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Maesai: Thailand’s Northern Gate

The Border Towns of Maesai & Tachilek

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The Bridge between Thailand & Myanmar
The Bridge linking Thailand & Myanmar

The rank of raw free trade and crude capitalism filling the air tinged with the knowledge that violence is an easy option is what makes border towns so exciting to the visitor. You never quite know what you will find, and Maesai, Thailand’s most northern city, is no exception.

I have yet to visit a beautiful border town. There is something about them that attracts dust and confusion and the sort of sly, furtive, aimless wanderer that is only otherwise found at political conventions. A border is the natural focus of activities that at the best are of dubious legality, as people try to move themselves and their goods in the direction of maximum profit while attracting minimum official attention. This is doubly true of a border between two counties of greatly unequal wealth and opportunity, such as the one between Myanmar and Thailand.

A covered martket alley in Maesai.
An alley in a covered market in Maesai.

Maesai sits in the northwest corner of the Mekong plain, snug against the feet of the mountain chains that radiate from the Himalayas, forming the backbone of Indo-China. A small stream, the Sai, runs from the mountains and marks the border itself. Across the river is the Burmese township of Tachilek; a large, well-established, but neglected and impoverished city. For many of the region’s inhabitants this border runs through land they have traditionally moved freely around in. They have been “encouraged” to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle in fixed villages, in part because of various opium suppression initiatives. In many cases the inhabitants have neither Thai nor Burmese nationality, and being unable to leave the area because they lack documentation, live in official limbo.


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