Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Escape from Myanmar

When we were still in China, the Myanmar government was reluctant to give visas to the Americans in our group because we might criticize Myanmar after our trip. So far, we have not personally encountered anything that would cause us to criticize the government of Myanmar – until today. The plan was to leave Myanmar in the morning and have lunch in Thailand. However, there was a problem in leaving Myanmar. I had heard that they wanted us to either return to Jinghong or go to Yangon (Rangoon) o exit the country.

At one point we thought we were going to leave and so we left the hotel and went to the border where we wandered around the town for 45 minutes or so while formalities were being cared for.

Well, 45 minutes stretched into a couple of hours and by 11:30 our guide was rounding everyone up to take us to lunch. After lunch we went back to the hotel so we could rest in our previous night’s rooms while waiting for permission o leave the country! Some in our group were getting quite upset about this situation, in part because there was nothing that we could do about it. Dallen had spoken to a couple of locals and mentioned that the government was not letting us go to Thailand. Both of them commented that the Myanmar government is “so stupid!” Dallen was quite shocked to hear this.

It was not until around 3 pm that I got a real sense of what the problem was. Apparently our group was the first non-Chinese tour group to ever travel the route that we took through Myanmar. Because of that, the local immigration authorities were reluctant to approve our exit visas without authorization from higher officials in Yangon. However, the person who needed to give them verbal approval over the phone was in meetings all day today! That approval finally came around 4 pm. It would take another 45 to 60 minutes for them to fully process our papers after that because they do it all by hand and not on computers.

Eventually we loaded up the bus and drove to the border. Mr. Linf from our travel agency told us that because of our experience, hopefully future non-Chinese groups will not have the same problem.

It rained hard on the way to the border crossing, but cleared shortly after our bus had parked. We unloaded all of our stuff and walked down and across the bustling street and up and over the bridge between Myanmar and Thailand. The light from the passing showers gave a soft glow and shine to the buildings and streets, which I tried to capture in my photos. And since photography was permitted along this entire crossing, I took a lot of photos! We simply walked out of Myanmar. On the Thai side, we were given our passports (which, interestingly, had a Keng Tung visa stamp, in addition to the Mengla entry visa stamp), which were briefly checked by the Thai authorities – just matching our passport photos to our faces. And we were finally in Thailand!

What a difference a border makes! Although still clearly a developing country, Thailand is much more modern than Myanmar. The roads are as good as the best in the US. Electricity and cars are everywhere – as is congestion and pollution – the price of modernity.

In Thailand, we were divided up into four minivans – which are easier to take up the winding mountain roads leading to the KMT (Guomindang, or Chinese Nationalist Party) villages in the mountains. These villages are comprised of descendants of Chian Kai Shek’s nationalist Chinese army who settled first in Burma, and later in Thailand, after the Chinese Communist Party of Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. They married hill tribe Thai women and developed distinct communities in the mountains of this part of Thailand.

The road up was winding, but smooth, and the scenery was lush green, with some great views of cloud and fog filled mountains valleys below us. It rained much of the time that were at the 3000+ foot (1000+ meter) mountains ridgelines. We had a late dinner and then walked through the village in the rain, visiting a couple of Chinese tea houses and a small tea factory. We were served tea Chinese style and a number of people bought the oolong tea that this place is bet known for. On the way back we saw a well-lit 7-11 convenience store – a most prominent sign that we had returned to “civilization” and global culture!

We finally got to our rooms in Chiang Rai at 10:45pm Thailand Time, which is 30 minutes (plus a couple of decades) ahead of Myanmar Time. Stepping back in time, to a place like the Shan State of Myanmar, was a special experience that I think none of the non-Chinese in our group will ever forget. We saw almost no westerners and no fast food or international chain restaurants or store. We saw people who worked hard on the land and many of whom were very poor. But they were almost always willing to give us a smile and a wave.

(For the some of the Chinese in our group, Myanmar was interesting, but they are expecting Thailand to be more so. For the Westerners it is mostly the other way around. This probably reflects the fact that China itself is still a developing country, unlike th western countries where the rest of us come from.)

In the photo below the river forms the border between Myanmar to the left and Thailand to the right. A line on the road pavement with slight different tones on each side is the actual border line.


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