I got on the bus from Chiang Mai at 8.30am and, not to brag, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I’d walked from my hostel without checking the map, I’d bought snacks before the bus, and after the first stop nobody sat next to me. I sprawled across my double seats, and thought about how great I was. When the bus stopped at a petrol station, I bought some pomelo and a French lady asked what it was. “I’m so cultured,” I thought as I dozed, “I’m so awesome. I am Thailand.”
I’ve been away for four weeks and it’s gone very well. So well I’ve barely had time to update you all and, even if I had, I wouldn’t have anything to say. As JRR Tolkien wisely wrote,
Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.
Which is my way of saying that my arrival into Myanmar was not a happy event.
Crossing the border was fine enough. I was quite worried about not having my return journey booked, which the website said was a requirement for a visa, but of course they didn’t ask about that. They did want my departure card, which I had filled out at Bangkok airport and then completely forgotten about. Fortunately that was still in my bag, and I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t realised I’d need it. However, the other white people crossing the border with me were mean and grumpy, so that wasn’t ideal…
No, the problems started once I was through the border. In the visa office I’d been speaking to a young man who wasn’t in uniform about football. I assumed he was just a guy but it turned out he was a scallywag. He directed me to another guy, and it took me a little while to realise that the official process was over and now they were just trying to fleece me.
I walked away, and went to a hotel that I’d seen as I was crossing the border – the Riverview Hotel. I felt in need of a pint but I didn’t have any money yet. I thought maybe I could ask if they hotel would accept my debit card, or ask directions to an ATM. I stood in the beer garden of that hotel for 5 minutes, with staff swarming around me, and none of them spoke to me or looked me in the eye. They were, however, almost definitely laughing at me (and I’m not paranoid!).
Giving up, I went in search of an ATM. There didn’t seem to be any on the high street, so I set off down a side road. I was soon very clearly out of tourist-land. The shops were scruffy and weird, and everyone looked at me as though I was the strangest thing they’d seen all year. I soon got lost but, after 15 minutes of wandering around, I made it back to the main road.
Picking a new direction, I headed out of town. This was a good call, because I soon started to see money changing places and, eventually, an ATM. I walked up to one of them and was about to put my card in when someone behind me started shouting and laughing. Looking closer, I realised that the message on the screen was actually a piece of A4 taped in front of it – the ATM was broken.
I wandered around some more, and soon found a new ATM. I put in my cash card and.. it didn’t work. ‘System error’ the receipt told me. I tried again, same error. I tried using my debit card, which worked – but goodness knows what fees I incurred in the process! Nonetheless, I now had cash – 100,000 kyat of it! I headed back to the Riverview Hotel.
“We do have rooms,” the young man at the desk told me, “but they are for our citizens only.”
Not the best news, but not a surprise – although they did have a sign outside which said ‘Riverview welcomes tourists’ in English, so that’s odd. I asked the young man for directions to a hotel that I could stay in, and the wifi password so I could find it on Google Maps.
The Hotel Myawaddy was, of course, back up where the ATM had been. I walked past the same people sat on the street (for the third time!) and tried not to let my paranoia get the better of me. They weren’t laughing at me, they weren’t interested in me, just because I am 6 foot tall and white as snow it doesn’t mean people notice me…
Getting to the hotel also meant going past the taxi drivers. “Oi, lady,” they shouted, and worse, trying to get my attention. The whole thing was starting to feel very like India, and very different to the safe, happy Thailand that I’d just left.
I get to the hotel, and it’s exceptionally expensive (comparatively… in real life it was about £10) and the wifi is awful. I drink all of the beer in the minibar, and text my mother. I watch football on the TV because it’s the only channel in English and it is weirdly comforting. I watch the sun set over Myawaddy and remind myself that tomorrow is another day.