Myanmar: A Different Kind of Paradise

“Beauty is meaningless until it is shared.”

George Orwell, Burmese Days

“I think we should go to Myanmar. Looks like we can enter over land too!”  Maartje enthusiastically says this to me as we’re both sucking up the wifi from our near-matching laptops, dripping the kind of sweat that only Bangkok can produce. I was busy sorting through twelve open Safari tabs, wondering if this was, in fact, the day I would perish from heat stroke. We had arrived from The Philippines the night before and were starved for proper Internet. Per usual, we didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing next, so research and creativity were in order.  First thing was first though. Maartje needed a new passport, as her current one was set to expire within the year. Since she was planning on applying for a work visa in Australia soon, renewing her passport was critical. The Dutch, like many others, have an embassy in Bangkok, which was precisely why we were there. Well, that and the fact that it’s Bangkok. It was my first time in Thailand, Maartje’s seventh. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s just a testament to how much this girl moves around. I’ve told you about the well-traveled Dutch before, haven’t I?  So here we were, in one of the most mad cities of them all, putting a plan of attack together for the coming weeks. What a better city to get organized in than the one whose streets relentlessly attempt to lure you with gimmicks like ping-pong “shows” and local-rum buckets? If you’re not familiar with Thailand’s infamous ping-pong shows, I welcome you do some research. (I’m sure Google will gladly guide you here. I’m just not going there right now. Not today. Not-uh.)   Despite the chaos, party and heat (oh my God, the HEAT) that is Bangkok, we managed to stay focused and motivated. Maartje’s words regarding a trip to Myanmar never really stopped echoing between the walls of my head, nor did they ever cease to be a part of our daily conversations. After all, I had nowhere to be and was open to almost anything. Maartje, on the other hand, had already been through Southeast Asia on a previous backpacking trip, so Myanmar was about all that was left for her to conquer in the region. Since it borders Thailand to the west, we were already too close to pass it up.  It’s also Myanmar — a country overflowing with enough history and mystique to intrigue even the most seasoned travelers. Many of you may recognize it as it’s former name, Burma. With a bit more research we quickly realized two game-changing facts: One, Myanmar had only opened their land borders two months earlier (my birthday, coincidentally), making the adventure appeal sky-rocket for both of us.  The thought of crossing such a country’s border by foot made our hearts race and our eyes beam with excitement. Out of the few people we knew who had traveled through Myanmar, we’d yet to meet anyone who was so much as aware of the fact that crossing by land was even an option. The second, and perhaps more influential of the two facts, was that Myanmar also had an embassy in Bangkok. Why is this so important, you might be wondering. Good question. Given Myanmar’s complex government and recent entrance into the game of tourism, they require visitors to obtain for a visa from an embassy prior to entering. We would need passport photos, about forty bucks and some serious patience. Throughout the decision and prepping processes, Maartje kept the motivation high by reciting one of her favorite quotes aloud: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  It also happens to come from one of my favorite writers, making it all the more lovely to hear from the voice of my always-positive Dutch friend. We certainly weren’t taking a path of any sort, which was proven by the lack of border-crossing information the Internet provided us with — or didn’t. Search after search left us scratching our heads, wondering how we were going to get into this fascinating country. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I think we were both a bit tired of “easy.” I could feel the need for real travel and lostness coming from Maartje, because I was phening for it too.  We applied for our visas on a hot and steamy Monday afternoon at the worn down Burmese Embassy. It lacked proper air conditioning and adequate seating, but was just what we expected. After a few hours of standing and sitting in lines, we submitted our passports for visa approval.  In typical backpacker (read: cheap) fashion, we opted for the next-day turn around, as opposed to the quicker and more expensive 3-hour deal.  We returned the following afternoon and sat on a Bangkok street curb, anxiously awaiting the embassy’s doors to open. Within minutes we held our passports again, only now, they were one visa thicker.  We were virtually skipping out of the place.  With our visas making things official, we needed a plan. We decided we would enter at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing point, as it was the only one that looked like it wouldn’t leave us stranded.  From there, we would get transport to our first Burmese town, Hpa-An. It was all coming to life. Holy shit, I thought. We’re going to Myanmar.

Screen shot 2014-01-27 at 4.38.01 PM

Visa? Check. Tired, sweaty and happy in Bangkok? Check, check, check.

After seven days in Bangkok, we were both more than ready to leave. I love a hectic city, but a week is a long time in such chaos and heat. There was a town in the north of Thailand called Pai and it was supposed to be a hippie’s dream. It was one of the few places Maartje hadn’t yet been in Thailand, so we were in. We knew we were entering Myanmar through a more northern point, so this worked out well.  Now, here’s my quick disclaimer: I don’t usually (or ever) do this, but I am going out of chronological order here for the sake of remembering the details. Myanmar left quite an impression on me and I want to be able to share every last drop with you. It’s already been months and this memory of mine can’t wait any longer.  I will skip back to Thailand and all of her beauty afterwards. You have my word.  Okay, now that we got that out of the way — let’s talk all things Myanmar.

We arrived in Mae Sot just before sunset on rather humid Wednesday night. I quickly realized we weren’t in a standard, tourist-filled Thai town anymore.  It just felt like a border town. After failing to effectively negotiate transport to a still-to-be-decided hostel, we finally hopped on the backs of two motorbikes and paid the overpriced fare. We were ready to eat, sleep and make our way into Myanmar. We heard it was best to go early in the morning, so we did exactly that. The alarms went off before dawn and it wasn’t long before we were roaming the not-so-friendly streets of Mae Sot looking for border transport.  After dodging some local drunk kids in a speeding car (beer bottle-throwing ass hole included), we found ourselves a taxi that agreed to take us to the checkpoint. Mae Sot brought nothing to the table for us, and the flying beer bottles at 5 a.m. just sealed the deal. We were thankful to be leaving so quickly. Within minutes we arrived at the checkpoint. It had all the requirements: a long line, a frantic feel and a questionable sense of security. First, we had to exit Thailand. That was the rather frustrating part.  Shove, push, repeat. This particular crossing point is a popular spot for visa runs, making the lines both constant and aggressive — even at sunrise. We saw about 5 other westerners in line, but they all had different plans of attack once they got into Myanmar. We seemed to be the only ones headed to Hpa-An, and we were fine with that. Boatloads of patience and an exit stamp later, we were permitted to proceed to the Myanmar immigration office. Suddenly, there were no more lines and no more shoving.  The immigration officers, dressed in their finest white suits, welcomed us in with open arms. I mean that quite literally. They pulled chairs out for us, assisted us in filling out paperwork and offered us maps of the country they were so proud of.  They were some of the happiest people I’d ever seen, particularly at a border crossing. If this was any indication of what was to be expected from the Burmese, then we were already sold.

me maartj almost border

5 a.m. in the back of a pickup. Don’t be fooled. It was much darker at this hour than this photo shows. Border from thai sidePretty standard border crossing. You can see all the way through to Myanmar here. Maartje at borderborder patrol

This guy really was more thrilled than he looks. They were all taking photos of us on their fancy Samsung smartphones, laughing like little school girls. It was easily my favorite border crossing yet. 

The kind officers had pointed us towards a line of vans that could take us to our final destination of Hpa-An.  I could instantly tell we were in a different country and was incredibly fascinated by the how much things changed in just a few steps. While Thailand sat only a few feet behind us, I already felt so far from it. Although I’ve yet to visit, it reminded me of how I imagine India to feel. The sheer volume of cars and people was almost overwhelming at first.  Amidst the honking horns and utter chaos, we quickly found a driver who offered a reasonable price. We threw our bags in the van and were soon off to Hpa-An.  Oh, and I’ll let you in on an interesting fact about this little drive of ours.  Traffic from Myawaddy (the border town) to Hpa-An (our destination) moves west on even days, and east on odd days. You read that correctly. Traffic moves one way or the other, and it’s completely dependent upon the day of the week. During our in-depth research sessions back in Bangkok, we discovered this critical piece of information.  We planned our entrance around this, but so many visitors do not. They’re forced to stay an unexpected night in Mae Sot, while they wait for traffic to move eastbound. What we neglected to think of, however, was the fact that traffic must only move one way because the roads are too narrow for two automobiles. In other words, they were mostly paved with dirt, redefining the term, “pothole” at every “ouch.”  What we thought was a three-hour ride, was not.  It was five hours, and we had only traveled 15o kilometers. That’s 93 miles, America. The views were stunning and the driver was kind and more than aware of the fact that we did not plan for this. At least not very well.  We read blog after blog telling us to bring nothing but crisp U.S. dollar bills, all of which had to be issued before 2006.  There was said to be a massive lack of ATMs in Myanmar, so travelers were told to exchange their USD for Kyat once they arrived in a major city.  Since we had arrived over land, we were nowhere near a major town, leaving us  slightly broke for the moment. This did not bode well for us during a 5hour ride on empty stomachs.   No one wanted our leftover Thai Baht. No one wanted our U.S. dollar bills. They wanted Kyat, their local currency, which we hadn’t even seen yet. Our driver and the one other local passenger both noticed our dilemma, and were quick to help. They purchased bottled water, a bag of questionable chips and a few cans of equally questionable energy drinks for us without any hesitation — or communication, really. To say a massive language barrier existed in our little van would be quite the understatement.  We were forced to stop at several checkpoints along the way, all of which wanted to see our passports. This is the norm in Myanmar, as there are only so many places tourists are permitted to visit. They know where you are at all times. And you thought Americans were being watched. Just kidding. They are too. Another blog, another day though.

hpa an driveYou can get an idea of the road situation here. Windy, narrow and made of dirt. I always forget how exhausting a car ride can be before I get into these things.guys on truck hpa an

tar workersThese people (uh-em, mostly women) were literally melting rocks in giant tin to make fresh tar. Good news? Decent roads are coming to Myanmar quickly. Bad news? The conditions the locals work in are far from humane. I don’t think we want to know what they’re inhaling all day. Monks hpa an

First monk sighting in Myanmar. Notice how young most of ’em are?

We finally arrived to Hpa-An around late-afternoon. We had been in some form of transit since 5 a.m., so we were in quite a daze at this point. We checked into the one hostel in town, Soe Brothers, and were exceptionally thankful to be stationary, if only for the night.  A wander around the bustling little town lead us to find decent food and several photo ops.  It was a different heat from Bangkok’s, but hot nonetheless.  We met a lovely Israeli couple in our hostel and all went out for the cheapest dinner of our lives, story-swapping the night away. It was the perfect, warm welcome from Myanmar we had expected.

Food hpa an

For $.63 each, we weren’t complaining. Rice for days and endless spices made for an impressive feed.
hpa streetThe somewhat chaotic streets of Hpa An. fruit truck hpa anFruit stand hpa an

After a solid night’s sleep at our cozy little hostel, we were ready to dig into the less-traveled town of Hpa-An. The lovely young girl who helped run the place told us about a little mountain we could climb, just across the river. It was a short boat ride away and we made sure to start early, in an effort to beat the heat.  Nice try, us. We arrived to the other side of the river to find children laughing over breakfast, while men plowed the fields. Everyone seemed so happy here, something we would notice throughout our stay in Myanmar. These people were just beaming with happiness, even if it was through their stained-red teeth from chewing  betel nut. (See the photos below for more on that.)  After our quick, but steep walk up the little mountain, we sat around chatting with a few locals. They were both inviting and fascinating. Given that we are both blonde and fair-skinned though, I think it was they who were so mesmerized. This particular part of Myanmar doesn’t see many tourists, so the stares and constant “hellos” were abundant, to say the least.  Looking back, I’m so thankful Hpa-An was our first stop. I think it allowed us to really dive into Myanmar without holding back. It was raw and it was sincere. It was everything we needed.

woman staring over riverIt was a questionable little boat, but the ride was short. boat to mtnme martj boat to mtnkids carrying bowlstop viewme viewpointmartj viewpointfirst hike viewView from the top. You’ll start to notice how green Myanmar is here.  There’s certainly no shortage of color in this country. It was just stunning everywhere I turned. betel nut close upBetel vine leaf, lime paste, a little tobacco, clove and aniseed. Wrap it up & chew. The locals claim they get a nice little buzz off it, much like some feel from chewing tobacco in other parts of the world.  If that doesn’t entice you, then perhaps this will: It causes your spit to turn red, resembling blood. Thus, almost every street in Myanmar is covered with red splotches. Oh, and your teeth turn the same color over time.  Yuummm!
kid in boat hpa anThis boys face is covered with thanaka, a paste made from ground bark. It’s used as a natural sunblock in Myanmar, as the rays can be quite brutal. It’s also known to help with acne and is (obviously) used cosmetically as well. I dig it.
food on boatThis lovely lady generously threw us a few samples of her homemade snacks. It was an assortment of fried, fried and fried, but it was delicious. We don’t say no to free food, but we couldn’t help but throw her a few kyat for the kind gesture. 919192_10151917801267829_553014261_o

If you’ve picked up on bits of Maartje’s personality by now, this shouldn’t surprise you at all. She couldn’t resist the opportunity to plow some dirt. Always looking for jobs, this girl. me coke

So, I’m holding an ice-cold Coca-Cola in this photo. Why is that interesting? Because until 2012, you couldn’t find it here. Myanmar was one of three countries in the world where Coke wasn’t sold — the other two being North Korea and Cuba. 

We returned from our excursion around 10 a.m. without further plans for the day. The hostel’s pickup truck was just beginning to take off for some local site seeing and cave-hopping. We had already climbed a small mountain and it wasn’t even lunch-time yet, so we decided against additional physical demands. We waved our Israeli buddies off and headed upstairs to draw-up a plan for the remainder of the day. Before we could even get settled and cooled down, we overheard a few travelers discussing a boat ride to a town called Mawlamyine. We were familiar with the town through our research, but thought the boat trip down the river no longer existed. We were under the impression you could only go by bus. One of us quickly forced our way into the conversation and within minutes we were packing our bags. They had hired a private boat and were splitting the cost. Our decision to join was a win-win for all.  Just when I thought we were done with boats for a while, here we were.

flag on boatboat driverfirst world bridgeI know this is just a photo of a bridge and you’re thinking, “Why this photo, Emily?” I just fount it interesting that this thing pops up after two solid hours of boating past bamboo houses on stilts and a lack of any real development. It’s also the longest bridge in the country, stretching over 11,000 ft. peole waving

More happy locals wave at us.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the happiest country I’ve seen yet. It was both beautiful and contagious. 

Two hours and hundreds of photos later, we arrived in the riverside town of Mawlamyine. The boat ride was easy, relaxing and beautiful. We hopped in a taxi along with a few others, and directed the driver to drop us off at our guidebook-recomended hostel. For the first time during our travels together, Maartje and I were using the book backpackers love to hate:  Lonely Planet. While Myanmar isn’t the hardest country in the world to navigate, it’s certainly not the easiest. Neither of us are huge on guidebooks, as word of mouth tends to be more accurate on any backpacker route. Myanmar is  a different beast though. The most current Myanmar LP is quite the coveted possession in this part of the world. We actually scored it from a couple of friends we met back in Thailand who had just wrapped up a few weeks in Myanmar themselves. Seeing as the used version goes for about $20 USD on the streets of Bangkok, we were thankful for the free hand-me-down.  It’s one of the only places I’ve been where almost everyone is really, truly using a guidebook.  I have to admit, we held onto ours for dear life.

We checked into our hostel and headed straight for some much-needed food. The menu was mostly composed of Chinese dishes, which seemed to be standard in this particular town. Given the close-proximity, Indian and Chinese cuisine heavily influence menus throughout the country. Tofu, curries, peanuts and noodles are among just a few of the building blocks in Burmese food. I almost always opted for Indian when it was an option, discovering that it was one of my favorite ethnic foods yet. Who knew?  We had our first Burmese beer while in Mawlamyine, followed by an incredible Indian style feast with a fellow backpacker we met at our hostel. He was friendly, knowledgeable and Dutch, of course. He was actually staying in Myanmar for months while taking on some leprosy and HIV research on his own.  I was immediately all-ears. Did someone say Che Guevara? He told us stories of sick children who weren’t sure if they’d ever be reunited with their parents again, then went on to explain how he was knowingly overstaying his visa and virtually getting away with it.  I was learning so much about this wonderful country and we were only on day two.  In addition to picturesque sunsets and nightly street food affairs by the river, Mawlamyine is also the town where Eric Blair served as a colonial police in the 1920’s. You might know him better as the George Orwell. His first novel, Burmese Days, was written about his time spent in the Burma Police Force, and it is sold on almost every corner. I’ve read reports from other bloggers that say 1984 and Animal Farm are banned here, which should give you a feel for the current political climate.  Sorry to get all bookworm on you guys, but Myanmar is absolutely bursting at the seems with history that we should all be familiar with by now. It’s what drew me to it when Maartje first mentioned the word, “Myanmar.”  But I’ll let you read about that elsewhere, I suppose. For now, stay here and check out more photos, okay?

sunsetfish headsFish on a stick, anyone?beer

martj motoThis was our standard method of travel in Myanmar: Back of the motorbike with our backpacks between the driver’s legs. We seemed to be the only ones amused by it. Just another day for these guys.
me moto

Leaving Hpa-An. Onto the next…

After a *decent night’s sleep at our dingy hostel, we were ready to get on the move again. I say decent, as Maartje spotted a scorpion in our room when we first arrived — and was never able to locate it again. It goes without saying that we both slept with one eye open that night. Maybe even both eyes. Oy. We knew the famous Inle Lake was next on the list, so we boarded the appropriate bus that evening.  This would mark the first of several overnight bus rides for us. As it turns out, Myanmar defines “overnight” a bit differently than the rest of the world. We arrived at about 4 a.m. to the sleepy town surrounding the lake. Our eyes hazy and hands still thawing out from the Central American style air-con, we were approached by a dozen taxi drivers looking for work. We were forced to pay the recently increased $10 lake entrance fee before we could even grab our packs from underneath the bus. For all the fees I’ve avoided whilst traveling with this savvy Dutch friend of mine, I figured it was about time we paid for something.  Because we had uncharacteristically booked this hostel the day before, they were expecting our early morning arrival and were prepared for us.  We only had to wait a few minutes before our private room was ready, despite the fact that it was five o’clock in the morning.  Myanmar’s hospitality wins again. With a name like “Gypsy Inn,” I knew we had made the right choice. We both desperately needed a nap, so without much discussion we got cozy in our beds and snoozed away the morning. We awoke hungry and ready to see what the town had to offer us. There were more restaurants than any of the previous towns we’d visited and for the first time yet, we even spotted western-style food. As a massive bonus, I finally found proper espresso. Up until now, I was living the instant Nest Cafe life. In other words, I was drinking sugar-water every morning. All you coffee drinkers out there can understand my struggle here, I know.  We devoured our lunch, then spotted some bikes for hire across the little dirt road. We remembered reading about a winery around the lake,  which was apparently reachable by bicycle.  I know! A winery? In Myanmar? Our thoughts exactly. For a mere $1.50 each, we rented a bike for the remainder of the day.  We quickly found a map and went back to the hostel to change into appropriate “bike to a winery” attire. It was about three miles away, but that didn’t matter. It could have been thirty miles away — we were going. Wine is a rarity in these parts, and often times when you do find it, it’s out of budget. We had been tight with our money so far in Myanmar, allowing us to splurge a little on some quality vino. And that, we did. In the words of Maartje, “What a day, hey?”

Martj bike

bike viewwinery pathBeautiful driveway leading up to the winery. wine barrellNapa Vally or Myanmar? You decide. wine is outNo more wine. So sad. yoga wineA little yoga and wine never hurt anyone, right? I’m so graceful as is, I can’t imagine how this could end poorly. 
martj wineme wine

We biked back to town at sunset with a slight buzz and a huge appetite. Maartje spotted an Italian joint quickly, so that was that. Yes, we had Italian in Myanmar. When you’ve been on the rice diet for almost three months, a pizza might as well be caviar. As a pleasant surprise, the power went off during dinner, as it often does throughout Myanmar. This led to an impromptu candlelit Italian dinner, which just topped off the already-perfect day.  In typical Maartje-Emily fashion, we were exhausted and ready for bed immediately after dinner. We knew we wanted to get in on one of Lake Inle’s famous boat tours early the following morning, so bed it was. We awoke rested and ready for our day on the lake. We ran into two Polish girls at breakfast who were looking for someone to split the boat with them, so we were in luck, once again. We ate our complimentary breakfast of fruit and noodles, grabbed our cameras from the room and met the girls in front of the hostel. They had already arranged a boat for the day, so we just showed up and paid our 5,000 Kyat (about $5 U.S.). Cue the killer day in photos.

boatview gardensme on boatmyanmar fishermen picLocal fisherman. The skill required here is no joke. The balance and finesse these guys posses is unreal. monkiesLittle kids (monks, at that) having a backflip competition off the edge of a parked boat. Couldn’t resist the photo-op.power lineswoman silkThis is what the inside of a lotus flower stem looks like — apparently. The absolutely tedious and almost gruelling work was hard to watch. Silk clothing products are made from this process, then sold at the shop next door to the tune of hundreds of U.S. dollars. weaving machineA weaving and sewing machine. Oddly enough, I did not have time travel to snag this shot.  This is simply life on Inle Lake. 
tobaccoVarious tobacco flavors rolled up and available for sale for almost nothing. 
schoolWe found a little school on one of our stops, so going inside (whether permitted or not) was never not an option.
kid 1Every child was as beautiful as the next. Their excitement was through the roof, leaving their teacher a bit frustrated with us. Ooops. 
kid out windowlocal girl paddlingme arms out boatboat driverme martj boat

save natureI found it interesting that Myanmar seems to already be implementing green practices, despite the lack of massive development. I really, really hope they’re able to hold onto this as the tourists begin to flock there by the thousands. us and monks

A group of happy young monks? Why yes, we’d love a photo. 

Our day on the lake was just spectacular. The people, the children, the views — it was all so indescribable.  We were only on our first week in Myanmar and we had already seen so much.  It’s as if I didn’t want to turn the page, in fear it would all be over too soon. We were absolutely smitten. Next on our list was another overnight bus to the capital city of Yangon.  Brace yourselves.  You’ve never seen so much gold in one place. You’re going to have to wait ’til next time for that beauty though. I’m out for now, but will return with more from this marvelous country very soon.  If you want an extra does of Myanmar, check out the video I made here. Two weeks in four minutes. I think you’ll dig it. Thanks for stopping by, guys. I really hope you enjoyed this one. Myanmar is a special place going through an interesting time in its history right now.  We should all be taking note, even it it is from afar.  They’ve got a cheerleader in me — that’s for sure.

This entry was published on January 30, 2014 at 11:13 am. It’s filed under Myanmar, Thailand and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

2 thoughts on “Myanmar: A Different Kind of Paradise

  1. erin mcgrath on said:

    amazing. I truly look forward to your stories and pictures. I hope you turn your whole blog into a book someday 🙂

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