Westerner Behind the Wheel

By Oliver Hargreave 4 September 2020

PART 3: Bordering on Trouble

A brush with officialdom

Asia Highway 1 (AH1) to Hpa-an, Kawkareik and Myawaddy was narrower and less smooth than Highway 8; it would be foolhardy to go more than 90 kph.

The first tourist attraction on the way to Hpa-an is the Bayin Nyi Cave, a cavern more than 100 meters deep with dozens of Buddha images. At Kaw Gon Cave, nearer Hpa-an, thousands of small bas-relief images cover the rock face like tiles above the opening to the main cavern. 

At Kaw Gon we noticed our rear number plate had fallen off. Not wanting a missing plate to cause a problem at a checkpoint, we set off to make a report at the transport compound near Hpa-an.

An official barely took interest longer than it took him to direct us to the police station downtown in Hpa-an. In front of cells in the grey wooden jailhouse, a bemused duty officer asked Tom why we had come to report at a police station for crime suppression. He directed us back to the correct office in the sprawling compound of the transport department.

While Tom was making the report, I wandered outside to look at rows of newish-looking cars and pickups parked in a field. I got my camera out to shoot an expensive-looking white BMW sports convertible. 

There was a shout. I turned around. A man wearing a longyi and white shirt was approaching, gesticulating wildly from across the field. After what seemed an hour of explanations, having our IDs photographed and making profuse apologies, we were free to go. Government property in Myanmar is sacrosanct and taking pictures is strictly forbidden. 

As for the cars, they had been seized due to a lack of proper paperwork. Perhaps some if not all had been illegally imported if not stolen in Thailand. Placating the official was a question of reassuring him that the pictures would be left to the imagination. 

The delay meant we had to spend an extra night in Hpa-an. It was a major tourist destination that I had to study in any case, and Tom introduced me to the outstanding San Ma Tau Restaurant.

A rooftop view south over Thaton.

One chance meeting

AH1 between Hpa-an and Kawkareik is uneven, barely two lanes wide and has many bends. To overtake slow-moving trucks required good acceleration. The truck’s nearside wheels had to go on the hard shoulder. It was not easy.

Driving along the new Thai-built highway from Kawkareik to Myawaddy was simple and fast in comparison. At Myawaddy, Tom went off on his business, while I wandered down to the river and watched boatloads crossing into Thailand not 100 meters from the road bridge. His business over, Tom booked a night bus back to Yangon.

Though folks in Myawaddy’s market were friendly, a return journey on the AH1 to get there from Hpa-an did not seem worth the trouble. When a man in his 50s introduced himself to me in the market, I was happy to go to a teashop with him rather than visit a pagoda. A schoolteacher, he invited me to teach some private students early the next morning. He asked if I could take him to Kawkareik. He was welcome. 

After dark, one or two buildings in Myawaddy had frontages hinting at impropriety behind doors closed to quiet, uninviting streets. By day, Myawaddy did not appear to have anything particularly special beyond a bridge to Thailand. 

I first rode a motorcycle along the pretty route north of Mae Sot on the Thai side of the Moei River in the 1980s and wondered what the route might be like on Myanmar’s side. Years had passed since the fall of independent Kawthoolei and the Karen fortress at Manerplaw in 1995, but security concerns likely remain an issue. No doubt it would be a most interesting drive, but the boss had said he didn’t want company cars anywhere near “AK-47 country”.  

Early the next morning I gave an impromptu English lesson in a small private classroom with split-bamboo walls at the back of the teacher’s house. Six high-school students read a poem about bridges and then we drew pictures of them. Attempting to explain the grammar behind why I was interested in meeting these young, interesting learners reminded me why I had long quit English language teaching.

A wet cloth is handy after a fresh snack.

People in Kawkareik’s market greeted my friend, who had taught in a high school there. He showed me around the market, which was dominated by an old mosque that was a stone’s throw away from a pagoda. Kawkareik seemed like a pleasant small town, but that was all.

And then we went to another teashop before parting. I do like the teashops in Myanmar, but are there fewer of them than in 1996? Beer stations seem to have taken a more visible role as places for social interaction, but I don’t drink. Perhaps that was one reason why no one else ever approached me in like manner in Myanmar as that Mon teacher.

Leaving Kawkareik, I felt more confident. Visitors planning to drive in Myanmar would face the same language problem, but would they want to drive without a local companion?

Checkpoints and tolls in Myanmar

Checkpoints in central Myanmar are few and tend to be at crossroads or between regions. Police will want to see passports, vehicle registration documents and maybe driving permits.

Tolls booths are frequent and unfortunately, collectors assume drivers will be on the right side of vehicles. Keep to hand banknotes in small denominations.

Oliver Hargreave created “WorldClass Drives in Myanmar” for Opinions expressed in this article are not those of Yomacarshare. 

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