Myanmar: The Shape of Things to Come

Four times now I’ve set foot in Myanmar, but I’ve never stayed for more than a few hours.  Just long enough to have a snack and a look around before coming back to Thailand on a fresh visa.  Just long enough to spark this little urge in me, this sense that my adventures so far haven’t been sufficiently adventurous.  I’ve been living in east Asia for so long that it rarely feels new, uncomfortable, or challenging.  I’m always confident that the roads will be decent, the food will be delicious, and that I’ll have my choice of beaches, forests, temples, or cheap guesthouses to sleep in.  It’s been great, but it’s getting old.

Maybe it’s just all in my head, but Myanmar seems different.  Step across the border, and everything feels coarser, more chaotic.  The locals have darker skin, bigger eyes, and more penetrating stares.  Many apply traditional powdered tree bark makeup to their face in intricate geometrical patterns that make them look like oracles, shamans, or medicine men.  Traffic feels brusque, hawkers feel aggressive, and my body goes into a state of exhilarated alert.  Finally, things are new again.  I get this buzz that I want to dive into and run away from at the same time.

Up until now, I haven’t had to choose whether or not to probe this fear or to flee it. My visa was only valid for a few hours, and my plan was always to return to Thailand, where everything is oh-so-easy.  (As long as you’ve got $10 in your pocket, you can feed, clothe, and house yourself for a day, even if you can’t speak a word of Thai.  If you can find a monastery, you don’t even need that.)  Tomorrow, though, if all goes according to plan, I’ll head to the embassy and pick up a real visa for Myanmar.  Permission to stay in the country for a whole 28 days, all of them sure to bring to me to places I’ve never been before.  (Update:  I drafted this post several weeks ago.  Tomorrow we’re crossing the border.)

This will be the first time in my trip where I’m really in uncharted territory.  There have been foreign travelers in Myanmar for decades, but for a long time it was only possible to go on organized tours, and even when things started opening up a few years ago, it was still only possible to visit a certain few iconic areas.  Only in the last year or so has (mostly) free travel been allowed, and Myanmar only opened up to overland traffic (and, thus, foreign cyclists) about six months ago.  While my posse and I have found a few other travelers unhinged enough to give it a go, there aren’t a whole lot.  At least not ones that write about it.

I’m not sure how often we’ll find internet access, or whether when we do it’ll be sufficiently fast to upload any photos, so I’ll give a little preview now and then see you on the flipside.  From India.

2013-10-05 Tachilek 012

Border run the first: About a kilometer west of the border crossing at Tachilek, the road turns to dirt and the explorer in me awakens.  How far could I walk before getting turned back?

2013-10-05 Tachilek 011

I’m regrettably ignorant about the political situation there.  I’ve heard of a woman named Aang San Suu Kyi, and I’ve been told that she stands for freedom, but I didn’t know that the National League for Democracy was the party that she’s heading, or that she’s out of house arrest, or that she’s now actually got some sort of official position in the government.  Is she driving the regime towards more democratic policies, or is she simply helping them to gloss over their cruelty?

 2013-10-05 Tachilek 014

I did read one of her books.  Letters from Burma from 1996.  It’s filled with Orwellian tales of the government making absurd pretexts for shutting down NLD events, arresting NLD members, reneging on promises to open up the political process…

 2013-10-05 Tachilek 016

All this “interesting” stuff (am I fetishizing it a bit?  It must be hell to live through) happening in the background gives a little charge to the air, like what I’m seeing is only half the story.  Of course, this is true everywhere I’ve visited, where there are history and politics and a million things I don’t know anything about hiding under the surface.

 2013-10-05 Tachilek 017

 2013-10-05 Tachilek 029

 2013-10-05 Tachilek 028

Electric Buddhas

 2013-10-05 Tachilek 030

A new noodle dish – fatty egg noodles like in northern Thailand, but in a skinnier vermicelli shape.  Served with a thick, spicy sauce, topped with raw greens and peanuts.  That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

2014-02-22 Ranong 003

Border run the second.  And then, three weeks later, the third:  From Ranong, across some little bay, and into the southern tip of Myanmar at Kawthoung.

 2014-02-22 Ranong 014

Saw this dude and his distinctive face makeup both times.

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 001

This isn’t the captain.  Just the navigator.

 2014-02-22 Ranong 023

Holy crap, it’s Burma!

2014-02-22 Ranong 008

 2014-02-22 Ranong 013

The pre-immigration office, where for whatever reasons our passports were inspected but not stamped.

 2014-02-22 Ranong 017

 2014-02-22 Ranong 021

Life at the port

 2014-02-22 Ranong 020

“Mister, mister!  5 Baht?”

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 017

There was an actual pier further down, but it was only used by the ships that stopped at the island casino in between Thailand and Myanmar.  That ship cost $30 to take, whereas these little boats cost $6.  Needless to say, locals and fauxbos use the latter.

 2014-02-22 Ranong 018

Entry/exit process in Thailand: Head to port.  Stand in line with yellow guardrails.  Read the posted description of the 6 steps of the visa process, including how much time (measured in seconds) each should take.  Hand passport to agent through small hole in glass window.  Get stamp.  Head to boat.

Entry/exit process in Myanmar: Get off boat.  Have no clue where immigration is.  Go whichever way the boat driver points you.  Stop for a few snacks.  Walk through the market and take pictures.  Eventually, find the immigration office over by the casino boat port.  Walk in, find out that you need a copy of your passport.  Go back out, wander around, find a photo shop, get it, come back, pay $10, get asked how long you want to stay.  Huh, it’s up to me?  Why didn’t I just bring my bike?!  Stamp in and out within 5 seconds of one another.  Then amble around some more before getting back on your boat.

 2014-02-22 Ranong 019

It’s hard to explain exactly what it is that feels so different.  Different alphabet, of course.  Older cars?  Older buildings?  Lack of gas stations?  Lack of lanes on the road?

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 014

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 019

My boat driver tracked me down in the market to tell me it was time to leave.  When he saw this lady with the green umbrella, he turned into a slight perv, needling me and smiling and communicating without words how much of a hottie he thought she was.

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 004

The market seemed mostly normal: fruits and veggies, fish and meat, fish pastes, mass-produced clothes, backs, and gizmos.  Most notable item: These all-star monk CDs.  Or whatever they are.

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 005

Don’t know why, but I love this photo and loved this moment.

As I was snacking, a light stream of water started falling from the ceiling above, dropping directly down onto a plate of samosas.  The guy on the left didn’t react.  He just grunted to the boss, who came over and slid the pastries out of the way.  Then he scaled the bookcase, entered the ceiling, clambered around for a bit, and took care of business.  I don’t think I want to know what sort of pipe it was.

 2014-03-19 to Bangkok 009

New donuts!

 2014-03-19 to Bangkok 006

Egg roll/samosa fusion.

 2014-03-19 to Bangkok 008

Dough slabs with condensed milk frosting.  Hopefully this isn’t just a southern specialty.

 2014-03-19 to Bangkok 011

Samosa guy insisted I take pictures of his…bald daughter?

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 012b

Or rather, daughters.

2014-03-19 to Bangkok 013

All three of them.

That’s all.

Until tomorrow.

This entry was posted in Myanmar, Southeast Asia and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Myanmar: The Shape of Things to Come

  1. Great photos! You took them already, no need to go into Myanmar again.

  2. myra says:

    Interesting place. Had his one daughter picked up lice? Our Bengali friends shave their boys and girls heads when they are little sometimes ritually. You did not take your bike on the boat? The only place I remember Raffe and Christine not taking their tall bikes was Venice where they were told no. Glad you had a good place to leave your bike.

    • Michael Roy says:

      There were actually quite a few young girls with shaved heads walking around, so I’m inclined to think it’s more fashion- than infestation-related. Another possibility is that it has some religious significance; in Thailand, the order of Buddhist nuns has died out and no more can be ordained, but in Myanmar the tradition still live on. In fact, I saw several women in robes with their heads shaved. So maybe the little girls were either going through some sort of ritual or just styling themselves after their role models.

      I didn’t take my bike in since I was only planning on renewing my Thai visa. Had I known that I would be permitted to stay a few days, I might have given it a try. Then again, had I had a bike with me, maybe they wouldn’t have offered.

  3. wd says:

    Good luck. Be safe. Write when you can.

  4. Murray says:

    Now you have my full attention, brother! When I was cycling along the Mekong, I spent many hours staring lovingly into Myanmar, yet knowing I couldn’t enter. My passport was at the Indian visa in Bangkok… so all I could do was stare, and wonder.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Woohoo, good to know you’re still out there, Murray. Keep checking back, I’ll do my best to uploads lots of good stuff.

      FYI, it’s now very easy (for Americans, Europeans, and Koreans, at least) to pick up a 28 day Myanmar visa in Bangkok, with only a 3 day wait and $27 USD, and there are supposedly 4 Thai borders from which you can cross over…

      • Murray says:

        Good to know, Mike! Live it up in Myanmar, and I look forward to any updates you can squeeze in!