(Thanks to Reed for reviewing this translation)
From Inle Lake, Anselm and I take a bus to the south. I don´t like to load my bike onto a bus. Not only is the ride stressful, it is important to me that I cover as many kilometers by bike as possible. But my 28-day visa has expired and any overtime will cost 3 U.S. dollars per day. Because my destination is over 1000 km to the south, I need to take a bus to Moulmein. This city is near the Myawaddi border, where Anselm and I arrived 28 days earlier.
From here, Anselm goes back to Thailand and I’m on my own again. The south of Myanmar was restricted to foreigners until recently, and is not developed for tourists. I have no idea what to expect.
Friendly people and poor roads
After 4 days I have covered the nearly 400 kilometers from Moulmein to Dawei. Undetected by the police, I camp in rubber plantations or between bushes near the road.
In Dawei I get escorted by a police officer. He makes sure that I go to a hotel and don´t pitch my tent somewhere.
Once I check in, I go to a cybercafe. It has become important to me to check my emails once a week. The Internet is my way of communication, my window to the world outside of the current destination. I have a new email from Buggi, a German cyclist with I’ve been in contact with for a month, but have not yet met him. He is now in Dawei. The city is not very big, I find his hotel easily and we decide to continue together the next day.
The road is sometimes good, sometimes bad. It is mostly parallel to the sea through endless rubber and palm oil plantations. The only possibility to get some food is the small villages on the main road. The curiosity, but particularly the friendliness of the people impresses me again.
These people, who often don ́t possess more than a small bamboo hut and a few pots, make the best out of their lives despite all the difficulties and circumstances. They are always ready to give a smile or to speak out a welcome or an invitation for food or drinks.
Communication on the linguistic level is restricted due to lack of English by the Burmese, and our lack of Burmese. But sometimes there is the opportunity for a good conversation in English. Asked about the “political change” and the “opening up of Myanmar”, terms which often appear in the Western media, an old man starts to laugh. “You really think something has improved for the people?” he asks me. He tells me about the so called “land grabbing”, which has greatly increased lately. The government, the army or army related companies bring by supposedly legal means or by force land into their possession and displace the resident farmer. Those who dare to protest get imprisoned. The land for a new deep-water port near Dawei, for several power plants and cement factories, and the site of many army bases have been snatched from the people in this way. Compensation doesn’t exist; the people have no other choice than to leave their land, which is their livelihood and what they often till for generations. Also, many people seem to have no more hope in Aung San Suu Kyi. Although posters and offices of the “National League for Democracy” can be found in every village, enthusiastic or hopeful words are nowhere to be found.
For those who are interested a few links:
Landgrabbing in Myanmar (in english)
Farmers rise up at land grab by army-owned company (in english)
Most tourists don´t know much about these things or they don ́t wan to know at all. Only if you look closely and inform yourself, you will note that in Myanmar, the “Land of Smiles” (travelguide)the reality of life for the population is quite hard. A smile can pass quickly when you read the reports of robbery, rape and murder by the military, torture, forced labor and human trafficking, to name only the most serious crimes.
Dolphins and sea gypsies
Myeik is the next large city. The port is busy, small and larger boats are busily loading and unloading. In the market and in shops, there are many Thai products, the border is not far away and there is much smuggling going on.
The final stretch to the southern end of Myanmar is still restricted. While two German cyclists came through without a special permit a few weeks ago, a British cyclist had to continue by bus just a few days before.
The situation is unclear. Buggi and I decide to take a boat to Kawthoung. This is much more comfortable than a bus and certainly faster. The ticket costs $40 for foreigners, but for Burmese only half the price.
Several hundred small islands lay in front of the coast. It is the habitat of the Moken people. These people are also called Sea Gypsies. They live in the dry season on their boats, at sea, from fishing and trade. Only in the rainy season do they go for longer on land, to repair their boats and live in makeshift shelters on the islands. They are a nomadic sea people whose traditional and close to nature lifestyle is threatened. The Burmese government is trying to make these people to settle on land, while oil drilling and overfishing destroy their livelihoods. As of today their habitat is still spared from tourism, but unfortunately it won ́t take long until the first dive resort gets built and the beaches and dolphin watches are sold out and commercialized by the tourism industry.
The boat trip takes 6 hours, smaller and larger islands flit past, some of them so small that there is only space for a few palm trees. The boat stops in between to pick up or set down passengers from small wooden boats; there are no piers. Dolphins appear frequently in the water. It’s a beautiful last day in Myanmar, a country from which I will have good memories.