True to form I did no research before entering Burma with my main objective being to extend my Thai visa there. Once again Crinion punctuality reached an all time high arriving at the border 15 mins before it closed and if it wasn’t for the half hour time difference between the two countries I would have missed it and been greeted with hostile stares and a 500 Baht fine the next day. On crossing the border I got a 14 day “Permit” for Burma under the condition that they held my passport (none too pleased about that) and I had to exit the country from the same point of entry. After intense scrutinisation of my dog-eared passport which now possesses more stamps than a Manchester tattoo artist, I was issued my temporary permit. Now I had to face the issue of getting the compulsory guide to escort me to Kengtung the furthest point I could go in Burma. I decided to sleep on it and try and fish some information from the hotel owner Mohamid, whose English was unfortunately at Junior Certificate foreign language standard….ordinary level. If I understood Mohamid correctly he reckoned I could bribe my way to get a permit and away with me. He also reckoned the best form of currency here was cigarettes and a bottle or two of “Blend 365”, the local scotch. I was more than happy to bring the cigarettes but the bottles of scotch are exactly the lightest choice for a cycling tourer.
Nicknamed the long eared Hilltribe.
After much hemming and hawing I deduced I had nothing to lose and after a very spicy breakfast of noodles and presumably chilli gunpowder I found myself bartering for bootleg cigarettes and duty-free scotch. Border towns certainly are the most economical places to buy bribes. I also bought a few Burmese cigars “cheroots” for good measure. They reminded me of “Beedi” the poor mans cigarette in India. Its tobacco wrapped in a leaf with bamboo as a filter but far more substantial in size in comparison to the meagre Beedi.
Paddy field workers dotted the landscape...but not as colourful as the Indians who reminded me of a packet of smarties scattered in the grass.
Having never given a bribe before, unless you count “backsheesh” the involuntary bribe in India, I had no idea how to go about the operation. So with as much tact as a ball peen hammer I headed off to the sole tourist office to try my luck. The major hindrance in the watertight plan was that the officer couldn’t understand my discreet mumbling reference to the goods I was offering. “I BELIEVE THESE ARE YOURS OFFICER” …” I THINK THESE BELONG TO YOU OFFICER”. (goods neatly wrapped in a classy 7/11 plastic bag) and eventually “ME PERMIT…YOU ALCOHOL AND CIGARETTES, YES?” . Well it must have been a slow day in the office for after doing a feeble attempt at pretending to twist his arm, he was well underway with the paperwork. My only obligation was to report to the police every evening….which I didn’t think was a particularly hard task as they were more common than rabid dogs on the streets.
The next two days involved a serious amount of leg crunching and red earth chewing. My face constantly looked like I had used blusher instead of foundation which left the local in hysterics and certainly were not shy about showing their true feelings by means of a good point, stare and laugh. On the first night I was eager to meet some of the hill tribes so at every village I stopped I produced my postcards I had bought of the local hill tribes in the hope that they would point me in the right direction….naturally UP as the name “hilltribe” suggests. At some points the dusty earth got too much for the heavy laden bike as the sand engulfed my wheels and had me flopping to the ground, entangled in my chain in an altogether very ungraceful manner. At this point I should also mention that the only map I possessed was a photo on my camera of my computer screen with a lonely planet rough sketch/map of North Eastern Burma.
From this beautiful flower comes heroin!
Afternoon siesta of opium.
What could potentially have been a very disastrous (and perhaps dangerous) adventure turned out rather well at the beginning. I was very chuffed with myself as I went only 5km off the main road and spotted a village at around 4pm. I was hoping it was a tribal village where I could negotiate putting up my tent or at least sling my hammock on some family’s porch. Apart from one child who turned on her heels screaming when she saw me (think she never saw a white person before) the entire community adopted me like I was one of their own. I felt so at ease with them it was like being back in the nomads tents in Tibet. No language apart from body language was used and we spent a most enjoyable evening around the fire scoffing noodles and drinking an unholy amount of the local brew. My only complaint was the stream of children looking to get a poke at me and used me as the village climbing frame…a small price to pay really. The accommodation that night came in the form of a multipurpose room where tucked away mats and pillows were produced and three generation plus my good self slept together that night. As they produced their humble bamboo mats I whipped out my thermarest self inflating mattress and -7 deg down sleeping bag and eye mask. Any previous attempts at blending in were now redundant!
High street Kengtung.
The following day was a treasure hunt attempting to find tribal villages. I met 2 police checkpoints, the first was so excited at seeing me that routine checks seemed of little importance. The next checkpoint officer was less amused and gave me the once over. To edge him more towards letting me go I suggested a drink and produced my “blend 365” which to be honest I was only too delighted to get rid of the weight and an instant friendship was made! After a few pretend swigs of the scotch, with most of it being poured under the table, I was happily on my way and the officer was certainly merry as he had already downed half the litre bottle.
Some may appreciate the Irish climate more than others.
That night I found a local guest house but was refused entry as it was not a government licensed hotel which can allow tourists. I reported to the local police and after much huffing and puffing they said it was too dangerous for a foreigner in these parts….Burma cycle over! I told them I really wanted to travel to Kengtung and couldn’t understand why I couldn’t as I had a permit. Time to produce the remaining Cigars and cigarettes.So after much to do I was to be given a Police escort to kengtung tomorrow and an officer was ordered to stand guard outside my guesthouse door all night long….which he didn’t. Nonetheless it was an extremely generous and hospitable gesture by all involved when it was clear I was the one totally in the wrong!
It was a short trip in Burma and I was forced to take the bus back to the border which I was seriously disgruntled about as it was practically all downhill! Sadly I had no scotch or cigarettes left to strengthen my bargaining power. It depends on your definition of success whether this was as a successful journey or not. If given the choice I would do it again in a flash as the time spent with the tribal people was some of my most unique and rewarding experiences to date. In total I visited Akha, Eng, Wa, Shan and Palaung tribes with each tribe being either Buddhist, Catholic, Baptist or animist. It is precisely for unique experiences like this that keep my wheel turning. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. If anyone is consider cycling in Burma I would say do so without hesitate….but get a permit before you go!
A little side note on Burma or Myanmar?
Burma, or Myanmar as it has been renamed by the military dictatorship, derives its name from the Burmese word Bamar, which is pronounced 'Bama', and became 'Burma' in the colonial days. However in old Burmese it is pronounced Mranma or Myanmah, thus giving rise to Myanmar. The renaming remains the subject of debate, where the UN refers to 'Myanmar', the US, UK and France still refer to 'Burma'…confusing!