Children of Myanmar
We climb down the mountain on a narrow pathway and reach the main road. We have prepared mentally that we will walk 5-6 km, but after twenty minutes a businessman takes us to the nearby town Kyaukpadaung. Then we start to wait. And wait. After an hour a luxury car stops and takes us to the place we want to go – namely Magway. Traveling is pleasant accompanied with the usual views of palms and bamboo houses. We pass 150 km. without even noticing.
Mаgway turns out to be very developed with wide streets and few new shopping malls. We walk around it searching for vegetables, but we don’t find any. This is a big problem for us here in Burma. From all the places we have been at up to now we’ve seen a vegetable market only once. Everywhere there are millions of beer houses, restaurants and supermarkets, but there are almost no street vendors selling fruits and vegetables.
If we find one they usually don’t offer big variety and the vegetables themselves don’t look very good. We usually buy some small slightly mouldy onions. One time we saw a person selling big good looking onion and the price was 20 eurocents per piece – for this money one could eat a big bowl of noodles on the street.
The same is the situation with fruits. There are some places where they sell them, but everything is imported from China and is too expensive. They sell apples, tangerines and grapes – fruits that don’t grow in tropical climate – one piece is 10-20 eurocents. Sometimes we find small bananas or cheap papaya, but this is not so often.
I don’t understand how a country with tropical climate doesn’t have its own fruit trees and they import apples from China?! Most of the products at the supermarkets are also imported from China, but at least are relatively cheap. I don’t get it though how people cook when there are no vegetable markets. Maybe that’s why restaurants are always full. Here almost every second hut is a restaurant or a beer house.
We decide to cross the bridge over Ayarwaddy River and sleep on the other side because it is getting dark. The river is very wide and we walk 4-5 km. on the endless bridge. After the bridge there are stupas where youngsters organize love meetings at night. We take a pathway behind the stupas and we see a big flat ground with a view towards the river. The bivouac is set and we spend a calm night.
We continue west towards Arakan state. We saw some information in Internet where people advise to not travel in this state because of the conflicts that erupted last year and a year before that. In the northern part lives the minority Rohingya. The world community blames the Myanmar government for repressions and genocide towards them.
Rohingya are Muslims and live at least a few hundred years here, but the Burmese, including ordinary people, consider them immigrants from Bangladesh – of whom to be honest there are quite a lot too. As a result they they don’t have a right of citizenship or personal ID documents, they can’t go out of the state and can’t work and go to schools here. Most live in refugee camps and don’t have basic human rights. The fact that their ancestors lived for hundreds of years in Arakan obviously is not taken into consideration. This is the reason why many of them build rafts and run away. Thailand government says that they will accept anyone who enters their sea territory, but Malaysia doesn’t accept them saying most of them are from Bangladesh.
As a whole all the border Myanmar states have problems. For example the tribes in Kachin and Shan states are fighting against the military and the whole region is closed for tourists except the Inle Lake. Many people say that the military won’t pass the government to the National League for Democracy that won the election – they are supposed to enter in power march 2016. So for now traveling on land out of the region between Yangon and Mandalay is not recommended. Though we are not sure that the conventional media is a good source of information, we decide to travel on the coastline south to Yangon.
We take a monastery shower in the morning and start hitchhiking. A family of teachers takes us to Minbu Town and then we start waiting again. Nobody stops though we are out of town. In an hour a strange looking girl comes to us, waves at a truck and it stops. They take us to the foot of the mountain separating Arakan State from the other regions. Then a truck takes us to Am which is on the other side of the mountain.
The views are amazing but the jolting and the cold tire us a lot. We have to pass 130 km. and it will start getting dark in a few hours. We shake from the cold wind. It is already dark when we stop to have dinner at a restaurant. After the poisoning at Mandalay I feel sick only by looking at the food here and the strange kind of cooking oil they use. There is rice, boiled broccoli and eggs for dinner and we decide to not eat. Suddenly everyone starts asking if we have passports. It turns out that the immigration office is at the end of the village.
We stop at a barrier where everybody is checked. There are dozens of buses coming from the opposite direction and they are checked too. I think this is because of the many immigrants from Bangladesh. They check us too, write down our passport details and then they tell us we can’t travel like this. Then they add we must wait for the bus or take a taxi to An. We know there is no bus traveling in our direction for at least 2-3 hours because a guy who wanted to help us previously asked this for us.
In the beginning I behave politely, but at a certain point I am fed up with their bullshit and start getting angry. Before I start shouting they decide to let us go with the truck. We continue traveling and at the end the truck stops 20 km before An. It results people were actually going to bring some car part to a friend and they stop here. The police had told them to take us to An and leave us in a hotel. We tell them this is not necessary and they agree easily. Then we leave them and go to sleep in the forest.
We didn’t sleep very well because the night was cold. In the morning we peek outside and see an amazing view – mist is crawling in the valleys and inside it there are islands formed by the peaks of the mountain. The hills around us are covered with high bamboo trees. The people we traveled with yesterday continue with their truck repairs, we tell them bye and continue up the road. We pass by a group of construction workers who to our bewilderment are again women. It is strange that here in Myanmar people put asphalt on the roads manually and the workers are mainly women. Maybe because they master a special skill – they can carry buckets full of construction materials on their heads without holding them with their hands, or maybe it is because women here are more than men, or maybe it is just because men prefer to sit, drink beer and chew betel… we don’t have an answer to this phenomenon 🙂
How to put asphalt on the road manually – big stones are carried and put inside a machine that breaks them in smaller bits. Then they are carried on the head and are put on the road. Bigger stones first and then the smaller ones. The road is leveled with a system of ropes. A fire is set and the asphalt is melted. Then is poured in buckets, carried to the road and distributed on it. At the end a cylinder passes on it.
Women working on the road
We walk for no more than 5 minutes when the nice people with whom we traveled before come on the road. Well obviously our destiny was to be driven to An by them. We pass another police check on the road, this time without them writing our passport details and we arrive. Going out of town we meet a German girl who had visited Mrauk U – another famous for its old pagodas town. Sadly we won’t be able to visit it because our visa expires relatively soon.
We go out of the town, set a small fire, cook delicious meal and then go back on the road. While we are walking a monk passes us by, then a talkative motor biker who wants to help us, but doesn’t speak English and finally a mini bus with a family inside going to see their grand-grand mother stops and take us. We ride with them for 50-60 km. and then the big waiting starts. We wait and wait and nothing else but motor bikes and tractors pass by.
It starts getting dark and we decide to change the place. We see a small pool through the bamboo houses that are on piles because of the rainy season, where people bathe. Without hesitating we head towards them. A bath will be perfect for us after the tiring day. Here we are met with smiles by the locals who want to help us. We communicate with gestures with them and after some swimming we go to search for a place for the tent.
While we are bathing and talking not a single car passes by. Luckily at this moment a truck stops. Then it turns out he is wanna-be-racer type and starts driving like crazy on the bad road. The driver is not very concerned that he may destroy his truck driving like mad on the road full of pot holes. And I still don’t know how the load he was carrying at the back didn’t fall out. The experience inside the cabin is pretty wild too. We stop for a rest and the drivers drink a beer each (620 ml. the bottle) and we continue. It impresses us that many drivers here drive and drink. Not to mention the fact that they chew betel all the time and have their teeth black. But the fact that they drink and sometimes it is strong alcohol, is quite unprofessional according to our opinion…
The people from the pool we bathed in
We arrive at Toungup at dark. The drivers show us the direction and we start walking inside the town looking for a place to camp. It is somehow charming to walk in a town that is getting ready to sleep. All is calm and sometimes we hear children shouting and through the windows we see people preparing to go to bed.
We find a hidden place in a rice field. It turns out later that it is populated by some ants that manage to infiltrate our tent sensing the butter, which the monks from Mandalay gave us. They attacked Mr. Shushtari’s rucksack because earlier he killed an ant with no reason and received bad karma 🙂
We gather the tent which is quite painful because we are all the time bitten by ants. Then we go to see if we will find something to eat. There is a village close by and we find a café where they sell shrimp chips for 4 eurocents the package 🙂 While we drink our coffee a corpulent man comes and says that the main road continues for just a kilometer more. Yesterday we obviously missed the fork and walked 5-6 km. in the wrong direction.
River on the road
The guy wants to take us with his motor bike back to Tongup if we pay him, but we prefer to walk. A while later we stop a tractor that takes us to the town and saves us some time. I mentioned already that the Myanmar cuisine is heavy, but we have to eat breakfast. We buy from a street vendor rice noodles mixed with different sauces and powdered substances with bouillon of shrimp paste.
We walk for twenty minutes and reach the famous fork which is marked only by a sign in Burmese. A truck takes us almost immediately and at the carriage we see three shabby guys sitting on a carpet. One of them chews betel constantly and his teeth are all black. Obviously here white teeth are not considered as an ideal for beauty.
Laying asphalt by hand
These people will drive us directly to the famous Burmese beach resort Ngapali Beach. The road is in pretty bad condition for the next 80 km. to Thandue.
Hitchhiking at the back of the truck
Before we reach it we stop for a lunch and everyone including the drivers drink beer and treat us to coca cola. We know that people here are poor, but somehow even the truck drivers have the latest smart phone models, drink beer all the time (1,40 euro per bottle), chew betel (a pack costs 0,70 eurocents and doesn’t last even a day) and restaurants are always full of people. One lunch costs 3000 kyats (2,60 euro) per person. There are no cheap fruits being sold and we see expensive cars everywhere. It is perplexing!
View by the road
We reach Thandwe. Suddenly there is a big highway in front of us that reaches the beach which is 10 km. away. There is an airport at the city and rich people come here by plane. We understand them now because the road from Yangon is pretty bad. Arakan is quite hilly and we couldn’t see the sea though we are just 20 km. away from it. We are very excited because we haven’t seen a sea or an ocean for nine months now. Our friends leave us at one of the hotels at the beach.
The ocean is extremely beautiful and calm. The hotels and resorts are hidden in a palm forest and one doesn’t see them from the beach, though here is the biggest concentration of western tourists. Burma, contrary to Thailand, is not a popular beach destination and the resort doesn’t seem to be very full. Regardless a room costs around 70USD per night and the place is luxurious. The beach is very long and luckily we find a hill where there are shabby old houses. There is a river nearby and obviously its level gets very high during the monsoon season and destroys everything.
River flowing in the ocean
We wait for the dusk and pitch our tent behind a concrete bent at the beach itself. During the night’s high tide the water comes pretty close to us – just a few meters away. Some locals see our tent, but just smile at us. Several tourists also see it and look flabbergasted. We meet some English women who came to talk to us. As everywhere in the world there are also Russian tourists. We spend an awesome day snorkeling in the Bengal Bay.
Our bivouac next to the luxury bungalows
Last dip in the worm ocean waters and we start hitchhiking. A truck with Muslims takes us back to Thandue. Women don’t wear veils. We ask them and they tell us that they don’t have any problems with the Buddhists.
From Thandue we walk several miles till we get out of the city. Several trucks take us for 10-20 km. each. The road is in bad condition and very narrow and almost no cars pass by. We wait for two hours and it is afternoon already. A luxury bus stops and though we tell them we hitchhike they take us. We explain to them we will get off at Gwa, the last Arakan town, and the drivers tell us we can ride for free to Yangon with them.
We don’t want to travel all night and arrive at 3 a.m. in the morning at Yangon and to the drivers’ amazement we reject the offer. Traveling with the bus is nice, it’s not jolting so much and the steward brings us sweets and water. When we stop for a rest the driver buys us a bag of fried bananas.
It gets dark and at another stop where drivers drink a beer each, we decide to get off though there are still 20-30 km. to Gwa. There is a big beach here and a restaurant so we can buy water. We pitch the tent as far from the sea as we can and fall asleep under the palms.
Today hitchhiking goes well. First a truck drives us to Gwa, then we make a coffee break and leave the town on foot. Then a big, new, fast truck takes us and we pass the Arakan Mountains and go back to Ayeyarwady plains. We go out the state.
The view from the truck
Something strange for us is that the signs on the road show the distance you have passed and don’t tell you how many kilometers you have left to the next town. So like this you never know the distance you have to pass. Other interesting thing is that often people from the villages come on the roads and gather donations for the local pagoda. They do this with metal vessels full of stones that they jolt and make loud noise. Sometimes if you donate they give you water or juice. This, together with people who put asphalt on the roads, are the most common views.
We eat together with a group of Muslims who look like they are from Bangladesh. It starts getting dark and we hitchhike a truck going to Yangong. When they stop for a beer we get off with the rucksacks and start looking for a place for the bivouac.
People show us a monastery and we head that way. Inside we see a young monk who is lying on a couch watching a football game on a big flat TV next to a Buddha’s alter. He invites us, checks our passport thoroughly, calls someone from the government and lets us stay. They accommodate us at a room where some girls sleep and the other monks move at the main room with the young monk. They are very nice and the monk speaks a little bit of English so we talk with him.
Inside one of the monasteries