A visa run in style

Doing the Mae Sai border run can be a bit of an ordeal crammed onto a local bus but Hakan Jakob Kosar has found a way of doing it with a bit more panache.

By | Thu 29 Oct 2009

Doing the Mae Sai border run can be a bit of an ordeal – that is if your budget doesn’t allow for planes, your own set of wheels and French crepes for breakfast. Who in all honesty enjoys the packed four hour minibus ride with its labouring air conditioning system, wending round and round those inimical hills to Chiang Rai? Who would in all seriousness bed down with the roaches, risk contracting conjunctivitis from circa 1990 bath towels, when they could lie down on a fine couple-of-hundred-thread-count linen on a bed made in heaven with a bottle of red wine for company?

Well, certainly not us! We were heading to Chiang Rai to look into the trading of rare animal parts at Tachilek for an article this month and decided to convince the editor to let us double the trip up into a travel piece. “Citylife’s readers won’t want to know about the normal fleabag hotels we stay in,” we argued…and won.

We took the morning SGA flight to Chiang Rai; a thirty-five minute jaunt over stunning views, as you climb up over the mountains, into the clouds, and then descend and land. The airport was so small it took us a couple of minutes to get off the plane and to the car park where our almost brand new vehicle was waiting. A short drive later and both of us were marvelling at an almost fairytale landscape that was the Le Meridien, Chiang Rai city’s most luxurious hotel, located in the pretty village of Robwieng.

For two writers not used to such standards, we were blown away by the incredible staff, all of whom spoke excellent English, were exceedingly friendly and very efficient…we’ll get to the rooms, facilities, restaurants and landscaping in a minute. The hotel contrasts the very modern – rooms with stylish mod cons, designer fittings and all kinds of cool gadgets to play with – and Lanna contemporary designs, while also sublimating various hill tribe aesthetics into the overall look. Le Meridien sits on a twenty-six rai estate by the Kok River, the three tiered swimming pool virtually abuts the waters of the Kok. Tall rain trees, ponds and lakes full of giant carp and cat fish, palatial lawns, walkways, bridges and quiet shaded love seats make strolling around the hotel’s grounds as pleasurable as ordering tons of room service and getting tipsy on your veranda.

Good restaurants in the city of Chiang Rai are few and far between which gives you another fine reason not to leave the hotel. Le Meridien’s signature restaurant Favola serves ‘rustic’ Italian fare in a stylish setting, while their all day international restaurant, Latest Recipe, is a must for its dizzying array of breakfast treats – the only thing we could think of missing from this buffet was black pudding, but we weren’t complaining! Fresh salmon and brie wolfed down with health drink shooters, veal sausages, corn beef hash, omelettes, delightful pastries, breads, and fresh coffee, prepares you for a day’s sightseeing.

The hour’s drive to Mae Sai gets more beautiful nearer to the destination, with lush green mountains and pretty paddy fields. At the border you can go through without a reentry permit if you already have a visa, just tell them you want to go shopping and get a short time pass through. You’ll have to leave your passport at the immigration office, something one of us wasn’t too happy about, “never leave your passport,” new-in-Thailand Hakan intoned, though soon capitulated once I’d got him thinking about naked-girl playing cards for 23 baht a pack.

Tachilek hasn’t changed much, still a veritable Aladdin’s cave full of great steals and dodgy deals. There are stacks of cheap wines _ reasonable quality _ and other cheap booze bargains for those who don’t mind Johnny Black off the back of a lorry. Prada and Ralph Lauren clothes spangle the hot back alleys going at 100th of the cost of the originals. Take your time, some goods are surprisingly high in quality, though most don’t pass muster on closer inspection. Personally I wouldn’t trust electronic goods, and be careful who you speak to, there are a few vipers around offering merchandise that is sold – strictly – under the table; just point your camera at them, they’ll run off at the sight of a lens.

Another day trip, again about an hour’s drive from Chiang Rai, is the Golden Triangle. Here we went on a boat cruise to Laos – no visa required – and bought snake whisky and souvenirs. The sunset was worth hanging around for and seen from a small boat rocking in the middle of the mighty Mekong, made it pretty special.

Sunset sunschmet, we were missing the lap of luxury of Le Meridien, the heavy quilt, the room service and the flat screen TV, which we luxuriated in for one more night before flying back over the rainbow to Chiang Mai, hard beds and noisy neighbours. A visa run I am sure we would both do every week if finances permitted. For anyone thinking about a luxury visa run the total cost – if we had paid for everything: Le Meridien is 6,000 ++, car rental 1,200 baht per day, and return flight is 1,890 baht.

Le Meridien will host the Mozart opera, Cosi fan tutte, on November 21st with an opera, dinner, breakfast and room exclusive offer. They will also have plenty happening during the loy krathong festival. See their website for more details.

For more details, bookings etc:
Tel: 053 603 333
Fax: 053 603 330