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Thai 'Visa-Run' to Kawthoung in Myanmar  on April 6th, 2006
 
                               click a picture to see details                                                           
 
                                                                                        Map of Southeast Asia

The Burmese immigration check-
point at the edge of the jungle on
a small island is built on stilts
 
 
How beautifully easy is the extension of our residence permit in Southern Thailand’s Ranong! The main reason for it is that the Burmese town of Kawthoung is in range of sight, situated right on the other side of the wide Kra river-mouth. Personally, Kawthoung means much more to us than just a place to renew our Thailand visa. Since weeks, it has become a magic destination. It is exactly there where the Burmese authorities granted us the permit to enter its country with our own LandCruiser after weeks of bureaucratic struggles. That it did not happen yet - there are different reasons:
 
Firstly, Myanmar mislaid the already granted permit while shifting in November 2005 the new Capital from Yangon – the former Rangoon - to Pyinmana; then we had to learn that there is neither a ferry nor another vessel or even a pontoon to rent, which would take our car from Ranong over to the Burmese shore – leaving the only possibility of diverting the weekly supply ship of the ‘Myanma Five Star Line’ coming from Yangon, involving an immense range of fees for piloting, berthing, docking and also for the deviation itself; in addition, shortly before we were allowed to enter, the Myanmar Defense Ministry came up with another difficult condition in wanting us to submit a detailed day-by-day itinerary for the whole month of our intended stay. But after all these never ending delays, it was our own decision not to visit Myanmar now during the approaching rains, but to postpone it to next November, when the dry season is returning. Nevertheless and unexpectedly, Kawthoung still comes alive with people and colors when we embark for our “visa-run”:
 

Burmese pagodas are
greeting from the distance
 
 
 

View from the pagoda
hill over Kawthoung
 
The main Thai immigration office in Ranong opens its doors exactly at 8.30am. We are the first ones at the counter to get our exit stamp. The daily “visa-run” busses from destinations like Phuket – about 185 miles to the South – have not yet arrived with their crowds of tourists. Let us tell you about this “visa-run” issue: Looking for an ‘easier’ way to extend the monthly or three monthly residence permit (according to the type of visa), it turned out that a ‘quick’ visit in a neighboring country is more convenient and also cheaper than the otherwise required tiring run through the bureaucratic red tape. Thus, an entire trade set up in the crossing places along the Thai-Burma-border, because Myanmar is charging only US$5 per person for a short visit, while Cambodia asks for US$20 and Laos even a hefty US$30 (returning to Thailand however is for free for most nationalities). We leave our LandCruiser in safety on the immigration parking lot and walk in the already scorching morning heat to the ‘Burma pier’ where the long tail boats are leaving for Myanmar. At this busy harbor, most passengers are either of Thai or Burmese origin. After we get rid of the persistent touts, we are surprised to see that things are pretty well organized. We enjoy exploring the colorful scene, the hustle and bustle of arrival and departure, before we make our choice and climb over a line of moored vessels to one that seems to be ready to sail. One way costs 50 Bath per Person (about 1 US$).
 
 
 
But despite that their diesel engines are already rattling since quite a while, they still try to attract more passengers and more boats are pulling in and squeezing in between all the others. Finally, we start moving, passing battered long-legged stilt houses skirting the shores and golden Buddha’s. Shortly after, we stop again at one of the many stilt houses built on the water. It is the control checkpoint of the Thai immigration, where our young boy is climbing up the tree trunk ladder with the bundle of collected passports. And then all we do is wait and wait in the burning sun without the slightest sea breeze, because at the same time at least half a dozen other passenger boats are lined up to be dispatched. Now we are very happy and grateful about the umbrellas provided by our boat owner.
 
 
        
Waiting for customers       
in Kawthoung     
    
 

A bus unloading luggage
at a street corner
 
 
10 minutes later we are ready to continue and after further 20 minutes the Burmese flag is already greeting us at another “wild” looking stilt house next to the jungle on a small island. Under the eyes of the severe looking Burmese officers, who sit on their shady veranda, we squeeze in between already waiting boats. Contrary to others – we are not searched for smuggled items. Our boy disappears again with all the passports in the little hut, but soon comes back with our two 5 US$ notes we gave him for the payment of the fees for our Myanmar entry visa, which is valid three days. They are not spotless enough! But we are told that we can pay also in Bath, 300 per person, which equals around 7 US$! Well, it is also a way to make some extra money!
 
 

 

 
 
Then, we sail the last few hundred yards towards the magnificent scenery of the Burmese mainland. In Kawthoung, nestling appealingly between hills and the sea, we first fetch our exit stamp at the customs house at the pier, as we do not intend to spend the allowed three days in this small town. As soon as we set foot on firm ground, we are approached and followed by a persistent youngster with the questions: “Pharmacy?” and “Viagra?” Amused, we shake our heads. Apparently, this “power drug” is also on the purchase list of many elderly “Farangs”, how Westerners are called here. What we are merely interested in is rum, our favorite drink which we always mix with different fruit juices for our daily aperitif. We buy four bottles for 80 US-cents each and one bottle of Burmese beer and put everything into our small backpack.
 
 

The children love to
be photographed
 

The bell shaped pagodas are characteristic for Burma
 
It is really beautiful to take in a breath of Myanmar atmosphere again. It is the second time that we visit this unusual country – the first time it was a short visit of a week in 1975 - and again we admire with fascination the uniquely bell shaped golden pagodas, which are so characteristic and which are greeting everywhere from the green hills. We like to watch the gentle Burmese people in their traditional National dress, called “Longyi”, consisting of a piece of cloth which both, men and women, wrap around their waist - just the knot being different. A special sight is also their adorned faces with “Thanaka”– a beige paste made from sandal wood, which is supposed to protect their skin against sunburn. Last, but not least also the Buddhist monks, who wear here dark red and less shiny robes than those in Thailand and who are sometimes begging persistently, belong to the exotic image of Myanmar. What other “visa-runners” have told us is true, that there is much more garbage in Kawthoung than in Thailand. Nevertheless, we find this place very enchanting, very interesting, very colorful and very lively. And had the burning sun not almost “killed” us, we would have extended our exploring tour for much longer.
 
 
 
 
The captains of the long-tail boats are as usual on the lookout for more passengers, as four hours later, we are ready to return to Thailand. And also this time, we are the only “Farangs” on the boat leaving. But our departure is postponed again and again. Obviously, they are waiting for someone exceptional to arrive. Finally, a young man appears, and then we finally set off. Immediately, our boat boy is taking out of a plastic bag a bundle of identity cards and begins to compare their photos with the face of the newcomer. He makes his choice and stores the rest in the back pocket of his worn-out trousers. There is a nervous arguing going on until we reach our first stop, the „wild“ looking Burmese immigration check point. But things are smooth, nothing happens and we are continuing. As soon as we are out of sight of the control post, our boy starts to shave with a sharp razor blade the light beard of the new passenger– really skillfully and professionally. And long before we reach the first Thai control post – a kind of floating police, custom and immigration at the same time – he puts back the blade properly in a piece of tissue-paper.
 
 

One of the beautiful niches
of the golden pagoda

A Burmese in his traditional
National dress, called “Longyi“
 
How will this most strict of all checks come to an end, we wonder of course. Despite that we have nothing to do with the whole story we honestly are worried ourselves, as we see a resolute officer climbing into our boat, starting to compare each passport picture with the face of its passenger - but again, nothing happens. On the other hand, we are asked suddenly to open our small backpack. Bad luck for the investigator - we carry only the permitted quantity of alcohol with us. Finally, we approach the last Thai check point situated on the water, and again there are no worries for the freshly shaved passenger! Shortly afterwards, we make an additional and unforeseen detour and stop near an old hut, where he disappears into the bushes. Who wants to make us believe that everything has gone the right way? There must be a reason why only recently we read in the “Bangkok Post” that Thailand is the leader in the list of human trafficking!
 
 
 
 
 
Finally, we are back at the Burma pier in Ranong/Thailand. Exhausted from our exciting exploring and visa-running tour, we take a Tuk Tuk for bringing us back to the main immigration office instead of walking. There, we have to fill out the usual immigration form and get granted another month stay in Thailand. Yes, so easy and also so adventurous can be a visa run to Myanmar! We find two business cards placed in the meantime on our windscreen, saying “Please visit us once!”. Just as we are ready to pull out of our parking lot, we witness about a dozen of illegal immigrants with handcuffs descending chained together from a prison car. Obviously they did not have such a lucky day as our shaved passenger.
 

The display of fruits in the
street market is abundant
 
 

The face of this boy is adorned with “Thanaka” – a beige paste made from sandal wood, which is supposed to protect his skin against sunburn
 
 
Being hungry and thirsty, we drive immediately to our lovely lunch spot, to the hill of the Khao Nives View Point overlooking Ranong, where there is always a cooling breeze and a dense umbrella of old tropical trees to provide coolness and shade. First of all, we mix our traditional rum drink and then we enjoy spicy chili sausages, cheese, boiled eggs and pickles and are completely happy about our eventful “visa’-run” excursion and the stock-up of cheap Burmese rum. How might the Burmese beer taste? Emil walks around our car to get the bottle out of our rucksack on the driver’s seat. With a shock he sees that the protection grill of the driver’s window, which we always fix on both sides of the car when we park for a longer period, is lying on the ground. Immediately, he realizes what happened: “They stole our backpack”, he shouts very excitedly. „What was in there? Did you take out our passports and the money?“ Suddenly, the adrenalin is speeding up. But I can calm him down, because luckily, right after the immigration, I stored the passports and money in its original place.
 
 
 
What the thief will find in our backpack is only the cheap booze bought in Myanmar, i.e. four bottles of rum and one bottle of beer, and in addition some exotic Burmese banknotes which Emil acquired in Kawthoung for his extensive collection. Later though, we miss also our sewing kit and wonder, what else might have changed its owner. But we consider ourselves very lucky that we have no considerable losses to deplore. But still, the shock sits deeply that people were able to rob us while we were sitting and picnicking peacefully just on the other side of our car. The same cold-blooded behavior happened to us only once before during our 21 years of travel, and this was in Ouagadougou in African Burkina Faso. But at the same time, we are especially angry about ourselves, about our own negligence to have omitted to secure the grills with the padlocks, what we usually do, and our increasing blind confidence. We make vows to be more careful in the future. The lesson we have learnt today is: Each time we feel in total security, it had to happen ….
 

A genius stove: A bucket is taken
and filled with cement – just the
place for the firewood to burn and
the smoke to escape has to be spared
 
 

A ladies’ tailor in a side street
 
 
 
Thus, our “visa run” day is ending in many respects quite adventurous and exciting. For those who want to exclude any unforeseen happenings and like it a more decent and relaxed, but of course also more boring way, there is always the possibility to do it through the Andaman-Club, which is about 8 miles out of Ranong city: Here, you get the Thailand exit stamp; here you can board a normal passenger boat which ferries you to the luxury Andaman-Hotel situated on a small island in Myanmar near Kawthoung. There, you are met by a hostess who shows you the way through the Burmese immigration where you deposit your passport and pay 650 Bath, which includes the Burmese visa as well as the boat fare.
 
The monks in Kawthoung
wear dark red robes
 
Then you board the waiting bus which brings you up the hill to the hotel complex. There you will be greeted at each corner by elegant stewards, where everything has an exclusive view: Fountain, garden, pool, restaurant, golf course, beach and even a casino for playing with one-arm bandits. (For the “real” casino, however, you have to be a member. An annual membership costs 10’000 Bath = US$250). After 1 hours to your leisure, the bus is taking you again to the pier, where you collect your passport with the Burmese stamp and board the passenger boat back to Thailand’s Andaman-Club. There, after filling out your entry card, you will get another month stamped into your passport. Yes, we checked also this sterile version, but it absolutely does not belong to our way of traveling!
 
The gate to the golden
pagoda in Kawthoung
Myanmar visit without car from 12/26/2016 to 1/22/2017:
Part 1: Yangon (Rangoon) 'Golden Rock' of Kyaiktiyo