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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