The driver is pussyfooting over the bumps in the road, I’ve just found a way to sit so my foot doesn’t go numb, and there is a guy seated in the middle of the two of us contorted in some way that I’m not able to comprehend. I’m trying to cut the guy some slack, crawling down this shitty road, the car packed full of things probably coming from the Thai border, and no lights except from cars. I’ve been traveling all day, and I’m ready to be at my hotel in Mawlamyine (colonial spelling: Moulmein).
I changed drivers in a town outside of Hpa-an, the capital of the Kayin State in Myanmar. Until now, I had been riding shotgun in an SUV also packed with stuff. The four of us climbed the rocky, winding roads through the mountains blasting regional pop hits on 85.5 FM. With the windows down and the music up, I felt like I was on a road trip with my friends, even though we could barely communicate.
All this was arranged in Myawaddy, the border town across from Mae Sot, Thailand. A teenager named Win, the self-proclaimed translator at the border checkpoint, helped me through the rather simple process of getting checked by immigration. His English was quite good and he called me ‘brother’. Win made a phone call, took a copy of my passport and Visa, and then guided me outside to a man with a motorcycle and an American flag design canvas bag. I hopped on the motorcycle for a one-minute ride to where I would eventually hitch my ride to Mawlamyine.
The ‘Friendship Bridge’ traverses the river between Mae Sot and Myawaddy. Walking over with my stuff somewhere near the middle of the bridge, a man walking next to a monk heading towards Thailand says, “Hello, Friend.” Fitting, I think.
Earlier that morning, I took a minivan from Sukhotthai to Mae Sot. It reminded me of one of my rules of traveling: Only travel with an amount that can be put on your lap or between your legs on a minivan stuffed to the rafters with Thai people, your seat inevitably being in the back corner on top of the wheel well. From the bus station in Mae Sot it’s a quick ride on the back of a motorbike taxi to the border. (Practical info about making this trip available over at Thriftydrifters)
I hadn’t really planned anything in Mawlamyine. On the ride through the mountains and down through the first villages, I had my eyes wide open. Crossing into a place over land can be the most rewarding way to travel because one sees changes in places with the change in landscape. I see groups of schoolchildren riding their bikes home, trucks with loud uncovered engines – their belts exposed and exhaust pipe spewing clouds straight up above the windshield – rambling along like exotic animals I’d never seen before, and strange signs in English directing locals to be helpful to tourists. My passport is checked on several occasions. Armies wearing different uniforms with different loyalties check my paperwork and collect tolls from the driver as we move down the road.
By the time I’ve settled into my hotel, I’m ready for a proper dinner. Down on Strand Road, adjacent to the river, is a row of food stalls with tables and chairs set up looking over the dark river. Two of the stalls have menus available in English, so I get some fried rice and drink some Myanmar Beer while trying to digest the day-long trip I’ve just made into a completely different country from the one I’ve just left. Sure, they share a religion, a border, a history, but I’m certainly not in Thailand anymore.
I spend the next day walking around, visiting a few pagodas, walking through the market. The pace is calm, but the market is also large. Things are constantly being brought up from the river jetty. But Mawlamyine is sleepy during the day. You can witness everyday life, but the town doesn’t come alive until the sun starts going down. The stalls on the river set up and a night of eating and drinking on the river begins again.