In February 2021, a violent coup gripped the country of Myanmar, plunging the lives of its citizens into turmoil. Sadly, this isn’t the first time that the people of Myanmar have suffered unimaginable tragedies on account of political instability in the country.
The following article relays a traveller account of their short time crossing the border into Myanmar from Thailand and laments the fact that travel to the country is no longer possible. We realise that plighted travel plans pale in comparison to what the people of Myanmar are going through. To preempt any attacks from trolls, we hope the article can simply be read as a wistful tale of nostalgia and an innocent desire to explore unfamiliar places.
From our experience staying at backpacker hostels and meeting travel companies in Myanmar, we know that many citizens of Myanmar long for the time when they can start welcoming tourists to their country again. That time, however, is not now. Most governments are currently advising tourists to avoid travel to the country. The impact of the political coup, coupled with the devastating effects of COVID-19 mean that Myanmar is a country in turmoil.
Watching from afar, it is easy to feel powerless when thinking about the situation in Myanmar. However, there are things that travellers can do to help. We have added some resources to the end of this article for those of you who want to support those on the ground and help restore democracy in the country.
Remembering Myanmar: A Traveller’s Tale – By Philip Lindskog
For the traveller, Myanmar may as well be on the moon at this point. The dream of exploring this historical, rich and beautiful place has quickly faded as the country has been plunged into death, violence and instability. Myanmar is facing an uncertain future, to say the least.
Only a few months ago, when thinking about Myanmar, you saw a place full of rich history, golden pagodas, vast jungles, kind people and a very alluring coast stretching from the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Sea. Tucked in between India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, Myanmar seems to be influenced by many countries; a place where different customs mix and as a result, a unique Burmese culture has been born.
But there’s more to Myanmar than meets the eye, something we’ve recently been reminded of. Behind beautiful jungles and golden pagodas, there’s a tragic past which scars the country and seems to come back to haunt its people again and again. It’s a past of dictatorial kings, bloody war, British colonial rule, military regimes and ethnic conflicts.
On February 1, 2021, a new chapter began – one that has caused immense upheaval in the lives of the people of Myanmar. They had only seen a short period of democratic rule. Death, violence and fear have otherwise occupied the country.
From the traveller’s perspective, Myanmar is a country ready to be explored. It’s just there, staring at you and inviting you to investigate the uncharted north, scuba dive along the coast and visit the different cities that have yet to be homogenised by tourism. It’s all there, a perfect combination. But now everything has changed. For the traveller, the dream is fading away.
It’s so strange that this country, on the border with one of the most popular tourist destinations, is now one of the most unstable countries in the world. I myself have a relationship with Myanmar, a country I know as Burma.
During my time living in Thailand, I came to be friends with some Burmese people. They were very kind and smiled a lot. A little shy, maybe, but this could be because they lived in another country. I don’t know. But anyway, they were very kind people that I came to like.
In 2012 and 2013, I lived on the small island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand. My days were filled with diving, drinking Chang beers at the beach and hanging out on the porch enjoying the hot afternoons while listening to the sounds of the jungle. Life had become easy and the outside world was far away, excluded from the stillness. The only thing that disturbed it was something of importance… Those annoying yet necessary, and sometimes charming, visa runs.
When living in Thailand as an expat, visa runs come to be a thing of your life. Depending on where you’re staying in the country, you may find yourself going to Laos, Malaysia or Burma to extend your visa and thus, be able to continue that dream-like life you’ve come to love.
For me, the first-ever visa run I took meant heading to Burma. Together with some friends, we set out from Koh Tao and headed west in only shorts and t-shirts with drybags hanging on our backs. Sitting on the ferry towards the mainland, we didn’t really know what to expect as we’d only been in Thailand for about a month – our first stop on a world-around trip! (For me, the first stop also became the last, as I stayed on Koh Tao and came to call it home for some months). When we arrived on the Thai mainland, we continued by minibus towards our destination. Everything in front of us was unfamiliar and our bodies were filled with nervous excitement.
Coming into the border town of Ranong, our chauffeur told us to go through the immigration office and wait on the other side. Just before, I headed for a public toilet. I looked at the hole in the floor and took out the toilet paper from my drybag. I assumed a squatting position and relieved myself as fast as I could. I wiped my hands with some hand sanitiser and met my friends outside.
We started to approach the immigration office when our chauffeur waved at us, yelling to us that we needed to hurry up. Entering the office, we were hit with an anxious feeling as we were about to leave Thailand with most of our belongings back on Koh Tao.
We handed in our passports, walked through the tiny office and came out the other side, receiving our passports back stamped with the official ‘Kingdom of Myanmar’ stamp. We met our chauffeur and walked down towards a little harbour along a very murky river and asked ourselves what would happen if we fell in. Beer bottles, food containers, candy wrappers and plastic bags floated in the muddy brown water that certainly didn’t get its colour from nature.
We stayed close to our chauffeur while we were engulfed in the hectic border town life; dirt, loud noises and boats coming and going. We were still in our acclimatisation period for our Southeast Asia backpacking trip and sweat poured down our backs while we held our drybags tight.
We set out on the river in a very wobbly wooden longtail boat with around twenty people who had the same goal of extending their stay in Thailand. It was windy and the waves splashed against the wooden hull of the boat. My eyes were fixed on the country ahead, not the murky and dirty water beneath us. Finally, we reached the town of Kawthaung in Burma. The long tail docked at the end of the long line of boats. We had to jump over at least ten of them to get to the dock.
Our instructions were clear: go to the small immigration office, hand in our passports and pay the fee. We walked in, did as instructed and waited. My heart started beating faster and faster, sweat pouring down my face like never before. The minutes of waiting were filled with paranoia. Is this the end of my Thailand trip? Will my trip continue on this side of the dirty river? What about my belongings back on Koh Tao? Different scenarios came and went. I listened to other people, trying to figure out if I was just being paranoid.
Suddenly, the man behind the counter called my name and I walked up with a straight back, nodding politely. I saw my passport in his hands. No smile nor an indication of what had happened. Then the relief when it was handed over to me with a new Thai visa. We all went through the same thing, finding relief as a collective.
Kawthaung is a classic border town. A hectic place where people attempt to lure and profit from tourists. Stores are put up to attract people coming over the border and everything around seems to be in a place of limbo. There is an unease in the city. The atmosphere is special yet hard to explain. Personally, I’m a big fan of border towns because there’s nothing quite like them.
For example, the border town of Aranyaprathet between Thailand and Cambodia. It’s a place overflowing with stress, loud noises and dirt in every corner. Shady people that only exist in places like this lurk in corners and the high volume of vehicles coming and going threaten to crush you like a bug. In Aranyaprathet, the Cambodian side is filled with casinos as gambling is prohibited in Thailand, creating this in-between world. The town has a reputation for being very unsafe. Kawthoung has the same feeling to it, a bit more chilled, but still with a somewhat shady atmosphere.
The second we left the immigration office, we were swarmed by people trying to sell us things such as hotel stays, tobacco, alcohol, different drugs and cheap (definitely not legit) Thai Visas. We just shook our heads and ignored them, passing by while feeling their frustration. Some of them cursed at us and walked away, others continued trying using a mix of friendly and aggressive tactics.
Being privileged backpackers and still not being accustomed to the experience, we avoided all eye contact and crossed the road fast. We entered a supermarket and while inside, we were mostly left alone – there was just one persistent young man in worn clothes trying to sell us drugs and prostitutes. We bought cheap and strong cigarettes and some even cheaper whiskey.
We decided to walk back to the longtail boat and wait for the others. Eventually, we headed back to Thailand. Suddenly, Ranong in front of us didn’t look so bad. Having Burma in our rear-view mirror, I felt a heavy sadness. We had received a bad first impression, this town couldn’t be the heart of Burma. One day, I’ll be back, I told myself sitting on the longtail with the wind in my face and the dirty river beneath me.
My experience in Burma is short and just features one border town. It is what it is. I’ve returned to Thailand many times but never been across the border again. Now, still with a desire to backpack through Myanmar and see the country from within, it feels like that dream has faded away. The harsh reality of death, violence and an uncertain future has struck the country and as travellers, all we can do is hope for the day when the people of Myanmar are safe and able to rebuild their lives once again, hopefully for the last time.
You may feel helpless watching the situation in Myanmar unfold. However, there are things we can do.
The following action points reflect our understanding of the most effective ways to help the people of Myanmar. We always recommend carrying out additional research before donating to any cause.
- Donate to Myanmar Now, an independent journalism outlet. The military is targeting Myanmar’s journalists and in particular, the ones reporting on the current atrocities. Myanmar Now has played an integral role in accurately conveying the situation on the ground. Donations will help to fund reporting and journalists’ salaries. You can donate via their website.
- Donate to Myanmar’s democratically elected legislature. The GoFundMe which represents Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is run by the Citizen of Burma Award Organisation and aims to support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) who are fighting on the ground. Updates are in Burmese but these can be translated online. You can donate here.
- Donate directly to the CDM. All funds raised will go towards funding the movement and helping those who have been impacted by food insecurities and displacement. You can donate here.
- Donate to a humanitarian aid organisation working on the ground in Myanmar. Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee are a few of the charities providing support to the people of Myanmar.
- Use your social media platforms to raise awareness of the situation in Myanmar. Even if you are not in the position to make a monetary donation, you can still help. Justice for Myanmar is a good website for keeping up to date with the latest news.
- Write to your local representative or MP. Many believe that the international community should be doing more to help end the Myanmar coup. By making your views known to those who represent you, you will keep the conversation going.
Philip Lindskog | The World of Conflicts
Born and raised in Sweden, in his early twenties, Philip Lindskog started backpacking. He went to Southeast Asia and lived for a year and a half on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. He’s also lived in Australia and Barcelona where he studied Spanish. He writes both non-fiction and fiction and has published a book in Swedish (Vandring i en förlorad värld). In 2020, he started studying History and Journalism at Goldsmiths University of London.
Find me: Instagram