Hpa An (pronounced as P-an) will be our final destination in Myanmar. We wanted to travel further down south, but the bus rides are extremely long and we have already done so much traveling that the Thai border beckons us. The border is only a couple of hours away and the luxurious and beautiful Thai guesthouses sound so appealing that we decide to cross the border here, but not before we discover everything Hpa An has to offer. At the end of the morning we arrive at the guesthouse that I have carefully selected since the popular guesthouses are known for bedbugs. Although I made a reservation, the owner of the guesthouse made a mistake and has no room available. I was very disappointed. Because the owner keeps promising to call us a taxi, but he doesn’t, we start walking to look for another place with our backpacks and Noa on top of Michiel’s shoulders. We are very lucky to be met by a very sweet tuk-tuk driver not far from the place where we started walking. The man worked at the Red Cross for years and speaks English very well and has no problem driving us around to find a guesthouse. The first place he takes us to has a huge room with our own bathroom. The only funny thing is that the building used to be a store, and our room was the old front of the store so the room opens into the street. Oh well, we have slept in weirder places and we like the space, the airconditioning and the privacy of our own bathroom, so we decide to take it.
The wrong money
When we left Kinpun, the ATMs were not working and because we still had around ten euros in Myanmar Kyat left and we had never had any problems with Myanmar ATMs before, we figured that we would be able to withdraw money in Hpa An. But when the tuk-tuk driver had taken us to all five ATMs in Hpa An, and none of them worked, we come to the conclusion that we will have to live of the ten euros we have in our pockets. We have euros, dollars, bankcards and creditcards, but because the banks are closed on Sunday we have no way of getting to our money, very frustrating. The tuk-tuk driver drops us of at a popular Myanmar restaurant and tells us we can pay him later that week so that we can feed Noa. Although ten euros is a lot of money in Myanmar we do get a bit nervous for not having more cash. But at the end of the day the nerves prove to be for nothing because we have only spend seven fifty on slippers for Noa (he lost his old ones playing), water, lunch and dinner with a beer. It’s bizarre how cheap food is in Myanmar. We even have money left for a full breakfast; the local breakfast palata (fried bread) will only set us back forty cents for the three of us. The next morning we get up early to check the ATMs and find them working again, pffffffeww.
Cooling off in a natural spring
Hpa An is well known for it’s surrounding countryside, so we rent a scooter and leave the village. Only a twenty minute drive away is a gorgeous temple in a cave and in the garden are hundreds of monk statues in a long row. There is a natural spring in the vicinity in which we should be able to swim. We follow the local teens who all seem to be driving the same direction on their motorbikes to a cement pool surrounded by rice paddies and filled by a natural spring. In Myanmar people swim covered up, so we swim with pants and shirt in the water, which is really nice and cool in the 40 degree weather and 70% humidity. The spring is surrounded by Thai and Myanmar restaurant which serve food and cold drinks, hmmmm.
The next day we want to visit a huge cave of which everybody speaks with wonder. And it’s true, the cave is magnificent, the cave is as big as a football field and contains a pagoda, beautiful golden paintings on the wall and bats, lots and lots of bats. But the most beautiful thing of all is saved for last, when you exit the cave at the other end you will be left speechless. You look out over a lake surround by rice paddies and palm trees, lined with the Karst mountains. The villagers will take you in a wooden canoe underneath the Karst mountains to a second peaceful lake at which we are dropped. We walk around the Karst mountains past trees and rice paddies, back to the entrance of the first cave, it’s breathtaking.
But after that our lunch is less breathtaking. We have already been warned that the food at the pagoda is uninspiring and very expensive, but because we are hungry we go and eat there anyway. The food is not only non-inspiring it’s not good at all and while we are finishing up the owner of the restaurants starts slaughtering a chicken on the dirt floor not a meter from where we are eating. Noa is very interested in the process but we look with horror, scared of what the rest of the day will bring, and rightfully so because the next day we are all sick and have diarrhea.
Our uninvited guest Timmy
After the cave we want to cool of in another natural spring that shouldn’t be too far away but without realizing it we are going the wrong way. The map that we have gotten from the rental company isn’t scaled and the directions of some of the roads turn out to be different. We have been going south while we intended to go north. When we figure this out we also find out that we have a flat tire and not much money to get it fixed because of our expensive lunch. We drive another couple of kilometers on the flat tire to the first primitive garage we see along the road. The next door restaurant invites us to sit in the shade while (what appears to be a sixteen year old) boy fixes our tire in no time. Not only did we have a flat tire but the valve has also broken off, which means we need a whole new inner tire. The new tire and man-hours to fix it is a total of € 2,50, but we don’t have enough to pay him. We give them all the money we still have in our wallet, while the owner keeps ensuring us that we don’t need to pay the rest.
When we got back to Hpa An it already started to get dark and it’s too dangerous to drive back (the roads are made from asphalt but full of potholes) so we make the hour drive up and down to the garage the next morning. Not only do they really appreciate the money they don’t mind the visit of two western people with a small blond boy, all the guests of the restaurant/cafe and garage come out to see us and say hello.
In the afternoon we finally find the natural spring, which feeds two huge cement swimming pools with fish and we have a swim before having noodles for lunch. After that we drive to a pagoda on a narrow rock that is on a small island in a lake, what a gorgeous surrounding!
That night we have an uninvited guest in our room, we wake up by sounds of something walking across plastic bags in which we keep our clothes. Michiel thinks it’s a really big cockroach (he hates cockroaches with a passion), but I don’t have the heart to tell him I know it’s much bigger. When we turn on the lights it’s gone but not much later we hear the same sound and when Michiel turns on his flashlight he sees a huge rat (50 cm) crawl under our bed. We find out that Michiel hates rats even more than cockroaches so I move all our eatable and valuable things to the bathroom and block the drainage pipes with buckets of water. We are very lucky that the rat doesn’t manage to get into the bathroom, but he does keep visiting us all night and we don’t sleep a wink except for Noa who has his own bed and doesn’t have a clue what happened during the night when he wakes up in the morning.
Once it’s really morning we ask for a different room and luckily fifteen minutes later we can change to a room with cement walls and floors (our old room had wooden floors), so there is no chance that Timmy (as we have named the rat) will get into the room. We sleep much better, but unfortunately Michiel isn’t feeling well on our last day so we just hang around the village until he feels better.
The boarder crossing Myawaddy-Mae Sot
Thailand keeps on calling us and we arrange for shared taxi to take us to the border town of Myawaddy and cross over to Mae Sot in Thailand. It’s a small but cosy village with all the facilities that we could wish for. I found a very cute guesthouse with beautiful luxurious, modern rooms and a big garden with places to sit in the shadow, sweet cats and a free breakfast. It has the very suitable name “Picture Book Guesthouse.” We have a small fridge in our room and use it well, Noa is able to drink cold milk every morning and we can store ingredients for cocktails and we all enjoy cold, fresh fruit. This is one of the things I love about traveling/backpacking, living without luxury and than appreciating such normal (for Dutch people) things as a fridge like it’s a treasure of gold.
Although we have left Myanmar it won’t let go of us, around Mae Sot are huge refugee camps with tens of thousands of Myanmar people who fled their country. There are also numerous orphanages which house hundreds of Myanmar children who have lost their parents in the struggle for democracy. When we pick a restaurant on our second evening, one of the owners, Thiha Yarzar, gives us two books in which we later find a note from him thanking us for supporting the fight for democracy in Myanmar. The books tell the story of the two owners who have spend over twenty years in jail in Myanmar and were tortured there for years because they protested against the military regime as students. Now they live in Mae Sot as refugees and are still not safe from the Myanmar secret police and the Thai police who won’t give them any space. We are heavily impressed and keep talking about them for hours, we can’t believe we met these two men as restaurant owners. When we get back to the guesthouse I got talking to our neighbor who also has a very special connection to Myanmar. She is an Irish documentary maker and has been hired by a non-profit organization to film people like we met tonight and make sure their stories are heard and not forgotten. I have never been so impressed by the struggle of an entire nation and feel so connected. We follow all news about the first appointed civilian president in fifty years and will keep on following all progress. Maybe someday we can repay these people for welcoming us to their country and lettings us have a glimpse into their lives.
Surprised by Thai kindness
Besides enjoying the wonderful guesthouse in Mae Sot we use our time to run errands and Noa goes to the hairdresser. We also want to go to a national park about an hour and a half from the guesthouse by motorbike. We rent one and head out but after just forty five minutes the back wheel is acting funny and when we stop we find out that it’s flat. Thankfully we are right in front of police post and ask them if they know where the nearest garage is. The commander tells us in broken English that we should sit down in the shadow and he’ll take care of our motorbike. He sends one of his men away with it, who comes back half an hour later with a fixed motorbike. The inner tire was old and had to be replaced. We thank both men, who respond by wanting to take a picture together and I quickly tell them I want the same. We drive away very relieved to have found such a quick fix, but not even ten minutes later the tire is flat again. We saw a turn for a garage a couple of kilometers back, but they are very, very long kilometers on a flat wobbly tire. We are once again taken by Thai kindness when a pick-up truck with a Thai family inside stops and loads us in. Michiel and the motorbike in the back and Noa and me in the front with the family. Noa as well as the family practice their English on me while we drive to the garage. The outer tire turns out to be old, we are pretty angry, but decide to go on to the national park and not let the hours of delay ruin our day. And with a whole new inner and outer tire, what more could happen?
We make it to the national park and make a beautiful trek through dense jungle, and see an Asian bear (in a cage) at the start of the trek, and further along discover weird red and black beetles, colorful butterflies, a huge tree with a circumference of sixteen meters, hear dozens of different birds and see a huge snake slither into the jungle right in front of our feet. At the end of the trek there should have been a waterfall, but because it’s the dry season there is just a trickle of water. Which is a real shame, but after that we are rewarded by an endless climb up the mountain to reach a paved road back to the entrance of the park. Michiel walks ahead while I carry Noa and we drive home tired but satisfied.
Only one destination in Thailand left before we are leaving for the Philippines. We want to go to Kanchanaburi to visit the bridge over the river Khwae Yai (better known to Western people as the river Kwai), and go to the museum which tells the history of the build of the railway from Birma to Thailand in the Second World War.