Mae Sot, Tak's border town, once famed for gems, is now a vibrant shopping hub.
Though Myanmar is famous for its lacquerware, it is surprising the lacquerware on sale in Mae Sot comes from Chiang Mai, which is of a higher quality.
You can find just about anything in this small town _ second-hand motorcycles or electrical appliances from Japan, branded clothing, gemstones, antiques from Myanmar, teak furniture and even groceries from Yaowarat in Bangkok.
The Mae Sot of today is no longer just a town bordering Myanmar, it is a major transportation hub for imported goods.
"Mae Sot is among the easiest places to export goods to Myanmar. Thanks to a superb road system, container trucks from the Eastern Seaboard can access it within a day," said an executive of a shipping company in Bangkok.
"The containers carrying used cars, motorcycles and bicycles from Japan are transferred to Myanmar by local trucks. Due to the poor condition of roads in Myanmar, container trailers cannot go beyond this town. It is a good place for merchants, both Thai and Myanmar, to buy them here. But the merchandise is not limited to vehicles. Importers fill the containers with electrical appliances, toys, utensils, sports equipment and so on."
At a local pier by the Moei River, which separates Thailand and Myanmar, merchants prepare goods for delivery in Myanmar. When the new containers arrive, the market will turn vibrant and busy in seconds.
"Now, the van drivers and tour operators know the place. They put this place on the tour programme, as well. On a holiday when tourists visit Myanmar, merchants will increase prices, knowing that high demand will allow them to make more profits. If you have a chance, it is better to come back on a working day, prices will be lower. During the monsoons, prices are at their lowest," a local man said.
Not too long ago, Mae Sot was a small but busy town where the business district was limited to downtown and at the bridge going to Myawaddy in Myanmar.
Many of the people from Myanmar now cross the border daily to work in Thailand. Today, the population of people from Myanmar in Mae Sot is seven times higher than the Thai population there.
With Myanmar gradually having a higher purchasing power, border trade has grown dramatically. New shops, restaurants and nightlife businesses are mushrooming at every corner. Wider roads are being constructed and shophouses are being sold like hot cakes.
There are 42 hotels comprising more than 1,000 guestrooms, and container and pickup trucks from across the country can be seen on the roads day and night.
A huge Tesco Lotus outlet is about to be completed soon, with claims that it will be the biggest in the northern region. It will have 159,000m2 of retail space and six cinemas, two of which will be dedicated to Myanmar films alone.
"Mae Sot became a special economic zone a couple of years ago. Since then, businessmen from Bangkok started to move here," president of Tak Gem & Jewelry Association Praphot Phromsmith said.
In short, Mae Sot has got it all.
If you are fond of bicycles, Mae Sot is a paradise. On Thai soil by the Thailand-Myanmar border, there are piers where vehicles from Japan wait to across the Moei River into Myanmar. Thousands of bicycles and hundreds of motorcycles and cars can be found here. It is quite stunning to see thousands of bicycles and parts packed like sardines in containers. Workers reassemble them, repaint, add more accessories and finish them in few hours for sale. There are quite a number of bicycle shops, all operated by Myanmar merchants. You can get a bargain, then change or add more accessories right away. Bicycles prices range from a few hundred baht to 4,000 baht depending on the condition, brand and model. Each bike bought in this areas is required to pay a custom tax of 200 baht. There are also cars and motorcycles on sale, but Thai buyers are required to pay import tax.
Teak products from Myanmar are widely available in Rim Moei Market. You can find a wide range — from big drawers to carved frames or souvenirs. The teak Buddha statues are priced at 250 baht each.
There are a handful of antique shops close to the famous Rim Moei Market. Though some antiques are from Myanmar, most of them actually come from all over Thailand. Some are new items but refurbished to get an old look like the lamp-powered fan in the picture. ‘‘Mae Sot has long been a hub for antiques from Myanmar. Today, there are not so many antiques left. If anything remains, Chinese merchants will not hesitate to buy it. Since Myanmar has opened up, I supply antiques to there instead,’’ Sirichai Kongthana-nand, the owner of Ban Kal Antique at Rim Moei Market, explained.
At Rim Moei Market, you will be amazed with the food, snacks and utensils from China. You may notice these products look like those available in Yaowarat, Bangkok. Suppliers bring goods from Yaowarat to the merchants here.
Some antiques that come from across the border are octagon wall clocks and old radio receivers. Both are priced above 3,000 baht.
Mae Sot is also famous for roti, served with sweetened condensed milk and morning coffee. There are many roticoffee shops in Mae Sot, mostly operated by Thai- Indian merchants whose ancestors migrated from India, via Myanmar, generations ago. These shops make around 800 rotis each day, and cost only 3 baht. But you have to come early as they run out fast.
Each day, hundreds of merchants meet in downtown Mae Sot or at the Rim Moei Market. Jewellery shops in Mae Sot offer gems from Myanmar and from other places. ‘‘Besides gems from Myanmar, we have sapphires from Chanthaburi, jet gems from Kanchanburi and pearls from Australia,’’ said Praphot Phromsmith, president of Tak Gem & Jewelry Association. ‘‘Jade from Myanmar is also very good. African merchants come to Mae Sot to sell their gems and buy jade.’’ But beware of fake jade being sold in the markets. The fake jade is often dyed and the dye and brushstrokes can be seen through strong backlit light.
Most tourists wrongly believe that gems from Myanmar are easy to find and are cheap. Be careful of the ‘‘Gem Trees’’ as they are not real, only dyed marbles.
- ROAD: Mae Sot is around 510km from Bangkok. The drive takes around six hours, via Nakhon Sawan, Kamphaeng Phet and Tak. Coaches from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal leave for Mae Sot daily. There are also bus services from Mae Sot to Mukdahan in the Northeast and Chanthaburi on the eastern coast. Call 02-936-2852-66 or visit www.transport.co.th.
- AIR: Nok Air operates regular flights from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Mae Sot. Call 1318 or visit www.nokair.com.
About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter