As we had started to plan how we were going to get to Burma, it seemed the only way there from Thailand was to fly in from Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Though after much reading online trip planning we came across some forum posts suggesting it might soon become possible to cross over the land border from Thailand as they were due to be reopened now the conflict in the areas had subsided.
This should have happened from June, but appeared to have slipped and was looking like it could be the end of August, this was great news for us, as we had already planned to be in Mae Sot at the orphanage which happens to be one of the land border towns with Burma.
We had managed to get our visas for Burma via an agent while we were in Chiang Mai, just in case, and also hopefully saving us having to make the trip down to Bangkok.
As our time at the orphanage came to an end it appeared that yes it was now possible to cross over to Burma and then continue onwards from Myawaddy into the country, instead of returning back to Thailand the same day.
As Burma does not yet have many ATM's that accept foreign bank cards (until very recently non at all) we had been advised to take our whole travel budget for the month into the country in cash, in "pristine" US dollar bills. No slight smudges, folds, creases, tears or bent corners, oh and they all had to be new style notes from 2006 onwards! This definitely was going to be a different part of our adventure.
The first hurdle was withdrawing enough Thai Baht cash in one go to exchange, before the bank threw a wobbly and stopped all our cards thinking it was fraud. The next was finding somewhere that had enough crisp clean dollars. We had left it very late, and could only change the rest of our money in Mae Sot where they are not used to many tourists. So our last morning was spent cycling the rickety orphanage bikes from bank to bank across town, finally after going to five banks, we found one that could do it, phew.
After a quick refreshing pit stop at Wake Up, the heavenly, clean and air conned Internet café, we hopped on the back of our motorbike taxis (not so easy with big backpack on back and little one on front) to the border, ready to cross the Friendship Bridge.
This has to have been the nicest land border crossing we have done, stamped out of Thailand we walked a cross the bridge to Burma. We were ushered into the office and given chairs to sit on and a place for our bags whilst they filled out the forms for us and gave us some maps of the country and a list of the roads closed to foreigners, and there we were stamped in and free to travel on!
This would only be the beginning of our adventure though, we met a helpful man who helped us negotiate a shared taxi on to Hpa-an, having missed the last bus hours earlier. If we didn't go now it would be two days before we could travel as the road only goes in one direction each day, up the mountain one and down the next.
As we set off in the car at 3pm for our 7 hour journey, we only went round the corner and before we knew it more people got in, there was now four of us squashed in the back seat and a guy with all the bags in the boot. Everyone was really friendly and we learned some Burmese along the way.
The road over the mountain to Kawkareik, was amazing, but quite possibly one of the worst roads of the trip so far, made harder by the fact the suspension in the car was broken. We banged and bumped over the ruts and giant potholes, as it got dark more trucks on the road had problems and we had to negotiate around them. It started to feel like we might be spending the night on the mountain.
Luckily we made it through, there were numerous checkpoints along the way where "fees" had to be paid. On some of them the guys in the car tried to hide us, we are not sure if this was just to lower the fee or not. Some of the checkpoints were manned by young boys, the best was a tough looking guy with a pink shower cap on his head and gun slung over this shoulder, if only we could have taken a picture!
We arrived into Hpa-an with numb bums and pins and needles, the whole town was asleep, but luckily one of the other passengers had rung ahead to a guest house, so they sleepily unlocked the door and showed us to our room. Dinner of peanuts and Fanta in the room, zonked, what a day, but so excited to be in Burma.