Entering Myanmar was the easiest process imaginable. In fact, it didn’t feel like a border crossing at all. Normally it’s all serious faces and no photography signs but the Burmese border officers were cheesing more than me(!) and snapping photos like I was a celebrity. A refreshing change.
Anyone who has done it before will tell you that crossing any land border is an interesting experience, and despite whatever efforts you give, you’ll always end up comparing the country you’ve just left with the new one you’ve entered.
As far as comparisons go, you can’t really get more different than Thailand to Myanmar. Leaving behind perfectly paved, civilised roads with your wide (false sense of security) ‘cycle lane’ comfortably marked along the left hand side, you arrive into a space that cars, trucks, motorbikes, cows, chickens, dust, bicycles and just about anything else that can be moved, all share a space. Oh, and flip reverse back to riding on the right side of the road. But after three months of ease and familiarity, it was a refreshing change that I was ready for and I suddenly felt like a proper explorer again.
I got straight to the first jobs – sim card and money exchange. Being the only white face, people seem to want to help in any way they can. I’d already learnt how to say you’re beautiful so I made people smile as soon as I arrived and fumbled my way through a conversation to get some data for maps and communication.
My first real impression of this wonderful country was with Su Su. I met her through Warmshowers and had pre-arranged to meet her for lunch once I’d crossed the border in the local town, Myawaddy. She took me to an awesome local place where I got to try my first tea leaf salad (one of the most known traditional dishes) as well as an epic curry. A fantastic start. She also helped me to learn some key terms, wrote down how to say that I’m vegan, educated me on some important cultural points to be aware of (like how you only bow when greeting a monk or that camping and being hosted by locals is strictly illegal) and mapped out the first part of my journey with loads of hot-spots to visit along the way. She did all this just to help welcome me to her country and she even bought me lunch. In fact, she was upset she couldn’t spend more time with me as she had to return to work! Her spectacular hospitality certainly gave me a good insight into the warmth and loving nature of the Burmese people and sent me on my way to Kawkareik, where I spent my first night, with a big, fat smile.
Following Su Su’s advice, I took the new road which was surprisingly modern and ventured over some mountains. I didn’t really know what I had in mind for Myanmar, but even this slight introduction was beating it. As tough as I found it to be climbing again, it reaffirmed my love for mountains and I was happy to be just taking my time and soaking in all directions of my wonderful surroundings. Varying shades of magnificent greens in all directions, coupled with the rawness of Burmese living, my senses were overwhelmed with joy and fascination. It’s incredible how such a small distance can present such huge differences.
Once I’d reached the peak of the mountain, I felt a huge wave of gratitude and emotion sweep through me. The land flattened out into large expanses of brightly coloured rice paddies glimmering in the delicately setting sun. Tears spilled over my eyelids as I realised that my dream of visiting Myanmar was actually happening right now. And it was already better than I could have ever imagined.
When I arrived into Kawkareik I headed straight for the guesthouse that Su Su had suggested but it was full. They sent me to another – also full. Unbelievable – what were the chances?! These were the only two licensed guesthouses for foreigners in town so a local negotiated on the phone for me to stay at a local’s guesthouse as long as I didn’t report them to the police (I know, why would I?!). It cost me 7,000 Kyatts (about £3.50) and my room was a single bed inside a tiny, dirty, green box. There was a fan and a washing line, a pillow and a sheet. Further down the corridor was a row of squatter toilets which smelt like they operated under the rule of ‘if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown, flush it down’. Next door to those were the showers, a plastic blue hose pipe with giant red lever opening or closing the flow of water to the rusty shower head. There was no hot water but that was the last thing I needed so no concerns there. Simple but fine, I settled in and was happy to have a place to rest my head for the night.
Next was my first independent food seeking experience. I ventured out, armed with my Burmese note and language list to ask around for some vegan food and it really wasn’t so hard. I ended up with some kind of fried bread with curried cabbage, pickled cucumber and rice – delicious first attempt and I was satisfied.
Day one in Myanmar had not disappointed and I was excited to reach Hpa-An, the first major town and place I could actually get a chance to rest my incredibly sore bum after a consistent and long stretch from Bangkok.