The overland travel to Myanmar, former Burma, had crossed my mind long time ago when visited Southeast Asia for the first time. Even though some of the Burmese land borders began to open already few years ago, the south of the country remained largely isolated from the world until August 2013. Today one can “easily” get from Kanchanaburi in Thailand to Dawei on the Myanmar side using unplanned means of transportation.
This is the adventure I plan to share with Chris, a good friend who I met two years ago in South America. This time Chris arrives from Saudi Arabia and I take a flight from northern Norway. We meet on the Khao San Road as it seems to be a good starting point and a place to catch up. So called ‘One Night in Bangkok’. Due to unpredictable course of happenings and prolonged visa formalities it actually turns out to be ‘Two Nights in Bangkok’.
We leave the big city. Upon arrival to Kanchanaburi we are lucky enough to catch another bus that will take us all the way to Phu Nam Ron near the Burmese border.
An extremely helpful and unquestionably hospitable Thai, who introduces himself as Doctor O, lets us to stay for the night at sort of a porch next to his office. Except for the hard floor, biting insects and fighting dogs in the middle of the night, we sleep very well.
In the morning we manage to cross the border at Htee Khee. The tarmac road on Thai side simply ends in a certain point and doesn’t continue an inch beyond. We learn from the border post statistics that merely twenty some people (mostly local Asians) have crossed the border here during the initial couple of months after opening. Really strange to think the place completely did not exist until recently.
We hire a driver who promises to take us to Dawei for $30. The new gravel road is simply a narrow strip cut through dense Burmese jungle. There might be some plans for asphalt, but that clearly hasn’t happened yet.
We arrive to Dawei after four hours. The city is rather not impressive. What was once an important commercial port, now turned into a sleepy tropical town. We manage to find the only hotel that is licensed to host foreigners. The city’s main attraction is probably Shwe Taung Zar Pagoda, an impressive complex of temples.
Low chairs and tables
A short tuk-tuk ride takes us to Maungmagan Beach. It is a holiday place for locals with bars and restaurants stretching along the seaside. In other words, perfect retreat to drink beer and eat roasted lobster.
It is here where for the first time I realized that when you are choosing a bar to sit you need to pay attention to the type of tables and chairs they have. With an average height of about 160 cm, Burmese people often tend to equip premises with too little chairs and tables, sometimes with a crossbars at the knee’s height, which makes it impossible to sit.
While Myanmar cuisine has some common roots with the others in the region, it also distinctively stands out.
The prevailing rice and pasta are often served with a lot of vegetables, especially fresh greens, mysterious white balls, garlic, ginger and other intense spices. Some of them are quite controversial, such as ubiquitous sauce based on smelly fish extract. I believe it takes a lot of time and commitment to enjoy it.
A common dining option is an open buffet. Here and there you would see about a dozen pots with different dishes cooked in the morning and served under a thatched roof throughout the day. In the midday’s heat the pots cool down slowly and most likely keep the temperature until the end of day.
The surrounding villages are teeming with local life. Men weave a new bamboo wall, women sew clothes for their children, while the children carelessly jump over a stretched elastic band and run around.
We take an 11 hour bus ride to Mawlamyine through the jungle. On both roadsides I can see that the road itself has been constructed recently. There are still traces of excavators and machinery visible in the laterite, still haven’t been through one of rather lavish rainy seasons here.
At some point I understand why the bus has also rear headlights. It is a handy gadget to use on a road of about 3-4 meters wide to control the position of rear wheels. Just in case we don’t fall down the abyss in the middle of the night. It must be an Asian answer to the notorious Bolivian Death Road.
These are the initial experiences in Myanmar. What happens next remains to be seen!