Santa Needs to Visit Burma (Aug 31st – Sept 3rd)

Leaving the Yahoos, now cut down from four to two, we dropped off our packs at a hotel room in Surathani for the evening. We found the times for tomorrows departure towards Myanmar (7am), then focused on spoiling ourselves with something we both were craving…….a visit to the movie theater! We taxied to a big mall only to realize none of the films were in English or had English subtitles….Urgg!!! We contemplated for a bit before deciding to just do it! We bought tickets to an 8pm showing which gave us an hour to hunt for dinner. A money stop at a salad bar, a rotisserie chicken, then a pastry puff all from a supermarket within the mall left us filled with a dinner far outside the norm for South East Asia….it was better than delicious!

We went back to the theater for the movie, ‘Chaiya’. Not only was I able to understand the plot, the movie was incredible! It was interesting watching the movie here as well, since Chaiya is actually the name of a town only kilometers north of where we were sitting. The story is about 3 boys being taught a style of Muay Thai specialized to the region, but as they get successful they end up losing their roots and enter down dangerous paths (what a synopsis!). I’m sure this film will be available to rent in the states, so check it out!

After the flick, we met a father and son who offered us a ride back to the hotel. It was extremely generous of them, especially when they pulled over to buy us a drink. The father used the opportunity to encourage his kid to practice English. After we chatted and finished our beverage, we were dropped off back to our room and went to sleep.

Early the next morning we departed Surathani for Ranong. The trip should have taken 7 hours, but instead it took 31! It’s for a good reason though, so I’ll fill ya in………

While on the bus, we met a guy named Joo. Joo was on his way back to Lang Suan to reunite with his family after working away from home for the week. Perhaps not knowing what he was getting into, he graciously offered us a look into the inside life of a Thai family. Michelle and I though about it for all of 5 seconds before we replied with a…’Sure, thank you very much!!’. As a result, we got off next stop with Joo. His wife came to pick him/us up in a real nice Toyota pick up (2005) with a more than spacious big back cab. His wife was just as nice as him, and both spoke fantastic English from living in the states for four years. First order of business was to stop at the bookstore to pick up their children. Whin (pronounced ‘win’) was a cute 2 year old who was chasing around another baby in the store. He was quite the ball of energy. Santa, in an art class sponsored by the book store, was 10 years old. She had an American accent from attending kindergarten in the states and was just as hospitable as her parents. She was born on Christmas day, hence the name.

With the entire family packed in the truck, we headed to a restaurant on the sea they wanted to show us. We ordered a crazy spread including prawns, squid, fish, and curry. We expressed to the family our amour with curry, and they were enthused with our love for Thai food.

After lunch Joo was eager to show us the home where he grew up (now lived in by his brother). Situated in a palm tree plantation started by his grandfather (for palm oil), the house was simple and lacked nothing. I could imagine hearing young kids playing hide and go seek behind the palm trunks or running through the creek during a game of tag. By his excitement to show us the property and from the layout of the land, I could tell he had a great childhood.

Continuing our tour, we now went to his mother’s house for a quick stop just to say hi. She was a nice old lady, very happy to meet us, giving us bananas and candy in a kind gesture. Right next door was Joo’s house which we entered next. The house was huge and had a very western feel to it. We played with the kids and I inspected the construction with Joo. Santa made us a cool drawing of a flower with an art set we bought her from the book store. How many people can say Í really got a present from Santa!

Joo had connections to a nice hotel, so even though we would have loved to stay at their house, he was excited for us to stay in a room on the beach. We weren’t going to complain. The family drove us down to the ocean near where we had lunch, and we happily checked into a bungalow for half the price it should have cost. Joo planned to come and pick us up tomorrow morning around 8 and treat us to a Thai breakfast…How great is this!! We said bye to our new family (Only temporarily), then went on our own in search for dinner.

The area near our room seemed empty at night, so after 20 or so minutes of walking in darkness, we decided to stick out a thumb and maybe catch the occasional ride driving by. Not before long a motorbike pulled over and we rode tri-style down the street. However, needing two rides to make it to a night market we were just informed of (one town away), we repeated our approach at hitching and landed a big one! This ride was money considering not only did he take us there, but after we strolled the market we ran into him again and he was more than happy to offer us a ride back! Beautiful!! On full stomachs from Thai delectables, and with an ocean view consisting of thousands of squid fishing boats illuminating the sea to mirror the stars in the heavens, we cranked up the air con and slipped away in luxury.

Right on cue, 8am sharp, Joo knocked on the door to our prepared and anxious appetites. We checked out, then hit up another (day) market buying items hardly any American would describe as breakfast foods. Tiny spicy eggplants, shrimp paste, a fish chunk, shredded coconut, and curry paste were on the list. Wait, did I say curry paste! No way, Joo and his wife were planning on teaching us how to make Thai curry! We bought the ingredients…..too the kitchen we go!

Firstly, all to familiarly, I was assigned the task of milking the coconut. Exactly as I would have done it if stranded on an island (go figure), I grabbed chunks of white flakes and squeezed the goodness into a bowl. Michelle cut up the eggplants while Joo and his wife worked on the curry/shrimp paste. The milk was brought to a simmer in which the paste was dissolved, followed by a quick blanch of the veggies. It tasted like everything I wished for, but it was only a fraction of the feast as we shared other dishes including a Thai omelet (uses soy sauce instead of milk), homemade banana break, fish soup, and miniature pancakes cooked in banana leaves inundated with soft coconut chunks. If it sounds like we were spoiled, we’d concur!

Included with breakfast was our escort back to the bus station (Get out of town (pun intended))! Exactly 24 hours after blindly following Joo off the bus, we were sadly saying goodbye to a family we fell in love with. I felt as if I was Whin and Santa’s uncle, and I could tell they shared the same emotions especially when little Whin cried as we headed towards the bus. It was a unique and wonderful experience Michelle and I are both fortunate to have been offered, but even more grateful the opportunity was presented to us by a beautiful family I’ll remember for the rest of my life….especially when I make curry!

Back on the exact same bus, as if the detour had never took place, we now once again had Myanmar back in our sights. After we crossed the peninsula of Thailand, the mountains gave way to my first ever glimpse of the Indian Ocean! Excited I was, but probably shouldn’t have been for it looked like every other ocean I had seen. Nonetheless, I’m not going to lie…I was trilled! About four hours after we left Joo’s family, the bus came to a halt and we were bristled off. Not knowing what to do or where to go, we walked to the town’s major bus station and they hinted at the location to hire a boat. Apparently this town of Ranong wasn’t much of a tourist destination….just how we like it! We walked and walked, probably an hour with our packs on before finally hitting the port; only then did we realize we had to return back to town to get a Thai immigration official to departure-stamp our passports. We did the run around with a boat captain following us (insisting we use his tiny canoe like vessel), then returned to the bustling harbor. For 75 Baht we cruised over to a culture a World apart, yet only a stones throw away.

Burma (now called Myanmar under the current control), well what can I say. Walking down the dock to the immigration office felt like being dragged towards the electric chair to carry out my sentencing. Stern faces were held on the warden-like officers whom despite our pleading, happily denied us entry into mainland Myanmar. We were granted only a 12 Kilometer radius in the town of Kawthung, but we had a whopping 14 day window (way more time then anyone would need) in which to wander through this urban captivity.

The people were dark. Many looked like former Bangladesh workers I met in Palau. To obscure their darkness (the fairer the skin, the more beautiful in these parts of the World), the women and daughters covered their faces in a yellow colored powder extracted from the bark of a tree. Not only did it turn their faces to a yellowish hue, it also doubled as a sunscreen and face moisturizer. It was often applied in decorative designs such as dots and circles.

The women’s faces jumped out at you like urine in freshly fallen snow, but that wasn’t the only major culture shock. The men all sported the most vibrant fabrics to wrap around their waists as serongs (skirts). Another thing really catching my attention was that the monks changed colors!! In all of formerly visited South East Asia, bright neon orange was the color of choice, but here, glowing crimson stood out in the crowd. This lead to several award winning photographs as we scoured the city hunting the righteous!

The people didn’t seem to smile easily, and when confronted for directions, sometimes responses were a little hesitant. the children were cute and giggly, but in adults the joy seemed to be missing. Fortunately we met a nice guy (19) named Johnny who befriended and guided us around town in turn to practice English.

While searching for a hotel, we began feeling the strong clutch of governmental control. As travellers we were only offered 3 hotels, each over priced and run by the government. Other hotels in the city would not accept us, as it was illegal to harbor foreigners. Supporting an unpopular regime, we picked the cheapest of the three evils and dropped off our back packs. Talking to more locals with Johnny as our translator, we never came across any individuals liking their government. It was a sad situation, considering how successful the economy is right across the river in Thailand, but as time goes on I’m sure something will change given the hatred currently held by the people.

As night time rolled in, our taste buds were interested in trying ethnic Burmese food, so we walked for 20 minutes to a restaurant Johnny recommended (still within our allotted boundary!). The food seemed to lack identity, as even the Burmese chose Thai and Chinese cuisine over their own (which doesn’t even seem to exist). Nonetheless, Thai and Chinese is not all that bad, and I enjoyed a meal of sweet and sour fish with some steamed vegetables and rice.

After dinner while walking home, Michelle and I played a game seeing who would receive more smiles by saying hello in the native tongue, ‘Mingleaba’. She barely beat me (Ok, she killed me with most of the people smiling in return), but what I found fascinating was that no matter how enthusiastic we were in greeting certain individuals, their faces remained looking angry and bitter. Johnny walked us home, but planned to return at 8am to take us to the temples. Tomorrow was his birthday, and he was anxious to go and worship. We went back to the hotel and fell asleep under the protection of the Burmese Government….Ya right, I was more worried in our room than in the streets with the peeps.

Johnny came up early the next morning to show us some religious sanctuaries. A short walk led us to the first…then second and so on it continued. For about 2 hours we hopped between temples seeing the similar gold Buddhas and prayers (it got a little redundant). When enough was enough, we grabbed some lunch then heard some rumors of a ‘Snake Island’!!

Johnny told us stories of massive snakes inhabiting this island only meters away from where we were. Upon hearing such tales, my mind was already planning on how to get there. Johnny kept saying foreigners were prohibited, but if there’s a will, there’s a way right?….so we headed over to the hectic port. Johnny was very hesitant to come with us, but we promised him safety as long as he remained near us (personally I was more concerned about getting caught by the alert officials then by snakes). People here would do anything for a dollar so I thought getting to the island would be a breeze, but apparently the government is so feared, many boat owners denied our request no matter what price we offered. Not giving in easily, eventually we did find someone with enough guts (or to little intelligence) to drop us off after the 2 second trip. We did talk Johnny into coming along (he was terrified).

The tiny island was only inhabited by monks living on the rocky coast (the inland was too dangerous, a good sign!). Some of the monks we talked to confirmed the stories Johnny mentioned to us. As we walked everywhere searching erected temples that dotted the island’s internal jungle in a ghost town-like fashion, nothing scaly appeared. Johnny kept saying our ‘snakeless’ expedition was the result of our good fortune we were blessed with while visiting the temples. Despite my attempt to explain, he never understood why I wanted to catch a snake, which i guess might bewilder many more people than just poor Johnny (It’s the rush folks, in case any of you are wondering).

Snake island was cool. Johnny said we were the first foreigner to ever make it there and it felt scandalous when having to sneak on to the island incognito style. Even though we turned back without spotting a serpent, the island was worth the risk (from the law that is), and an adventure in itself. Hollering over to our boat driver, we snuck back to the city, checked out of the hotel, then checked out of the country.

Burma was entirely unexpected. Even though we were only there for 2 days, I was anxious to leave. Not only do I not like supporting a corrupt government, it’s not a happy atmosphere where the people are repressed by their own leaders. The government is being extremely short sighted. Rather than promoting tourism and catering to travellers (which would bring in crazy revenue, Thailand being an example), they eagerly take what profit there is away from their people leading to a inhospitable ambiance between visitors and locals alike. Michelle and I wanted to see much more of Myanmar, but at the same time I’m fairly confident a similar vibe would resonated throughout the rest of the country. On top of that, I would much rather spend precious days in a more amiable country happy to have us. The stay was short but rich in awareness as it exposed a culture of which I was both unaccustomed to, as well as unprepared to encounter. If they don’t want us, we won’t force it…..back to a country that would love to have our money….Thailand!!

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