The monk in the dark red robe smiles and whips out his smartphone taking pictures of us while we are walking up the hill to the ancient pagodas and temples of Mawlamyine. Smiling and waving back I love the idea that we are as interesting to them as they are to us.
Myanmar is different. Different from what I’ve seen before. Different from what I’ve smelled, heard and felt before. Negative feelings about the political situation, the political power of some monks, the racism and murders against the minority of the Rohingya. Many areas of Myanmar are still closed for foreigners. And those can change within short time. What you get to see is what the government wants you to see. The bustling city of Yangon, the golden Rock, Bago, endless temples in Bagan, the Inle Lake… You are allowed to follow a loop in the northern part of the country. But your are not allowed to question their actions.
It is only my second day in Myanmar writing those lines. What I’ve experienced so far is a variety of ethnic groups, some more looking Indian some Thai or Chinese. But always very friendly, smiling with their red betel nut colored teeth at you, waving. Staring interested, trying to communicate in the few words of english they know. And once more I wish I had a babble fish in my head allowing me to understand their stories, to truly grasp their culture, their past and their dreams for the future. But I don’t have one. So I can just smile back saying the only word I cached so far: Mingalabaaaaa!!!
There is a very short and convenient way to reach Myanmar: it is a one hour flight from Bangkok to Yangon or Mandalay. Or you take 2 days on buses, tuktuks and cars to reach the central part of this still very controversial and mystic country. It is hot and long hours in the bus, no other tourists around but many women with the typical Tanaka paintings in their faces, crying babies and men in traditional Longhis. The border crossing town Mae Sot in Thailand is around 8-10 hours northwest of Bangkok. Take a share TukTuk to the border, get your exit stamp, hand in your departure card and then walk slowly over the friendship bridge, connecting both countries. Many young kids hang out there begging and weirdly the cars change in the middle of the bridge from left to right side driving. After the bridge go to the foreign tourists window (again the only tourist around) and get your arrival stamp (make sure to get your visa before online or in Bangkok). Most travelers opt for Hpa-An as a first destination as it is conveniently located 4-5 hour drive with beautiful surroundings. I took a shared car there and then hoped to a local bus going further south to Mawlaymine since there was no accommodation left under 50$. And this is where my journey through Myanmar slowly begins…