Visa run time again. This time it’s a weekend drive to Myanmar. As well as enjoying a weekend break in a beautiful part of rural Thailand, the main reason for going Myanmar is to renew my visa.
After school on Friday afternoon I jump on a bus heading down to Don Mueang Airport in the northern suburbs of Bangkok to collect a rental car.
Heading north from Bangkok
Paperwork completed, I join the peak hour traffic and drive back up the freeway heading for the small remote city of Mae Sot 500 Kilometres north west on the Myanmar border.
I’m planning to stay overnight in the city of Kamphaeng Phet, about 350 Kilometres and 4-5 hours’ drive away. Then tomorrow, on to the city of Tak from where the route winds through the mountains to Mae Sot on the border.
Being Thailand’s major freeway, the Friday evening traffic is busy with Bangkok people escaping for the weekend. The sunset looks spectacular over the rice fields, towns and villages of the Central Thailand plains and soon darkness gathers.
Kamphaeng Phet – a typical regional Thai city
Arriving in the city just before midnight, I am surprised to see the city centre is still busy with bars and restaurants in full swing and many people enjoying loud music – a real party atmosphere. I have no problem finding dinner or a hotel.
Kamphaeng Phet means “walls as strong as diamonds” which reflects its closeness to Myanmar and the fighting that took place here in centuries past. It offers a typical Thai regional city experience with its temples, scenery and of course great food.
It’s not a very pretty town but its redeeming feature is that it’s on the banks of the Ping river, a major river that is picturesque in its own right and helps cool the city down.
An early start on the drive to Myanmar
The hotel I had chosen is clean, the staff are friendly but the bed is the hardest bed I’ve ever slept in and I’m happy to get back on the road at first light.
After Tak, I join the Asia Highway heading to the border. The beautiful mountainous scenery makes this an interesting drive. There are many places to leave the road to enjoy the views and, as everywhere in Thailand, you’re never far from food and drinks.
Some of the road users, particularly buses, drive like they’re in a race so I’m careful.
Eventually I’m descending to the Myawaddy river valley and Mae Sot.
Mae Sot. It’s pleasant surprise
Mae Sot is a really interesting place and well worth visiting. Despite its isolated location and reasonably small size, it has a really diverse mixture of people and walking through the streets in the city centre is a revelation.
Being a border town introduces some interesting dynamics with the different ethnic origins of the inhabitants obvious. In addition to the Thai population, there are lots of Myanmar men wearing their longyi (sarong) and bearded Muslim men as well as hill-tribe (Hmong and Karen) people in their brightly coloured dresses.
It’s a multicultural town
In the vicinity of Mae Sot there are camps holding tens of thousands of refugees waiting for resettlement so large numbers of Thai military personnel and foreign NGO staff also fill the streets.
Mae Sot is also one of the most important centres on the Myanmar -Thailand border for the gems, jade and silver trade (don’t even think about it). As much of this is controlled by Chinese and Muslim migrants, their ethnic influence is also strong.
After spending a short time wandering around the streets, I drive down to the border about 5 Kilometres away. There’s a well-known market there called the Rim Moei Market.
The large, indoor market sells all sorts of items including electronics, clothing, and silver and gem jewellery. I’m not tempted as it seems that the stock has come from across the border and the electronics particularly look a bit dubious.
Naturally there lots of food stalls selling delicious Thai food and Burmese food which can also be quite good.
Crossing the Moei river to Myawaddy
My plan is to depart through the Thai Immigration checkpoint, walk across the Friendship bridge over the Moei river to enter Myanmar at border town of Myawaddy. I am then able to spend the day there before re-entering Thailand.
It is quite straight forward with the efficient Thai immigration staff completing departure formalities quickly. Within a few minutes, I am wandering across the 400-metre-long bridge into Myanmar.
It’s an easy but fascinating walk with the contrast between both countries becoming pronounced the closer I am to the Myawaddy side.
From the centre of the bridge see masses of Burmese fleeing across the river to Thailand packed in huge rubber inflated tyre tubes. I stop and wait for the reaction from Thai border forces to this “invasion”.
Nothing happens. I found out later that many people (without passports or travel papers) cross to Thailand each day to work. They return home to Myanmar in the late afternoon with valuable Thai Baht in their pockets. All quite normal.
The Union Of Myanmar
On arriving through the ornate ‘Welcome to Myanmar’ arch, I go straight into the immigration office. Here the processing time is actually quicker and the friendly officials speak excellent English. The Myanmar authorities have allowed me to leave my passport with them, spend the day there and collect it on my return.
I hand over 500 baht inside my passport then stroll out onto the streets of Myawaddy.
Immediately everything is different. There’s a 30-minute time change and vehicles are driven on the right-hand side of the road in Myanmar. The people look and dress differently and the lack of infrastructure and the poverty is immediately evident.
Some of my first impressions were that most of the women (and children) are wearing what looks like face paint (Thanakha). It is actually a mix of sunscreen and an anti-aging cream made from the bark of a tree.
It’s quite different to Thailand
I am surprised to see some people smile and their teeth are stained a bright red from chewing betel “quids” or nuts.
There are many stalls throughout the town selling betel. Betel quid is the name given to small parcels that typically contain areca nuts wrapped in a betel leaf coated with slaked lime. Some contain tobacco. Spices may be added for taste.
You chew the parcel and like any narcotic, it’s highly addictive and certainly unhealthy – their teeth don’t look great.
In comparison to Mae Sot, Myawaddy is really poor with few good roads and many crumbling buildings. Unlike Mae Sot, not many people speak English and the restaurants and the market are mediocre.
Apart from a few souvenirs, I don’t think that there is a lot of interesting or attractive things to buy. Myawaddy isn’t a particularly attractive place so within a few hours I made my way back across the bridge, passed through immigration and arrived back in Thailand with a new visa.
There are several good and inexpensive resorts in and around Mae Sot and having a car was a plus as I found an excellent place to stay just out of town.
In the late afternoon after enjoying the cool water of the pool, I went into the city centre and discovered there are several excellent places to eat. I choose a restaurant that serves an excellent dinner at half the price I’d pay in Bangkok.
In fact, everywhere I go throughout Thailand, away from the popular tourist areas prices are a lot lower and the resorts and restaurants really good.
Witnessing a sad event
On Sunday morning, before returning home to Ayutthaya I go back down to the border at the Rim Moei township to buy a few souvenirs from the Border Market. Leaving the market, I walk along a path overlooking the river.
Part of the physical border a steep wall has been built on the Thai side that is about 5 metres high from the river bed to the top. It’s about a metre higher than the footpath I am walking along. In the dry riverbed below, enterprising Burmese traders have built lean-to huts to live in.
They also built bamboo scaffolding up the wall to enable them to be at a similar level to the top of the parapet. This enables them to negotiate with prospective buyers and pass over small items to buyers on the Thai side.
They greet me with smiles and speak enough English to tell me what they were selling and the asking price. Everything from silver and gems stones to (contraband) cigarettes.
As we are talking, a strong gust of wind whips through and instantly smoke rises from their shacks.
People below begin shouting and the traders race down to the ground to save their possessions. The dwellings are being engulfed by a fierce fire. Within minutes, despite the owners fighting the blaze with small tree branches and sacks, they are all reduced to smouldering ruins.
The owners gather dejectedly in a huddle and contemplate the loss of everything they own. All their hard work has gone literally “up in smoke”.
To stand and watch this awful event unfold leaves me with a feeling of sadness and inadequacy. I now have a better understanding of the harshness and unfairness of life in a poor third world country. The smiles have gone.
I buy the small amount of stock they have left (mainly cigarettes – I’m not a smoker but the teachers at my school will appreciate them).
Later that morning I start the long drive back home and reflect on an interesting weekend experience.