailand. Makes the ride a little more bearable.
Any questions? Any other tips or updates to this border run guide? Please share in the comments below!
Thanks to Helene for the pictures!