Golden Balls

Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar
It was time for us to leave Thailand. Not because they didn’t love us, but because we had an appointment to keep. We had decided on crossing through Myanmar over 11 days. It is a big country but some people do it in 4 days. We didn’t want to (and probably couldn’t) go that fast. We also wanted to see some of the charms of Myanmar.

Our first hitch was timing. We had to meet our guide on the friendship bridge in no-man’s land between Thailand and Myanmar. And we didn’t know how long exiting Thailand was going to take, especially as the permit they thought we should have wasn’t the same as the one we thought we should have. To add to that unknown, Myanmar’s time zone is 30 minutes different to Thailand’s.

Often the things you worry about never materialise. As it turned out, Thailand wanted a completely different piece of paperwork at the border including a vehicle crew listing…umm, we’re here…we’re the crew! As traffic built up and clogged the bridge, our guide arrived and ushered us across. At the midpoint we had to change from driving on the left to driving on the right. This confused me.

I had observed many Myanmar vehicles in Mae Sot before we left Thailand and had specifically checked which side the steering wheel was on. I wanted to be prepared for mirror-image driving as I hadn’t done any for a while. And never on a motorbike. But it was ok, all the steering wheels were on the right. Same as Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, Japan…. But now I found myself driving on the right.

At the Myanmar border we were met by our team for the next 11 days. Our guide was Soe who had been a tour guide for over a decade and spoke excellent English. With him was Htoo and Zaw. Zaw was the driver of our lovely Hiace escort vehicle. Htoo was an officer from the Department of Hotels and Tourism. He was an integral part of us having special permission to transect the country.

Soe invited us to load our bags into the van, which was definitely a good move as we had to fly over some broken and corrugated roads during the day. Later Soe explained that, in Myanmar, importing new cars had never previously been possible. Instead second hand cars were imported from the most friendly neighbours (India/Thailand) and Japan. All these RHD cars led to an interesting overtaking style; where a lone driver had to swing all the way across the road, just to take a look ahead to see if it was clear. Often it was not. Subsequently drivers had developed a new language where indicators were constantly flashing to let others know the overtaking status ahead. Safe or unsafe. This was all very good, except that indicators weren’t used so much for, er, turning.

We had to go fast everyday in Myanmar and this first day was our introduction to that. We had woken very early to get across the border and then had sped 250km inland before climbing into the back of a lorry and racing up a hillside to one of Myanmar’s most sacred sites; Kyaiktiyo. Here, at 1,100m in altitude, a huge gold boulder in the shape of a monk’s head, balances precariously on the hillside. A piece of Buddha’s hair prevents it falling off, apparently. It certainly doesn’t seem to be held on by much else!

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