Into Myanmar!

Though the US government warns against visiting Myanmar, we decided to book a tour that would take us across the border into the town of Tachileik. The issues in Myanmar center around the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people in northern Myanmar; our visit would be nowhere near there. We booked a tour through Expedia and were not too surprised to learn that once again, it would be a private tour with just my husband, myself, a driver and a guide. Our driver today, Anek, spoke excellent English and was a fount of information. He had a great sense of humor and made the day very enjoyable.

He wanted to know what we had seen so far in Chiang Rai and was a bit surprised to find that we had already visited the Golden Triangle. He told us that it was part of the tour today, as well. This surprised us a bit, since the itinerary had not mentioned that. Not to worry; he was happy to change the itinerary so that we would not repeat something we had already seen. We would be returning to Mae Sai to cross into Myanmar; after we spent some time there, we would visit a hill tribe coffee farm and a tea plantation. Or, we could visit the king’s mother’s flower garden. Clayton is more of a coffee guy than a flower guy, so we opted to visit the coffee and tea places.

Anek was excited to tell us some big news about the soccer team cave. The government had just announced that it would be cleaned up, made safe, and opened as a tourist attraction! Way to exploit the situation, Thailand.

We passed a truck full of baby water buffalo. There are no longer many water buffalo here in northern Thailand; they are sent to China to be butchered for food. Anek talked a bit about coffee, since we had opted to include this in our tour. King Rama IX wanted to stop the opium trade, so made a deal with the hill tribes to plant coffee. If they were willing to give up their opium crops, the government would build roads, provide power, schools, water, and hospitals. This explained why the villages we saw the previous day had modern conveniences. The first planting was a dismal failure; 99 out of the 100 coffee plants died. The king was not happy, but decided to try again. This time, arabica coffee was planted, and thrived. Starbucks used to buy all of the beans from here, but now 90% of the beans stay in Thailand. In addition to the large plantations, many people roast and package their own beans at home and sell it. A kg of coffee beans used to be sold for 200 TB; now, the going rate is 1000 TB. Any land over 750 meters in elevation is owned by the government, but locals can lease the land to grow crops on.

We had reached the border. Just like the day before, many from Burma (the Thai still call it this) were crossing over to buy groceries or go to work. A work permit costs 1000 TB per year, and is good for 5 years. Many Burmese have moved into Thailand; there are 1.5 million of them. We had read that when we crossed into Burma that our passports would be held by the immigration officials until we returned. The British couple we had talked to yesterday had this happen, so we were expecting it, though not too happy about it. We were quite surprised to have them returned to us after we passed through Myanmar’s immigration. I am pretty sure it had to do with the 1000 Baht note that Anek slipped to the official. I asked Anek why we could keep our passports. He said that the rules change all of the time. Sure they do, especially when a bribe is offered! We used the toilets one last time – conditions in Myanmar are quite primitive. Trash is thrown into the river; standards for cleanliness are quite different. Many chew betel, so there is betel spit all over the ground. Many Burmese people wear sarongs; there are different patterns for men and for women. Many of the women work thanaka powder on their faces; a few men did as well.

Anek pointed out some women with large wads of cash hanging out by the border. These are the money changers; they trade local currency for Thai Baht, charging usurious rates. When people return to Myanmar, they exchange their remaining Baht with these women.

Anek hired a taxi (songthaew) to drive us around. Our first stop was a large local market. We stopped at a booth to watch the women create a local treat wrapped in a betel leaf that involved some type of drug. Anek bought a couple (that seemed to be the thing to do in order to be able to take pictures) but suggested we only smell them rather than eat them. Opportunities for women here are pretty non-existent. Many marry young in order to avoid going to school. Many others head to Thailand for greater opportunities, but since they have limited education and skills, often end up working as prostitutes.

We continued through the market and noticed that wherever we went, we were stared at. Apparently, very few tourists visit this particular market; it is a local market. Anek comes about once a week, so knew many of the people whose stalls we visited. He spoke their dialect, and seemed to be a very popular guy! He explained what many of the food items were; some needed no explanation. Prices were listed in Thai Baht. Though it is possible for Thai to cross over to shop, not many do. Thailand exports many goods here. The government of Myanmar is quite incompetent. It has great natural resources (gems and minerals) but no plan in place to generate income by selling them, so most of its residents are quite poor. The food here is cooked with lots and lots of oil; it is also quite spicy (even by Thai standards).

I guess if you are tired of walking, you just ride your bike through the marketplace!

A few more photos taken along the way:

We went through a temple (after removing our shoes and banging the gong 3 times) and were surprised to find LED lights putting on a light show behind the Buddha. For a primitive country, it seemed a bit out of place. The Buddha in Myanmar can be distinguished from the Thai Buddha because of its long ears. We moved on to where the monks were about to have lunch. One male from each family is able to become a monk here. It provides the opportunity for free food, accommodation, and education. These monks eat twice per day. Any leftover food is given to beggars; nothing is wasted.

Our taxi picked us up and drove us up a steep hill to another temple. This particular temple is a replica of one in Yangon, Myanmar. The temple in Yangon is ten times bigger, and is made of real gold (62 tons of it!). At the entrance, we stopped to remove our shoes and a woman came up to wrap a sarong around me. I had knee-length shorts, which had been acceptable at all of the Thai temples we visited (as well as the temple we had just visited), but were not acceptable here. When we went outside, Anek was approached by a woman that wanted to know if we would pose for a picture with her. He said that she and her friends were from a hill tribe, visiting the city, and had never seen white people before. We were quite the novelty! After we posed with her, one by one, her friends asked if they could have a picture taken with us. There was a man with a camera that took the pictures. He would then print them and sell them to the women. We ended up with a group photo (Anek used my camera to take a few pictures of us). It was a fun experience. We felt like rock stars!

Around the temple are different Buddhas. A local woman was following us around. She knew some English and wanted to know what day of the week I was born; I told her Friday. She led me over to the Monday statue (I guess her English wasn’t that good!) and explained that you should dip a cup of water from the bowl and pour three times over the Buddha’s head, two times over the large statue’s head, and one time over the small statue’s head. I took the cup and bowl and promptly fell over, spilling the water all over the place! Grace and coordination, right there…I was kind of embarrassed, thinking that the water was holy water or something, but no one seemed too concerned, so I just refilled it and did the little ceremony. You are supposed to make a wish when you pour the water, but I was too discombobulated from having dumped the water all over, so forgot to. We went around the pagoda to Wednesday 2 (Clayton was born in the afternoon – remember they split Sunday and Wednesday into two parts) for him to do the ceremony. He managed to succeed without making a fool of himself like I did, and we headed back to our taxi.

We were dropped off at the top of a narrow street. Some women were playing bingo in the street while their children played. We stopped to talk to a woman whose abusive, drunk husband had gotten angry and burned down the entire 20 houses a couple of years ago. He fled to Thailand and is not allowed back in Myanmar. Fortunately, the local people had their money stored in Thai banks, so were able to rebuild. This time around, they used concrete. But, this depleted all of their savings.

Our time in Myanmar was drawing to a close. We passed by a gas station (the white bottle is diesel). We made a quick visit to a statue of a Burmese king that had invaded Thailand and conquered it for several centuries. We stopped by a coffee shop that is a popular place for local people. Since there is little electricity and no movie theaters, people come here to watch the large screen tv’s. We walked through another marketplace, this one selling predominantly fake goods (Gucci, Chanel, Rolex, etc.). The border markets are owned mainly by Chinese rather than by locals. We passed by the money changers again and then walked through Myanmar immigration and Thai immigration. The Chinese tourists in front of us had some sort of issue at Thai immigration, but coughing up a few thousand Bahts seemed to solve whatever the issue was.

While we waited for our drive, Anek purchased a treat for us. Last year in Cambodia, I had noticed stalls along the road selling what looked like smoking bamboo. It turns out that it is a treat made of coconut milk, rice, and some type of bean that is cooked in the bamboo. You peel the bamboo away to eat it. It was really tasty! And, a funeral procession passed by. The truck in the back of the corege was blaring loud music.

Next on the agenda was a drive into the hills for coffee. The first place we stopped at was too full, so we walked up a very steep hill to another place. The views here were lovely. Anek bought us each a coffee drink. On the way back to the car, he explained to us how the coffee is processed. It has two shells; each must be removed before the coffee is roasted and sold. The inferior beans are sold to make mass-produced coffees.

On to lunch at Cabbages and Condoms. This is a chain restaurant in Thailand. Free condoms are given out with your lunch. So many of the hill tribe people have no education related to sex, and so pick up and spread HIV. The food was excellent; we passed on the free condoms, though Anek grabbed some to slip into our driver’s pocket to try to get him in trouble with his wife. Quite the jokester, that Anek.

We opted to skip the tea plantation visit and asked to be taken back to our hotel. If you visit here, I highly suggest a visit to Myanmar. Don’t let the bad press convince you that it is not safe. That being said, do hire a good guide to take you. It is not a DIY place to visit.