Kyaiktiyo: Ready to Roll

Chaotic.Exciting.Golden

Our initial plan was to enter Myanmar (or Burma, whichever) via the Thai-Mae Sai/ Burmese-Tachilek border crossing located close to Chiang Rai as this would have been most convenient for us after travelling North in Thailand. However after being told that the border is currently shut we did some research and found that whilst tourists can enter overland at this particular border they can only travel as far as a town called Kentung as parts of the state are shut off to foreigners. This threw a bit of a spanner in the works. We researched flights into the country but quickly ruled the option out as a far too expensive option and instead made the decision to make a long journey South to the town of Mae Sot (you may remember this as the town we built in back in December) to cross the border here as our research told us it posed no problems to foreigners. At one point it did feel like we were trying to achieve the impossible in crossing overland into Myanmar as everything seemed to be telling us we couldn’t do it and we are yet to meet any other westerners who have done it. So off we set from Chiang Rai to Mae Sot with our fingers and toes crossed in hope that we’d be in Myanmar the following day. Our night in Mae Sot was fairly uneventful, we found a burger restaurant that gives jobs to refugees and their burgers were a treat! We both went for the BBQ pulled pork with cheese and pickled apple by the way.

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It was an early morning to get us to the border, our journey there on the back of a sorngtaou (like a large Tuk Tuk) set the scene for what we are to expect in our next country. We were the only westerners amongst all of the Burmese who seemed to find us very intriguing as we got a lot of stares off them on the journey. We had a little walk to get ourselves stamped out of Thailand and then a longer walk over a bridge to get ourselves stamped into Myanmar. It was that easy. There was no waiting around as theres a separate queue for foreigners and we were the only ones! No problems. From the border we had to get a shared taxi to the nearest town of Mawlamyine which proved quite hard work to organise as we were expected to pay double what the locals pay for the journey. We settled somewhere in between after about an hour of negotiations with different drivers and got in a taxi with about eight other people and then off we set. It was apparent almost instantly after crossing over from Thailand how different Myanmar feels to the rest of South East Asia and how much more Indian it is. There’s a little more chaos about things, everyone seems to wear a longyi and the food is all of Indian cuisine. In a strange way it felt nice to be back into the unknown and to have escaped all of the comforts we’d got used to in Thailand. It gave me the uncertain yet excited feeling I had at the very start of our travels when we were in India that I’ve not felt for a while as the South East Asia path is well trodden it makes travelling so much easier.

The journey to Mawlamyine was long, hot and quite uncomfortable as me and Chris had to share the front seat in the car. There were stops here and there though which were very welcoming and at times entertaining. A little old woman got off the back of a Sorngtaou with half a dozen sacks of peanuts and came over to get in our car. After a little shuffle around of our bags and loading these gigantic bags of peanuts onto the roof of the car we were off, down a little dirt track. The little old woman got dropped off in the middle of nowhere and as our driver started to unload the bags of peanuts one came undone and the nuts went everywhere. Something that two women on the side of the road found very amusing. They were even more amused when Chris started helping scoop the nuts back into the sack with his hands, I’ve not heard laughter like that for a long time! No idea what was so amusing but the laughter cheered everyone up anyway. Maybe one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments. Another thing that stood out to us throughout the car journey was the amount of military stop posts there were, at which our driver had to pay money each time to be able to pass. We got the impression that he had to pay more than he normally would have because there were two foreigners in his car which justified us having to pay more for the journey than the locals. This stressed the point to us that if we would have attempted to cross at the northern border near to Chiang Rai then none of the drivers would have taken us very far because there are so many military stops everywhere that they’d have been refused entrance with us in the car. Either way we are glad we didn’t take our chances in the north based on the number of plain clothes young men with assault rifles dotted along the border roads.

We stayed just the one night in Mawlamyine and had a wander around the town when we arrived, our wandering was interrupted by a heavy downpour and thunderstorm. We took shelter under the canopy of what turned out to be the hospital and soon got invited in to keep dry, so there we were sat in the hospital waiting room till the rain died down. We enjoyed some food by the river before calling it a night. The next morning we arranged ourselves an afternoon bus to the town of Kyaiktiyo (pronounced chai-chee-oh) which would be our first proper destination to explore in Myanmar.

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On looking at a few guesthouses on our arrival into Kyaiktiyo we realised that the standard of accommodation is a lot lower and for the same prices as we were used to paying in Thailand. This meant that we were staying in a bit of a dive and paying well more than we should have been doing for it, this has something to do with the guesthouses having to pay money to the government to keep foreigners or something. It’s all very annoying. We stayed a little out of Kyaiktiyo itself at a place called Kinpun, this is a small village with one main road through it with little going on. However Chris managed to find a place that was playing premier league football (Southampton vs Tottenham) and did his best to persuade me that this is where we should eat that night. There was little else going on in the town so there I sat the only female in this place watching the football that I would never have watched otherwise. It was amusing to watch all the Burmese watching the football like we were sat in a pub back home although apart from pints and crisp they were drinking tea and eating bowls of curried noodles. They seemed to be supporting Southampton too which was interesting.

Our reason for visiting Kyaiktiyo was to see the Golden Rock Pagoda which we thought we could see on the hillside from the village. We were so very wrong. Being the keen trekkers that we are we embarked on the walk up to the Golden Rock thinking that it wouldn’t take us too long as we could see it from town. We’d made sure to set off early before the heat of the day kicked in which was possibly the wisest decision of the day as it turns out the rock we could see from the village was a replica and not the real thing which actually took us four hours to walk to. On the way we passed friendly monks who were on their way downhill who spurred us on by saying things such as ‘just four miles mores’ and then ‘half an hour away’ etc etc. All of them seemed very pleased and impressed that we decided to walk as there is the option of getting a truck up. Once we reached the summit, exhausted and drenched in sweat we were put out by the fact that we had to pay an entrance fee to see the rock that we’d just trekked uphill for four hours to see. Surely we deserved to see this rock free of charge! Anyway the Golden Rock looked fairly similar to the one we saw on the side of the hill that would have only taken us an hour to walk to and it was probably less touristy as well. Unfortunately it had been massively overdeveloped with concrete walkways all around and had it been left to its natural setting it would have appeared far more impressive. The rock which has been covered in gold leaf over a number of years sits perched on the side of the mountain like it’s ready to roll off any minute. Numerous people go to worship at the rock because it was apparently a place that had been blessed with some hairs from Lord Buddha many years ago. We did our usual sit from a distance and admire away from the crowds of people.

We enjoyed our lunch looking out from a small local restaurant over the hills that we’d just climbed up and watched as black clouds came over and opened up a massive rainstorm. I’ve not seen rain like that for a long time! The clouds came so thick infront of us that our view of the valleys was completely taken away. It was all very dramatic! We sat it out till the rain passed and decided to get the truck down hill, we couldn’t decide what was the most notable thing about our day be it the four hour uphill trek, the big golden rock, the torrential downpour or the terrifying truck ride back to town. The truck, which I’m sure is used to move cattle around when it’s not taking tourists up and down the side of the mountain, was the scariest journey we’ve encountered so far. We were stood up at the back of the truck watching as it turned the viciously sharp corners with steep cliffs to the side of us. From where we were stood we couldn’t see the road infront so it appeared like the truck was going to drive right over the edge! It was definitely a tester of our nerves.

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That evening we ventured out just as the heavens decided to open again, we took cover in a nearby restaurant and shared our first Mandalay beer whilst we played some cards till the rain stopped. It was just a quick stop for us in Kyaiktiyo but a good opener to Myanmar. The following day we travelled onwards to one of Myanmar’s largest cities, Yangon. On first impressions we’ve noticed how similar in ways it is to India here, in good ways as well as bad ways. The weather is also in two extremes, either baking hot or pouring with rain. This is down to the fact that the hot season is coming to an end and monsoon season is beginning, so not the best time to visit but we are still excited to explore none-the-less.

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Photos here: https://www.flickr.com/gp/127744759@N08/38G6jf

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