January 29, 2020

Burmese Border Shopping in Mae Sai, Thailand

Mae Sai, on the border of Burma, is well-known in Thailand for its shopping markets. It's also little traveled by American tourists, so we decided to take a scenic ride on public transportation to check it out.

We've been taking Green Buses, to SEA what Alsa is to Spain. There are certainly more local inter city buses, we see them at the bus stations. Smaller, a little more rinky dink, undoubtedly cheaper. But impossible to find information about them online, and so a bit of a mystery to the overwhelmed foreigner.

Green Bus has an app you can purchase your tickets through, but there was no way to do a child discount, so we went to the bus station Terminal 3 in Chiang Mai to buy our tickets. It saved us about 100 THB for the child discount, and round-trip tickets for 3 to Mae Sai cost about 1300 THB, or about $40 USD.

There are a bunch of different Classes of bus, the cushier the more expensive of course, and the front 4 rows have more leg room for extra, too. With no idea what the different classes meant, we bought our tickets and hoped for the best.

The bus was perfectly fine, it had AC and we got a free bottle of water. On the 5-hour bus ride, we made one pit stop, but had no idea how long we were stopping for (turned out it was about 15 minutes), so we dared not step foot off the bus.

Getting into a questionable hotel room in the dark makes everything look seedier. We felt deceived that the Piyaporn Hill Paradise Hotel did not have a restaurant as advertised. Nor did any of the pictures look anything like the place we found ourselves in. There was no coffee provided. Luckily we'd learned this lesson already and had brought our own Instant Coffee. To get hot water, however, I had to tote our two provided water glasses down to the lobby to get hot water from their tank. To their credit, they did offer to give us their water boiler for our room when they believed that was what we were asking for.

The door hung crooked, letting in light, sound and probably mosquitoes. The bathroom floor was constantly wet and there was no mattress pad on the mattresses, so we slept on towels. The wifi was so bad as to be nonexistent. The first night we discussed asking for a refund, but we would surely not be able to get that message across, as no one spoke any English.

In the light of day things looked slightly better. We were a block from a huge market and close to anything we wanted. Many of the market stalls appeared to be selling the same exact imported merchandise, but some unique bargains are to be had.

Many merchants were selling Mae Sai Winery wines, so we tried a few. Most bottles were sugary water. One so syrupy we had to dump it out, the other little more than kool aid, and not even alcoholic. The one decent bottle tasted a lot like a bad port. There's a reason most Thai people stick with lao kao (rice moonshine).

We were shopping hard for a flat sheet to travel with, but found only duvet covers, fleece blankets, beach towels and sarong/skirt type rectangles of fabric with unfinished edges.

We had fun looking for things we didn't need, but we set goals for ourselves. We wanted to get Babs a necklace, and one for me too. I wanted a purse and some different leggings.

Many of the merchants were very pushy, which drove us away. Haggling is very much expected. They tell you a price, then say, "but for you, discount." Then you make an offer and they counter offer at exactly what they wanted you to pay anyway.

Mr. Go finally found a palad khik, a penis-shaped good luck token carved by monks and inscribed with blessings. A gem, to be sure.

A short walk up the road from our hotel was the Wat Tham Pha Chom temple with a small cave shrine. We were accosted for selfies with Babs at the gift shop, but the climb up to the platform with the Big Buddha on top of the hill was quiet and picturesque.

We visited again the next day to explore more of the grounds. At the other side of the monastery, the cave shrines ensconced you in such complete solitude it made the ears ring. Wholly different from the bustling Batu Caves in Malaysia, these caves were small, you had to duck into them. The almost eerily deafening silence of all sound outside the cave made you aware of the beating of your heart and rushing of your blood. We sat and breathed in front of the Buddha and re-entered the clucking air outside feeling reborn.

Each morning in Mae Sai, we ventured out for coffee and a bag of chestnuts, which are for sale from innumerable carts roasting them in hot pebbles.

Hot Tip: Look for chestnut (or other street food) vendors with prices listed on their carts, otherwise when you ask "how much?" they can be subjective.

Hot Tip #2: Look for vendors who are busy. The locals know where to get the best stuff.

We ate our chestnuts by the river, keeping an eye out for fishermen. Mr. Go had a conversation with a bait-shop owner and bought some gear but after casting into the water a few times, understood he would not be catching anything.

We did see, however, several Thai people who'd bought bags of fish from the market, releasing them back into the river.

We took our walks up to the temple, then had lunch each day at Lom Vi Seth, a quiet place with several small, sweet dogs running about. I had a spicy coconut curry one day and a spicy pad gaprao the next. It was clean, peaceful and delicious.

We would go back to our hotel room for a rest in the afternoon, then head out again around 4:30 in search of dinner.

One evening we stumbled across a local food market, which we called the Thai drive thru. The street was not closed off to motorbikes, and they zipped and weaved through people to stop by a stall, grab a bag of food and take off.

Browsing unknown foods while also not getting mowed down took all my brain power. We bought bags of food to take back home one evening and discovered the dish we saw many Thai people order, and so we copied them, was indeed gai (chicken) as advertised, but gai feet, which we discovered in Malaysia was not to our taste.

The next night we avoided that market and meandered around. We ended up eating at one of the food stalls that pop up along the main road each night around dinnertime. The pad thai was a tad spicy (the first time that has happened) but it was the cart's specialty, indeed the ONLY thing it served, and so

Babs stuffed her mouth with bean sprouts after each bite.

We changed hotels for our last night in Mae Sai, to the Maekhong Delta Boutique Hotel, which was the nicest digs we'd had recently, and should be, for a whopping $42/night. We haggled with the receptionist for a good price to do our laundry ("for you, discount").

We binge-watched season 2 of Lost in Space, ventured out for lunch and dinner, got invited to a man's wedding the next night (we had to catch a bus unfortunately, but chok dii na kah).

Our side-street dinner restaurant was a hidden gem that I can't even find on Google Maps to recommend to you, unfortunately. The Thai staff once again enlisted the help of an English-speaking patron (thanks again, Jimmy) to help us order. When he placed our order for us, he came back and told us: "The cook say you cannot order this. Too spicy for you." To which Mr. Go of course said, "try me."

I appreciated their concern, though, because they take great pride in their food and wanted us to be happy with our meal. Since the pain has now passed, I can say it was very tasty. It wasn't as spicy as papaya salad, but it was a close second.

The next morning we hoofed it back to the bus station to grab the 5-hour bus back down to the Baan Lucksana (highly recommend) in Chiang Mai for the last two nights of our stay in Thailand.

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