Oct 14, 2015

The Final Frontier

The closure of the backpack's compartments crystallized in Nick's consciousnesses as the pleasant feeling of self-contained readiness. The feeling held familiarity after eight months of travel. Only the road awaited. Today's road led to the the harbour and the office of Thailand's Department of Immigration. The last border to be crossed was also the least sure; a gateway into a land where whole regions were forbidden to foreigners. This included the region just past the border, a region that must be crossed before the final destination of Mandalay. The self-contained surety of himself and his affects served as a counterpoint to this ambient uncertainty.

It had been raining steadily for days. But today the gentle thrum of the tin roof ceased and grey cracked slowly to reveal glimmers of a blue reality above. “Ready.” Elizabeth replied to his unspoken question. Both turned to leave the room.

At the road they hailed a songthaew toward the pier. It required a certain preparatory interrogation of helpful locals to obtain information on the correct route number and expected fare, but Nick always preferred this to the effort of haggling down foreigner prices with an ambitious taxi driver. The two travelers settled into the padded seats and smiled at the other two truck-bed wayfarers. The universal greeting of southeast Asia when common language fails.

The encounter at the counter for leaving Thailand was perfunctory. The general and unspoken assumption was that the two travelers were heading across the channel for a visa run and would be back later that day to collect our new 30-day permission to stay in Thailand. Such was the desire of all but a handful of travelers who crossed the border from Ranong. Instead they were to attempt a traversal of the thin southern reaches of Burma along the 800-odd kilometers of the Andaman coast.

Stepping away from immigration Nick and Elizabeth were immediately engaged by a smooth long-tail operator who, despite his ambition, hesitated for only three beats before accepting their 100 baht offer in exchange for international conveyance.

The muddy waters flowed swiftly around the few small islands that lay in the stream. They roiled in patterns known only to the boat operators who plied through on a daily basis. The first glimpse of the verdant shores of Burma swung into view.

As the splintery craft nosed into the expanse of turbulent currents of the Kraburi river mixing with the Andaman sea the occupants hastily donned an array of life jackets. Though relatively unconcerned, Nick reflected on Elizabeth’s story of how many of the locals did not know how to swim, especially the women. For a moment the prospective terror of such an undertaking stuck him. The idea of a lonely vessel tossed upon a violent and indifferent sea surrounded on all sides by certain death.

Visas into Burma had already been granted through the shockingly efficient agency in Kuala Lumpur—a process that consumed only two days. The stern gaze of an immigration officer’s scrutiny is half made up of cold and keen incision and half apathy. Either one can lead to trouble. Breath catches, awaiting the verdict: either a condemning question or…

*Whomp, whomp* that double-thump of a stamp upon the inkpad and the passport.

*   *   *

Kawthaung is a city of substantial grit, both figurative and literal. It comprises the southernmost cusp of mainland Burma and dangles between the watery expanse of the Kraburi and the Andaman sea.

Fishermen’s huts project out from the shore, raised high above the muddy tidal flat on spindle legs of old timber. These pathways of jerry-rigged planks lead into the heart of the lively town with markets and beer bars buzzing and higher up perches the watchful golden monastery of the hilltop.

The rainy season lasts for eight months of the year and Nick and Elizabeth were right in the middle of it. They had both spent the preceding days in futile research of whether or not the boats were running up the coast to Myeik. Dead telephone number. No answer. Disconnected. Upon arrival in Kawthaung Nick was finally able to pursue the ephemeral boat in person. “No boat. Because season.” Undaunted, he approached another hotel. “No boat, only fly.” The travel agent: “No boat. Mogh.” Grim-face Nick returned to the hotel, hopes of a 4:30 AM departure dashed. Backtracking to Thailand and having to acquire another visa in Bangkok before approaching the Mae Sot border crossing much further north was not an inviting prospect.

According to all reports, the only hope of proceeding north was by boat. A road did exist, rutted and cratered by the rains, but it was barred from travel by foreigners. There were a few stories of those who had gotten through—passing by checkpoints in the dead of night or when no one was watching. One would have to be extraordinarily lucky to find a bus ticket vendor even willing to sell to a foreigner. This occupied Nick’s ruminations as he attempted to traverse the doors of sleep.

The morning introduced a congenial chorus of summary rejection. Eversmiling. As the hours of searching wore on, hopefulness engendered by the ubiquitous 3-in-1 coffee mix gave way to grim determination. The misting rain fell coating the whole town and dampening the spirit. Kawthaung’s pool of ticket agents was running severely low after the 13th rejection. Nevertheless by mid-afternoon Nick was able to unearth one travel agent seated beside a muddy road who was willing to sell a bus ticket onward to Myeik. Said ticket was purchased quickly, with nonchalance and not too many questions.

“If we get stranded at a checkpoint that would be quite an adventure!” exclaimed Elizabeth over a celebratory Myanmar beer.

“Well we could be stuck thirty kilometers out of town with no way back and fewer ways forward.” This seemed to dim the pioneering sparkle in her eye.

“It’s the best chance we’ll have this month. We’ve got to take it.” Nick continued in a tone more deserving of the toast.

15 hours in a 9-person van filled with 14 other people loomed ahead in the night. Though the road might have been a perfectly respectable dirt track at one point, there was an immense effort to turn it into a paved superhighway that seemed to be underway along the entire length of the route. The effect was that the track was covered in gravel that could more accurately be described as a collection of untarred boulders.  These, mixed with the rains, made matters much worse than any respectable dirt track would have dreamed.

The road was of such a condition that half of the occupants were retching to the gyrations of the van by the second hour. The intrepid driver was not phased in the least by this scene of unmitigated regurgitation and continuously dispensed a stream of small plastic bags from a spool attached to the dashboard.

All things considered it was not terribly conducive to grasping any shuteye whatsoever.

The exhaustion was relentless. The van slowed and Nick flickered into full alertness. Was this the police checkpoint? But no, just another rest stop sparsely populated by listless men at ease and at whiskey...

At long last the dawn broke its golden yolk over the eastward Tenasserim hills. First rays struck the expansive rice fields and caused a slow explosion into verdant green. Then the rain came down over the hills waving curtains of splashing droplets into the paddies. In the distance rose the small urban spectacle of Myeik.

“We’re too close to be turned back now. We broke through!”

Oct 12, 2015

Southern Thailand in Pictures

Leaving Malaysia we entered Southern Thailand to reach the river border into Myanmar. Northern Thailand will wait until after leaving Myanmar.

For starters, I literally snuck across the border and back to go to the ATM. The onward train ticket was bought with baht.

The legendary floating market of Hat Yai. Raindrops of the passing storm still fall in the river.

The legendary disappointing prawn stick at the floating market: falsely molded and painted fish balls.

This delicious waffle renewed Elizabeth's faith in Thai street food.

Buddhist crematorium

Elizabeth's guesthouse

Continuing north through the countryside by train

Elizabeth had a hard time eating this chicken foot, apparently it's 'disconcerting'

Heavy surf between Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. Passengers were screaming, crying, and vomiting all over the deck. I felt bad for laughing like I was on a roller coaster.

Releasing of lanterns into the Koh Phangan sky

We kayaked from Koh Tao to a small island off the coast

Hiked up to see the lovely view

The world's first ever selfie panorama! (don't fact check that)

Fire spinning all night long

A rainstorm in the distance at sunset

That's odd, the storm doesn't appear to be moving in one direction or the other. Oh, it's moving directly toward us...

I got a shave, thinking a ladyboy would know how to get the closest shave (turned out to be sub-par at best).

Time for the boat to Myanmar! Waterproof the phone and passport, and get ready for meditation!

Oct 11, 2015


After the relaxing time on Tioman Island and our brief but enjoyable time in Malacca, we headed to the capitol, Kuala Lumpur and to the National Park.

The tallest building(s) in Malaysia

Street art in Kuala Lumpur

Taman Nagara National Park is home to the world’s oldest rainforest! A small sign in a tour company there claimed that it’s the home of Mowgli from The Jungle Book; a quick google search dismisses this as false, but while you’re there it’s pretty easy to imagine it’s true.

The permits to enter the national park area are very odd, I think. You must receive a permit to be allowed inside the park. It costs approximately 25 cents, $1 if you want to bring a camera. If you get caught inside the park without a permit the fine is $2,500! We decided not to risk it and paid for permits :)

Taman Negara was awesome, very cool to go hiking around inside. Despite the fact that I got a pretty bad (and eventually infected) cut here, I'm glad that we went.

A shockingly large portion when ordering a mango smoothie

Getting there involved a tiny boat stuffed full of 20 people and their luggage. We were riding so low on the water that I blew air into the plastic bag inside our daypack to make sure that it would float when it inevitably got dumped into the muddy waters. (We didn't end up capsizing, just ran aground twice.)

In the park we went on a small hike that took us to the "canopy walk," a thoroughly enjoyable elevated walkway.

We also did a nighttime guided tour to see some of the insect and wildlife that mostly comes out at night. Unfortunately we weren't lucky enough to see any big animals, but it was fun anyway.

Canopy Walk

Funny excerpt from a (very long) list of rules at a guesthouse: read the 2nd one.

Next we headed out to the Cameron Highlands, the unquestioned highlight of the country for me. The highlands are a haven of cooler temperatures, tea, and delicious food.

Tea plantation!

Lovely British themed restaurant and garden

The Mossy Forest

View from a cafe

Leaving the highlands we had 2 cities left that we wanted to hit. First, Ipoh, known for their beanspouts and chicken dish as well as their salted chicken. We stayed in Ipoh long enough to enjoy both then headed for Penang, an island known specifically for their street food.

Street art in Penang

At this point, in our last city of Malaysia, we began to look ahead. With a relatively good idea of when our 28 days in Myanmar would fall, we decided to apply for our 10 day meditation retreat. The (online!) application was simple and straightforward, but included a question about prescription medication taken within the past few months. Name, purpose, dosage, duration.

Funny story: while in the national park I had a particularly bad fall, skinning the top of my foot and gouging my knee, among other less severe scrapes. I ended up with an infection and had gone to a clinic for antibiotics. The doctor gave me 3 things, an antibiotic, a cream, and some other pill for...I don't even know. Pain? Maybe. The pills and creme came in little ziplock bags with no label, just notes on how often to take them. I was completely unphased by this at the time, much to Nick's chagrin. "You don't even know what you're taking?!" "I told him about my medicinal allergy, presumably this is safe for me and will work, so what's it matter what it's called."

So I'm filling out this for to go meditate at a monastery and I'm rather opposed to lying (especially to a monk), much as "nope, no prescription medication" seems the simplest course. Instead I have to say "yes, antibiotics for an infected cut for the next 2 days. Dosage and medicine name unknown." Nick never would have left that clinic without the details of what he'd been given; his application would have been way less awkward. But we got approved! We're doing meditation in Myanmar! 10 days silent meditation speaking only to our instructor for a short period every day. It will be hard, but I think it will be really good, I cannot wait!