Note: Welcome to the story of how I traveled Burma in 2017. I hope you will enjoy it as some leisurely reading and perhaps even as inspiration to help you hold until travel is finally possible again.
I traveled to Burma in 2017. At the time, I had just finished three months of Dive Master Training in Koh Tao and I started to feel that traveling itch again. So, I took a boat to Chumpon, a night train to Bangkok and, after exploring the city for a few days, a night bus to Burma – one day later than intended.
The bus ride was nice. I always enjoy these long journeys by myself, without distractions and in blissful anonymity. They offer a lot of space to think, listen to an audiobook, or simply to stare out the window and watch the darkness roll by.
Obviously, I had neither planned nor researched anything before setting out. Granted, I had looked up the bus and pre-emptively booked the cheapest place in Mawlamyine available online (now useless since I left a day late), but that was about it. So when I arrived at the border post in Mae Sot, I was somewhat surprised to learn that this was where the bus ended.
Well, what can you do. Having taken the night bus I was the first person to cross into Burma via Mae Sot that day, at 4am in the morning. Behind the border post is a bridge, which leads into the Burmese city of Myawaddy. There, I found mostly empty streets, child monks in red robes leaving their monastery for their morning begging run, and a couple of people hanging around cars, apparently waiting for someone like me to arrive.
I immediately started talking with a younger fellow, who spoke good enough English to tell me a bit about local politics (he wasn’t entirely happy with it) and that this was the place where you could get transportation to Mawlamyine. I would just have to wait around for a bit. So, wait around I did. In time, more travelers appeared (mostly commuters, lots of Burmese work in Thailand) and the monks returned to their temple. I think I also took out money somewhere, at an exchange rate somewhere around 1 USD to 1,500 Burmese Kyat. After a while, a guy chatted me up for transportation.
In broken English he assured me that he was the transport to Mawlamyine. Great, I thought, looking around for his bus or van, which I already knew from Thailand. Turns out we were going in his regular four-seater car, together with three other people he had picked up. Before we left, he got me a coffee, which I appreciated. He also bought some Kwun-ya and promptly offered me some.
Kwun-ya is the local name for betel nut leaves that are chewed with lime and sometimes tobacco. It is wildly popular in Burma and well-known throughout Asia. After trying it, I experienced an intense feeling of hyper-awareness, a bit like overdosing on coffee. Its health effects are easily comparable to smoking, though, and after seeing the outrageously black and bloody gums of users around me I never had some again.
I spent the next few hours enjoying the landscape full of lush green jungle contrasting beautifully against the red, clay earth. During our one stop at a roadside settlement I opted to stay in the car, since it was brimming with trash and durian. Finally, we stopped in what I later found out was the city of Hpa-An. There, I parted ways with the guy and his car and joined some other travelers in the back of a truck, which then dropped me off at the outskirts of Mawlamyine. At long last, I found myself alone in the pouring rain, without any idea of where I was or where to go. It must have been around 10am. Little did I know at the time, but my day had only just begun.