Live the fantasy of getting to paradise, the remote and beautiful islands of the Andaman Sea in the south of Burma.
But, getting there is surely not a walk in the park. It requires permission, and over 1000$ a night on a dive-cruise. And even then you cannot enter ashore……
So if you can’t get to the islands, then at least try to experience the coastal side of the South-Eastern state, which is also quite beautiful. Surprisingly, just a few if not, nobody, knows of this wonder and hardly any information or photos are available online. According to the MTT, a governmental travel agency in Yangoon, there is no need to get any permit anymore, for the mainland at least.
HOW to get there is a different story. Earlier policies were that you had to fly. Now, it seems to be a bit unclear. So, we decided that we wanted to try going overland to see how far we can go. Join us in our adventures traveling myanmar on motorbikes. This is definitely a road seldom traveled, if at all!
Renting motorbikes from the extremely friendly people at our guesthouse “Breeze” Malawmiyne went smoothly, lucky enough, since in our earlier guesthouse in Hpa Ann we were told they are not allowed to rent bikes outside the region.
It was early afternoon before we managed to leave, and then, less than 30 minutes into our trip, Kari’s tire was flat. But with luck and help of beautiful people, we continued our trip with a new tube after only half hour.
The sun was setting, and driving in the dark was not really recommended on those very bumpy roads, but we had to eat, and stop at a very local restaurant along the way. Everybody from the local community seemed to be filling up the restaurant only to look at the strange creatures landing in their small village. By pointing, dictionary and a lot of laughter, we managed to explain that we were hungry vegetarians. With a big smile, they made us a simple but delicious meal, accompanied by the traditional warm green tea you find in a teapot at any restaurant-table, free to drink as much as you want. 4$ in total for 4 big portions!
Some people by the table beside us knew a few English words. With smiles and laughter, we managed to communicate. People in this country are just amazing!
We had to keep going, and we are told that it was only another half an hour drive to the closest town with a hotel. It was already pit dark, and the drive required full concentration and slow speed but eventually we arrived at the next town where somebody of course in friendly Burmese style immediately asked us if we needed help. Eventually, he guided us by driving ahead to show where the hotel is.
A warm woman with a big smile welcomed us, talking non stop in Burmese and laughing loudly with full heart every second sentence, the most hilarious laugh we ever heard. Since we of course don’t understand a word of what she says and she nevertheless continued talking and laughing. As you would expect, it all got extremely funny and we all stood there laughing.
One of the sons in the family arrived. He knew a bit of English which helped us understand that the rooms were 5$ each, no breakfast (often included in room price in Burma). The standard was typical Burmese style: tiny boxes separated by thin wooden walls, with only enough place for a bed with a hard mattress, aimed at local tourism and not foreigners. But we are not spoiled, and the choices were not many anyway, so we dove into bed and still got a good night sleep.
On the next day of traveling to myanmar, we packed our gear, said goodbye to our laughing landlady and asked for a tip where to eat good breakfast close by. She and her son recommended a local restaurant just down the street where they served us a great noodle-soup, and again, we found ourselves being the centre of attention of the whole place. From the moment we got on the road, people were stopping, smiling and waving, looking extremely surprised to see a family with young kids traveling to myanmar on motor bikes all by themselves in this region. When the son from our guesthouse entered the restaurant, we thanked him for his good tip and asked him if he maybe can ask how much our total bill was.
He went, thereafter, came back saying a friendly goodbye, said nothing more, and left. When we, after a few minutes, wanted to pay, the owner told us with a smile that it was already paid, so, no need!! Unbelievable. People in this country are so incredible, hospitable and friendly, giving with all their heart.
We start the day by doing an 18 km detour to look at the beach town Setse, but it is not a very attractive place so we decided to continue south.
After stopping at a market on our way, bike problem number two appeared. The gas-handle on Offer’s bike wouldn’t work, full stop. A sweet young boy showed us the closest bike-shop, just down the road, but it was lunch time and nobody was in, so we parked the bike there with all gear on. In Myanmar, you can really leave everything everywhere without having to worry, nobody would dare take it. The honesty of these people are simply amazing.
OK. Time to check some local food again. Sitting down at a small restaurant close by, we tried again with gesticulations and the famous phrasebook to tell we are vegetarian, also pointing at a dish they prepared for somebody which looked interesting. It was a mix which they called “teasalad”, made from pickled green tea leaves, mixed with tomatoes, nuts and different spices. Wow! Amazingly delicious together with steamed rice!
An hour and a half or so to wait in total and the bike in the meantime was repaired and they found that the gas cable had to be changed. How much?? “4$,” the mechanic asked with a shy smile. Nobody was trying to cheat us here. It would be totally against their basic Buddhist belief system and values.
We finally continued on our long way south, bumpy roads full of holes which got worse and worse and we had to drive extremely slow. Antony, from the Breeze, made a clever joke out of the bumpy experience asking, “Do you know why Burma is holy?” Because it is full of holes …
The further we got, the more people were pointing at us and staring. Not many tourists and blond children have been in these areas before, that is for sure! Kai, especially, is treated like a rare species. People all the time came to touch his hair and looked at him wherever we came.
The drive felt extremely long and our buttocks and backs were hurting, but finally we arrived at Ye, the last larger city in Mon State and a natural stopping point. It was after dark already, and after some complicated explanations right-left-right-left, people for the rest point straight when we asked and we ended up at the outskirt of town, at a dark dodgy market, having no idea where to go anymore. A young guy stopped and asked kindly in English whether he can help, and after showing us a terrible-looking hotel close by, he lead us on his bike through town to another hotel further to the centre. We were greeted with shoebox-rooms and they were quite dirty but at least sheets looked clean and the location was ok, so, we were extremely thankful to our friendly saviour, whose name was Myat Han.
The evening continued in a very happy spirit. Our helper brought us to a local restaurant where they were thrilled to have us. Their best food was set on the table, one dish more delicious than the other and everyone working there stood excited on the side watching while we ate, giggling and with big smiles. And the feast cost in total less than 5 dollars!
Myat Han has politely refused our offer to eat with us, but invited us after the great meal to come to the teashop of his family, for tea and coffee and tasty home made pastries. His parents, a few brothers and sisters all worked there. Everybody was so sweet and hospitable, and in the end, they refused to let us pay, giving with their heart.
On the way back we remembered that we had to make photocopies of our passports for the hotel. Out came sweet local host and entered the copy shop while we were waiting on the sidewalk outside. Smiling people stopped to welcome us. We were probably among the first travelers they ever saw around.
And then all of a sudden we got, for the first time, a reminder that we were not visiting a completely free country; a young guy with a frown approached us, mumbling unclear words in english that we hardly understood plus he was very drunk. He told us we should not be there, and something about being black… and not being welcome there, and then he was shouting drunkly with spinning eyes that he is a policeman. I disregarded him because he was drunk, one out of many you meet in any corner of streets around the globe. Looking around us we saw that the energy of all people around has changed and everyone was very quiet, and did not interfere with his aggressive words toward us. Our host still busy with making the copies, stepped out and said with some fear attached to his words that this guy is a police man. In his place anyone related to the police, military or government has the power to seriously damage any normal citizen.
Freedom is a very fragile substance in this area as we soon will be further sharing more anecdotes of traveling to Myanmar.
We parked our motorbikes next to the guesthouse door and were welcomed by a new person, seriously approaching us and asking in good English for our passport and was very friendly in asking what we were doing there, repeating his questions by showing us a text message with the questions written on his phone.
I assume he is the owner of this guesthouse, so I handed him the copies of our passports that we had just made, and replied that we were a family traveling the world and now, traveling to Myanmar, trying to go south overland.
He stated that it was not permitted and asked where exactly we wished to arrive. We pulled out the map marked with our planned routes for each day, and he looked instantly worried about our destination, stating that in Dawai and the fisherman village which we recommended to go, there is big deep-water project port being built by the government and other countries.
He ask if we knew about this project and we, of course, replied that we had no clue since we indeed had no idea what he was talking about, but apparently without knowing we stepped into a sensitive zone.
At this point 2 new people entered. All people present in the room shifted into an obeying and pleasing mode, and one of the men was being introduced to us as head of immigration in the city, speaking not even a single word of English, and started digging into our passports, our maps, talking and discussing in Burmese, looking into all various country stamps and visas, asking where we intended to go, and why, questions being translated for us.
The guy we first met who spoke good English and who had a very pleasant energy, introduced himself as visitor in town and guest at the hotel, on his way back to his hometown Dawai. He keeps telling us to be relaxed, and that everything would be ok, although we were extremely relaxed.
Was he what he was saying he was or were we played somehow the good guy-bad guy game, to get our trust so we tell him anything we don’t want to tell to the official person? The coming hour was a mix between funny and absurd situation since the head of the immigration who was supposed to be master with handling passports seemed to be mixing up again and again all the different paper copies while endlessly scrutinizing and searching all four passports; and at the same time a bit unpleasant feeling that we were all of a sudden not free people anymore and might have gotten ourselves into trouble.
More and more people were joining and at this stage, we could count eight of them around us. They kept asking us who told us we could pass over land and I kept answering that we got the information checked and confirmed at MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tourism ) agency in Yangon.
The English speaking person kept smiling and kept “translating” more questions, like who gave us the information about the places, from whom we rented the bikes, how much we paid, our international driving licenses, which Kari has with her and I just realized I left mine in my backpack in the hotel.
Lin and Kai are admirably calm and joyful, taking the situation very relaxed.
These kids kept amazing us over and over how naturally they handled every possible situation we came across.
Final decision seemed to be done at that moment, we were not allowed to go any further south and had to go back to Malawmiyne. Such a pity! We had loved absolutely every moment until now! But at least they agreed we can stay for another day before returning.
We felt for the first time in our life, how much human freedom can be fragile, and illusive. Happy to understand we are free people living in relatively free countries… We are blessed, something which we kept facing all throughout traveling to Myanmar and now it is being emphasized to us even more.
The officials left and 3 new young persons stepped in. One of them seemed very familiar to me. I can tell I saw this face already before this evening. They introduced themselves as media people, running a web page about what happens in Ye, the town we were in. They invited us for a tour in town the next morning….
We agreed to meet at 10 AM since the officials already confirmed we could stay for a day.
Quite exhausted, we stepped into our shoe-box sized rooms to try and rest after this very surprising evening and extremely long bumpy day on the road.
The night turns out to be not less surreal than the strange twist of the evening. From 11pm all the way until 6 in the morning, somebody was talking and singing non-stop in Burmese from loudspeakers close by in the neighbourhood. Our minds were already attuned to paranoid frequencies. A disturbing idea crept in, that this may be a kind of brainwashing and indoctrination of people while asleep….. It became a very long night with very little sleep attained.
Later we were told that the long speeches were because of a 3-day Buddhist celebration and prayer ceremony…..
At eight o’clock in the morning, we took a shower and got dressed while the kids were still asleep in their room. Kari opened the door to the hallway and saw the head of immigration already sitting and waiting for us outside, staring at the the door! Pffff…. are we about to go through the story of yesterday night all over again?!
This morning, again, accompanied by few of his shadow soldiers, but now, he was more smiling, the head of the immigration announced with a sudden reasonably good English that we had to leave town back to Malawmiyne TODAY, ~ by BUS! We had to leave the motorbikes behind and the owners had to come and pick up the bikes themselves!
For the first time, we felt a hard hit in the stomach. This was really bad news! We were at least 150 km south on extremely bad roads, and this was, for sure, putting the owners in trouble since the papers were not in order and they, according to these officials, were not allowed to rent to foreigners to go so far.
We tried to explain that we cannot come back without the bikes, as we HAD to return what we had taken otherwise we would feel very bad. Maybe, it would be possible to take the bikes on the bus, or maybe rent a truck? We broke our heads to trying to find a solution.
He replied that bus is for sure not possible, but he promised to check regarding the truck, and asked whether we’ve had breakfast, which we of course didn’t.
He is actually quite friendly and turned out to speak a little English when he just wanted to, and we got to know that his name was Tanzin.
He brought us to a local restaurant, quite full, which seemed to be a meeting place for people he knew, telling an old man to move to another table and asked us to sit down.
While we were eating breakfast and talking in simple English, we tried to figure out how to solve this quite complicated situation. Repeating our question about the truck, he answered that he did not know yet. We were small-talking and asking different questions about his family who lived far away, about the city where he worked, and also whether there is a train line, which he confirmed there was, and suddenly it’s clear. Of Course! The Train!
We suggested to him that we could take the train back and also send the bikes as goods at the same time, and the problem can be solved. Tanzin immediately made a phone call, talked a lot in Burmese while we waited in excitement to hear the answer. Yes, it is ok! He is clearly just as pleased as we were for having found a solution which was good for all parties.
The young media-guy from yesterday, Maung, appeared with a friend at the restaurant for our 10 o’clock appointment, obviously informed about where we were and probably also connected to the close group around Tanzin. We finished breakfast and in a very relaxed tone, were afterwards informed that the train would be leaving at 13.30 and that we can have some sightseeing tour in city the next 2.5 hours if we liked. Tanzin insisted on paying our breakfast-bill, nothing to discuss.
Maung and 3 other boys from the group, offered us a ride on their bikes to see a few places in town and they took us to their main golden pagoda, originally 2500 years old.
Tanzin and a few more people also arrived at the pagoda, and followed us further to the next stop as well, another famous pagoda in a small lake. We were not allowed to pay for anything. They excitingly bough flowers for us to give as an offering to Buddha, and later, bags of fish-feed for Kai and Lin to give to the many hungry fishes in the little temple-lake.
At least 3 of the people were constantly taking photos and videos of us, and we felt like VIP guests getting very special treatment on our very short visit.
The lake turned out to be just in front of the tea-house from yesterday eve and we told them we would like to say goodbye to our sweet helper Myat Han and his family. We closed our visit with drinking chai (sweet tea with milk) with our “guides” and some of their friends, listening to their point of view about positive changes in Burma, but also complaints about the closed situation in Ye since they would like more visitors to come. They wanted to hear what we thought about being sent back, whether we would like to complain, and we tried to answer as diplomatic as possible since we did not know who is on which side in all this story.
Back at the hotel , picking our luggage and bikes to drive to the train station, Tanzin and a couple of others showed up again to see that we got well onto the train, and a group of 6-7 people escorted us to the station. The train is of course one hour delayed and the whole group waited ’til we were well-seated in the luxury Upper Class carriage with reclinable seats, but it is obviously Upper Class from the time of the war, with missing windows, stinky and loose broken chairs. But everything goes. Better than wooden seats.
Final photos taken, thanking all these people who have actually received us well and been extremely friendly. Our expedition traveling to Myanmar ended earlier than planned but due to this fact all has turned out even more adventurous.
The train trip back to Malawmiyne is an experience in itself. On the train, the last half hour before the delayed departure, we were surrounded by at least 20 children and adults, all wearing beautiful smiling faces, some with dirty clothes and obviously not belonging in this carriage, but so curious, friendly and laughing.
When it was time to leave, the conductor ordered them to get out and we were ready for 7 bumpy hours on the line actually called the “Railway of Death”. At least 16000 western POWs as well as 90 000 Asians prisoners lost their lives because of hunger and hard work, as forced labour building the line for the Japanese who captured Burma from the British in 1942.
The landscape was peaceful, lush and open green rice fields, scattered with simple bamboo and straw huts along the way, very basic houses but still homes kept with pride and happiness. Villages you don’t see when traveling by road, remote in look and spirit, but inhabited by such beautiful people. The land of million smiles. Authentic smiles.
The train jumped and shook from side to side, we were sure we would go off the rails any time, but after 7 hours it really arrived to our destination.
Happy with our adventure of 3 intense and exciting days, as far south as possible outside the tourist track. Traveling is about meeting people, not about how many pagodas and buddhas you have seen, and in this country is one to experience that exceptionally.
Well back in Malawmiyne, we were told in a whispering voice by a local guest at the hotel, that Ye actually is a hot centre for ten separatist groups fighting against the government and that there often is gun fighting and clashes in the area. We were told that everybody was obliged to report to authorities and that all people dealing with foreigners are connected in one way or the other to the government.
Hopefully, the situation will improve and open up in this area as well.
In the next traveling to Myanmar adventures, we really want to get all the way down to the islands in the Andaman Sea.
All the way down…..