Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Burma/Myanmar

I'm writing this blog post from a sidewalk restaurant while waiting on my pineapple chicken fried rice.  In front of me, across a little park with palm trees, I can see the Kraburi Strait (or whatever they call this particular body of water around here) and on the other side of that, the green hills of Thailand. 
Today I'm on the west side of the strait, in Kawthoung, the southernmost point of Burma. I know that the official name is now Myanmar, but it seems most around here still think of it as Burma. 
It is a bit complicated but not too difficult to cross the border for the day. To travel more than a few kilometers inland, I would need a prearranged visa, but a day pass just for the town only cost $10. And it does have to be ten dollars, in U.S. currency, and a nice one with no tears or writing at that.
I took a songtheaw-a small pickup truck with benches and a roof built on the bed,which serves as a public bus around here- from my hostel down to the pier. My first stop there was the bank across the street.  You can exchange Thai baht there for the appropriate ten dollar bill.  The only American money in my possession is a rather ratty twenty, which wouldn't work. 
I had my passport checked and filled out the exit paperwork at the immigration office next to the dock, and then joined a noisy party of Vietnamese students in a long boat. With a couple of stops at checkpoints along the way, it took about thirty minutes to reach the port at Kawthoung. 
The Myanmar immigration office is right on the end of the dock, and  it only took a minute to be cleared to enter as a daytripper.  A man who was standing around helping us figure out where to stand and what we needed offered to be my tour guide and take me around to the sights on his motorcycle.
I still get a bit nervous about riding motorcycles, but as I wanted to see everything there was to see in a short time, it seemed to be the way to go.  He said his name was Johnny, and we set off first for the golden stupa overlooking the town. This is the postcard view of the town-or it would be if there were postcards, which there doesn't seem to be. 
From there, we went across town to a pleasant leafy park with a prominent golden statue of a former king; according to Johnny he had started some war with the Thais; however, according to Thai history he won and Burmese history he lost, or vice-versa, and one side likes him and one side doesn't; anyways, Johnny thinks it's mostly all made up anyway. Whatever, there's a statue overlooking a nice stretch of the bay.
Our next stop was a small temple on the beach; it was a nice area along the bay, but the beach itself was partly concrete, and even the areas with a thin strip of sand were covered with washed-up trash. Johnny pointed out that there is a reason that no one comes to Myanmar for the beaches.  The temple built onto a pier over the water made a nice scene, though.
We walked along the edge of the road along the water, passing along the edge of a small village.  I took a quick look down the lanes running away from the water; down one I saw many children in their uniforms of crisp white shirts and grass green skirts or shorts wandering home from school for lunch.  I don't know what the school year schedule is like here.  Behind the village, grassy hills seemed to give off a green glow in the sunlight. 
Finally, he took me back into town and dropped me by the pier so I could do some shopping and get lunch before catching a boat back to Ranong.  I paid him what we agreed on, but then wheeled for a tip, and complained when the tip wasn't as large as he would have liked. Well, nothing's ever perfect. 
I bought some cards with supposedly local artwork on them; I looked for postcards but I guess this little town isn't enough of a tourist destination to bother.  I thought at least they might have some generic Myanmar ones, but no such luck. I guess Myanmar in general is not a tourist kitsch kind of place.  I also bought a little wooden owl just to have a souvenir of the country.  There really wasn't much for a tourist to buy other than cheap cigarettes and duty-free whisky. 
I walked around the area near the pier; there really wasn't much to see. Mostly convenience stores and pharmacies and the like.  I stopped to eat, and that's where I am now.
And so, Myanmar. My 26th country.  While mostly it was similar to Thailand, just over the border, just a little poorer, there was something that reminded me of walking around in India. Maybe the heat, or the dust, but I think it was something in the smell.  I can't put my finger on it-there is the same combination of dead fish, exhaust, incense, and grilled meat as in Ranong, but also something else. 

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