It was time for us to reluctantly check out of Southeast Asia, but Myanmar wouldn’t let us out of her watery Thingyan clutches so easily.
Upon arriving in Yangon the day before the water festival began, we set about finding transport to the border. We’d heard that travel during Thingyan was “nearly impossible” because everything shuts down for the five-day festival, but figured we’d try our luck anyway. We decided to try and cross the border on 16 April, the last day of the water festival.
All the locals we asked were shocked. “Don’t you know it’s THINGYAN?! You can’t travel during THINGYAN!!” And indeed, the festival had decimated the inter-city bus schedule. The few services that remained had been booked full weeks in advanced.
But we needed to get from Yangon to Mawlamyine in order to find onward transport to the Myawaddy border. Our only other option was the train. After some struggle, we made it to the ticketing office in the back of Yangon station, fully expecting the trains to be booked solid. But the man behind the desk simply asked which day we’d like to go, and at what time. For 4,500 kyat ($4) each, we snagged tickets on a 7:15am during the climax of Thingyan.
Three days later, waterlogged and hungover from the festival, we made it to the train station and settled in for the nine-hour ride. The old-fashioned trains in Myanmar are amazing beasts that heave over rickety tracks through tiny, timeless villages and amazing tropical scenery. We were excited for the ride and settled in.
It didn’t take long for the Thingyan madness to rear its head. Old-fashioned trains have old-fashioned windows, and in the March heat the entire train car had slid up the metal and glass panes to let a breeze in. Before we even made it out to the sticks of Yangon, kids along the tracks had begun to throw plastic bags full of water at the train. After one or two attacks our adrenaline had kicked the sleepy hangovers out of our heads and we were on edge.
Some people stuck their heads out the window to try and spot the attackers before they reached us.
“Ahhhh!” A woman at the front of the carriage screamed before sliding her window shut. Not everyone was so quick.
Nine hours later we arrived in Mawlamyine, tired and very wet.
The owner of our guesthouse said he could arrange transport from Mawlamyine to Myawaddy for us, at a price. “It’s Thingyan, you know?”
We teamed up with other travellers who had the same wild idea we did (to travel during Thingyan), and at the end we were five. The guesthouse owner said that, for $12 each, we could get a private taxi to drive us to the border at 6:30 the next morning. The journey normally costs $8, but he wouldn’t hear any objections. It was Thingyan after all—the most important holiday in Myanmar.
The next morning our ride appeared at the scheduled time, but it had a group of five teenagers in the back already. The driver was busy tying a bunch of luggage onto the wagon’s roof rack. How did he expect to fit five big ol’ foreigners and all their stuff in the car along with the kids? One in our party objected. “We’re paying good money for this and we don’t even get seats?” The guesthouse owner rolled his eyes. “It’s Thingyan,” he reiterated with a smirk, “This is all we could find.”
He said he could get us a private car, and each one of us could have a seat. But it would cost more money. Now we were rolling our eyes. In the end we negotiated a car for all five of us for $80, which is no small amount of money in Myanmar. Later on the journey, when our driver got chatty, he boasted that he used to work in Kuala Lumpur installing designer kitchens. There, he made $80 a day. It was hard work, but it made him feel like a rich man.
But for now our $80 seemed to be going different ways. We got brought to a street where many cars were parked, and our bags got juggled around between wagons and mini vans, none of which would fit five foreigners in seats. But with every operation, someone got slipped a few bills.
Finally we were put in a wagon. One foreigner in the front and four in the back, with the hatch area reserved for a teenage girl and an old woman who kept getting car sick. We pleaded with them not to put our bags on the top of the car, afraid that by the time we reached Myawaddy all our stuff would be drenched. But they weren’t having it.
The ride was long and bumpy, full of “shortcuts” down unfinished dirt roads and through tiny towns where people were excited to douse our car with water. On the final day of Thingyan, people were going all out. While most people had metal oil drums full of water that they scooped water out of, some had gone the extra mile and constructed special Thingyan rigs, our favourite of which was an arch over the road that drizzled out water like a huge shower head.
Music was thumping from village stages and sound systems on the backs of trucks, and although we had grown tired of the madness days ago, there were a few times I wished I was out there soaked to the bone instead of in the car and on the way to the border.
The final shortcut of our journey was down The New Road. Until now, the Myawaddy border with Thailand could only be accessed by a winding mountain road that is so narrow, traffic flows in one direction and switches every other day. But thanks to a booming exchange between the two countries, Thailand sponsored the construction of a new highway that cuts right through the mountains, and shaves a good four hours off the journey from Mawlamyine to Myawaddy.
The road wasn’t officially open yet, but the locals didn’t really care. We zoomed past a few army checkpoints (one of which was blasting bass music while a young, beer-chugging officer danced away, plucking small kyat notes out of drivers’ hands as they went by) then suddenly climbed up out of the jungle onto the smoothest tarmac I’d ever seen.
The road was so smooth it felt like riding on black butter. We rolled up and down hills created where the mountains had been sliced right through, passing banner-waving motorbike gangs and flatbed trucks full of Thingyan revellers. The road wasn’t crowded, and there were no lines, no signage, and no barriers to distract from the unnatural beauty of thick, black asphalt. It was exhilarating.
Then suddenly, we were at Myawaddy. It was time to go. It would have been a solemn occasion had someone not decided to build a big stage in front of the border. Like, right in front of the immigration building.
With all our earthly belongings on our backs, we didn’t want to get drenched again. But there was no escape. A few guys gleefully ran up and delicately dumped bowlfuls of water over our backs. They laughed and thanked us (for what?) while we forced some smiles.
We managed to make it through the stage without getting too wet, and ran straight for the immigration building. It was barely large enough for five foreigners with backpacks and the immigration staff, but they went through the process of stamping us all out with friendly smiles.
I was through first and stepped outside to make more room in the small office. Next to the road, immigration staff had set up a large bowl of shwe yin aye, or coconut milk filled with tapioca sweets, and were handing out cups of it to families that were driving through the border. They saw me and got excited, pushing a big cup into my hands. Free dessert at the border, why not?
Mook was out next, and the border guards were excited to see him too. “Have a beer!” They laughed, giving him a can of Myanmar. We looked at each other in disbelief.. What kind of border is this?
From there things got a little nuts, as border guards danced around dumping ice water on us and smearing fragrant thanaka all over our faces. “Happy New Year!!” everyone yelled back and forth above the cheesy Myanmarese pop music that was blaring in the background. It suddenly seemed so stupid of us to check out of this amazing country right at the best part. But the exit stamps were in our passports and there was nothing we could do but go to Thailand.
Crossing the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge to Mae Sot was anticlimactic. Up ahead the Thai border was silent and sterile, and there was no buzzing atmosphere or pounding music to welcome us into the Land of Smile. But as we crossed, down below in the Moei river the party was still going, as Myanmarese and Thai people laughed and swam together, crossing the border as if it didn’t exist.
It was an unbelievable sight and an incredible vibe, and as our very final border crossing on the Eurasian leg of our trip, we couldn’t have asked for anything more memorable.