No direction: Navigating the Thailand-Myanmar border crossing at Phu Nam Ron

Phu Nam Ron Myanmar border
Phu Nam Ron Myanmar border

Our awesome retro ride to Dawei

Research, research, research: it’s a mantra we usually live by. But after our “holiday” in Penang we were feeling decidedly lazy and carefree, so we set off from Malaysia into southern Thailand and towards the Myanmar border without much planning, thinking we could figure shit out along the way.

This impulsiveness resulted in an awesome five-day bus marathon, as we fumbled through big names like Krabi and Phuket to the small town of Ranong, site of the southernmost border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar. We arrived on a Sunday and all the banks were closed; there was no good way to change our Thai baht into US dollars without getting a seriously bad exchange rate. So from there we made a split-second decision to hoof it up to the second southernly border crossing, opened to foreign tourists only since June 2013.

One VIP overnight bus ride and one sprint in a rickety old local bus later, we found ourselves in Kanchanaburi, a picturesque provincial town famous for the impressively named “Death Railway” and The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Exhausted from the 12-hour journey, we decided to postpone crossing till the next day.

United States dollars are widely accepted in Myanmar, and are the preferred emergency currency in a developing country with spotty ATM coverage. After struggling with ATMs and money in Uzbekistan, we wanted to ensure we’d have some leeway this time around in Myanmar. We had withdrawn enough Thai baht to cover our first week of accommodation, but made the mistake of waiting until the very last minute to exchange the baht into dollars.

At 9:30am the next morning, with just an hour before the bus to the border town was scheduled to depart, I hoofed it to a bank next to the bus station that advertised currency exchange, only to find out that they don’t sell dollars—only buy. So I went to a nearby bank on the main street. There it was the same story. And the next one, and the next one. In total I visited six banks, with increasing urgency as the clock ticked forward, finally stumbling into the obnoxiously pink Government Savings Bank, where they exchanged our stupid Thai baht for US dollars. The rate wasn’t the best, but the staff spoke English and were happy to give me a choice of denominations in notes that lay perfectly flat on the desk so the Burmese would take them without hesitation.

There are two choices of transport from Kanchanaburi to border town Phu Nam Ron: minibus and public bus. Minibuses leave at 9am and 12pm, though we never found out how much they cost, and the public bus leaves at 10:30am and 12:30pm and costs 70THB ($2).

Out 10:30am public bus got us to Phu Nam Ron just before 12:30pm. From there it was a short walk to the Thai border, a relaxed operation where people walked back and forth through the barriers without a care in the world. While we were waiting, a bald Thai dude who looked like a Yakuza movie extra said he’d take us across the 4km of no-man’s land between the two borders and then the 100km on to Dawei for 800THB ($24) per person. An attractive offer and an easy way out that comes at far too high a price, so we said no.

Exit immigration was quick and painless, and once through our next task was to find transport across no-man’s land. We’d heard about scooters and tuktuks hanging around waiting to shuttle people across for about 50THB, but the border zone was empty except for a few guards and a stray dog. After a while people started coming through, but the scooters avoided us like the plague. Finally a helpful local (aren’t they always?) said we could hop into a pick-up truck with him and go across for free. During the ride he asked where we were going and said that, although he was just doing some business at the Myanmar border before heading back to Thailand, the few times he did go onward to Dawei he had paid 700THB ($21) for the ride.

We drove through jungle and dust for a good few minutes before the truck took a detour up a hill to a shack where lots of locals were milling about. They started unloading tires from the back and told us to sit down. “We need to get our stamps. Where’s the border?” we asked. People pointed to a group of buildings about 500 metres from the bottom of the hill. Wait 30 minutes and one of us will drive you across the border and to Dawei for only 700THB per person, they smiled.

Had our helpful local brought us to his buddies looking to make a buck? We tried to negotiate a lower price but they wouldn’t budge, so we thanked them for the ride and started off down the sandy hill towards the border. They weren’t pleased, and scowled at us as we left.

The Myanmar immigration building in Htee Khee was about as unofficial-looking as an official building could get. From the outside, the one-storey structure looked like it had been pounded together from an Ikea kit, and inside everything was covered with a layer of dust and old fashioned bureaucracy. An immigration officer in acid-washed jeans and a black polo shirt invited us to sit down while he flipped through our passports and checked out our stamps. Sweat poured down our faces from the hike in the heat. “Pakistan, hmm?” he quipped innocuously, looking at Mook. He handed one passport to a guy behind him to get photocopies, while the dude next to him meticulously memoed the other’s passport details down into a thick book. “The computer is broken,” he smiled sheepishly, gesturing at a cobweb-collecting machine across the room. We grinned and nodded at his white lie.

Stamps in our passport, we headed back outside to look for a ride. The immigration guy guessed a ride to Dawei would cost 500THB ($15) per person, and that was an amount we could deal with. But again, strangely, there was no one around offering rides. It was only 1:30pm, but things were already pretty dead.

After sitting around for about 15 minutes, a guy on a scooter pulls up and offers us a ride for 700THB. Too much, we say, how about 500? “Okay, 500THB per person, no problem. Wait here 30 minutes, I’ll be right back,” the guy says. We didn’t really have another choice.

Five minutes later he pulls back up, this time in a small retro-looking van. We clarified the price once more before loading ourselves in, and after a driver change and picking up one other passenger, we were on our way to Dawei.

It took an arduous three hours of driving to get to Dawei (yes, three hours to go 100km!!), with a good 75 percent of the journey being down bumpy dirt roads that curved up and down hills through absolutely gorgeous jungle scenery. Our driver’s forearms bulged as he gripped the steering wheel through the rough terrain. The windows of the van were tinted but still the view was unbeatable, as we passed through fantasy landscapes of untouched forests and tiny ramshackle bamboo villages perched on the edge of civilisation.

We made it to Dawei just before sundown, tired from the heat but so very excited to explore this new crazy country.

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