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Looking back to Burma - a Shan state journey

 

Big and oh so beautiful - classic cars at Big C

 

Looking back to Burma - a Shan state journey

David Bennett
Friday December 1: We leave Chiang Mai by air-con VIP bus to Mai Sai - about 4 hours, arriving at 7.30 p.m. at Mai Sai bus station, right on the Burmese border. We catch a waiting songthaew to the immigration post area. All the hotels are rubbish, but we take the Top North at 600 baht.
Later on, when walking round the town, we find the brand new Piyaporn Hotel, 4-star with buffet breakfast for 1000 baht! This is where we will stay if we come back this way. The Top North is bad but the pink stencilling on the walls, including the surface wiring, almost make it worthwhile...
Saturday December 2: Woken at 6 am by din from nearby temple, so early start to Burma. Just a 150 metre walk to the border. You go to the bridge and get your passport stamped by Thai immigration then walk to the other end of the bridge to Burmese immigration. We have valid ‘all Burma’ visas issued in Bangkok, so we are unconcerned. However, we start to get a bit alarmed at the signs saying all foreigners (farangs) must buy an entry permit for $10. At the immigration office we are told our visas are not valid since this is not an international entry point.
Not only are our visas not valid - but they refuse to let us keep our passports. We have to leave them here and take the entry permit. This means the original plan of getting into Shan state and then crossing overland to Mandalay is no longer possible.
Two hours of discussion later, mostly with an incredibly charming Burmese lady immigration officer who feeds us oranges to keep us quiet, and the position is exactly the same. No way, Josež! We now need 3 photos each for the entry permits and are directed across the bridge into Burma to get them done.
We walk across into Burma. No passport, no papers, nothing. It’s very tempting to just make off down the road and plead insanity if they catch us. But we decide against it and get the photos done, then walk back into Thailand. We are challenged by a soldier on the bridge but we show him the photos and he waves us on.
So we are now in the Burmese border town of Tachilek and are determined to find a good hotel. Once we get away from the border scruffiness, Burma starts to look okay. Not many vehicles, lots of people on bikes, lots of people walking and everyone incredibly friendly. It’s also hot and it’s dusty - the dust due to most of the roads being unpaved.
We find a few guest houses - but they are expensive relative to quality. At last, we arrive at the Mekong River Hotel. It’s Thai-run, as a lot of the successful businesses in this town turn out to be, and the rooms are very good, but they want 1,200 baht a night and won’t give a reduction.
Most of the stuff in this town is priced in Thai baht and most of the people speak some Thai. The Shan language also seems to be like central Thai. Anyway, we tell them at the hotel that it’s too expensive and start to walk out. When we look back to reception, we see three very crestfallen Shan girls.
The hotel across the road is 600 baht and a dump - the hotel up a side street is even worse, so we decide to walk back to the Mekong River Hotel. As we walk in the door, the three Shan girls’ faces light up. We’ve obviously made their day - they are going to have 2 farangs stay in their hotel! Just a matter of filling in 6 forms with 14 (yes, 14) signatures.
We hand in our entry permits; they tell us they will be sent to immigration with a written report. Next step is to change some money. The hotel doesn’t have any kyat (Burmese currency) but offer to drive us to see somebody who does. We end up in the back of a small factory and after an incredibly confusing conversation about Thai baht, dollars and Chinese yuan, we eventually hand over $50 US and receive a wad of 60,000 kyat about an inch thick. We think this is about right, and later find out that we did, in fact, get a good rate.
Tachilek turns out to be quite a pleasant little town, so we decide to stay two nights. It’s very easy to get around and our pidgin Thai is good enough to be understood by most people, although a few speak some English. We don’t speak one word of Burmese. Later we have dinner at our hotel - terrific Thai food in huge portions. The bill comes to 210 baht for the two of us; I make that less than one pound fifty each - not bad!
Sunday Dec 3: We take a walk by the river and meet up with this slightly mad Burmese chap who says he has been to America. He also tells us about his revolutionary engine inventions that the American government has stolen from him. Apparently, Hilary Clinton is mainly to blame for this.
Daniel, that’s his name, turns out to be very entertaining, very informative and more than a little crazy. He takes us out of town to the army checkpoint, where there is a river crossing to Thailand, and tells a young soldier that we would like to cross the river. The poor chap looks as if he’s going to have a heart attack. Anyway, we say ‘only joking’, and eventually he relaxes.
Most of the people here are Shan with some Akha and Hmong. In Thailand, we used to teach in a Hmong school and the Hmong here are turning out to be just like the Hmong in Thailand, friendly as pups.
We take Daniel for tea. This is our first of many stops at Burmese tea shops. They are everywhere and always a very welcome sight. Up comes strong Indian tea with condensed milk and a chaser of Chinese tea to cleanse the palette. They also always bring a tray of snacks like samosas, dim sum or cherry cake. You just pay for what you eat.
Monday 4 Dec: We order the Jourt for breakfast - rice soup with pork, pickled cabbage, salted eggs, raw garlic and chillies. The air-conditioned luxury bus is due to leave from the bus station at 9 a.m. It turns out to be not quite as advertised - never mind, we are full of Jourt and have a bag of local bananas and oranges.
The fare is 350 baht, probably many times the local price. We are stopped at 5 checkpoints in the next four and a half hours and at each one our arrival date and time is noted on a special form which is stamped and certified. The road winds on, up and up, through Shan state. Army trucks pass us all the time but there are very few other vehicles. We both have slight headaches.
About halfway along we stop for some lunch, and down a bowl of pork noodles with deep fried banana chips to follow. Our driver is very careful, which is probably a good job since half the road has fallen into the river in a lot of places.
Our headaches are now really quite bad. We are on the last stretch before our destination, Kengtung - the old capital of Shan state. The driver stops to hose down the brakes - they do seem very hot. From now on we stay in 2nd gear and go down hills at walking pace.
Eventually, we arrive in dusty Kengtung. My headache is now of the suicidal type and I find it very difficult to see. Karin’s is not so bad but she never, ever normally gets a headache. But at least we’re here!
To be continued next week…