Trapped in Southern Myanmar


October 9, 2014 by melcogger

People often ask us what we do when it rains, as if it’s a toxic poison that’ll burn through the skin. In a region where monsoon rains persist for a quarter of the year, we find this question puzzling. Well, when it starts and doesn’t stop for months, there’s only so much you can do, and life goes on. On and off rain puts a halt to life that must be highly irritating for people in the area. With no electricity, batteries for lights and other electrical devices are charged using solar power. A little tricky when sunrays are stuck behind impenetrable clouds for all but a few moments a day. When offered the respite, solar panels are jetted out by their eager owners to take advantage of the minutes of rays. This is the same for washing of clothes, forlorn washers racing out to save dry clothes from sporadic downfalls. We, too, take these opportunities to dry ourselves and our drenched equipment. The front panniers bags we bought in Cambodia proved less waterproof than advertised despite being made in Thailand which surely experiences similar amounts of monsoon rains. At every junction or hope of a break in the clouds, we strip off the layers of plastic covering our front panniers to usher in as much air to important devices like our ipad and camera which are most of the time dangerously damp.


We left Dawei (in the rain) for our final push out of southern Myanmar – 260km to the next ‘big’ town of Myeik. We had read that after Myeik the roads disintegrate and are still off limits to tourists. Our friend, Dean McMenamin, had tried his Irish luck in slipping past officials just a couple months before we were there but unfortunately got caught and was forced to take a horrific bus ride out of the country. We did not want this fate – based on the nightmarish account of the bus ride – and thus banked on a ferry running through the wondrous archipelago stretching south towards the very tip of Burma. By now, in any event, adventure had caught up with us and thoughts were venturing across the border towards the comforts of Thailand. Nevertheless, we still had some distance to cover. With suppressed images of 7 eleven, no badgering police, and the silky smooth roads of Thailand, we gritted our teeth for the last haul.


It’s amazing how much life and activity accompanies parts of the road that have been completed. In contrast, in the areas with no roads, there are fewer businesses, less motorbikes out and about and people that you do encounter seem morbid and trapped. To illustrate this point, one particular shop owner would marvel at the jam we spread onto bread even though we had bought it in the previous town. As soon as we enter areas where roads had been recently completed, people seem to celebrate new found mobility and whizzed around on foot or motor. Our happiness directly correlates to the road conditions as well. We met the chief engineer for the road construction in the area, who approached us as we rode by. With scattered English, he explained that they had been at it for a number years and were due to complete the entire southern peninsular by next February. We nodded sceptically but when it’s all done by hand I can’t imagine it’ll ever be complete. At least they haven’t contracted it out to the Chinese which is the case in many African countries. But, sadly, this is at the expense of a dubious human rights record of forced and child labour. A rock and hard place to say the least but I truly hope this backward county will rise out of the ashes to reflect the incredible beauty within.


As dusk approaches, we make sure there’s no one around, and search for an appropriate entry into any one of the endless palm tree plantations to set up for the night. After a bath in the nearby stream, we sat in darkness in our miniature home to enjoy cake and jam sandwiches for dinner. Sleep comes easily after a full day of cycling.


People in this secluded forgotten part of Myanmar are some of the poorest we have encountered. Why they continue to shower us – foreigners, supposedly walking ATMs – with free cokes, meals, energy drinks and snacks astounds us. One scrawny man sprinted up behind me with a coke, which he thrust into my hand and exclaimed “Present Present!” Another time we searched a shop for hand fans – dengue fever ever present in our minds considering the swarms around our tent at night – and when we wanted to buy them, we received the same treatment and were gifted with free fans. I suppose the reason for this generosity can be acclaimed to the ‘hope’ that people feel about ‘opening up’ as a country to the outside world and the prospects of change. On the other hand, we have encountered some antagonism in the form of aggressive yells as we cycle by but these mostly emanate from the older generation who may have less favourable views of the outside world. One thing is for sure though, Myanmar is by far the most backward country we have ever visited, including countries in Africa.

We had been fortunate the day before to evade being followed by the police but this mostly comes down to sheer luck. Police wear plain clothes so you never know who is who and, as stated in previous posts, they hang out at tea shops to observe suspicious behaviour. Most people stare at us in any event so it’s near impossible to discern policemen from locals. We also cannot afford to by-pass towns because we need food, water and supplies. The result is that we get followed by what we have aptly come to term as ‘whipper-snappers’ – a younger or gang of youngsters delegated with the task of following us out of their district. The signs that a gang of whipper-snappers are on our tails were surprisingly predictable: excited, bad hiding places, squinting suspicious facial expressions, and when we had exited their district elated and belated shouts of hellos. It also becomes stupidly obvious that someone’s following you when they drive at a ridiculously slow pace, stop every couple kilometres, wait for you to pass and repeat the procession. It isn’t often that we are tailed but when it happens for 20km or so, it makes you wonder what they trying to conceal – weapons of mass destruction, mass graves, Area 51, secret oil or gold reserves or even the actual Holy Grail.


We hit our lowest point on the day towards the town of Palaw: rain, police, snotty roads and gradual hills. It was also a Saturday so thoughts projected back home to sunny afternoon braais, rugby, family and friends. At the top of peculiarly winding mountain pass (roads curiously bend more than what’s necessary for reasons that elude me) our enthusiasm for our circumstances evaded us completely. All I remember was “My love, I want to go home!” Whether or not there was consensus, the statement set in motion a flurry of tears that emanated in an argument of sorts. Melissa had been struggling with the extra weight we aquired in Thailand and was cycling slowly. Masquerading my anger as an attempt at masculinity, I pulled all of Melissa’s bags on top her bicycle rack, attached them to my already overloaded rack and rode away in a huff. I didn’t tell her that all the way to the town of Palaw it hurt my bum incredibly.


We were followed the entire way into Palaw so a guesthouse seemed a sensible choice in the circumstances. Luxury compared to the bath in the stream and sweaty night in a palm sugar tree plantation the night before. The kind man who showed us to the cheapest place also joined us for dinner at an Indian restaurant based on his recommendation. He’s a teacher at a local ‘Basic Education High School” – education in Myanmar only teaches rudimentary skills for survival. Clearly educated and pissed-off with the government, our friend teaches extra lessons for students hungry for more. After tea at his house, he took us to meet his class, a room full of teenagers between 14 and 16 reciting their individual lessons. We sat at the front of approximately 45 eager-eyed students, apparently waiting for us. Eventually some questions were asked and they oo’ed and aa’ed as we told them about our adventures, loving the celebrity status. More staring – on the verge of being awkward – until our friend translates that they want to hear us sing a song. Talk about being put on the spot. Something similar has happened before and I swear we promised to perfect a song together so we could capture the opportunity. But we hadn’t and after more silence we settled heavily on singing the South African national anthem – a dismal melodic rendition akin to ABCD. Not exactly our best. It didn’t matter though, the kids couldn’t speak English, let alone Zulu and Afrikaans.


We knew that finally we were only one day away from completing our epic and over-adventurous journey in Myanmar. It had been tough and all we wanted more than ever before was to get to our destination unscathed by police, rain, bicycle problems or any of the other numerous problems we had experienced that month. One day to Myeik, maybe a nice guesthouse, then a leisurely speed boat through the scenic archipelago. And all was well for the most part, actually quite a pleasant day on pleasant roads, beautiful landscape. The only hitch was when the road ran straight into a large river with no apparent way to cross over. There are always people around in Asia so enquiries were quickly made and we were informed that a ferry crosses every 30 minutes and that it would be free for us, as tourists.


There’s no other way to describe it but to say that we are a complete oddity in settings like these. Not only are we foreigners (I’m white and Melissa brown, a beautiful mixture of Brit and Filipina) but we emerge seemingly out of nowhere on strange metaphorized bicycles. Locals naturally are curious, a casual look and suddenly there’s a group of men prodding, tapping, and sounding our bells with resulting laughs. This has happened time and time again and by now we have grown somewhat used to this level of inquisitive intrusion. What’s interesting is the difference in mine and Melissa’s respective tolerance, bearing in mind that everything we own is attached to our bicycles. In this particular case, I’ve been gracious and let it unfold albeit with a steady eye. Melissa, on the other hand, comes rushing out of a nearby shop and ushers the men away, almost like swatting away flies attracted to ageing meat. The men laugh it off and repeat our ‘No, no, no’s’ which gets under the skin in a clash of cultures kind of way.


The striking other-worldly difference between us, on our relatively expensive contraptions, and villagers we pass cannot be more emblematically expressed by the latter’s sheer looks of surprise. In other parts of Asia locals are used to tourists to varying degrees, whereas people in southern Myanmar are gobsmacked to see us. It’s hard to discern what they are thinking but it’s also not unusual for an entire village to stop and stare at us. Every person in a restaurant will stop eating / drinking to stare at us as well. It’s only until they realise that we eat too, in a similar fashion to them, that they continue their affairs. We’re obviously more used to this than they are, so we joke and make predictions when they’ll realise we’re human too.


A 98km day and we finally reach Myeik. We pass a sign advertising burgers which I refuse to pass up. It takes two hours to search for inexpensive accommodation, the cheapest we found at $25, a steep price that we didn’t feel justified to spend since we would be splashing out $80 for our boat ride to freedom and we were quickly running out of cash with few working ATMs. It rains; we start fretting and consider other options. We head down to the jetty to enquire about our speed boat. “No speed boat today or tomorrow or until the weather clears”. “When will that be?” I sheepishly ask, not actually wanting to know the answer. “Until the end of monsoon season…” I go back to Melissa who is guarding the bicycles, “No options I’m afraid, my love.” Crossing over land is off limits for tourists because it’s a restricted area and the only legitimate way out is not running. One man suggests going back the way we entered… I knew deep down he was kidding because the insinuation was ridiculous. Tramped in Myanmar!!


We approached numerous bus companies, who all but one either didn’t understand what we were asking, laughed at us, or pushed us along. The only answer to this horrendous situation would ironically be to declare our predicament to those we had avoided and eluded for our entire stay: the immigration police. To add insult to injury (literary) Melissa’s front crank pierced into her big toe as her bicycle fell down a drain. Blood pouring out, we makeshift cleaned the wound and cycled to the immigration police for our uncertain fate. We sat in his office, shrouded in authority, and in an extended conversation that when translated is reduced to a single word, the answer was given: yes.


At last, after a long day of 110km on the road and not being able to find accommodation, we were going on what we anticipated to be the worst bus ride of our lives that very night. A shop owner at the bus stop kindly let us shower in his home bathroom and at least we had a nice dinner. Unsurprisingly, the whole family was telephoned to come see us and we enjoyed pleasantries with the shop owner’s father who had years ago met cycle tourists in another part of Burma – cause enough to meet us. We were told to wait at the shop until 10pm where the bus company employee would return to assist us. Sounds odd, but ok. When he returned a skirmish ensued between the bus driver and the company. As was explained to us this was an anomalous situation and certainly the first that everyone around had experienced. The driver refused to take us based essentially on two reasons: 1) he wanted written permission from immigration, and 2) he wanted forgiveness to the inevitable damage to our bicycles because of the state of road. The first wasn’t our immediate concern purely because of… wait… damage? They certainly knew something we didn’t but despite this, what were our options? Despite our assurance that we promised not to sue or go to the international press, the bus driver still refused.


The second of only two buses daring the journey was approached. He certainly didn’t want ‘forgiveness’ or insurance and off we went. Packed beyond the brim with people and cargo, the bus raced off at a lighting pace. The bus was the old type: wooden floors, seats so high that your feet dangled off the edge without hitting the floor, and steel bars on the windows to hang onto because there were no arm rests. They said it would take 22 hours to go 300km. Most men – obviously seasonal customers – got drunk beforehand to cope with the ordeal. They slept easily but without a stable footing Melissa and I held to each other and the bars just so we could keep on our seat.


The road was so bumpy and the bus so fast, that the lady behind us was launched out of her seat and fell onto people sitting and sleeping in the aisle – no wonder no tourists are allowed in this neck of the woods. It also wasn’t a road at all. More like a thick muddy track that was carefully traversed to ensure that we didn’t get stuck. You could see the elation on the driver’s face every time he successfully managed a muddy stretch. There were two drivers – one driving and the other assisting with routes over severely muddy sections – and two conductors, who did everything from ordering passengers on the floor into ever increasingly small spaces for newcomers, to building bridges over rivers. The bus also worked as a postal service but perhaps the recipients were either fast asleep or also in a drunken slumber to come out onto the road as our bus drove backwards and forwards for a good hour hooting incessantly for attention in the middle of the night.


At dusk we approached two other buses stuck in the mud. It must be bus code that despite how desperately trapped a bus is, another bus has to try by all means to recover the other. The stuck bus was oncoming up a particularity slippery section so we heaved and hoofed until eventually we were stuck as well. At this point the unimaginable occurred; all men got out and using a lengthy rope yanked the bus up the hill. It took several attempts by approximately 80 men but in the end, muddy, smelly and tired we all set off again by 6am. It occurred to us that as much as the entire trip was hell, the bus drivers and conductors must do it, at worst, twice a week. We marvelled as one of the conductors swept up vomit from a drunken idiot using his feet without the slightest recoil. From that moment we called the conductor ‘Rock star’ and the drunken idiot ‘saumensch’, an insult borrowed from ‘the book thief’.


Having seen the restricted area, we still have no idea why in theory it couldn’t be cycled, not that we would want to cycle it. 22 hours later we arrived at the southernmost tip of Myanmar in the town of Kawthoung, having cycled 1500km over our month’s stay; wild camped; successfully evaded being caught by the police and a life time of memories to share. Thailand and ‘civilisation’ awaited us…

We didn’t take many photos at this stage as the rain did not stop for a moment and our camera was dangerously misty and steamed up from the inside.



2 thoughts on “Trapped in Southern Myanmar

  1. Lee says:

    Great to see the trip is going & going…and going 😉
    I have been (lately) reading for hours a day trying to catch up on you two since we met in Ban Chang.. work has kept me busy, but the breaks i get to wonder off on the travels with you two make it seem like mini holidays.
    Take care… be safe… watch out for the… 😉
    Lee 🙂

  2. Derek says:

    Me and two or three old farts have/had plans to do southern Myanmar from Mai Sot-Mawlamyaing-Kawthaung next January. Your article has certainly given us food for thought.We are planning to be as legal as possible but taking hammocks just in case. We where also hoping to use temples as lodgings and was hoping you could tell us if you saw many during your journey. I live in Chiang Mai and even in the countryside you can’t go more than 10kms without seeing one. If you are ever in CM you are welcome in our home any time(0871481812)just bell me.
    Best Regards

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