As a friend puts it, I am akin to an “Ambassador of Asian Americans in Thailand.” What started off as a trip with a singular aim (get a teeny, yet imperative visa stamp in my passbook), turned into a cultural revelation.
In case you don’t know the logistics, I’ll first begin with that:
Chiang Mai to Mae Sai
1) Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
I have an affinity for the Green Bus (bus.greencorporatethai.com) because of its comfort and staff professionalism, though I am sure you can find cheaper options. The VIP bus begins at Arcade Bus Station in CM and ends at the new Bus Station in CR. The VIP has heavenly large seats and the most leg room I’ve ever seen on public transportation; plus, you are served a water bottle, snack and moist towelette. Even if it’s only a 3-hour ride, the 260THB ticket is completely worth it. Because of the AC, bring a warm jacket or blanket and socks. I’m not sure why Thai public transportation is so enamored with air conditioning – I’m always freezing! I’d rather they just use fans.
2) Chiang Rai to Mae Sai
Fortunately, I have some friends in Nang Lae, a town just between Muang Chiang Rai and Mae Sai, so after arriving at the CR bus terminal, I take a motorbike to Nang Lae, 30min away. It’s a gorgeous hilly green town filled with college students from Mae Fah Luang University, so check it out if you can. If you opt to stay in Muang Chiang Rai, then rent a motorbike and make the 1.5hour trip up to Mae Sai. It’s an easy drive: spacious roads, little traffic, picturesque scenery! The route is so simple – you just drive north on the 1 until you hit the border! You’ll know you’ve arrived because it’s the first bustling little hubbub street you’ll see for the whole trip.
3) Mae Sai to Myanmar
Head into the immigration office to get your passport stamped, stroll into Myanmar, stop at the Burmese office, pay 500THB for a visa stamp, leave your passbook with the officer and enter border town Tachileik’s market for cheap snacks and designer knock-offs. (Explained further below, the officers were astonished with my American nationality. I was able to get the entire Burmese office to stop what they were doing/drop their customers and come to help me, all the while laughing in disbelief.)
The Cultural Revelation
As I stepped into the Thai border immigration office, noticeably confused about which line to enter (still can’t read Thai), I was flagged down by an officer at a little booth. A cheerful man, he inquired about my purpose and asked for my passport. Handing over my navy blue USA passport received an immediate double-take: Asian looking person + American passport = mindfuck.
Perplexed and amused, “You are from California?!” He pops his mobile phone open and snaps a photo, then chuckles with the assistant next to him. He hops out of his small booth quite enthusiastically and walks me over to the correct line, smiling the whole way curious about CA (definitely not protocol as he barely paid any attention to the other patrons standing before him). When I stepped up to the passport check counter, the original officer #1 bounced over and blurted something in Thai to officer #2 akin to “She is from California! hahah.” The lady officer sitting next to #2 gasped, “Noooo! You are from USA? No, American don’t look like you.”
“Oh, well Americans come from all over. We don’t just have blonde hair,” I joked.
“Where you born?”
Baffled look, “You look like Thai! What are you?”
Gasp, head shake, laugh. “What?! Oh, I don’t know!”
You’d think a country as touristed as Thailand would have a huge influx of Asian-American visitors, but you’d be surprised by how many of my conversations run-on like this. I tend to navigate off the beaten road, so I have the inkling I may be one of, if not the first, American-born Asian to cross many a Thai’s path. At times difficult and frustrating, I understand the curiosity and semi-offensive questions are never out of ill-will, so I’ve learned to embrace my “Ambassadorship.” Honestly, there are times when I love enlightening people on the matter. It’s an experience unique from my blonde-haired American counterparts, and often is an instant ice breaker with fascinated Thais. I’m also almost always quoted local prices at the market since vendors assume I am Thai to begin with–as long as I get a few tone-perfect Thai words in!
Russell Peters eloquently expresses 90% of my interactions in Thailand (Watch 0-1:20):
These girls in Burma were so adorable! After finding out I was from CA while sitting in their coffee shop, 4 of the giggling girls abashedly walked over and asked to record a mobile video of them practicing English with me. Of course, I could not say no! They were so friendly, they brought over a coconut sandwich from the kitchen and said “Free!”