We returned to Mon State and spent a few days exploring the magical region. Mawlemyine was as beautiful as I remember it, sitting on the banks of the Gyaing river and turning red-gold as the sun set to the cries of a million seagulls on the Strand.
We met my colleagues, running a project in Mon to raise awareness of rule of law issues and systems and to increase cooperation between state and civil society, who took us on a tour of local landmarks. We were taken to the world’s biggest reclining Buddha at Win Sein Taw Ya, the breathless and peaceful Hindu temple on the rock standing next to Kyain Ta Loan near Mudon, the ancient gong given by the last Queen of Mon, Shin Saw Pu, in Kyaikmaraw, and to Gaung Se Kyun island via a rickety boat ride, a site of Buddhist meditation.
The minibus from Dawei to the border crossing at Htee Khee carried a monk, two local ladies, a German tourist, boxes of dried fish, milk powder and a container of mangoes, along with my wife and me. Extracting information about our passage to Kanchanaburi in Thailand had been hard work.
As we set off along the dusty tracks out of Myanmar’s southern capital and into the jungle, we had no idea how long the journey would take, or indeed if we would even be able to cross into Thailand. The border at Htee Khee is in constant flux, reflecting the political situation in Myanmar and the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the many separatist groups that operate mainly in the impenetrable border regions of the country. There was also the possibility that the Thai side would be closed, as it had been recently when all land borders shut temporarily as the military overthrew the government.
What I did know is that we would pass through territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) and its military wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a long established and well organized group that had been fighting the government since 1949. I also knew that tensions between the two had been flaring up of late. So as we trundled along bumpy tracks of sand and rock, deep into the mountainous jungle and past infrequent settlements of traditional bamboo shacks on stilts, there was the real possibility we’d be returning this way at some stage later on.
I put my anxieties to one side and pondered the unspoiled beauty of rural Myanmar and how I had come to be here. Just a few days before I had set off with my local colleagues on an 18-hour bus journey from Yangon to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi, Myanmar’s southernmost state that occupies a vertical strip of land between the Andaman Sea to the west and Thailand to the east. We were on our way to a team building retreat at Maungmakan beach. The journey had been incredible: from Mawlemyine the Yangon-Dawei highway deteriorated to a single lane track of intermittent tarmac, potholes and sand. The mountainous region on the Mon-Tanintharyi border presented the most perilous road I’d ever experienced; a white knuckle ride along hairpin bends that hugged the contours of the range, inching past patches that had collapsed down sheer cliffs – often at the hairpin apex – at frequent intervals. By far the best ways to reach Dawei are by plane or boat.
And now we were winding through mountainous terrain on a sandy track again, following the course of a wide and turbulent river. After several hours we passed into KNU territory. From here on the few settlements and checkpoints flew the Karen national flag and proudly displayed their mascot of two buffalo horns, polished, inscribed, and joined together at their bases. Only once did I get an inkling of the ongoing conflict as we were passed by a Toyota Hilux filled with armed men in what I presumed to be KNLA military uniforms.
We reached Htee Khee 8 hours after leaving Maunmakan. It was a tiny place of bamboo shacks, nestled in the craggy, foliage covered hills, whose only purpose appeared to be servicing the border crossing. Billboards showing expansion plans for economic zones, hotels, business and improved infrastructure hinted at Myanmar’s ambition for the region, but their tired and worn appearance suggested slow progress and, for now at least, Htee Khee remains a frontier settlement lost in time.
Crossing into Thailand passed without incident. We’d been taken to a port-a-cabin that served as the emigration office, had our passports stamped, and been driven across the kilometer or so of no man’s land that lay between the two gates. We were greeted by burly Thais in smart military uniforms, all wearing sunglasses and carrying arms. Ahead a man changed his Myanmar number plates for Thai equivalents. Was that legal? No one seemed bothered. Through immigration and onto the broad, smooth expressway that took us the 65 kms to Kanchanaburi, famous as the location for the ‘death railway’ bridge across the River Kwai.
In the comfortable and developed surroundings of our guesthouse and Kanchanaburi later that evening, it was hard to comprehend that Htee Khee was just over an hour away by road. So close, yet a different world.
Last week I accompanied colleagues from Loka Ahlinn on a field visit to the Ayeyarwaddy Delta region in southwest Myanmar. Loka Ahlinn has been working with farmers in the area for a number of years since providing relief and livelihood support in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
From the port town of Bogalay we took a traditional boat deep into the delta, through mighty waterways and thin channels with banks bursting with tropical foliage. We visited several villages where farmers receive training on producing a bigger rice paddy yield and are soon to be part of a project to create collectives that lobby for increased rights.
Rain clouds are now a daily feature over Yangon. A brisk wind precedes the deluge, where the rain lashes down so fiercely that visibility recedes and the whole city holds its breath. The monsoon has very much arrived.
But the downpours do little to stop the average Yangonite going about his or her daily business or to dampen spirits. The tea shops, beer stations and stalls continue to spill out onto the pavements; all that’s changed are the many parasols and make-shift gazebos that have popped up to give shelter.
I regularly go out with my colleagues for lunch at a street-side barbecue, then on to a tea shop. No one is in a hurry. Some Friday evenings I play five-a-side football with a few of them, after which we sit in a beer station and the conversation usually turns to politics and civil society action.
Recently I returned from the UK with a litre of Laphroaig. We had a bottle opening ceremony at a local beer station accompanied by fried duck feet and pickled tea leaves. For those interested, the fried duck feet had a similar texture and taste to squid.
Just daily life in Yangon.