With time on our three month single entry visa to Thailand running out, it was the perfect time for a trip to Burma. After all what use is having a evil authoritarian dictatorship right next door if you can’t even use it to extend your visa?
For most of Saturday it was threatening to rain… we now know well that these threats are seldom idle. The arrival of charcoal clouds, (asian) train-like thunder and lime-sized drops of rain usually herald several hours of saturation. However around 4pm, we decided to take the chance and trust our lives to the longboat driver and his faithful steed for the 30 minute boat trip to Kawtaung, just across the delta from Ranong.
The rain never eventuated and the sea was reasonably calm so we soon found ourselves coasting past the lush rainforest, golden pagodas and floating military checkpoints so emblematic of frontier Burma. At several of the checkpoints the boat-boy (smaller version of the boat man) took our passports and scurried into the ‘office’. Apparently three Kiwis sailing across the delta is not as threatening to national security as one American swimming across a lake – so no problems. We arrived at the Kawtaung immigration office and my Burmese skills took everyone by surprise – no one was expecting this foreigner to speak a few sentences in Burmese! I was a star!
As Fr. John got out of the boat however, I was well and truly outshone… Here was a 6 foot something white guy well capable of rattling off complex sentences in Burmese without a second’s thought…. “WHAT??” was the look on their faces and they immediately warmed to us. All this made me feel much more comfortable about leaving our passports with the gentleman in a white singlet at the immigration office in exchange for a ‘border pass’.
The ‘ border pass’ is valid for 7 days and entitles the bearer to travel up to 7km(or miles) out of Kawtaung. We’re not allowed any further into Myanmar, or out of it across any other border – they keep our passports safe for us, just to make sure we’re not tempted to run off. Ten US dollars (and only notes in pristine condition are accepted) is what the 7 day border pass costs. Yes unfortunately this means that I have now directly financed the Burmese military but I trust that the corruption ensures that only a few cents get to the really naughty Generals.
As soon as I set foot in Burma, I could see sense and feel the difference from Ranong. On first glance it looks much rougher, more chaotic, more angry. People are yelling, everything is a bit more untidy, but there something familiar too. The buildings and the streets have a hint of familiarity… the footpaths have alternate bricks painted black and yellow, a lot of the signs are in English. It took me a while to realise that I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by by the architectural and planning principles at work in the streets of Kawtaung. This is, after all, the former British Empire. And no comprehensive development project of any scale has been undertaken since it was part of the British Empire. The legacy of the British that I’ve seen in India, Singapore, Malaysia, Egypt and even Australia and New Zealand still prevails in Burma too.
As foreign visitors, we’re not allowed to stay with any Burmese person so we had to stay at the local hotel. Honey Bear hotel was nice enough with a great view of the pier as the associated activity but no electricity during the day and only generator-powered electricity at night. This is actually pretty good for Burma today because at least the military doesn’t just appropriate the generators for their own purposes.
We wandered through the decidedly lively and active streets, a few parks and the very British esplanade to the Catholic Church on the hill overlooking Kawtaung. The community there received us with massive amounts of hospitality and a delicious meal that was accompanied by more discussion around my Burmese skills and an impromptu Burmese lesson.
By the time we ended the day with a local beer, there was no doubt that this was a totally different world to Ranong. The average Burmese one encounters in the market is warmer and relaxed than their Thai counterpart and speaks more English. If, as a foreigner, you speak Burmese, they really love you; in stark contrast to Thailand, where they expect you to speak Thai. On the streets, there are no cars. There are a number of totally battered and abused trucks, a few utes or other ragged utility vehicles, and plenty of motorbikes, but no cars or other private vehicles. This made sense when one of the locals told us that if anyone got a new car, the military ‘borrow’ it…. and then it’s goodbye for good.
In the morning we were up at 6 to hunt for breakfast at a local tea shop (very reminiscent of India!) where we had dosas, paratha and the sweetest tea i’ve ever tasted. That woke me up nicely for the long festivities at the church in honour of parents’ day. This time we saw the whole church community in action includng the orphange which feeds, teaches and cares for over 100 kids with the most meagre of resources.
We were in Burma for only around 24 hours but as we sailed away, I was already feeling at home in Kawtaung – somehing that took a lot longer in Ranong. I’m keen to return and experience more of this beautiful, bizzare but now largely backward country some day. Some day. For now however, we were granted permission to stay in Thailand for another 14 days when we re-entered Ranong.