January 3, 2009

To Myanmar and Back

Thailand only gives foreigners a thirty day visa on arrival. Since the airport closure in Bangkok almost one month ago, the government decided to change all land crossing visas to fifteen days, which is going to severely limit the amount of time backpackers will spend in Thailand. I was lucky to just make the thirty day visa when I did my border run to Malaysia about a month ago, but It was running out and I needed to get another fifteen days. The best option for a border run if you're in the north of Thailand, head to the town of Mae Sai which borders Tachilek in Myanmar (Burma), in the heart of the Golden Triangle.

I woke up early, I mean early, to catch the 6 am bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai. It's a pretty easy five hour trip on the Green Bus to the border. The tiny bus was packed, and they managed to add an extra seat to a normal row of four, so we were five, crammed together. I sat next to a Buddhist monk from Luang Prabang in Laos, who was studying in Chiang Mai. He told me Luang Prabang had changed a lot in the three years since I was last there, but he seemed to think it was a good thing that there was a lot more tourist development. More money to the local economy. Since he was studying English, we talked for about an hour, and ironically enough, I gave him my copy of Siddhartha to read.

Mae Sai and Tachilek are shopping destinations. Tachilek more so, since it is much cheaper than the Thai side. Thais were packed on both sides of the border, carrying huge shopping bags filled with fake Gucci bags, cheap liquor, and bootleg DVD's and CD's. I paid $10 USD for my 14 day visa to Myanmar, even though I would only be there for a couple of hours. I felt bad supporting the current regime with my greenbacks, but I didn't really have a choice as I needed to extend my visa.

Myanmar is efficient when it comes to getting people across the border to shop. They held my passport while I visited Tachilek and gave me an ID card with my photo on it. I was even allowed to take photos of the border crossing (I should mention that my camera broke just at the border so unfortunately I have no photos of Myanmar). This was not the Myanmar I was expecting. I had images of the military occupying every street corner, and a huge sign at the border saying welcome to Myanmar, leave your rights and freedoms behind you...but don't forget to shop and spend money to help finance our government!

As soon as you cross over the river and the border to Tachilek, you are immersed in a shopping block with several side streets, crammed with vendors selling everything you can imagine. I lost count of the amount of times I was stopped by teenage boys peddling cartons of cigarettes, porn, and Viagra. I kept asking myself if I was really in Myanmar? It also doesn't say very good things about tourists if this is what we're buying when we come for cheap shopping.

After sampling some amazing local dish with three kinds of noodles, tofu, and some form of cheese, I looked for the quickest possible exit to get me to the real Myanmar. Okay, so I was in a border town, probably not the best representation of a country, but I soon found myself walking down side streets, and I was the only foreigner. I received stares from some face painted locals, but most smiled back when I smiled at them. I should mention that some of the local Burmese had painted their faces with orange, yellow, and red paint. It was quite beautiful. I only had a couple of hours to explore the streets, but I found a myriad of Buddhist temples, in great condition. Again, I asked myself, am I really in Myanmar? If anything, this quick introduction gave me more reason to fully explore the country at a later date.

After a long five hour bus ride back to Chiang Mai, I headed straight for the Saturday night market. By far, this was the best market I had seen to date in Thailand. Not as touristy as the daily night bazaar, the one main street was packed mainly with Thais, a good indication that I was in a better place to shop. Again there was great street food, and fantastic musicians. I got a sixty baht (two dollar) foot massage for a half hour, then bought a hand made purple scarf for my sister who's birthday was on the twenty fourth.

My final day in Chiang Mai was spent doing what the local travel agencies refer to as the Adventure Trek. It wasn't really a hard core adventure day, but we did make the most of a ten hour tour. Nine of us from a mix of guest houses drove for about an hour northwest of the city, into the mountains. I was with two middle aged Swedes, and a group of English mothers and their teenage kids. It made for an interesting afternoon. We started with an hour long elephant ride, pretty standard for anyone visiting this part of Thailand. It was touristy, but really so much fun. The elephants have little platforms on their back to seat two people, but since we were an uneven number in our group, I got to ride around its neck, the traditional way of riding elephants. It was awesome. Okay, so I almost fell off a number of times, but definitely worth it.

The next activity was a jungle trek to a waterfall. The hike was pretty easy, and we passed through some picturesque little villages. After the trek and quick lunch we went white water rafting. It was a pretty bare-bones operation, and the rapids weren't as big as what I did in Ecuador last year, but it was so much fun and we were laughing the whole way down. Towards the end of the trip down the river we switched to a bamboo raft, similar to a Venetian gondola but not that fancy, and floated ever so slowly down the remaining kilometer to finish the trip. Did I mention this whole day cost me $25 USD. What was the best thing you got recently for twenty five dollars?

This finished my time up north, now it was back to Bangkok on an overnight bus, followed by another day in the big city, with a second overnight bus to Krabi. Wow, just saying that was almost as exhausting as the trip itself. This time around I had a great day in Bangkok and kind of wished I had spent the night in the backpacker district of Banglamphu. If you do stay here, find a place off of Soi Rambuttri, not on Khao San Road. Some people love the city, and others hate it. I seem to love it, but only for a short amount of time.

With my eight or so hours to kill before my night bus, I headed to Banglamphu to drop my bag and get a ferry boat down to see the old royal palace and Wat Pho, with the famous reclining Buddha. The ferry is a great way to go, making stops all along the waterfront. But just as I was about to get my ticket I noticed the Green Bike station, and it turns out that Bangkok offers free bike rentals to tourists. I've driven motorbikes through some pretty crazy traffic in Asia, but nothing prepared me for peddling around Bangkok. There are some bike lanes, but of course, that is where all the cars park, so I had to pray that buses gave me some room while passing.

I had seen the palace and Wat Pho three years earlier while traveling with my friend Tal, and both are worth seeing again, but I only had time for one, so I biked down to Wat Pho to see the large Buddha. It was just as I remembered it. Beautiful temples all over the compound and one massive reclining Buddha.

A trip to Bangkok is not complete without a visit to Khao San Road. The small street is packed with hostels, bars, restaurants, and hundreds of hawkers selling everything from tee shirts, jewelry, and fake ID's. As much trash talk as Khao San gets, it really is a one stop shopping destination in Thailand. I definitely wouldn't stay in a hostel on the street, but it is the best place to find amazing graphic tees, a new travel backpack (if yours was unfortunately stolen), and yes, every type of fake ID under the sun. I was happy to do a little shopping and then enjoy a beer on the street and just watch people go by.

I made it back to my apartment in Ao Nang, near Krabi, just in time for new year's eve. After a day of rest, I got on a boat to head back to Ko Phi Phi, the crazy party island. It was a party on the beach, Thai style, and yes it was crazy. Definitely a memorable place to spend new years, but I missed you all.

I hope 2009 will be a fantastic year for everyone, and wish you all great health and happiness.

Here are my photos of North Thailand and Bangkok.

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