Introducing Three Pagodas Pass
Thailand’s western border town with Myanmar is named for three rather small pagodas (Chedi Sam Ong). But these forgettable landmarks are not the reason for a visit. Instead travellers come to peak into Myanmar without a full commitment. This is not an official border crossing, but foreigners are allowed a day pass into the Myanmar town of Payathonzu and its souvenir market.
A true frontier town, Payathonzu has around a half-dozen Burmese teahouses (a couple of them with nam-bya – the Burmese equivalent to Indian naan bread); several mercantile shops with Burmese longyi (sarongs), cheroots and clothes; and a few general souvenir shops with Mon-Karen-Burmese handicrafts. It is necessary to bargain; traders speak some English and also some Thai.
A Buddhist temple, Wat Suwankhiri, can be seen on a bluff near the town. A Myanmar military checkpoint at the edge of town usually bars all visitors from leaving the town limits.
Three Pagodas Pass hosts a Songkran Festival during April, complete with cockfights; hemp-fisted, Thai-Burmese kickboxing; and Karen, Thai, Burmese and Mon folk dancing.
Not readily apparent to the daytripper, this remote crossing once vacillated between the Karen National Union and the Mon Liberation Front, since Three Pagodas was one of the only passable routes through hundreds of miles of rugged mountains. This ‘toll gate’ was used by the ethnic armies to collect tax on smuggled goods. The funds were often used to finance armed resistance against the Myanmar government.
The Myanmar government wrested control of the town in 1989 from both the Karen and Mon and has been firmly established here ever since. It renamed the town Payathonzu (Three Pagodas) and filled it with shops catering to an odd mix of troops and tourists. Teak furniture shops on either side of the border are one of the most dominant cottage industries, but recent reports suggest that these businesses are declining because of scarcer sources of timber or excessive logging taxes levied by the Myanmar government or ethnic groups.
Foreigners are allowed to enter Myanmar on a day pass and all immigration formalities can be arranged at the border. This crossing does not issue visa extensions. You will need to temporarily surrender your passport, along with a passport photo, to the Thai immigration office before crossing the border. At the Myanmar immigration office, you must submit a copy of the photo page of your passport and a passport photo, in addition to 500B or US$10. Upon your return into Thailand, you will receive your passport back. There is a small photocopy shop near the Thai immigration office where you can arrange border documentation.
Occasionally this border is closed, especially during conflicts between ethnic armies and the central Myanmar government, but these incidents are less frequent now than in years past.