Our journey to the mysterious country of Myanmar started with a memorable border crossing from Thailand through the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, arching over the border river of Thaungyin. The Thaungyin river also separates the border towns of Mae Sot in Thailand from Myawaddy in Myanmar.
Despite being still within the Kingdom of Thailand, Mae Sot bears a strong Burmese identity. Due to the influx of Burmese migrant workers, it has a much more diverse demographics when compared to other Thai towns. There is even a significant Burmese Muslim minority living in Mae Sot as well.
It was an exceptionally lively and busy town despite of its modest geographical size.
With Myanmar lying right on the other side of Thaungyin river, the town of Mae Sot in Thailand serves as one of the primary gateways for trade with Myanmar.
Border crossing from Mae Sot to Myawaddy
Crossing through the Friendship bridge was an experience by its own. The first thing that struck us as odd, were the Burmese children begging on the bridge between the two countries.
Just in the middle of the bridge, there was a lane switch for cars (traffic in Myanmar is right-handed, while Thailand is left-handed). So we stopped for a while just to see a car doing a lane-switching to the opposite side in action, not an everyday sight. It’s also worthy to note that although they drive on different sides on either end of the bridge, most of the vehicles crossing through were right-hand-drives, presumably originating from Thailand. The drivers we saw crossing all appeared to be unfazed by this uncommon traffic situation and were switching skillfully like it’s their regular daily commute.
At the end of the bridge is the Myanmar border-control. After a perfunctory passport check, we were officially inside Myanmar.
Walking into Myanmar
After crossing the Thai-Myanmar Friendship bridge and the Myanmar border station, culture shock instantly kicked in.
The difference was conspicuous. The dresses, the cars, the faces. The betel painted teeth behind the smiles. Uncertainty and maybe mild fear in the eyes.
There was something in the air, a burning sensation, as our perception of passing time switched to a faster pace.
Still right by to the border station in Myawaddy, a swarm of taxi drivers were bombarding us with offers.
We had to find a way to get to Hpa-an, the first town with a hotel where foreigners are allowed to stay (we have booked our stay in Galaxy Motel). When it comes to accommodation, there is no option B when you are in Myanmar, unless you can arrange to stay in a Buddhist monastery. By law, there are only a handful of hotels or motels in bigger towns and cities where foreigners are allowed to stay.
There was no public bus between Myawaddy and Hpa-an, so our only options were minibus, or taxi – and by taxi it should be understood as a random person’s 4-seated sedan, filled with 6 or more other passengers.
Traveling from Myawaddy to Hpa-an
After intense bargaining with the ferocious drivers, we took a reasonable offer from a taxi driver called Mr Beauty.
We were told that our ‘minibus’ would leave within half an hour, after we had arranged the payment. But just about ten minutes later, we were told to get in a taxi, which would take us to an intersection where we can then get on our minibus. We had no choice but to obediently follow the instructions.
At the intersection we were told to get off and wait for the minibus. Well, the minibus turned out to be an old, trashy tiny sedan instead, whose make was difficult to tell, with 5 locals crammed into it already. We then barely managed to squeeze ourselves into the very back seats (clearly not designed for passengers) with our backpacks.
Not too long after we finally set off from the intersection, our twenty-few-year-old or teenage driver decided to suddenly stop and buy a yellow flower garland from a street vendor, and then hanged it on the rear-view mirror before rashly but piously making a blessing. He then prepared his pack of betel and started chewing it before we continued our journey.
Our initial flippant excitement of entering a new country had by then given way to a sense of insecurity and a realization of the gravity of our situation.
Our travel companions were curiously gazing at us from time to time with a wide smile, but in the absence of a common language spoken, spoken conversation wasn’t an option.