Mae Sot is a city in Western Thailand that lies next to the border between Thailand and Myanmar. I can safely say it’s utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before.
We recently visited our friends who have been living here for almost three years – it was a joy to see them and experience a bit of life in their city. However, it was a confronting place to be, full of contrasts that I’m still trying (in vain) to square away. I thought I’d share a few of them with you.
For context, this is the street we stayed on in Mae Sot. It’s one of the main streets in town.
This post is unashamedly in stream-of-consciousness format. As I say, I’m still trying to process everything we saw and experienced, so this is the best I can do at the moment.
The ‘Friendship Bridge’ forms the official border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar, over the Moei river. Lorries and cars queue patiently to cross the border, officially, via the bridge. Trade is booming between the two countries and the queues are long.
Under the bridge, small boats putter back and forth constantly, transporting passengers and contraband illegally between countries. Thai police sit with guns slung over their shoulders, casually watching. Perhaps they will take a bribe today. Perhaps not.
Later, we see a couple of policemen shopping at the illegal contraband market set up under the bridge. We look away.
In search of air conditioning after the heat of the border, we go to Robinson Mall. At the other end of town, it’s filled with the latest gadgets, expensive electronics, and, inexplicably, people dancing in inflatable suits.
The Thai Mosque; big, shiny and ornate, spotless. Empty.
The Burmese Muslim shanty town directly behind it. Rubbish piled in drifts by the road. One pit toilet for the entire population – built by a Christian charity in their outreach centre. Weapons hidden under floorboards, drug and human trafficking rife. Even the police fear to venture here.
[There is a strict pecking order both between and within nations and religions. Thai people see themselves as superior to Burmese, and within Burmese themselves the Burmese Christians see themselves as superior to the Burmese Muslims]
The next morning, we investigate the Burmese market. It’s bustling, hot, and smells strongly of fish. Apparently, Burmese have quite the taste for dried fish.
We walk past cages of live animals, bowls of fish flapping helplessly, and meat that has been sat out in 35°C heat since 4am. A stallkeeper swats listlessly at flies with a plastic bag tied to a stick.
And there is more fish.
In the evening, we visit a middle class Thai restaurant. It’s been crafted carefully to look just like a rainforest – it’s all open air, with artfully placed trees, waterfalls and extravagant sprays of orchids.
Yes, they’re real. I checked.
It’s next to a lake, where pelicans and turtles live. No expense has been spared in its construction. It’s beautiful, and utterly surreal.
We share food with our friends, talk and laugh. Big parties file past us, happy faces stopping to admire our friends’ cute blonde child. Endless choices of food and drink are available; we just point.
The taxi driver who takes us to the airport at the end of our stay asks us what we made of the town. I don’t know where to begin. He tells us he is proud of his city; he has lived here all his life.
When he drops us off, he wishes for our return one day.
So do I.