By this point in the trip, land borders had become practically pedestrian. So the knowledge that almost everyone who crossed overland into Myanmar from Thailand did so at Mae Sot / Myawaddy meant that we were far more intrigued by the less accessible alternative route further south.
I scoured online for information on the Phu Nam Ron / Htee Khee crossing and found two helpful accounts of bloggers who had trodden the path in previous years.
Step one: take the train from Bangkok.
Not the glitzy main terminus but a tiny, timeworn siding on the outskirts of the city: this was where our next adventure would begin. There were no guards or barriers, just a single woebegone ticket office and an ancient clock. Far from the heaving masses clamouring for space, here there were a few simple benches opposite a wet market dotted with bunches of bananas and snoozing vendors. It was a photographer’s paradise, but I’m only working with my Galaxy S6 and compact Nikon so if you wouldn’t mind imagining these images with the depth and clarity of a fancy DSLR, you might get an idea of its picturesque location.
Whilst tales of actually crossing the border were few and far between, blog posts abounded of tourists who had located little Thonburi station and departed for Kanchanaburi, the obscure Thai town off to the west of the capital to which we were headed.
I couldn’t understand why this small section of our route was such a well-worn path until I realised that we were, in fact, about to travel along the infamous Death Railway. And Kanchanaburi, where we had planned to overnight simply because we had to stay somewhere and this town seemed as good as any, housed none other than the bridge on the River Kwai.
Our off-the-beaten-path adventure was to begin in one of the country’s most prominent sightseeing destinations.
The bench-lined train – third class only – was old, creaky, and fantastically atmospheric: no air conditioning meant that windows could be rolled right down instead of sealed hermetically shut. For the first time on the trip, we could lean into the breeze and feel connected to the passing countryside instead of watching as if through a television screen.
We trundled through the rubbish-strewn suburbs and then fields, hamlets, and tiny, picturesque stations. After a while even the open window became too restrictive and I relocated to the train’s joiner. Here the doors sat lazily open, tethered to the wall and banging slightly with the gentle rocking motion. I sat down in the entrance with my feet on the outside step and watched the world go by. Palm trees, bursts of jungle, tin-roofed shacks, a motorcycle temporarily racing the lethargic locomotive; small stations boasting uniformed guards and shockingly bright hanging baskets which reminded me of the stops along the route to Shimla in India. Or perhaps that’s because then, too, I had sat in the train doorway, drinking in the scenery, unfettered by walls.
It was easily the most pleasant train journey I had undertaken on the trip so far; the most enjoyable and easiest to love, with its freedom and light breeze, and the people we passed so enthusiastically embracing their country’s nickname, grinning widely as I happily waved. But this jarred with the railway’s origins; its informal name a reference to the appalling numbers of people who had died in its construction. 16,000 Allied prisoners of war and 90,000 enslaved Asians were killed during the 16 months it took to complete the line, forced by the Japanese to work in conditions so hellish that the British had deemed it an impossible challenge. Now such a truly lovely train journey, so gentle and full of laughter . . . it felt unseemly to be as content as I was on that train, but I still don’t know what the appropriate reaction should have been, if any.
Still, this was nothing compared to the reception which awaited us in Kanchanaburi itself. We had arrived on 14th February, to see the bridge – still in operation, now crossed by just two trains each day – festooned with pink ribbons and a garish arch wreathed by plastic flowers in varying shades of lilac and mauve. Signs proclaimed “Love on the River Kwai” whilst two overdressed apparently Russian couples stood at its edge, on a red-carpeted platform flung directly over the rails. A Thai official said something we didn’t understand, a few rather pitiful firecrackers were let off ineffectually into the dusky sky, and the gathered crowd clapped appreciatively and snapped the happy couples.
Even the two bombs, placed commemoratively on either side of the bridge’s entrance, had not escaped the frivolities.
We gazed upon the event with horrified fascination, and later joined the legions of tourists picking their way across the sleepers, pausing for selfies against the sunset.
We never found out exactly what was going on (an annual celebration? Make love not war? A couple of deeply inappropriately-located weddings?) but nonetheless can safely say it was one of the more surreal events of our trip.
We even got unplanned photographic evidence after we stood in front of the arch making vom noises and cackling at the tasteless fools who thought “let’s have a lovely romantic moment in that place famous for torture and countless killings!” Of course, at that point a nice couple saw us standing there and assumed we were waiting for some kind soul to take pity on us and snap our photo. Since we were too embarrassed to say “actually we’re just making fun of people”, we let them take it and then slunk off into the crowd feeling utterly mortified.
The following we day we awoke at the crack of dawn and headed to the bus station where, we were assured, a local bus could take us to the border.
Thai bus stations are made up of independent operators and it’s up to you to work out which ones go where. The first desk we reached told us that the bus would leave at 7pm.
“Is there an earlier one?” I asked.
“No”, she replied, shuffling papers with smug determination, holding out her hand for our cash, “7pm only”.
“Are there other bus companies?” I tried, fearfully. It wasn’t just the thought of hanging around in the bus station for nine hours; it was that our Thai visas ran out at midnight and we needed to be unequivocally out of the country. Never before had we cut it so fine. (Nor do I recommend this approach to anybody else).
“No other company” she replied. “No other bus. Only 7pm”.
I backed away in panic and turned mutely to Peter: what now? We were flicking through the guidebook and mulling over the possibility of shelling out extortionate sums for a taxi, when we heard an Australian voice behind us: “Can I help you?”
He was a member of the tourism police; a force we had seen referenced on adverts and closed offices in various towns, but whose members had never appeared when we could have actually done with a hand. Now, in our hour of need, and final minutes in the country, they had rocked up with precision timing. We explained our predicament, and he gestured to the other side of the bus station. “One bus at 11am, another at 12:30, and if you hang around long enough there should be a third one after that”. But she told us there was only one bus, at 7pm?! “Nah, that’s not true!”
I left Peter chatting with the Australian’s deputies, two young local women who shyly requested some English practice, and set off on my last-minute mission: to use whatever means necessary to purchase more American dollars.
Myanmar was not, by all accounts, the easiest of countries around which to travel. Things changed so fast that guidebooks were obsolete before they’d even been published; responses to a single TripAdvisor forum post could contradict each other within a matter of days. Still, everything we had read advised us to take American dollars with which we could pay for hotel rooms, and collect change in kyat, which would buy food. Furthermore, the dollars needed to be in absolute mint condition: brand new, pristine, completely flat, kept against a cardboard sleeve in a waterproof wallet. The slightest crease would see them refused.
Of course we’d only read about this two days before leaving Thailand and so had taken out as much Thai baht as our bank cards allowed during a 24 hour period – which wasn’t remotely enough – and hurried to the one place in Bangkok which gave a decent exchange rate and promised virginal cash. Our limited funds left us in spasms of consternation: what if hotels wouldn’t accept my credit card? Should we trust the ATMs, when all banks were owned by corrupt government cronies? What if policy changed tomorrow and kyat was no longer the country’s official currency? Could we bring our flight forward and leave early if we simply ran out of cash?
As such, we had arrived at the bus station an hour ahead of schedule so that I could race around the small town centre in a desperate attempt to buy more dollars.
An hour and some ten banks later, I learnt that Kanchanaburi, as it turns out, does not sell them.
“Yeah, no dollars here I’m afraid!” said the tourist policeman with cheery abandon as I arrived back, red-faced and sweating, mutely shaking my head.
And so with just over US $1,000 in cash to last two people three weeks in a country where hotel prices are grossly overinflated (more on that to come), we stepped onto the ancient, brightly-coloured bus and headed resolutely for the border, alternatively optimistic and deeply apprehensive.
On board we met Joanna, a Dutch girl who hadn’t read anything at all about Burma’s convoluted backdoor currency policies and was headed there with just her debit card and a sense of adventure, so we relaxed a little. Still, she’d travelled over the world by bicycle and brimmed with the casual youthful arrogance I rather missed at times like these, so the knot in my stomach didn’t entirely disappear.
Thai customs was astonishingly remote: a small shed with a single window for pedestrians, next to a single lane for vehicles, both empty of travellers and manned by guards staring idly into space. One pointed us back the way we’d come so that we could fulfil Joanna’s wish for a final Thai milk tea before departure. We left our rucksacks propped up against the wall, watched over by the otherwise unoccupied border guards, and trotted off behind this supremely confident girl to a little hidden café filled with truck drivers: I can always manage a milk tea. Back to the border, pick up the bags. Flick, stamp, wave: we were through. Remote but undeniably straightforward.
On the other side we were faced with the challenge of crossing 6 km of no-man’s-land to reach Burmese immigration. Reports suggested that it was best to pay 800 baht for a taxi to Dawei if one were hanging around; if not, flag down a passing lorry, laden with Thai goods, and hitch-hike across this stretch of nothingness, then hit the Burmese border and hope for the best.
Thankfully we had arrived early enough for the promise of a taxi which would take us all the way, and even gave us a discount since there were three of us and little promise of anyone else appearing for the rest of the day.
Our bags and bodies were unceremoniously crammed into the back of a pickup truck and off we bounced. We stood up, waved our arms, and revelled in the joy of such a memorable way to arrive in a new country. Why fly to Yangon, we mused, when it’s possible to travel like this?
Burmese immigration made the Thai side look positively draconian. Here were a couple of single-storey shacks at the side of a bumpy, unpaved track, up a steep slope, rubbed into the arid, mountainous terrain. In one shack, which resembled a long-forgotten temporary classroom, three young guys in t-shirts sat behind a heavy wooden desk plonked in the corner. We watched nervously through the open doorway as our bags were transferred from the truck to a beaten-up once-white Toyota Corolla. Meanwhile the men – practically boys – glanced casually at our visas, fished a stamp out of a drawer, made it official, and waved us on our way.
Into the car and off we went; past a few more open-sided dwellings hung with palm leaves, including one whose hand-written sign stated “KNLA”. This was the Karen National Liberation Army, or fighting arm of the minority group pushed into the south by the Burmese government. Here, the official government-run border patrol coexisted in apparent harmony with the guerilla group; we stopped several times at increasingly less official-looking points for our driver to pay fines and bribes, and keep everybody happy. This was why the taxi had cost so much. At times he barely even stopped the car, simply slowing down and palming grubby notes to the person outside with impressive dexterity before shooting off up the dusty road.
And oh, was it dusty. We’d read that this border was impassable during the rainy season and I can absolutely confirm that to be the case. Presumably it hadn’t rained for months prior to our crossing and thank god for that: four hours of our driver shooting along this empty, unsealed road at breakneck speeds was terrifying enough as it was, with clouds of dirt billowing behind us and worse, into our path, when we were unlucky enough to catch up with the odd vehicle ploughing along in front.
But the scenery, essentially untouched, was spectacular. Hardy trees clung to rugged, almost vertical mountains. Up we went to passes so high our ears popped, and down the other side in a shower of scree.
I nibbled on crackers in the back seat, fighting back nausea caused by crazily skirting the edge of an undulating river, from whose shallows local people pumped mud for one-man brick-making factories.
The terrain was treacherous and wildly beautiful, no signs of life for an hour at a time besides our little car, its gears grinding and brakes squealing in protest at the conditions. Breakdowns were common, we’d heard, but we made it all the way to the sealed road in one piece, only pausing when the uncommunicative driver gave into our protestations for photo opportunities, and for lunch at a little one-road town.
Gradually the dust gave way to shingle and then to rock and then lo and behold, tarmac, and a couple of hours after that we were in Dawei: sleepy, tiny, the region’s capital, and closest town to the border. The car journey had taken six hours, travelling straight across Myanmar’s little tail, the strip of land bordering Thailand to the east and now, on its west coast, we had almost – once again – reached the Andaman Sea. As the crow flies, just 250km and almost on the parallel with congested, polluted, 24-hour Bangkok . . . and yet, already, we were in a different world.