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Mae Sot is a Burmese-Chinese-Karen-Thai trading outpost that has become a small but simmering tourist destination. Although there aren’t many formal sites to see in Mae Sot, and most tourists just come for a visa run, many end up staying longer than expected; this laid-back town has a vibrant market, good restaurants and a fascinating cultural mix.

mea-sot 4Black-market trade between Myanmar and Thailand is the primary source of local revenue, with most transactions taking place in the districts of Mae Ramat, Tha Song Yang, Phop Phra and Um Phang. Mae Sot has also become the most important jade and gem centre along the border, with most of the trade controlled by Chinese and Indian immigrants from Myanmar.

Walking down the streets of Mae Sot, you’ll see an interesting ethnic mixture – Burmese men in their longyi (sarongs), Hmong and Karen women in traditional hill-tribe dress, bearded Indo-Burmese men, Thai army rangers, and some foreign NGO workers. Shop signs along the streets are in Thai, Burmese and Chinese. Most of the temple architecture in Mae Sot is Burmese. The town’s Burmese population is largely Muslim, while those living outside town are Buddhist and the Karen are mostly Christian.

Border skirmishes between Myanmar’s central government and the weakening Karen and Kayah ethnic insurgencies can break out at any time, sending thousands of refugees – and the occasional mortar rocket – across the Thai–Myanmar border, elements that add to the area’s perceived instability.

mea-sot 1 The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge links Mae Sot with Myawadi and the highway west to Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Yangon.