The Myawaddy-Mae Sot border point is one of a handful of border crossings between Thailand and Myanamr that were opened to Westerners in 2013. In this part of the country a natural frontier is formed by the Moei or Thaunggin (in Thai and Burmese respectively) river, and travellers cross the cutesily named Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge.
After a mildly terrifying motorbike taxi ride from the Myawaddy bus station to the border, I found my self at the Myanmar immigration point. An official ushered me past the queues to the ‘Foreigner Departure Office’, where I met the only two other Westerners I would encounter here. I filled out a form, got my stamps and had my picture taken, and was sent on my way to cross the bridge to the Thai immigration point on the other side. Again I was ushered past the queues to the Foreigners’ desk, filled out a couple of forms, got a stamp and strode through. The whole process took about 20 minutes, even including the time it took to help an illiterate Burmese man write out his passport information, and everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly.
After another hair-raising motorbike taxi ride to Mae Sot bus station, I got on my bus an hour later (more gold stars for me) and began the second leg of my journey to Bangkok. Although the landscape was similar, the difference between the two countries was immediately noticeable, from the wide, well-maintained roads, to the warehouse shops and Tesco Lotuses. I dozed through the rest of the journey and arrived in Bangkok at 7:30pm, got ripped off for a taxi and arrived at the Udee Hostel exhausted and ready for bed. It was clean and slightly clinical with a relaxed, quiet crowd, which was perfect for my walking zombie state at that point, and I had a great night’s sleep. There was plenty of information, the staff were very helpful, and although it was a half-hour drive from the city centre, it was very well placed for the Mo Chit bus station and the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which I visited the next morning.
One of the biggest markets in the world, you really can get pretty much anything you can think of, from teenage fashion, antiques and artificial flowers, to street food, foot massages and silks, to pet squirrels, modern art and gigantic bronze statues. And an entire shop devoted to outfits for your dog. I think my favourite stalls were the trendy young fashion vendors with bizarre English names like ‘Because Dog’ and ‘BackHorseMarking’, but all of the stalls were different and fascinating. It was great for people-watching too, and for my first Thai food experience, the street food was fantastic. After a few hours wandering around I decided to get a foot massage, partly to kill some time, partly because my feet really did hurt, and partly because I’d never had one. I’m not generally a big fan of people touching my feet, or of massages in general, but I thought I might as well do it in a place where I wouldn’t understand the local language for ‘dear God this woman’s feet are disgusting’. Like the manicures and other physical treatments I’ve had before, I found it simultaneously relaxing and uncomfortable, tickly and painful, therapeutic and excruciating. She used her steel fingers, her elbows and a wooden poking device that looked like a big chopstick and felt like an instrument of torture, but my feet and legs did feel a hell of a lot better afterwards.
After the market I wandered around around Chatuchak Park before heading back to the hostel to pick up my bag and get a taxi to the train station. After getting a taxi all by myself (yet another gold star) I got my first and only brief look at the centre of Bangkok. Modern as Yangon may be compared to the rest of Myanmar, it’s still a backwater compared to Bangkok. It was hectic and gridlocked, but also clean and orderly in its own way, and I would’ve liked to have had more time there to explore. But I was also keen to get to the beach.
Hua Lumphong Railway Station was a dream to navigate with a cheap and cheerful food court and platform information in English. I boarded my train to Surat Thani and found my seat in the second class sleeper carriage, which was arranged in pairs of facing seats either side of the aisle. I had a nice if rather odd dinner (whoever thought of putting grapes in a curry was not onto something), and chatted to my neighbours, who were Italian and British and heading to Ko Tao off the east coast. After dinner the train attendants came round and made up the bunks and I had the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on a train. I didn’t think I was going to die of hyperthermia (like in Myanmar) or from the train itself falling apart (like in Russia) and I had a real horizontal bed (unlike in Canada). Total luxury.
By the time I had woken up, the scenery had changed to lush, tropical green, with rubber plantations and dense forests. When I got off the train at Surat Thani I was prepared to work out how to get the bus, clutching my travel voucher, but there was no need – I was firmly on the tourist trail now, and the platform was full of stewards from the various bus companies, directing passengers in perfect English. Surat Thani is the transfer point for rail travellers coming from Bangkok to get to Phuket, Krabi and the Andaman Coast, and the journey is much more popular than I’d appreciated. Not that I minded – it’s great that other people share my enthusiasm for rail travel, and an easy, straightforward transfer at 7:30am is never something to be sniffed at.
I had booked a ticket for the four-hour bus journey south-west to Phuket Town bus station, where I would buy a ticket for the two-hour journey up the coast to Khao Lak, not realising that it’s possible and much quicker to get a bus from Surat Thani straight to Khao Lak. But I was in no rush and it allowed me to have a brief look at Phuket before my stay there a few weeks later. Before my trip I had been vaguely aware that Phuket was an island, and thought of it in a non-specific way as a small place – busy and developed with several beaches, but basically a town, which would be easy to get in and out of. Not true. It’s a massive island covering 220 square miles, half as big again as the Isle of Wight, and once we were on the island it took a good hour of inland driving to get to Phuket Town bus station, which I then repeated on the second bus to go back out again. But still, no rush. The second hour of my journey to Khao Lak was very scenic, however, and much quieter, with a few glimpses of the sea, and I arrived at my hostel in the early afternoon, ready for a shower and a relaxing beach break.