• Shu Yun Hotel
• Shudu Mansion Hotel
• Homeland Hotel
• Tai Yi Hotel
Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, has fascinated me ever since I read George Orwell’s account of it as a teenager. In December 2006, I found myself in Ranong, just a small boat ride away from the Burmese city of Kawthoung (previously known as Point Victoria) and so decided to go there for the day.
Many farangs go to Kawthoung on a visa run from Ranong. But in the day I was there I only saw two other westerners wandering around the town, an elderly American couple. The visa runners go on organised visa runs or else charter long-tail boats and spend only a few minutes on Burmese soil before turning around and coming back to Thailand.
They don’t know what they are missing. If only they took time to smell the grass, they could have a great excursion in a fascinating town.
Forget the organised visa runs. You can easily do it yourself. Get the songthaew from Ranong city to the Port, 11 baht, and ask them to drop you off at the Thai immigration post, a big white building. There you fill out a form and get your passport stamped. Then walk down the road, ignoring the touts offering you a visa run, until you reach the passenger terminal, which is on the right-hand side of the road a few blocks further down. It is hard to miss as people are milling everywhere. Touts will offer you a boat for 150-300 baht either by yourself or with other farangs. Far better to enjoy a boat filled with Burmese. Yes, it takes longer, but at 50 baht, it is a great experience.
And then, you are on your way. The trip takes about 45 minutes. The weather and seas were calm when I went. We stopped at a Thai customs post and then a Burmese customs post before arriving in Kawthoung. You know immediately you are in another country, as it does not look anything like Thailand. The people are taller and thinner and the women all paint their faces to protect their skin from the sun. In addition, the town is poor, ramshackle, and neglected.
Go 100 metres down the road to the Burmese passport office. There they will stamp your visa. It costs $10 US. I did not have a $10 note with me, so gave them 500 baht instead, which was readily accepted. Then I was on my own for a couple of hours until my return trip. Make sure you get back to Ranong by 3.30 pm so you can get your passport stamped by the Thai authorities before their 4 pm closing time. There are a couple of hotels if you want to stay longer, but they did not look very inviting.
Many Burmese speak good English. They all learn English at school, and it is real English they speak, not mangled Thai English. When you come out of the passport centre, you will be accosted by several young touts offering their services as tour guides. I like to travel and explore alone, so I gave them a miss and walked a few streets away from the pier where the crowds thinned out and I was left alone to reflect and explore. There is a prominent pagoda like structure near the pier which is actually a restaurant and a travel and tour operator, but I did not go in. Instead, I walked up the road towards the beautiful Pyi Taw Aye Paya Buddhist temple.
On the way there, opposite the mosque, are two excellent shops selling Burmese arts and crafts. The staff was friendly and professional, the goods cheap, and the quality was excellent. You may notice they switch the lights on for you when you arrive. Electricity is very expensive in Kawthoung, 8 times more expensive than Ranong. The fuel for the power station is brought over by barge from Ranong. That is also why you will hear few TV’s blaring. Power is also erratic, with many businesses sporting their own generators out the front. Automatic teller machines do not exist in Kawthoung and credit cards are not accepted. Cash is king, preferably us dollars, but Thai baht is perfectly acceptable as well.
It was a steep walk to the temple, but well worthwhile. The temple design is completely different to anything I have seen in Thailand. It looked modern and was very gaudy with lots of gold paint and mirrors. The temple hall is stunning. There are some nice temple stalls as well. Wander around and enjoy it and marvel at the money spent. If only it was spent on the town and its citizens instead.
I wandered back down to the town, going to the market and getting some bananas to eat. I then walked along the oceanfront and around the back of the temple on the main road that goes up the hill and then loops back to town. Some poor areas but people were incredibly friendly, many of them stopping me and asking me to take their photos. I had lunch at a teahouse, chatting with the owner and his family, who surprised me by readily discussing the political situation in the country. A lovely meal with tea set me back 25 baht.
So next time you are in Ranong, take some time out and experience something truly different.
My Kawthoung photos can be found here.
It sounds like it would be a good trip over there, and the fact that most people speak decent English is great to hear.