Our second 30-day pass in Thailand inconveniently expires in the middle of Tayâ€™s massage course and my deadline, which means we cannot extend our visa run into a longer tour of Myanmar (formerly Burma) or Laos. To the Mae Sai border and back is all we have time for and it is a full-day endeavor. Still, by joining a group of similarly situated farangs, we squeeze in a few interesting sites â€” Chiang Saen, the Golden Triangle, and, of course, a couple of hill tribes.
Youâ€™d think there would be a simpler way to extend your visa â€” an office, a queue, a fee, and a stamp â€” and, in fact, this is what we did in Bangkok two weeks ago. Immigration charged us 3,800 baht ($95!) and granted us only 15 days, enough time to get situated in Chiang Mai and plan our run for the border.
And so, on Saturday morning, it was â€œHoney! Time to go to Burma!â€
Having been bound mostly within the city limits of Bangkok and Chiang Mai during the last few months, it is good to break free. We speed and curve through chilly northern air and green rises of forest and field; early morning light shafts through rising dew as we roll past golden Buddhas, ancient wats, and roadside villages. Tay and I are, once again, token Americans in the crowd, listening to the babble of Babel in our bus: Danish, French, Afrikaner, Thai, and Dutch are all spoken, with the common idiom of accented English to glue us all together.
It is three-and-a-half hours to Mae Sai, which is crowded with Thais on weekend shopping sprees â€” there are thick markets on both sides of the border, selling all kinds of cheap imported goods, as China is a scant 100 kilometers away. But we are given no time to shop, ushered through exit and entry lines as quickly as our Tibetan-descended guide, Lun, can make it all happen. We spend a total of five minutes in the Union of Myanmar, all in an immigration shack, then itâ€™s back across the bridge, through the â€œNorthern Most of Thailand,â€ and into the minivan.
Mission complete, itâ€™s time to enjoy ourselves, which we manage to do, even with Lunâ€™s incessant rushing. We pass right by the giant Opium Hall, a museum chronicling this areaâ€™s role as the most famous drug producing and smuggling region in the world; and at the bank of the Mekong River, by a beautiful Buddha statue in a multi-colored glass ship structure, Lun turns around and yells, â€œYou want take photo? Five minutes!â€
We laugh, pile out, take our photos and pile back in. Weâ€™re no opium smugglers, but at least we have our common mission: visa runners in the Golden Triangle! There is an hour-long, sun-drenched boat ride across the river, a diversion into Laos territory where there is no immigration office, only a few stands selling scorpion and snake whiskey â€œfor rheumatism, lumbago, and sweat of limbs.â€
At the 800-year-old ruins of Chiang Saen, I receive sai sin from a monk, another white bracelet of protection to join the one on my wrist from Doi Suthep; kneeling before him, my head bowed as he splashes me and chants a mantra, I take in the serenity of this place, slanting afternoon light and shadows.
Our remaining stops, to the roadside stalls of Akha and Yao peoples who are already packing their wares for the cityâ€™s Night Bazaar, are as quick as everything else this day, and then we are speeding south through the failing light, back to our temporary life in Chiang Mai â€” which has just been extended by 30 precious days.