Our 15 Minutes in Burma

Posted by Ted on Dec 1, 2010 in Travel, Vagabonding

Failing to arrange a 60-day Thai visa in either Malaysia or Laos, opting to save money by taking buses from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai instead of flying (which would have provided us with extendable 30-day visas), and intending to stay in Thailand for several weeks meant that our visas would run out before we planned to leave the country.

With one day left on our visas, this meant that we needed to make what is affectionately called a “visa run“, or risk overstaying our visa and paying fines of $34/day. A straightforward process, it simply means traveling to a nearby country for a very short time in order to officially leave and then re-enter the desired country, resetting the visa clock. We traveled almost 15 hours in order to spend less than 15 minutes in Burma.

Rather than take the bus, we joined a tour by minivan that just happened to include a stop at Mae Sai, the Thai town across the river from Tachileik, Burma. Theoretically, for minimal additional expense, we would be picked up, travel in a more comfortable ride, with A/C, lunch, and a few tourist sights along the way. What we also found was confirmation that we really aren’t the packaged tour types of travelers, to no surprise.

Our first stop was the underwhelming Mae Kha Chan, a hot spring in the middle of a truck stop, surrounded by shops. Whether the geyser – constantly erupting – was natural or not is unclear, but the attraction are a couple of small pools where you can hard boil eggs. Buses and minivans arrived by the score, unloading tourists, which would set the theme for the day.

An hour later, we rolled into Wat Rong Khun, one of the most beautiful and creepy temples I’ve ever seen. Construction began in 1997, and while the structures are finished, the intricately hand-carved detailwork is ongoing. The entrance to the temple complex is guarded by red demons denouncing the earthly vices of smoking and drinking. The outside of the main assembly hall is blindingly white and covered in mirrors which are all cut and placed individually by hand in the nearby workshop, and the inside walls are covered in paintings. One enters the back wall through the mouth of a demon with flaming red eyes, the image of George Bush in the right, and Osama bin Laden in the left. The demon is surrounded by a crazy mix of modernity like spaceships, digital watches, and false idols such as Spiderman, Batman, Superman, and Keanu Reaves. The side walls have people fleeing on clouds towards the front wall of Buddha and enlightenment.

Our next attraction was Sop Ruak, where “the thousands of square miles of the opium growing region [the Golden Triangle] has been distilled down to a single point.” Once again, this was simply another stop on the tour and mini bus circuit, offering some semblance of interest wrapped in a neat little package. The highlights are getting one’s picture taken in front of a sign, and taking a longtail boat to the Laotian island of Don Sao, which doesn’t require a visa and offers duty free shopping.

Lunch was at a roadside buffet offering “international cuisine” such as chicken ala king, sweet & sour fish, pork & “sauerkraut”, and Burmese chicken & rice. We talked with our vanmates, including two Americans from Las Vegas who say they never eat street food.

Finally, we reached Mae Sai, yet another tourist shopping mecca. However, our goal was to cross over into Burma. Our tour guide escorted us through immigration control, as we were stamped out of thailand, walked across the bridge, and then stamped into Burma. Our passports held at the border, we spent 10 minutes walking down through the Burmese market, being offered cases of cigarettes, Saddam Hussein playing cards, knockoff phones, and copied DVDs. We turned around, retrieved our passports, walked back across the bridge, and got another 15-days in Thailand.

Our return trip to Chiang Mai had just one stop, an “Akha hill tribe village“. Once again, a parade of minivans pulled in to give tourists the chance to .. yes, you guessed it, shop. A half dozen stalls with women in traditional dress selling hats, bags, and jewelry. Sure, these were Akha women, living in a village, and they were selling handmade gifts. However, the village itself was across a small footbridge, blocked to outsiders. One can’t blame them for not wanting random farang walking through their homestead, but I’d hardly call the experience worthwhile.

We arrived back at our guest house three harrowing hours later, as the driver went very fast over twisty roads, in our minivan with crap suspension. We got what we had wanted out of the trip – our visas extended for another 15 days – as well as a glimpse into the life of a package tourist. This was both confusing and enlightening, wondering what our vanmates got out of the experience, and what kind of a cultural introduction such a tour really offers. It served as confirmation that we prefer to explore the world on our own. We might miss some sights – we would never have seen the creepy temple otherwise – but what we do see, and who we meet along the way, feels much more organic and natural.

What are your experiences of guided tours? Do you find them worthwhile? Disappointing? Enriching? Did you find a hidden gem, or just pitstops on the tourist circuit?

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An adventurer at heart, Ted Beatie is at his happiest when he’s off the beaten path. His deepest passion is sharing the world through photography and writing, found at The Pocket Explorer. He is also managing editor for Rolf Potts' Vagabonding, where he curates a Case Study series. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

5 Comments

Bessie
Dec 1, 2010 at 3:35 am

Glad you got your 15 days. It’s an impressive tour package. We took this same trip a few weekends ago, but I bet you didn’t have the “uh, are we going the right direction?” questions we were all asking each other. Out of curiosity, what did they charge?


 
Talon
Dec 1, 2010 at 11:47 am

I rarely ever do a tour for the same reason. I like to explore on my own, with my own timing, and most tours seem to be designed around hitting tourist spots, eating at touristy establishments, and shopping. I’m not generally interested in any of that. When I went to Peru, I did take the more luxurious route of upgrading to the fancier train which also included a guide, but that worked because it was for just that destination. We got all the historical information and neat facts and then were left on our own for a few hrs to explore as we wished. To check out Tipon I hired the hotel clerk who is a tourism student. He drove me to Tipon, knew all the history & legends, knew the best non-tourist place to eat, let me take my time taking photos, etc. It cost me 20 USD for a full day (not counting the beer I bought him, which he didn’t ask for). I so much more enjoyed that experience than being part of an informal group. In Cuzco I did it all on my own, and I ended up finding places and things that people who were native Cusqueños didn’t know about.

For the most part, I think tours are a huge waste of money and time. So much better to strike out on your own, see what you want to see, check out what you stumble upon, etc., IMHO.

Thanks for sharing this! I had seen pics of the white temple from the Team Chiang Mai group but had no idea about the other more . . . modern secular inclusions. :)


 
Beth Zuckerman
Dec 1, 2010 at 11:58 am

I am only now getting a chance to catch up with your blog, and, wow, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff.

I think that packaged tours have their place if you are going somewhere fairly dangerous like, say, the Amazon. We definitely enjoyed our stay at an Amazonian lodge with a native guide who took good care of us. But generally I feel, like you, that there’s too much of a focus on shopping (which I don’t particularly enjoy).

Also, I feel tours generally try to pack in too much. We took a day tour of the Daintree Forest in Queensland, AU. It included a couple of incredibly fun experiences we almost certainly would not have had otherwise — a visit to an animal park where we got to pet and feed baby kangaroos and wallabies, and a jungle cruise just like the one in Disneyland, only real. The jungle cruise guide was an excellent spotter and we were able to see some fantastic wildlife. But the tour also took us all the way up to Cape Tribulation, which was a lot of hours in the bus, before going to the Daintree Forest itself. Eric felt the Cape Tribulation excursion was worthwhile; I felt our time in the Daintree was ridiculously rushed.

So, a mixed bag. I think it’s definitely worthwhile to do wildlife trips with a guide, though. The EBRPD has been doing some biking and birding trips you might enjoy when you get back.


 
Ted
Dec 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Great comments, guys! I think there’s a definite difference between using a guide and an organized tour. I also agree with Beth that the more “adventuresome” the activity, the more important it is to have support, whether that’s kayaking down the Amazon, or hiking through the hills of the Golden Triangle.

There are obviously good tours and disappointing tours. Are there ways that one can tell in advance which kind is more likely?


 
Beth Zuckerman
Dec 2, 2010 at 10:53 am

I usually rely on guidebooks (National Geographic has a good series), but I do have to say that I have had better luck with travel agents when I used ones who focused only one one specific area, rather than ones who did tours all over the world.

Of course, I make a lot of decisions from looking at the tour operator’s web sites. But I probably never would have taken this tour based on the web site:

http://www.adventureantigua.com/

My friend Ethan found it when we were traveling in the Caribbean, and it was the most fun thing we did on the trip. The group was relatively large, but otherwise the tour was absolutely fantastic. We learned a great deal about Antigua (both its ecology and its human history), while seeing some absolutely gorgeous sights and getting some good exercise as well.


 

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