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In and out in a day: The longboat to Myanmar
U.S. President Obama gets to fly into Myanmar on Air Force One. But he's missing out on the fun of Kawthaung on the nation's southern tip
The release of Aung San Suu Kyi in late 2010 and the more recent easing of social, political and economic restrictions in Myanmar have turned the long-isolated nation from the pariah of Southeast Asia to the region's hottest travel destination. Even U.S. President Barack Obama is going.
Around 425,000 foreigners visited Myanmar last year, according to the Ministry of Tourism, with the number projected to increase 30 percent in 2012.
But foreigners based in Thailand have long been traveling to Myanmar's deep south -- and just for one day. Strictly for visa runs as opposed to tourism, the trick allows them to skip across an international border and apply for a new 30-day tourist visa on return.
Accomplished by longboat, the journey crosses the mouth of the Pak Chan River, a broad estuary that marks the maritime border between Thailand and Myanmar.
On the Thai side sits Ranong, a prosperous provincial capital. On the other side lies Kawthaung, the southernmost point of mainland Myanmar and a key transit point on the Singapore-Calcutta shipping lane.
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Saphan Pla Port
Ranong's Saphan Pla port is a hive of activity early in the morning. Blue and green trawlers line the docks as fishermen haul in huge catches of squid, barracuda, stingray, jellyfish and shark.
Amassed into piles of thousands, catches are auctioned on site, an event that pulls in crowds of locals and tourists.
On a nearby jetty, passengers clamber in and out of the longtail boats that plow the five-kilometer-long route between Thailand and Myanmar.
Our longtail motors away from the port into a small channel, where the Thai immigration checkpoint juts out of the water on stilts.
The foreigners onboard hand over their passports, the Burmese their travel permits and, following cursory checks, we are waved on through.
It takes about 30 minutes to reach the Myanmar checkpoint on Snake Island. Covered in dense, tropical vegetation and crowned with a three-tier pagoda, the place makes for an arresting if not eerie introduction to the country.
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A US$5 bill -- greenbacks are king here, no need to exchange any money for Myanmar kyat -- buys any valid passport holder a three-day visa limited to a five-kilometer radius of Kawthaung.
After circling Snake Island, we come within batting distance of the Kawthaung waterfront: a mishmash of colonial and Eastern architecture spread along a headland of dazzling beauty.
Disembarking at Myoma Jetty
Kawthaung's raw energy hits with a blast the moment one steps foot on the Myoma jetty. Surrounded on all sides by turquoise water and thick forested hills, pagodas sparkle on nearby summits; a bustling market overflows with smuggled booze, cigarettes and cheap electronics; leather-skinned fishermen smoke hand-rolled cigarettes in teahouses; the Muslim call to prayer echoes from a nearby mosque.
Far from being dominated by one particular culture, Kawthaung is a mashup of Darwinian proportions. Walking along the waterfront one comes into contact with people of countless ethnic groups.
Descendents of Chinese prospectors who came to mine tin in the 19th century; Malays whose speak Pashu, a language that incorporates Thai and Myanmarese; Moken sea gypsies, who for centuries have plowed the Pak Chan with utter disregard for the maritime border; Sunni Muslims in skullcaps and long flowing gowns; and migrant laborers from as far as the Bangladeshi border.
Myanmar's ethnic diversity is matched by diversity in religious beliefs. Kawthaung has two mosques, two churches, two Chinese temples and dozens of Buddhist pagodas. Standout among these is the Aungdawmu Pagoda, a golden spire that sits atop of a hill a few kilometers upriver from the waterfront district.
The road to the Aungdawmu Pagoda winds along the headland, past colonial manors, thatched-palm villages and the Shwezinyah Quarter.
Built around a maze of Indiana Jones-style footbridges, this stilt-house collective is rife with life and color. Children yell “hello!” and adults offer huge toothy smiles, accompanied often by riotous laughter.
For a stratocracy in which an alleged 10 percent of adult males are employed by Military Intelligence, the people of Kawthaung seem remarkably welcoming and laid-back.
In fact, the only visible sign of the regime are domineering billboards bearing Orwellian slogans such as "The fight against drug menace is a national cause" and "It is very important for everyone of the nation wherever he lives to cultivate and posses strong Union Spirits."
The road twists and turns around rolling hillsides, past the striking Pyi Taw Aye Pagoda and Reclining Buddha, coming to an end at the base of a towering staircase. It's 120 grueling steps to the top of the Aungdawmu Pagoda, where a golden spire erupts from the centre of a gleaming white terrazzo.
From here one can see beyond Bayinnaung Point on the very end of the headland and the northern face of Thahtay Kyun Island, home to the five-star Andaman Club resort and casino. Gigantic green mountains melt into the sea across the estuary in Thailand, while yet another golden pagoda can be seen shimmering on faraway Sa Lon Island.
Jang is one of the many young men who spend their days lounging around the Myoma jetty and identify themselves as guides.
He says he makes US$5-10 per day showing tourists around but admits work is not plentiful.
"Every day many foreigners come here but they never want tours," he says. "They get off, walk to the other end and get back on a boat to Thailand. Why? I don't know."
One possible answer can be found by looking at the infrastructure. The roads are terribly potholed, the accommodation is substandard and there are no tourist bureaus or Internet cafés.
Another answer to this puzzle lies in the guides themselves who, along with boat drivers, touts and the odd opium dealer, swarm foreigners the moment they step ashore.
Add to that packs of barefoot child beggars who trail foreigners with the persistence of mosquitoes and it’s enough to scare all but the most intrepid travelers away.
But peel back the skin and Kawthaung opens up like an exotic flower, where winding backstreets and moss-grown staircases lead into one of the most fascinating destinations on the Malay Peninsula.
Phuket Air (www.phuketairlines.com) flies from Bangkok to Ranong every second day between March and October for US$102 return.
Longtail boats ply the Pak Chan River from dusk till dawn. Return tickets are 100 baht. Alternatively, an entire longboat can be charted for half a day for about 1,000 baht.
Where to stay
Taninthary Guest House (+95 5 51785), a grand but rundown mansion overlooking Snake Island, charges $10 for a room with fan and communal bathroom.
The Andaman Club (+66 2 285 6404, www.andamanclub.com) is a 200-room casino resort on Thahtay Kyun Island. It has a private pier in Ranong and its own immigration office. Popular among Asian gamblers, suites start from $100 per night.
Originally published on September 3, 2012. Updated on November 17, 2012.