Mae Sot: a city of contrasts

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.




  1. 11th April 2017 / 20:52

    Such an interesting read. Honestly (and maybe sadly) this is how I imagine most Asian countries. My parents were born and raised in Vietnam and for the last 4 years or so, they have been going back for extended vacations. This last time, they went with my aunt and she book a different ticket than my parents so they had to wait for her to get her luggage, etc. and their driver was getting impatient. I asked why couldn’t one of them wait in the airport for my aunt while the other talk with the driver to let him know what was going on… they were both like “No, you don’t want to separate!” Naive me, thought why not, you guys are Vietnamese, you were born here but they quickly told me that it’s different in Vietnam. It’s not the US or Europe. And then the next day, they are lounging at a beach side resort soaking in the luxury. I have yet to visit Vietnam (or Asia) but I’m dying to. Would love to see this type of contrast myself.

  2. Jen
    11th April 2017 / 21:16

    What an incredible post. I have to say that I love what your taxi driver said, it’s hard to understand how a person could be proud of what you described but at the end of the day that is their home. I went to the Dominican Republic several years ago and experienced this very same contrast. We volunteered with a mission there working with children’s groups and see such devastation and horrible conditions was sad. But then you have the resorts on the water, it was intense.

  3. 11th April 2017 / 21:19

    Beautifully written, Rachel! It’s always interesting to travel, as we learn so much and it’s true that lots of those things can surprise, shock and sadden us. Sadly, Chile is like this too. It’s has one of the biggest income gaps in the world meaning the opportunities people are given varies so much, not to mention the access to good education.

  4. 12th April 2017 / 01:55

    I always love reading your initial takes on cities and Mae Sot definitely sounds like an interesting city. It seems like there’s a huge difference between different parts of the cities, and I can’t even imagine seeing the extreme poor of the world. I’m glad that y’all got to visit friends while you were there too!

  5. 12th April 2017 / 10:01

    Your SE Asia 2017 adventure has begun! Loved reading your observations! I’ve never been to this part of Thailand–although “contrast” or “contradiction” is a word I would think describes many areas in this region quite accurately.

  6. 12th April 2017 / 15:20

    wow what an interesting place. and not one i’d ever think to go to. i like your stream of consciousness post style here. contrast is definitely a word to be used here! oh the fish. i can smell it now i feel like haha.

    xoxo cheshire kat

  7. 13th April 2017 / 04:09

    Wow, I can’t imagine visiting somewhere like that! It’s a lot to take in when you see it side by side. That’s the good thing about travel, opens your eyes to new things, but not all of them are good, if that makes sense? There’s a lot of disparity in the world and we take a lot of things for granted. I’m grateful that I’m lucky to live in Australia and all the privileges and lifestyle that comes with it.

    Hope you are having a lovely week as your trip continues.

    Away From The Blue Blog

  8. 16th April 2017 / 15:14

    Wow. What an experience. I’m honestly so conflicted about visiting some of these places because of the essays my students have written about them. I appreciate your candor and honesty, too. Those orchids are amazing. A middle class restaurant… with that much (seeming?) expense? Isn’t that mind blowing?

  9. 17th April 2017 / 05:52

    What an interesting city! We’ve found a lot of Asian cities quite confronting in just how harsh the contrast is from “resort lifestyle” to “real life”. In Bali, for example, we stayed in one of the most exclusive resorts which was absolutely incredible – but just outside the hotel gates lay rabid dogs and hungry children begging for food.

    For us, that was really hard to deal with as we felt like we were turning a blind eye to them whilst we lived a life of luxury inside the gates.

  10. 20th April 2017 / 08:05

    Fascinating post. I too was struck (and challenged) by a lot of the contrasts I saw in South East Asia. I think possibly it’s also easier for us to see this when we travel outside Europe. Looking forward to more posts as you continue your trip

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