Dec 16, 2006 – Myanmar

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Myanmaar, Here We Come!

We knew that the border crossing into Myanmaar might not be easy and that did indeed turn out to be true.

We left Hiyoko Home, early in the morning with Paw Ve and several of his family members. Hence, Ger and Tor had to sit in the back of the pick up and lucky me got to sit in the front cab. It was about an 2 hour drive before we arrived at the border town of Mae Sai. We were astonished at the huge amount of Thai people making their way across the border. I guess it is a popular thing for Thai people to go shopping in Tachilek because the baht can buy so much more as the local currency,of kyats ( pronounced chaut in the English) is considerably less in value.

You remember that saying in the last entry, about failing to plan is planning to fail. Well once again it didn’t work. We thought that if we bought our visa’s in Bangkok, they would surely be valid at this land border. Well, WRONG, they were not! They were only valid if you were flying to Yangoon the capital city of Myanmaar and this border absolutely would not accept our visas. Why the office in Bankgok would not have told us this or why they did not know about how things work at the Mae Sai border crossing is beyond us. We think they just wanted our money and pleaded ingnorance at our questions. But who really knows? After several attempts by Yate, Paw Ve’s wife, to try and explain our situation, Paw Ve, Ger and I finally managed to convince the Thai border officials to let us cross over and speak with the Myanmaar officials. We then learned that we could get a visa but would have to pay more money and the visa would only be valid for two weeks and we would have to leave our passports at the border. Wild! So we had a family meeting and agreed that despite the extra cost we were committed to going into Myanmaar and would work through other obstacles as they came up. After three hours of negotiating and filling out more forms and dishing out more money we hopped into a taxi that would take us to Cheng Du, the town that Paw Ve grew up in. We know that Paw Ve was pretty excited to be going back home as he does not often have the chance to go and see his friends and family and we were happy to be able to make this happen for him. We know that he would have been very dissappointed if they would not have let us enter the country.

Oh, I forgot to mention the other big obstacle is that there is no bank or ATM for foreigners to get money in Cheng Du, so along with the pass port issue we were madly trying to figure out if we had enough monies to last us for the 5 or 6 days that we would be staying and trying to do this without really knowing what everything would cost was a bit of nightmare for Gerald, the numbers guy.

After a bit of sweating and counting of our monies over and over again, we felt that funds were sufficient.

A taxi was arranged for us and to our amazement it was going to cost about $60 Canadian dollars, which made us gulp but at the time it seemed the only option to get us out of the border and on our way.

It was good to be on the road again with our temporary passports which by the end of our stay were stamped 18 times. That means we had to stop at various locations to be checked out by the army, I guess they want to know your every move. Just a bit eerie for us westerns.

When we arrived in Cheng Du , the first guest house was full but we managed to find fairly comfortable accommodations in the next guest house which included a western style breakie.Yahoo! After settleing in , Paw Ve , took us on a tour of the town and when we went to visit his home church where we met the youth pastor also a friend of Paw Ve’s , who invited us to come to a Christmas Service the next morning. We then wandered our way over to another friend’s parents house. It was an unusal vist because his friend had just died several days ago ( he was only 37 years of age)and he was coming to pay his respects and offer condolences and money to the family. In the home we were offered a hot drink and some sweets and sunflower seed , which the whole family was munching on.

In the dark we then meandered thru the town, which has minimal street lights, so literally it was very dark, for a good night’s rest after an eventful day.

On Sunday, believe it or not we spent the full day at Church. The morning service was very much like what we do in Canada except in Burmese, so although we did not understand alot , we were welcomed in English and tried our best to follow the words in the hymn book when we were singing.

After the service, we enjoyed some local food with all the other members and fortunatley there was one woman, who spoke good English , who is studying theology in Yangoon and her and I were able to have a great chat about the hardships of living in a Communist country.

In the mid afternoon , we joined in a Christmas Carol concert with all the youth.There were probably about 100 kids sitting in the pews. Some of the adults sang solos and sang in groups of two or three entertaining all the kids.

Cheng Du is like walking back in time. It felt like as we passed a street with little wooden doors, that contained a series of barbershops and tailor shops, that I was in some movie flic in the 1950’s. To get money transfered Gerald had to go to the market, where there was a little stall , where you could trade, Thai Baht to the Burmese Jaaht.

Banks, what Banks? Not here in this part of the world.

I was telling you before that the money thing was bit complicated well , it got even more complicated. At one time Ger was carrying 4 currencies, Thai Baht, Burmese Jaaht, the Chinese Yuan,( will explain shortly why we had this currency) and American Dollars. Every day he spent at least an hour going through and checking the money status.

After our church day, it had been suggested by Paw Ve to go and visit Monglar, which is a town in Myanmar that is near the Chinese border. Looking forward to seeing a little more of the country , we thought it would be a good idea, so we agreed to go. Once again we hopping in a taxi( very expensive , but hey, whose counting dollars) and followed winding road for about three or fours to Monglar. ONce again we did not fully realize that when we were heading to Monglar that we would have to pay a fee to enter the area and that we would have to use a total different currency. This part of Myanmar is within the country borders but operates independantly. Weird , very Weird! We paniced again as we had to dish out more money that we had expected but tried to keep our worries in line.

When we reached Monglar we were taken to probably the dirtiest hotel that we have stayed in our travels to date. It was disgusting and they didn’t have a room with three beds, so because the beds were so small, there was no way Ger and I could fit on one, so Tor agreed to sleep with his Mom. I am sure he won’t ever forget that night. However, the story does not end there, not only were we sleeping on a single bed together but all night we heard voices and cars and many noises making a bit challenging to get some sleep. In the morning we discovered the hotel is right beside a whole row of massage parlour rooms and on that night there was lots of action. We think the action was also happening in our hotel. Eeeek!

There really was not much to do in Monglar other than taking a walk up to the temple , which was quite beautiful at night , because it we all lit up. So the next morning after a bite to eat, and drive to look at the Chinese Border, which does not allow foreigners to cross only locals, we drove back.

Once we got back I had the best afternoon ever as I strolled through the town and watched some girls practising their dance class and they preformed personally for me, I watched a birthday party taking place, I watched local artists creating beautiful local art out of bamboo, I watched a local Burmese English teacher teaching 20 children English. It was just regular daily life and I loved every minute.

Paw Ve was feeling the need to get back home but I was really craving a trek into the mountains of the surrounding area , so we decided to stay longer and arranged for a guide to take us up into the mountains to see some of the more remote villages.

It was a beautiful day and our guide spoke great English ,as we made our way up for about 3 hours to this little village on the top of the mountain. I had been thinking that maybe I was living in the 1950’s well , now I was feeling like I was back in the latter part of the 19th century. In the hills of Myanmaar, it is a pretty pretty simple lifestyle. In fact , if you need to send a message of information to someone in another village , it is done by foot and can take up to two hours to get to the next village. when we were there, we also saw the local blacksmith and his visitor was from the next village. It had taken him 2 hours but he needed his tool fixed so that is the price you have to pay.

In the village at the top of the mountain, they stared endlessly at Tor, because he was the first foreign child that they had ever seen.

The sun was out and it was warm but we couldn’t imagine sleeping there at night. By the way for a pillow, they use either a block of wood or a bag filled with rice which is really not any softer. Not too terribly comfy in my estimation. Luckily they cram about 8 or 9 people in a small hut and I figure the body warmth and little fire going keeps them warm at night but after we left I often thought about the Lahu tribe in the mountains and worried that they were freezing and didn’t have enough clothes and blankets to keep warm, but then again , I guess they have lived like that for a long time and have survived.

These hill tribes ,seem to be comfortable with their lifestyle and as long as they are left alone by the government they are happy to farm and live off the land in a very simplistic way. Once the land does not produce enough food they will as a village agree to make a move to more fertile land.

The trek was amazing and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and were glad we had decided to stay an extra day.

The next morning we headed off to the bus station in a tuk tuk that stalled going up the hill and we all had to get out so that he could figure out the problem and I think it ended up being that he needed some extra fuel. We made it in time for the bus and were glad to take a little less expensive mode of travelling. I should note that it is about a 5 hour bus ride and at one point the bus stopped allowing everyone to go to the washroom. The only problem there was no official toilet. Ahhh! We all went along the side of a road that was overlooking the highway. Not a lot of privacy. But Yes , me too, I couldn’t hold it all the way , so when in Rome do as the Romans do, right???