Southeast Asia's Border Towns
- article by Lily Guy-Vogel
Explore the undiscovered vibrant culture, scenery and people found in some of Southeast Asia's Border Towns
Southeast Asia has a lot of countries that border each other by huge stretches of land and it is generally getting easier and easier to make land border crossings throughout this sub-continent.
Although a lot of these borders are still shut off to visitors and it is certainly advised to do your research before attempting any land crossings in Southeast Asia, do not be put off; where crossings take place there is often a vibrant culture just begging to be explored.
Border crossings usually breed small (or large) towns, villages and cities which only see tourists stopping for a few hours as they wait for visas to be processed or buses to arrive. However, aside from the useful location, in many of these places you can find a lot of culture, good food and beautiful scenery, meaning that many visitors find themselves making these towns a part of their trip in their own right.
Some places are more accessible than others, some are more established on the tourist trail and some simply have more going on. Below we have compiled a few of the top border towns worth checking out on your route through Southeast Asia.
Thailand - Myanmar
Mae Sot and Myawaddy are two towns on either side of Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge border crossing that was initially opened in 1994, however foreign visitors have only been able to cross the border here since 2013. Despite this relatively recent opening there is a lot to be seen in these towns.
Most people visit Mae Sot on the Thai side of the border for its location and convenience for visa runs but many that come here find themselves staying longer than anticipated thanks to this town's many charms. This is a culturally diverse place: walking down the street you will see Hmong and Karen people (from the Thai hill tribes), Burmese people, devout Muslims, Thai army rangers and western NGO workers all going about their daily business.
The city's attractions include various temples and shrines and the bustling vibrant markets. Temples of particular interest are those that follow traditional Burmese style architecture such as the Wat Mani Phraison (a beautifully ornate buddhist hall), Wat Chumpon Khiri (a temple compound that centres on a large golden pagoda) and Wat Thai Wattanaram (a temple complex with large statues and gardens).
There are two main markets in town which are worth closer inspection. At the Hilltribe Market you must buy a locally produced coffee made from beans from the surrounding hillside and wander through, taking in the sights and smells of this colourful market. It is predominantly made up of stalls selling cheap fresh produce but there are also several restaurant stalls serving decent food at good prices. The Rim Moei Market has more range, including lots of seafood. There is a bit of everything here: you can find toys, clothes, sweets, souvenirs, surplus army gear, anything!
Myawaddy on the Myanmar side of the border offers little in comparison to Mae Sot but that being said, there are the various pagodas and religious sites to visit as well as a market. The market sells all the usual clothes and knick-knacks, but also lots of authentic Myanmar dishes such as tea leaf salad, stewed pork and fresh produce and spices as well. Here we discovered a 'One Direction' 'branded' tamarind paste... now I've seen everything!
The Golden Pagoda is an impressive site that is well worth a visit and lies a mere couple minutes rickshaw journey from the border crossing. Believed to be over 1,000 years old with several large enshrined Buddha statues, the crowning feature is the pagoda itself shimmering in the sunlight thanks to the 386 kilo of gold used to plate the exterior. It is one of many pagodas in the area, as is seen throughout Myanmar the country is littered with pagodas, and outside of Myawaddy several of the neighbouring villages have their own sites too if you have more time for exploration.
Laos - Vietnam
The Pang Hoak/Tay Trang border is a crossing between Laos and Vietnam that runs between the towns of Muang Khua in Laos and Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. Muang Khua is a scenic, beautiful, little town: quiet and charming, it is generally a stopping spot for people who are travelling by boat as it is halfway between Nong Kiaow and Hat Sa. However, for those who care to look, this town has something to offer visitors aside from its status as a halfway house.
Muang Khua is a great place to wander off the beaten track. Explore its side alleys and discover a side of the town not seen at first glance: with its pastel-coloured houses and little eateries it is quaint beyond belief. This area is particularly great for trekking; although you can expect fairly rough and challenging terrain it is truly beautiful. The surrounding mountains are relatively untouched (although this was a spot of heavy bombing during the Vietnamese war) and offer serenity and sublime natural beauty for those who venture here.
Dien Bien Phu is a city in northwestern Vietnam that is most famed for its military history, particularly the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In 1954, during the First Indochina War, this area was the site of a climatic confrontation between the Viet Minh Communist-Nationalist Revolutionaries and the French Far East Expeditionary Corps, which resulted in a resounding defeat of the French army. Although there is stunning scenery and beautiful hot spring spas in this area the top attractions centre on this piece of history with a military cemetery, a restored bunker of Colonel de Castries and the A1 Hill which offers an effective and realistic reproduction of the main areas of the battle.
Thailand - Laos
The first Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge opened in 2004 crossing the Mekong River to connect the Nong Khai province of Thailand with the Vientiane Prefecture in Laos, making international travel here very easy. Nong Khai is a quietly charming area that draws in visitors with its stunning sunsets, slow pace of life and its rich culture steeped in the historical and religious development of the area. Two of the top attractions are the Sala Kaew Ku and the Phu Phra Historical Park, however these are but a few of the sites this province has to offer.
The Sala Kaew Ku is a surreal and impressive sculpture park just outside of the city, the park is populated by dozens of sculptures that reflect Hindu-Buddhist ideas and imagery. The tallest stands at a whopping 25 meters and each appears to be more bizarre than the last, particularly the wheel of life entered through a gigantic mouth. The Phu Phra Historical Park is most notable for its ancient rock formations, which have been used as a spot for various religious shrines, some even contain prehistoric rock paintings. The rocks are really quite jaw-dropping structures thought to have been created thousands of years ago by sub-sea erosions.
The Vientiane Prefecture is the district of Laos that is home to the city of Vientiane (the country's capital) and its surroundings. As you can imagine, there is lots to see and do in this area: the city of Vientiane is pretty well established on the tourist trail and is brimming with religious sites, ancient statues, museums and sleepy cafes. A city to walk around and get lost in. Meanwhile the surrounding area is most notable for its scenery: its rivers and its green spaces will leave you in awe.
Some other ideas
Here are a few more specific recommendations of places not to miss on a trip to Southeast Asia border towns:
- Looking for a bite to eat in Mae Sot? Check out Khaomao-Khaofang, the local Thai cuisine is delicious and the interior design is unique: a well-to-do jungle style with hanging vines, waterfalls and orchids.
- If you're in Bavet, the Cambodia side of the Cambodia-Vietnam border, the main pastime here is the casinos. The small town has four casinos; we would recommend Titan King Casino: here you can drop in for a few hours of luxury, gaming and drinking or even stay the night as it is also a hotel and resort.
- In the Vientiane Prefecture the village of Tha Ngon is a must-stop, it lies on the Nam Ngum River and is a great spot for beautiful natural spaces and delicious food. The various floating restaurants are not to be missed.