The motorcycle has had a dramatic impact on Myanmar in the last ten years. It has provided people who used to be stuck with hyper-crammed pick-ups and dirty old buses if they wanted to go anywhere out of bicycle or ox-cart range with a new way of getting around, a new personal freedom.
At least for those who can afford one and it’s clear that many can.
One salesman I spoke to here in small-town Hpa An is selling seven a week at seven hundred dollars a pop from his small shop, one of more than several. The bikes are mainly a Honda dream variant, the Wave, coming in 100, 125 and 150cc and up. The old Japan-built bikes are most-prized and hold their value very well, the Thai-built ones are good, Chinese ones less so. Many have been assembled in Vietnam.
In Yangon they remain banned but elsewhere the streets are awash with them. Tourists can hire them in many places for about $10 a day. No licence needed, just the $10 (and a willingness to accept that your insurer is unlikely to cover the cost of shipping you to a Bangkok hospital should it all go awry.
There is a big push on the get people to wear helmets and many are wearing them – the young even keeping them on even when in cafes; the better, more expensive (Thai again) ones are a style item costing about $25. I have one of those – in electric blue (of course).
It makes a brilliant disguise.
Strictly speaking foreigners are not permitted to stray far outside Hpa An. The border areas are still not entirely trouble free/ be that as a result of ongoing fighting between the Myanmar army and the Karen National Liberation Army (which attempts to do what it says on the tin) or because the border crossing at Myawaddy / Mae Sot remains a popular route for trafficked people and drugs (the ever-popular metamphetamine in particular).
But also strictly speaking ‘everything is possible’.
I set out from Hpa An on my guesthouse-hired bike at 8am confident of getting beyond the supposed barrier to travel at Thar Ma-Nya because everyone says that there is no checkpoint there. I expected to be turned back at Yo Ma Ha, a (very clean and tidy) truck stop sort of a place about 30K before the town of Kaw Ka Reik.
At Yo Ma Ha there is a significant, turquoise bridge over the Jai, a significant river, one with double-guard-posts at each end and a small naval vessel in the waters below. But there was not a sentry to be seen here either and I kept going.
In Kauk A Reik I bought more gas on the roadside (1000 Kyat for a 1L water bottle full is the standard price) and took a left turn in the centre of town to head towards the low mountain range that divides Myanmar and Thailand all the way up and down the two countries. At a serious-looking checkpoint on the outskirts a single soldier was asleep in his hut, two others took no notice as I went through, visor down.
This checkpoint is almost 100K from Hpa An an all the way along the flat, rubber plantation-lined road has been patchy, in places very bad and various gangs (of girls mainly – they are cheaper and less useful on the farm) are at work resurfacing stretches. Once it starts to climb away from Kauk Ka Reik the situation goes from bad to worse.
Much of the way there is no roadway, just a sandy cutting in the hillside. Quite a challenge for a group from Singapore that I met on their 1000cc plus BMW touring bikes but pretty easy meat for the constant stream of Waves and Dreams. As for bigger vehicles, two-way traffic cannot be accommodated on a road this, winding, this broken, so the 35K up and over the hill operates on an Up-day / Down-day basis.
Motorcycles can cross against the flow but I would not fancy meeting one of the full-size trucks (I counted fifty waiting to cross the next day) loaded with vital supplies (gas, bicycles) on one of these dusty, blind bends – nor for that matter any of the heavily over-laden Toyota pick-ups full of cauliflower or ceramic floor tiles (over 250 of them).
At the top there are a few places to stop for a cup of tea. It does indeed seem that few tourists have been up that way anytime recently if the surprised looks that greeted the raising of my visor are anything to go by. It’s flat-ish for a while, there is a monastery / pagoda of course with a string of golden Buddhas lining its (again) turquoise steps.
And then it’s all downhill towards Thailand.
The road is maybe just a little better, in places there are short stretches of a decent surface but it’s still a bum-numbing foot on the brake bouncy-bounce of a ride until passing through the checkpoint (all asleep or absent again) just before the road flattens for the run to the border 18K away. By now I am way beyond where I expected to get to. I have only the clothes I am wearing and a little less money than I would like to have on me but there is no way back today, not over that hill again, not in the time available to me and not without a skeleton transplant.
And I’m not going through all that again when I’m so close to where I had hoped, but never imagined, to get to. It’s on to Myawaddy on what becomes an increasingly good, if red-brick dusty road surface under construction, not by young girls with baskets to carry their loads of road-stone but by a Thai company with heavy equipment. Outside Myawaddy there is a modern Trade Zone with warehouses a promise of shops but I zip right by and into town.
The road runs straight into central Myawaddy and within a couple of kilometres the (420M) Friendship Bridge (always Friendship) rears up ahead just beyond the Myanmar Immigration post. Green Thai road-sign are visible on the bridge and the red, white and blue flag of modern south-east Asia flies on the other side of the river. Not that Myawaddy is so un-modern; it’s a more modern town than many in Myanmar and home to some pretty flash pieces of kit, including a Prodrive Subaru Impreza – in black – parked exactly 160K from where I set off.
On the Immigration Office door at the border it says “No foreigners in Myawaddy between 6pm and 6am”. It’s 2.30pm when I arrive.
I grab a quick beer beside the river and see that just down from the official and heavily-fenced bridge-crossing a small boat is carrying people back and forth.
It takes a few goes to find a place willing to let me stay and for 5000 Kyat I secure myself a small cell of a room (but do not qualify for a towel at that price) at an OK place slightly back from the main street that, oddly perhaps is called ‘Value the Swastika Hotel’.
I have a bit of a look around town and then at 5.30 I present myself at the Immigration Office. The only reason that foreigners come to Myawaddy at all – unless on that rare, organised-in-advance motorcycle odyssey as per the guys from Singapore – is to pop across from Thailand on a visa run. Give up your passport on the way into Myanmar and you can have a few hours in town before going back to Thailand with a new 15 days visa.
This does not work in the opposite direction. Tourists are not permitted to enter or leave Myanmar at this border crossing except on the visa run.
The Immigration team ask for my passport receipt expecting that I am on a visa run myself. When I explain that I came from Hpa An today there is some consternation and an excellent English speaker is procured post-haste.
“How did you come from Hpa An? By motorcycle? What about the checkpoints? Sleeping? Oh yes, your helmet, they think you are Myanmar”. “And why did you come here?” “Because borders are always interesting” “Oh yes, I agree. Always interesting.”
I’m not in trouble with these six guys (though the guest-house in Hpa An got a telephone-bollocking for not having me under control) They are concerned for me. They warn that in Myawaddy there are Police, Secret Police and Special Branch and that if they see me after 6pm they will arrest me.
They ‘politely request’ that I turn around right now and head back to Hpa An. It will be dark before I even get to the bottom of that hill, I would be running against the traffic flow and I’m road-knackered already. I politely decline their polite request and a new deal is suggested. I surrender my passport and agree to remain within the confines of the hotel until 5am when I will be joined by someone from Immigration who will return my passport and see me on my way. Agreed.
As I get up to leave the office I’m told firmly to put my helmet on and visor down. “Look like Myanmar again.” And then I am accompanied to the hotel where the staff are given (very strict it seems) instructions to keep an eye on me and to make sure I do not venture outside.
After a meal and Thai cornetto style ice-cream (as yet not widely available in Myanmar) I retire to my mini-room for the earliest night on record. At 7pm I am disturbed by a betel chewing Immigration junior (green uniform, not the officer and gentleman pressed white of the senior guys) and his small entourage introducing me to the man I will meet at 5am the next morning and reminding me of the perils of going outside. The international body language sign for handcuffs has been in plentiful use this evening.
I sleep and wake at 4am ready for the off. I head out for a cup of tea (that was part of the deal) and my passport-guy turns up on time.
At 5.30am, in the dark and cold we set off. At the Trade Zone those 250 pick-ups are waiting for the gates to open. We cut through a side-gate, into the compound and out through a second side gate, opened for us as if we are expected and back out onto the still dark open road.
Up at the first checkpoint the 50 trucks are queuing at the still-closed barrier but I’m excused waiting. Above the top gate, after an hour escorting me my new friend says goodbye and I have the road to myself until I reach a traffic jam of trucks and pick ups, a batch released onto the mountain even earlier, that have been waiting for hours for a breakdown to be moved out of the way. Fires are alight and lungyi-wrapped-against-the cold-drivers and seconds are taking things easy. No stress. Normal for Myanmar.
By the time I reach the top of the hill and stop for coffee the warmth of the early morning sun is on me and on the sandy road. Down below the mountain it’s a sea of mist.
At the Kaw Ka Reik checkpoint I raise my visor to show myself this time around, to show that I have done as agreed and headed back the way I came, and we’re almost in an Immigration pickle again. They will not believe that I have come from Myawaddy that morning. Until I tell them that I came through the other way yesterday. Then they know who I am, have been expecting me and want me on my way. They too have an escort for me.
I say I will stop for a cup of tea in Kaw Ka Reik and learn the Burmese for “the hell are you stopping for a cup of tea”.
My new guy leaves me after about half an hour, “keep visor down”, and I’m free to take my time back to Hpa An, stopping as and where I wish. I pass a bunch of motorcycles heading for a festival, piled hilariously-high with snacks, get to photograph the guard-less bridge (expressly forbidden in Maynmar) and at Yo Ma ha I stop for a welcome lunch of curried goat. It’s 10.15am.
When I roll back into Hpa An and to the guesthouse later that afternoon after stopping off for a swim, I’m greeted with laughter. The day manager who in answer to my original query about getting to the border had given the “Everything is possible” response says he was a little worried about me but thought it would all be OK. The night manager shakes my hand and says he is the same kind of traveler; if there is a fence he wants to know what is on the other side of it.
The young boys who rent the motorcycles are in stitches.
On a newly written sign behind the reception desk it says “Foreigners are not permitted to travel more than 25k circumference from Hpa An”.
They have never been even that far themselves. But they will; change is moving fast along this wannabe-highway to Thailand.