Week 31- Northern Thailand and Mawlamyine

After Pai, Nate and I were on a slow trek down to Mae Sot to do the land border crossing into Myanmar. In Chiang Mai, we had applied online for our Myanmar visas which allowed us to cross by land. Our journey was going to take us off the beaten path a bit to a couple of small Thai towns on the way down. I am really happy that Nate and I decided to travel this way instead of heading back to Chiang Mai because it allowed us to see more of the real Thailand. Our first stop was Mae Hong Song.

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Temple in Mae Hong Song

We woke up in Pai, grabbed breakfast at our favorite restaurant, and headed to the bus station. We hopped on a mini bus to Mae Hong Song, which would put us there in the early afternoon. At first the mini bus was really crowded, but about half way most people got off the bus to go visit Tham Lod Cave. We arrived in Mae Hong Song and found a very cute, quiet town. There was a big lake in the middle with restaurants on one side and a big temple on the other. I really like the vibe of the town.

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Monastery in Mae Hong Song

We found our guesthouse called Baan Mai Guesthouse, but when we arrived no one was there. Yet, we found my name on one of the doors and it was unlocked, so we dropped our stuff in the room and headed out for lunch. We walked around the lake and found a cheap restaurant on the other side where we had a pretty good meal of Pad Thai. Then, we wandered over to the temple to check it out. It was a very pretty temple, but not too different than others we had previously visited. Some of the other buildings on the complex looked very old and there was even a museum that had very old books and artwork.

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Lake at Mae Hong Song

After, we went back to the guesthouse to just chill awhile and do some research before dinner. The hostel had free tea and coffee which we took full advantage of and had a nice cup on the front porch. There, we met another traveler who had just finished up his time in Myanmar and we picked his brain for knowledge. After doing this, we decided to speed up our travels a bit to get some more time in Myanmar. We talked so long though that we missed the night market and instead found an Indian restaurant. The food was really good, though a bit more pricey. Then, we headed back because we had an early morning the following day.

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Lake in Mae Hong Song at night

The next day was a day full of frustration. We woke up early and got transport from our hostel to the bus station to catch the 7am bus. Well, when we arrived, we discovered that they 7am bus was broken and would not be going that morning. We were frustrated because this was the local bus and it was the cheaper option. At that point, our only option was to take the more touristy mini bus at 1pm. This meant that we had to wait around until then and could not even return to our hostel because we had already checked out. We searched for other option, yet there were none. We also had to figure out what to do with our big bags if we were going to leave the bus station. Nate was especially frustrated with the situation because customer service in Thailand is not the same as it would be in the US.

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Temple at the top of the hill in Mae Hong Song

In the end, we stored our big bags in the bus office and then walked up to the pagoda on the hill overlooking the whole town. It was a very stunning view of the the town. Nate tried to teach me how to meditate while we were up there. I tried my best, but I will need some more practice before I am good at meditation. I seem to have a lot of thoughts going through my head all the time and it is hard to quiet them. We ended up sitting up there for a long time and just reading. It was a really chill morning and I was pretty happy to have gotten stuck in this town. We walked down and found some lunch before returning to the bus station.

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Enjoying a bit of reading with a view

We had a bit more of frustration when we found out the mini bus had assigned seats (which had never happened before, it was usually first come first serve), and we were assigned to the back seat. Nate was not happy with this and we were lucky because a nice Thai guy offered to switch with us, which we really appreciated. Finally, we arrived in Mae Sariang and walked to our hostel called The Good View Guesthouse. Then, we went for a wander through town.

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View from our doorway at The Good View Guesthouse

We found a market that was fun to walk through because I don’t think many foreigners go to the market. Then, we found a local place and stopped to get some dinner. We walked back to a more touristy restaurant that we had found earlier for a drink and found the guy we had talked to the previous night about Myanmar. We had a drink with him and then went to bed.

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This is what we rode in for 7 hours…with no bathroom or foods stops

The following morning we woke up and headed back to the bus station to get a songtheaw (a sort of taxi that is basically a pickup truck with benches and a roof). We had a 7 hour drive down to Mae Sot and I was not looking forward to spending this in the back of a truck on a wooden bench. We got there early to catch the 8am bus. We had asked about the price the day before, but Nate thought he could talk down the price. I begged him that if he did just please don’t piss off the driver so much that he leaves without us. So, what happens. The driver got frustrated and did leave us behind. A songtheaw was supposed to leave every hour, but one did not come at 9 so we had to wait until 10am to get on. It was a long, dusty day and my whole body hurt afterwards. The interesting part of the day was seeing the Karen refugee camps. The Karen people are an ethnic group who were being persecuted in Myanmar and have crossed the border into Thailand for refuge.

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Image from Mae Sot…I think that truck underestimated it load a bit

Upon arriving in Mae Sot, we walked around for hours trying to find a bite to eat, but everything was so spread out that we couldn’t find much. We were hurting and a bit grumpy that night, but eventually ate at a place called Mai-Thai restaurant which was pretty good. Our guesthouse was pretty awful though. It was called Aunties Bread and Breakfast and the whole bathroom area was just full of mosquitos. We were happy we were only staying for one night.

The following day we woke up early to catch a shared songtheaw to the border. We had to wait awhile for it to fill up, but it was the cheapest way to get there. The actual border crossing was quite simple. We went through the exit in Thailand, walked across the bridge, and then were in Myanmar. There was a separate office that we were brought to on the Myanmar side, showed them our visa, and we were in!

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Sad to be leaving Thailand while walking across the border

At that point we weren’t quite sure how we were going to get to Mawlamyine. We had heard that shared taxis were the best way to get there. Our first task was to find an ATM and then a man approached us asking where we were going and helped us bargain a taxi to bring us to Mawlamyine. We got into this really beat up car with two guys and we were off. It was all a bit sketchy, but it worked out ok. One of my first observances about Myanmar was that they people were really nice, but lots of people had terrible teeth. Chewing tobacco in leaves was really popular, which left people with black rotting teeth.

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A gas station in Myanmar

On the way, we stopped at a local spot for lunch where they just had a bunch of pots of different curries to choose from. The difficult part about this is that you don’t know when those curries were cooked and how long they had been in these pots. In general, I had been very healthy all through Southeast Asia, but my first meal in Myanmar and I got a stomach bug. By the time we reached Mawlamyine, I was already feeling pretty sick, but tried to push through it.

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They lay the road by hand in the south of Myanmar

Once we arrived, we had to find a guesthouse because we were a day early and had not booked anything. We found a place called The Breeze guesthouse, which was the main backpackers place in town. It was nice, but we found that the rooms felt a bit like we were in prison. We rented a motorbike right away and drove to the giant reclining buddha. The main reason that we came to Mawlamyine was to see this buddha. It was massive! It was also a bit tacky and the whole place was a bit weird.

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A massive reclining Buddha!

We noticed that even though that buddha was not finished, they had started to build another massive lying buddha right next to it. We did not understand why the were paying so much for the construction of these buddhas when they had not even finished with the first one.

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They are building another giant reclining buddha!

We entered the buddha from the feet, which was not the main entrance, but we did not know that at the time. When we entered we saw a construction site with so many safety hazards. It was only when we walked toward the front that we saw the parts that were completed. The buddha had 7 different floors and each floor had a different theme and buddha story. The bottom floor had some really disturbing imagery of people being attacked by demons.

Inside of Buddha was still under construction

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Creepy demonic images on the first floor

As we were walking around, I was getting sicker and sicker and at one point needed to sit down because I was dizzy and started sweating profusely. Once I felt a bit better, we left, hopped on the motorbike, and drove it around a bit. We took a path up the mountain to see what we could find and it led us up the the construction site of the new buddha. It was cool because we could finally get good pictures of the whole reclining buddha.

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Another amazing statue we saw on our way our the mountain
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Best viewpoint of one Budhha was from the other Buddha

We drove back to town and found the viewpoint for sunset. It took us awhile to figure out how to get there, but it was a gorgeous view of the sunset and the river. The sunsets in Myanmar look so beautiful because all of the smog in the air holds the light, so the colors really spread across the sky. This was great for sunsets, but terrible in general for visibility. There were also many beautiful temples at the top, but I wasn’t feeling well so we just headed back. I opted to skip dinner and just got to bed, but Nate made his way to the night market.

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View of Mawlamyine at sunset from the viewpoint

The following day I still wasn’t feeling well so we just took it easy. We were going to go to Ogre Island, but I was a bit feverish and needed to remain close to a toilet. We had a slow breakfast and talked to the owner of the hostel who told us some crazy buddhist stories about flying monks and monks curing the king of Thailand through medicine in dreams. It is interesting that in every religion  you have these kind of crazy miracle stories because people need to believe that there is some higher being.

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A really beautiful picture Nate took while walking around when I was sick

After, we walked to the Penn Su Wai Guesthouse, which is the guesthouse we had booked ahead of time. This place was a bit nicer than The Breeze, but did not serve breakfast. I rested most of the day while Nate wandered. In the evening, we went for a walk to the night market and along the river. We had some dinner and watched the sun set.

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The night market

Sunset over the river

There was a whole area set up for large protest type meetings and I wish we could understand what they were speaking about. Before heading back, we walked down the street looking for a place that would possibly be open early for breakfast to make sure we could get some before heading out on our boat trip the following day.

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A protest rally…not sure what they were protesting though

We found a place for breakfast and while we were there, a man began talking to us saying that he lived across the street. He asked if we were hungry and then kept saying something about a bunny, which was really confusing. Finally, we look over and we see a bunny in the street looking up at his apartment building. We go over and find that this bunny is his pet and that he has no family. He invites us in for tea, but I was still feeling a bit ill so we left. Yet, this is just one anecdote I wanted to tell to show how nice the people are in Myanmar.

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On the boat ready to go to Hpa-An

The following morning, we woke up early and walked back down the that restaurant for breakfast. We were relieved that they were actually open, but the problem was that no one spoke English. Eventually we did get to order a fried egg with rice, which was so cheap! We were picked up at our hotel on motorbikes and driven to a small town with a dock where we could get on a boat that would drive us up to Hpa-An. We were surprised to find a pretty small boat with just some plastic chairs set up for us to sit in. Other tourists came and we all hopped in for a relaxing ride upstream. I would highly recommend this way of travel to anyone as it is much more peaceful than a bus and was pretty cheap.

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A boat we saw while sailing

The boat stopped at an island right outside of Hpa-An so that we could get off and hike to the top to a temple for a good view of the river. The views from the top were gorgeous and I was happy the boat stopped because if not, it would have been difficult to get there. An interesting thing as well was how the man was getting water for the house. There was a pulley system with a bucket where the bucket would be pulled down and dipped and then pulled back up. I was fascinated!

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Temple of the rock

So far, Myanmar was an amazing place with amazing people. Though, it is never nice to be traveling while sick. So, just be careful of where the food is coming from. The rest of the trip I stayed away from curries sitting in a pot.

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View over the river from the top of the island
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Man retrieving water from the river

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