Myanmar is rapidly becoming one of the more popular countries to visit in South East Asia, mainly because of the fact that it’s only relatively recently become open to tourists, and everyone wants to get there before everyone gets there and ruins it for everyone who wanted to get there first.
You know how it is. You want to get your tourism in before tourists ruin it.
Several people that I’d met in Malaysia and Thailand had assured me that a trip to Myanmar was required while I was out in Asia, and, seeing that I wouldn’t be returning to the continent any time soon after heading to Europe, I figured, why not? The visa was relatively easy to get, and it’d be a bit of an adventure.
I had settled on crossing into Myanmar at Ranong/Kawthaung. Kawthaung is the most southern city in Myanmar, and in fact one of the towns that has most recently become open to foreigners. Even today, Myanmar still has huge swathes of land that foreigners are banned from visiting, for reasons including ongoing conflicts and armed rebels.
Kawthaung was the newest land crossing to be opened, and it stood out because it wasn’t actually a land crossing at all; you had to take a boat.
I arrived into Ranong and got on a tuktuk with a group of people that were going to Ranong Pier. While they were headed to a Thai Island however, I had to find my way to the immigration office, and then find myself a long boat to head to Kawthaung.
Checking out of Thailand was easy enough; I handed my passport over and received it back shortly afterwards with a new stamp in it. I wondered idly what would happen if I now decided to wander back and get a bus into Thailand proper. Would I be an illegal immigrant?
The life of an illegal vagabond tempted me for a moment, but I beat down the urge and turned towards the boats. I was unsurprised to find two men standing behind me, both keen to have me on their boat to Kawthaung. I turned around quickly back to the immigration officer and asked how much a boat across the border should be.
‘500 baht; 10 dollars’ she told me. The dirty liar.
I followed the two men to the port and asked them the price for a boat. ‘400 baht, one way, 600 both ways’ I was offered. This crossing, it seemed, was a common place for visitors to Thailand to do their visa runs.
‘One way, 300 baht?’ I offered. The man accepted quickly, happily; a well-known sign that you’ve been ripped off. I sighed and followed the guy to his boat.
So I ended up on a boat less than a metre across, with two other travellers; a Thai girl, and a Burmese girl. The Burmese girl appeared to be in a school uniform, which was confusing, and the Thai girl seemed about as clueless as me. None of us shared a common language, so as the boat did its best to throw us into the water we communicated through noises of shock and fear.
Three times the boat driver’s assistant climbed down and asked for my passport and visa acceptance letter. The first and second time I offered photocopies, but for the third I was short, and so handed over my real documents. For the next ten minutes I waited to be stabbed and shoved out of the boat so that a new, slightly more tanned Alex with a Thai accent could take my place.
Fortunately, my Muay Thai training allowed me to dodge the first knife attack, and on a rocking boat in the middle of the Andaman sea I fought off three angry Burmese passport thieves.
Just kidding. There were only two.
In my head.
We went through three checkpoints it seemed, all of them small islands with a single building on them, before arriving into Kawthaung port. Here I saw the first and only other westerner that I would see this far south in Myanmar. He was about to get the boat back to Thailand, and we gave each other a nod as we crossed each other’s path.
I was directed to the Kawthaung Immigration Office, which was a drab building just off to the right of the port. When I arrived I had my passport and visa acceptance letter requested, and was informed of the half hour time difference between Thailand and Myanmar. Myanmar is one of about 6 countries to have a half hour time difference from its neighbours, and I believe it is designed to make the point that they are different, and special, and people should take notice of them. It certainly made guestimating the time in other countries more of a faff.
I was given my passport back, now with a visa stamp on a fresh page, and my visa acceptance letter returned, again with a stamp. As I turned to leave, I met Ricky.
Ricky was a Burmese man who wanted to be friends and to show me around the town, maybe helping me out if I needed it. He worked with the government, and therefore it was his job to help me. Where did I need to go?
I told him that I needed to go to the bus station. Ricky told me he’d be happy to help me. I told him that, actually, I honestly didn’t need any help, and that I could find it all myself. Ricky insisted.
I gave up.
There was a tuktuk waiting suspiciously conveniently outside of the immigration office, and we climbed onso that Ricky could take me somewhere to exchange my Thai Baht for Burmese Kyat (pronounced ‘Chat’). While we drove I asked him if the tuktuk driver was a friend of his.
‘No, I don’t have any friends.’ He replied. ‘There are too many Muslims here. Up north we are at war with Muslims.’
This didn’t sound like the line that the newspapers abroad were being fed, but as Ricky went on to tell me about how he worked for the army, I figured he probably knew more about it than I did. It turned out that he was on leave down south, waiting to go back to fight.
I exchanged £100 worth of Baht for what was probably £90 worth of Kyat, and hopped back on the tuktuk. As Ricky explained that he didn’t earn very much, and marveled at how strong the pound was, we drove to the bus station. Ricky told me how much the tuktuk expected – a fee I later learned was about 8 times more than I should have paid. He then told me how happy he was to have helped me, and how I didn’t have to give him any money if I didn’t feel like he didn’t deserve it, no really, I didn’t have to unless I wanted to, really.
So I gave him 5,000 kyat, or approximately £3.
That sounds stingy, but it’s actually a reasonable amount in Myanmar. It’s like a free dinner or three. For 20 minutes of sitting in a tuktuk. He did alright.
I bought a ticket for the bus; not just any bus, but a fancy bus, with air conditioning. This would take me all the way to Myeik, the first real town north of Kawthaung, and a town that is slowly becoming better known amongst tourists visiting the country. And when I say slowly, I mean slowly. There was only one hotel registered in the whole town, and the attractions for the town shown on TripAdvisor numbered about 5. Most of those were temples.
I had two hours before my bus, so I wandered back towards town. Ten minutes into my walk, a scooter driver pulled over and asked if I wanted a lift. I said no, so he assured me that it was free. I told him that it was okay, really, and he insisted that he wanted to help out and chat to a foreigner. So I said okay.
Fifteen minutes later, and having mentioned that I needed to get off about three times, I got off the bike, and quickly realised that I was now an hour’s walk away from the bus station, and should probably walk back. So much for exploring the town. I did, however, meet some children on the outskirts of the town, that were delighted to meet a white person, and followed me around shouting ‘Hello!’ repeatedly. When I got to the bus station I waved and shouted goodbye. They all waved back, apart from the youngest, who raised his middle finger and shouted ‘Fuck you!’ at the top of his lungs.
My fancy bus turned out to be a normal bus. Air conditioning turned out to be a window. The 10 hour trip to Myeik turned out to be 13 hours, and the road turned out to be closer to a dirt track. Other than that, it was all good. I arrived into Myeik at 6am in the morning, found my hotel, found a bench outside it, and read a book for half an hour. Then, noticing movement in the hotel, I knocked on the window, was allowed in, and told them I had a booking. They checked, nodded, and told me I could check in 8 hours early, for no extra cost. Hiding my disbelief, I nodded, and followed them to my small, twin bed room. Then I fell asleep.
I woke up 5 hours later after a power cut stopped the air conditioning and the room started becoming uncomfortably hot. I decided that maybe it was time to face the day.
I got out into the southern Burmese sun, and then realised that I had no idea what there was to do in Myeik. No one had told me what was worth doing.
My trip thus far had relied on arriving into places and having others tell me where they’d been or where they were going, and I would steal those ideas and claim them as their own. But I’d not met anyone who’d been this far south in Myanmar. And there didn’t seem to be anyone else around to tell me where I should go.
So I picked a direction and started walking.
I quickly found a temple that seemed worth investigating, so I removed my flip flops and climbed the steps into the small compound. As I had expected, there was a statue of Buddha, and several small buildings that seemed to be housing for monks and small areas for worship. I didn’t have time to explore them, because I was distracted by a group of kids that had started running towards me.
Thankfully I was in Burma, not the UK, and the mob of 10 year olds had no intention of stabbing me and stealing my shoes. Instead, they just wanted to see the white person, say hello, and, as I quickly found out, imitate everything I did or said, a fun game reminiscent of when my sister was trying wind me up as a kid.
After five minutes of being followed around by this group of kids trying to imitate me speaking English and giving me thumbs up (I’d given them a thumbs up after their first attempt to imitate me, thinking they were trying to learn the language) I left the temple from a different exit to the one I had entered. The kids sprinted off to get their shoes, giving me a chance to nip down a side alley and escape. I spent the next twenty minutes cautiously finding my way back to the town centre, avoiding the roving gang of local children.
I spent the rest of the day wandering, up to the market, across to a buddha statue sat in the middle of a lake covered in floating flowers. For a few minutes I wandered into a monastery, before feeling out of place, and wandering out again. Then I headed up along the coast and got some lunch: pineapple rice with chicken. Nothing too exotic.
The rest of the afternoon was spent napping and planning. I had a few places that I knew I needed to visit; Hpa An had a monastery on a mountain that Hannah had told me I should go to; Bagan had approximately three thousand temples that needed to be viewed at both sunset and sunrise; and Dawei was the newest hip spot to see untainted white sand beaches. So I looked up where all these places were, made a vague plan for the future, and went out to buy a bus ticket.
Or rather, I went downstairs to buy a bus ticket, because every hotel is also a ticket seller.
For approximately $10USD, or 12,000kyat, I could buy a night bus to Dawei, that would leave Myeik at 5pm, and arrive at the fairly useful time of 2am. I also looked up places to stay, because I was going to be prepared this time.
As the sun started to set, I made my way back out onto the streets and followed a tip I’d read about where to view the sunset; the top of the closest thing Myeik had to a skyscraper, the Hotel Grand Jade. I arrived there just as the sun started disappearing behind the horizon, and ordered a 5000 kyat cocktail, because why not.
I headed back to my hotel via the seaside, looking at the food stalls that had been set up for hundreds of metres along it. I finally built up the courage to ask for some, and after a lot of giggles and charades, was given a small taster dish with a bowl of rice. Most of it was pretty alright.
The next day I gave myself two objectives; go to the island of Katan, to explore one of the only villages that tourists had access (if only partial access) to; and to get on my bus. Pretty easy goals, to be fair, but I was on holiday. I didn’t want to accidentally get stressed out.
I found my way to the docks and was unsurprised to find myself approached by a man who was wondering whether I needed a boat. I told him that I did, because I wanted to go to Katan. He said that he’d be happy to take me, and in fact drive me around all the islands, for a mere 60,000 kyat, or £48.
I stopped myself from pointing out how close the island was, and my preference of swimming there instead of paying £60. I told him that I had read about a 1000 kyat boat that took me straight to the island. He nodded, and led me to another boat, repeated the word ‘Katan’, and left me there.
I asked the new boat captain where he was going to, and he came out with a few syllables that I didn’t recognise, but could tell was definitely not Katan. This must have been part 2 of the £48 boat scam. I walked off.
The first guy to approach me saw me leaving and chased after me, telling me that no, this was the correct boat! I needed to get on it. I told him that the boat was going somewhere completely different, and I’d sort it out myself, thank you very much. This agitated the guy, and he got his phone out, opened up Maps, and showed me. The name that the boat captain had given me hadn’t been Katan; it had been the name of the main port on the island. No one was being scammed. Everyone was trying to help me. In fact, they were going out of their way to do so.
This hadn’t happened before.
I paid my 1000 kyat and took my seat in the boat in a state of humbled shock. The man next to me lit up a cigarette. This didn’t seem very safe to me, what with us being in an enclosed space, soon to be in the sea, surrounded by people bringing flammable things across to the island. I decided to abandon my seat and go sit on the top of the boat. There were a few other people there enjoying the sunshine. I lay down and enjoyed the warm air and sea breeze.
It was an hour’s trudge across the sea to get to Katan, and when I did I was greeted by an immigration officer that asked for my passport and visa, and then informed me that I wasn’t allowed on certain parts of the island. I nodded, as if I was well aware of this, took my documents back, and headed off down the only road in the whole town.
This is the only photo I have of Katan; in fact, as you may have noticed, I only have about 3 photos for the whole of my first week in Myanmar. This is due to my phone breaking 5 days in, and it not having uploaded the photos to the Cloud. So enjoy the ones I managed to keep.
If Myeik was a town not designed for tourism, then Katan was taking it to a whole new level. I wandered down the road, marveling at the practically abandoned police station; the power station that seemed to be free for anyone to wander in and around; the small mini cul-de-sac villages made up of between 3 and 10 houses, all on stilts to protect from flooding, all with satellites to get the good tv programmes. I got a wave and a Mendelahbah from everyone who passed me, as well as a stare until I was out of sight. Because I am exotic and exciting.
At one point I headed into one of the cul-de-sac villages and through, finding a well beaten path towards the coast. There I found where a large portion of the villagers could be found; at the charcoal kilns. Whole families were there, the men moving large bundles of thin trees towards the kilns, or bundles of charcoal to the shore, where kids would move them onto long boats. These Burmese islanders were all business, and didn’t show me even a smidgeon of the celebrity attention I’d become used to. I watched them at work for a few minutes, before heading along the coast to explore some more, looking at the dozens of mini crabs that scuttled into their holes as I made my way through the sand.
Apart from the sun and the village life, there wasn’t stacks of things to do in Katan, so after an hour or two of wandering the island, I found myself back at the port, waiting for the ferry back to the mainland. This turned up at 2.30pm, and then hung around for an hour, making me more and more nervous that I wasn’t going to catch my bus. I had, of course, forgotten that Burmese time applies to both ferries and buses, so if my ferry arrived an hour later, the bus probably wouldn’t leave until well after the promised date. This turned out to be exactly correct, and when I arrived at my hotel at 4.45pm I had time for a 45-minute nap before the 5pm minibus turned up. Perfect.
Anyway. I got on my larger bus, which did indeed have air conditioning this time, and settled in for a nap.
No such luck was to be given to me it seemed, however. The drivers in Myanmar are music enthusiasts, and so for the 8 hour drive we had a combination of Burmese karaoke – in which the TV is turned on and dozens of painfully boring karaoke music videos show girls wistfully staring off into the distance are shown – and well known Western songs, sang in Burmese. It was only after hearing the tune for ‘I Believe in Angels’ by Abba, sung in Burmese, did I pick up on this, but it was confirmed ten minutes later when 8675-309 Jenny came on. They didn’t have a translation for the numbers, so the chorus was actually in English, before it went on again in Burmese.
Considering the song is about finding a phone number in a bathroom, tagged as ‘Call for a good time’, I assume that the singers had changed the general topic of the song. Maybe it was now an educational tune for Burmese people to learn random English numbers. Who knows.
A halfway stop at a restaurant/shop, and 8 hours later, we arrived in Dawei. The driver climbed up to the top of the bus, handed my stuff down, and refused my offered tip of a thousand kyat. Then, after making sure I knew where I was going, he drove off with the rest of the bus people.
I did know where I was going; I was prepared this time. It was midnight, but I had a destination in mind; Sein Shwe Moe Guesthouse. A mouthful and a half. The bus had dropped me off less than 300m from it, and I found it easily. It was recognisable by the solidly locked gate that barred its entrance, and the way all the lights in the building were turned off.
A few stray dogs started barking, and I decided to head off in search of another hostel; there were a few on my map, all within a three minute walk.
Six minutes later I began to realise that the map for Myanmar was far from reliable, and neither of the two hostels posted existed.
I started looking for comfortable alleyways to spend the night in, when a man drove past in a scooter. Seeing my lost and purposeless gait, he turned round and drove back.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked me.
‘No idea. Don’t worry mate, I’m okay.’ I replied. Spending a night in an alleyway is almost the definition of being okay.
‘Have you got a hotel?’ he asked.
‘Nope, it’s closed. I’ll be alright though.’ I said.
‘No, no, come, let me help you find somewhere. Get on the scooter.’
I thought about it for a moment. Should I get on the back of the scooter of a random guy who has just driven past me in a new city at half midnight in a country where I didn’t speak the language and barely knew my way around, even with a map.
Seemed like a good idea. I shrugged, hoisted my bag higher up my back, and climbed on.
The first place we went to was closed. The second was his mate’s place, and was actually an apartment. But it was $15 a night, which we both agreed was too much. The third place he brought me to was, much like Goldilocks’ third bed, just right.
Well, it was good enough. $12, private room, two twin beds because, of course, who travels on their own? Losers, that’s who. There was a TV, a shared bathroom, and, most importantly, their reception was open and they’d let me stay. So I said goodbye to my knight on shining scooter, thanking him, and promising that if I were to rent a scooter, I would indeed rent it from his scooter shop. He then scooted off, and I settled in for the night. Tomorrow would be another day of trying to find somewhere to sleep, and trying to find someone to tell me what there was worth doing in Dawei.