We climbed on the back of a full songtheow, our bags slung on top, and made our way to the border. Before we even crossed things began to change. In Thailand’s Mae-Sot men were wearing skirts (or longyis), women had their faces painted (Burmese Makeup) and so many people smiled as we passed them in the streets. We must be getting close to Myamar.
We had already got our visas while in Bangkok. This is a must for anyone wanting to go to Myanmar overland or by air. The whole process is pretty simple… download the form from the internet, fill it in, attach two passport photos and stand in line in the embassy. If you forget any of these things, a woman in a van outside can supply everything including photos. The visa service is only a morning thing so getting there early is wise, around 10am worked well for us. Once a man reads over you application and decides you are not a bad person you pay him and go on your way. The visa can be picked up later that day if you pay more, or the next day which costs a little less (for cheap skates like us).
We’d read a lot about the overland crossing to Myanmar and having only been open a matter of months and the internet filled with conflicting information we prepared ourselves for a long and arduous process. In fact it was easy! The official in the immigration office, while looking at El’s visa, talked about Englands bad world cup result and explained how to pronounce thank you in Burmese properly, and for Ryans visa, the Japan game had just kicked off so that was obviously more of a priority. A no-mans-land bridge connects the two countries over a brown murky river and while you walk across you can look down at the locals openly country hopping on boats without any ID’s or Visas. We got one last stamp in our visa and hey presto we were in Myanmar – a very easy border crossing indeed.
Myawaddy is an unremarkable but busy town built around the border crossing so we didn’t want to hang around. We quickly realized the one ATM was out of money and changed some Baht into Kyat so we could pay a driver going to take us to Hpa’an. It seemed everyone in the town was a driver and was willing to fit us in their already packed car filled with thai goods to take into Myanmar. The car we got was a full car …but not as full as most, loaded with people and goods being delivered along the winding mountain pass, with sheer drops on either side. Some loads were taller than the cars themselves and the wheels scraped along the wheel arch with every bump and corner in the road. The one road out of Myawaddy has a slightly strange policy of only being able to go one direction on alternating days, and it was easy to understand why, the road was so narrow you could barely fit two cars across. After stopping at three police check points to have our passports looked at and a petrol station where the gas was pumped up by hand before being poured into the engine with metal jugs, we reached Hpa’an. But not before seeing a dodgy looking group wearing black berets, matching shirts and large knives who made the car stop to get the driver to by some kind of ticket. We are not sure what this group was but even they wanted to be friendly, say hello and shake the foreigners hands! (N.B. there are no pictures of these guys, we were to scared to take any)
We stayed at the very popular Soe Brothers Guesthouse while in Hpa’an and got our first real taste of Myanmar. Powercuts and smiling faces! We walked through the small towns dimly lit streets that night and were greated by a dozen children waving and saying ‘hello’, when we said hello in Burmese more flocked and all wanted to give us high fives! Not a bad first impression. We decided to take the tour the guest house offers to see the local attractions, as the rain may have made this hard on a moped. We managed to forget the camera this day (damn!) so please imagine the beautiful landscape, caves filled with buddha images and monks going abound there daily lives! It was truly breathtaking, made more so as we appeared to be the only westerners at any of the sites. Hpa-an got a big thumbs up.
Our next stop, after a three hour bus journey, was Kinpun. The small town at the base of the mountain on which the famous Golden Rock sits. Legend says the precarious rock is held in place by one of Buddhas hairs and one look at it is enough to convert anyone to Buddhism… But no fear for us as we were firmly in the rain clouds on the mountain and could bearly see the rock… and judging by the amount of rain the rock may have needed a few more hairs just to keep it steady. Monsoon season was truly in full swing in eastern Myanmar but this did not stop us making the trip up the mountain on the back of a truck to see it! It was very strange on top, walking through the clouds and fog, bumping into monks looming out of the mist. So maybe we didn’t see the amazing view which for many is the highlight of the trip, but it was still worth getting seriously damp for! Our next stop was the big city, Yangon, but only after an eventful train ride…but more about that next time.