Myanmar: Part One – Myawaddy to Hpa An

13/11/2014 to 11/12/2014

13/11/2014 – Chiang Mai, Thailand to Myawaddy, Myanmar

I wanted to travel into, and out of Myanmar, without flying. Therefore, I had to get the visa from Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. I tried in Kuala Lumpur, however, as they need to proof of flight details to be issued the visa, it is not suitable for overland crossing. It is now possible to get a visa online for Myanmar, but requires you landing in Yangon, you can also get a visa on arrival, however this also requires flying. I had done all the research that I could online about crossing into the country via the land borders from Thailand, and opted to go the Mae Sot/Myawaddy border.

One evening, I was sitting outside of my hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, when a guy approached me asking about the guesthouse. The conversation moved on and I said that I am heading to Myanmar overland, he wasn’t aware that it was possible, and asked to join me. I said I’m leaving Thursday morning, and then had to leave for a cooking course. Thursday morning, there was a knock on my door saying my friend was here. There was Jim, 70 years old from Tasmania, Australia, ready to hit the road towards Myanmar with me, and all of a sudden, I had a travel buddy for the foreseeble future.

We started with a private songthaew (a pick-up truck, with benches in the bag, used as a mini bus and run by private owners) ride to the bus station, before catching the morning bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot. Going on Thursday was important, as the road from Myawaddy to further inland Myanmar, is one lane, and only opens every other day in each direction. The road to Mae Sot was a smooth ride, surprising Jim, and took us to Mae Sot by mid-afternoon. Arriving at Mae Sot bus station, we took another songthaew to the border. The Thai side of the border was manic. We were the only Westerners there, and there was a long queue to get through to Myanmar. After being told to go from one window, to the next, and to another, a woman finally spoke to us, and stamped us out of the country. The traffic crossing the bridge was at a stand-still, so opted to walk across the bridge. A proud moment for Jim as he had been wanting to go to Myanmar since the 1970’s and wasn’t allowed in.

Looking lost as the bridge took us into the town of Myawaddy, we were welcomed into a small office to have our passports checked and stamped. The border control officer, invited us in, told us to sit down, as was surprisingly friendly and relaxed for border control. He gave us directions to a hotel for us to stay the night, and called a friend who was willing to help us get to the next town the following day. I asked for a map of the town, which seemed to be mis-understood, and he gave me a photocopy sheet of phrases in the language of Myanmar on one side, on the other side, was a photocopy of a passport of a Thai man. After chatting for a few minutes, we were guided outside, and pointed towards the hotel. The hotel was $20 for 1 night, between the two of us, and was more luxurious than we were expecting for Myanmar.

We got settled in, and as the day was ending, promptly went out to explore. One of my first observations, were the blood red gums and teeth of the locals, and the spitting on red saliva all over the street. This turned out not to be blood as I first thought, but from the chewing of betel nuts. I then went on to withdraw some money, the most I could withdraw was 300,000 kyat, and all issued in 5000 kyat notes, with 60 notes, my wallet no longer could be folded, or closed. The first purchase, to break down one of the notes, had to be a local beer, which I leisurely sipped on while we walked around one of the nearby temples. I asked around about transport to the next town the following day, and was told that almost every car in town will make the trip, so just ask in the morning. As it got dark, we had our first sample of the quantity and quality of the local food, over a few more beers. Perusing the page of Myanmar words and phrases I was given,, I quickly learned my first two words, for the numbers 1 and 8, supposedly pronounced ‘tit’ and ‘shit’ respectively, therefore easy to remember, but difficult to say without a childish smirk.

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14/11/2014 – Myawaddy to Hpa An

I was due to go straight to Yangon from Myawaddy, to meet a friend there, however we decided to break the trip up with a night in Hpa An, at approximately halfway. I was concerned about the ability to get to the next town, so we woke up and decided to try leave as soon as possible. After breakfast we left the hotel, and had not walked 5 metres before we were offered a lift to Hpa An for $10 each, which was cheaper than we were offered at the border office. We accepted and jumped into the car. The car slowly crept around the town, stopping occasionally, trying to get more customers into the car, and our early departure from the hotel seemed pointless, but at least we had a ride.

After leaving town, we had our first stop of the day, at what appeared to be like a petrol station type building, for our passports to be checked and photocopied. During the day, this become a very common occurrence, fortunately most of the Myanmar police checking our passports, treated us like long lost friends, as if they knew us, and had not seen us for a while.

The road, as expected, got narrow, rough and dusty, making us miss the smooth rides in Thailand, nonetheless I loved the sense of adventure. The driver and our co-passengers didn’t speak English, we didn’t know how long it would take us to get to the next town, and there was even concern over being driven to the correct town, as I lacked confidence over my pronunciation of Hpa An. The road was only one lane, with three lanes of traffic, causing a traffic jam for a large part of the morning. We could get out and walk faster than the car, but the heat made it uncomfortable to do so. Any discomforts, were diverted from my mind with the green rolling hills, and tiny villages we passed through.

Early afternoon, and we had cleared the hilly area, and the journey became flat, and we managed to get into third gear. We stopped for lunch, and very hungry, I headed in and ordered and ordered two dishes, one each for me and Jim. Unsure of what we were getting, we ended up with a feast, as seen below, and ate it all.We eventually arrived in Hpa An, and took a room in the second hotel we checked out, Galaxy Hotel, again at $10 each per night for a twin room, and again was surprisingly nice. Arriving late, we decided to stay extend our stay for a 2nd night straight away to see the area. We settled in with a beer on the hotel roof-top as the sun set, which gave us a tease of the spectacular scenery that surrounded the little town

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15/11/2014 – 16/11/2014 – Hpa An

In the morning, I had arranged to go on a group tour around the surrounding area. The tour cost $25 per songthaew, so cost us less than $5 per person. The first stop was Yathei Pyan caves, with an entrance surrounded by monkeys. The first of a few caves I’d see while in Hpa An, this one involved a short hike up some steps, seeing young kids chilling out by some buddhas while their mothers kept the shrine clean.

The second stop was Kawgoon Cave, this one involved a 1000kyat ($1.00) entrance fee. It was more impressive, and was my first experience of the quantity of Buddha’s that Myanmar people display around the country. The cave had thousands of miniature Buddha’s in the walls and ceilings of the caves.

Having a break from caves, we visited Kyauk Ka Lat Paya, a rock formation with a golden pagoda on the top. Blue sky, with fluffy white clouds above green hills with lakes surrounding below. A great view, and my first realisation that stopping at Hpa An was a fantastic idea, as could have easily missed this scenic area which gave me high expectations for the rest of my time in the country.We had lunch by a local swimming hole, with children enjoying jumping in the water from the head of a Buddha statue. There were some students from a nearby school practising their English with us, one of which was happy about her school, and thought we may have heard of it, because it has a website. After lunch, we had a short visit to a field containing thousands of Buddha statues, at the base of Zwegabin Mountain.

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We headed to the biggest of the local caves, named Saddar Cave. For this cave, it was an approximate 20 minute walk through the dark, damp cave, while bare-foot, we required our torches to assist us in not falling over. We had a guide showing us the way, as this cave is only one way for the majority of visitors. At the end of the cave, is the option to either walk back the way you came, or pay a small fee for man to paddle you back in a bottle, seemingly going underneath the cave, and back to the start. We were on the boat, two people per boat plus driver, for around ten minutes. The start of the trip was startling as it seemed we wouldn’t fit below the cave, however there was no need to worry. On the other side of the cave, we had a leisurely trip pass the mountains back to our tour bus.

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The final stop of the day, was another swimming hole, where I was happy to have a dip before an early dinner.

In the evening, I met a few others wanting to hike up one of the nearby mountains and got invited. It was easy for me to be convinced to stay in Hpa An for another day. Jim wanted to hire a motorcycle to explore the area on his own, so we decided on a third night in the town that was initially just going to break up a long trip.

Aiming to beat to the mid-day heat, and none of us wanting to hike in it, we left our hotel early, to head to Zwegabin Mountain, where we briefly visited the previous day. The hike was on a roughly made path up the side of the mountain, I lead the group up at a decent pace to try to beat the heat, and we were in shade most of the way up. We were the only tourists we had come across the whole way. There was a large groups of young teenage girls, who we kept passing, and then they would run past us before stopping, and repeating.

Once at the top, I cracked open a beer that I brought up with me, and we sat down for a while admiring the panoramic view. Another student spoke to us, talking to us about Facebook and football. On the way back down, the girls were there again, and they got the courage to speak to us, and ask for us to be in photos with them. We were there for ten minutes as they all took every possible combination of people in the photo. The hike down was hot, and I wasn’t envious of the first tourists we saw, at the bottom of the mountain as the heat was now soaring, and they were just starting.

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In the evening, we went to cave that a couple of had read about online, we got to the cave before sunset. As the sun sets, tens of thousands of bats exit the cave, and head up the river. There is a local family that looks after the cave area and they talk to us with limited English, and show us how they can control the bats. Using a simple straw broom, every time that they scrape it along the floor, the bats swerve like a wave changing direction. We all got to give this a try, before giving a small donation to the family, and heading back to the hotel.

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