The Myanmar – India border crossing permit debacle

February 2016

After exciting Myanmar because of our group permit to cross into India we spent an enjoyable week of rest in Mae Sot, Thailand. The small border town and especially the Green Guest House was a perfect place to be to relax, do some errands and write and work. We met with Susan and Nat, two photographers living in Mae Sot for 6 months a year.

And slowly slowly the guest house filled up with more cyclists as more and more members of our group showed up. We had fun getting to know everyone and exchanging plans and future routes.

That was it for our group though. Early next morning we cycled to the border, ever optimistic if not quite sure what would happen next. Our agency Burma Senses had left us with more than vague instructions what to do at the border. So we were not really sure if we should be upfront about our plans to cross into India as an individual  unaccompanied group or just be vague about it. We were processed quickly and got our entry stamps. As the agency had stated before that our entering as a group with the permit was very important we thought we should at least get the border staff to acknowledge the permit and showed it to them. Long story short – it all went downhill from there. We then spent the whole day at the border, discussing with various officials, talking to our contact at Burma Senses over the phone and later trying to reach said contact who would not pick up the phone any longer.

The border staff was not impressed with our permit and got increasingly angry at the agency for having us set up with the document. In the end they would not even let us enter Myanmar on our still valid tourist visas. After more discussions we could agree on returning to Thailand that evening and coming back to Myanmar the following day as six individuals. We would then be allowed to enter but not to cross into India. I guess this was a case of ‘saving face’ – we were somehow punished for trying to enter with the invalid permit but on the next day we could just be treated as normal tourists and everything would be forgotten.

Burma Senses eventually reacted to our emails complaining about their lack of support, saying that it wasn’t their fault and they did everything they could. They agreed to pay us back our money immediately and did just that. We still weren’t happy with them just stopping to respond to our calls when it got difficult and were left wondering if this happened due to differences in communication. Torsten and I grew up with solving problems directly and talking about them and maybe our contact did not. Talking to many people all over SE Asia we learned that it is not very common to talk openly about problems. Of course this is nothing more than an assumption based on what happened.

(For a longer version of the events see below.)

The upsides to that day was the group of people we shared it with: Our group of 6 was – except for one person – very relaxed and we managed to make that day full of surprises kind of fun.

In any way, some decisions had to be made. We had spent so much time trying to organize the Myanmar – India border crossing and after all of that it still didn’t work out. We talked, decided that we had really enjoyed Myanmar and still wanted to see more of it. Flights out of there to India were really expensive though and that’s why we planned on flying from Bangkok. In regards to that it didn’t really make sense to cycle up north to see all the sights like Bagan and Inle Lake and then take buses back south to make it for our visa deadline. After all the buses to get to Myanmar we really just wanted to  cycle. So we opted to go south straight away and then to exit Myanmar through the Htee Kee border crossing to Thailand. From there we would cycle to Bangkok, see our fantastic friend Toom again and then fly to India. More on that next week!

A change of plans but that just comes with the territory of overland travel, doesn’t it?



And for those interested – here is the slightly longer version of our permit troubles, first published on the Thorntree Forum:

So, we were going to cross from Thailand (Myawady) to Tamu/Moreh with bicycles. Found one agency (Burma Senses / Asia Senses) who offered to organize the permits without need for a guide. All others we contacted said this was not possible at all. Managed to get a group of 6 cyclists together as was cheaper with more people.

They changed rules/options a few times, apparently both in Tamu and Myawady staff has changed recently and the current ones are extremely diligent/bureaucratic. We were told that Tamu would only let you leave after checking with Myawady that we entered already in a group, with correct permit, on the prescribed date.

So we got the permits from the agency, however when entering in Myawady staff insisted despite what the permit said we could only go with pilot car, guide and officer of Ministry of Hotel and Tourism with us all the time(!!) (ruling out any “cheating”, too). Apparently they called lots of senior Ministry staff and decided that the permit could not be honored any more. Everybody was friendly and we had the impression they really just wanted/had to to follow the rules from high up/not make any mistakes, bribes were never suggested! Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and Immigration are quite separate and we gathered that Ministry staff were the “problem” in our case. Eventually our agency told us they saw no way to make it work and literally abandoned us at the border – not OK! A few more hours of discussion got us to at least keep our visas – we had to return to Thailand for the night, but were allowed in as “regular” tourists only the following day.

The agency did refund all our money right away, so lost quite a bit on this, too. Not sure if they were just too optimistic or naive, had overestimated their contacts, …

I spent a lot of time trying to organize this and am pretty sure for the time being crossing Myanmar to India overland is currently impossible. Have not heard of anyone just showing up at the border and getting through, but did hear of people showing up and not getting through.

Options you have now seem to be Exotic Myanmar – but only if you want to go India to Thailand. They can do individual permits to enter from and leave to India for 2x$80, people can usually leave to Thailand even though they are not supposed to. Must be applied for before entering Myanmar. Thai to India this does not work, they said clients who tried where not allowed to leave at Tamu.

We heard rumors the situation may go back to normal maybe in April ($80 permits, no same border rule), if you have time maybe you get lucky.

Last, you can go on an organized tour. This has always been possible and will set you back about $500/person for 4 days if you are several people. It is not possible to join another group once in the country and say, just go for a day from Mandalay. Four days rushing through the country makes only sense for overlanders by motorbike or car, where flying isn’t really an alternative, in my opinion …

We really enjoyed our almost six weeks in Myanmar nevertheless, don’t let this keep you from going! We have now cycled back to Bangkok via Dawei and are flying to Kolkata on Thursday 🙁

It was still great to meet so many interesting people due thanks this – staying so cool and calm all 10 hours stuck at Myawady it was almost fun!

Currently (August 2017) the border seems to be closed for individual travelers in both directions. Permits cannot be obtained. But as the situation changes rapidly and frequently, check here for updates.

Falling in love with cycling in Myanmar

January 2017

We spent the whole month of January cycling in Myanmar. Our route took us from Ngwe Saung Beach back to Panthein and the hills weren’t even that bad this time.

Monks were a part of daily life here in Myanmar. They would usually get up early and walk around the monastery. The locals would then donate food to them which is seen as a good deed in Buddhism.

On our arrival in Panthein I was once again reminded why vegetarianism is the right choice for me. Mistreatment of animals seems to be common all over the world.

We did find excellent vegetarian food though. It’s almost funny that so many people always question the feasibility of cycle touring without eating meat. Many times we get asked what in the world we eat when everyone around seems to be eating meat only. In over one year of cycle touring we only had very few problems though. On the contrary being a vegetarian makes us learn the language better and discover more food quickly. Of course it doesn’t always work out but mostly it is really not a big deal.

In Myanmar it was exceptionally easy. Once we had gotten the hang of pronouncing a few words we could easily explain what we wanted and mostly we were just offered a myriad of delicious dishes. In this case the owner of a road side restaurant kept bringing us more and more food until we were so stuffed that we could hardly move.

Temples and pagodas were another part of daily life and we saw many golden buildings by the side of the road.

We also saw many people collecting money for temples. Talking to locals it seems that a lot of energy (money and otherwise) goes into monasteries.

On our way north we stopped at road side stalls for sugar cane juice, we found nice and quiet roads and beautiful sunsets.

Locals were always curious to talk to us and occasionally we met someone who spoke really good English. That is always a good opportunity for us to get a deeper insight into a place.

Finding places to sleep along the road was actually much easier than we had thought. Usually we could find accommodation between 5 and 8 Dollars for a room, only sometimes a little more than that. The prices seem to have gone down a lot since 2013. Also it seems that it has gotten easier for guest houses to get a license to host foreigners.

It still happened eventually that a place turned us away but not nearly as often as we had expected.

On the few occasions when we couldn’t find anything we camped or asked to sleep at a monastery which was never a problem.

After a while we crossed the mighty Irrawaddy river into Pyay. After a quick search for a guest house we settled in for a few days of rest. We both enjoyed Pyay a lot. The small town has a lot of charm and the night market offers delicious food once again.

Apart from enjoying city life and meeting other travelers we also spent lots of time with a rather bureaucratic issue. As some of you might know the border crossing between Myanmar and India has been a complicated one for a while. It used to be closed then opened up but you still had to get a permit to cross as an individual traveler. At the time of January 2016 all but one agency had stopped issuing permits though. Thus began our lengthy discussions with Burma Senses, the only agency that was still considering getting a permit for us. It was more expensive than before though and we were therefore trying to find a group of cyclists to share the cost. Not an easy task, bringing 5 and more people together, each with different dates in mind and not so much willingness to compromise on routes and dates.

It was all slowly coming together though and thus we spent some time taking pictures of our bikes for the permit and organizing our future route through Myanmar. For the joint crossing we actually had to exit Myanmar once more and enter together with the group.

So we planned on cycling to Taungoo where our friend Barbara who had previously hosted us in Borneo, Malaysia, was working at the moment. Afterwards we wanted to cycle back through Hpa An and to Mae Sot. On our second time in Myanmar we planned to see some of the big sights like Bagan and Mandalay further north.

From Pyay we headed east on a beautiful small road that went through a few villages and then lots of forest.

This is the place where we camped for the first time.

We absolutely loved this road. It was really exhausting as it went up and down on steep climbs all the time but the lack of traffic and the relatively new asphalt made for three perfect cycling days.

We camped once more before the end and this time we didn’t get much sleep. As we couldn’t find a real hidden area we set up behind some trees next to a pathway when it was already dark. After we were already asleep we suddenly woke up to someone shining a torch on our tent. Shit, we thought, now they are going to get the police and we will have to move during the night.

Our solution to all of this was to keep really quiet and hope for the best. After a while we heard more voices and thought that would be the police now. But… nothing happened. All night. Except for us being awake until 3am and listening to each and every small sound. Of course after a while everything sounds suspicious…

Arriving in Taungoo we met this lovely lady again who seems to attract cats everywhere she goes :). We could sleep in a vacant teacher accommodation and enjoyed a few days off. As always we focused on eating instead of sightseeing but this time we were also invited to give a talk at Barbara’s school.

It was awesome to talk to the teachers about our travels and experiences.

From Taungoo we turned south once again. We actually tried to cycle east towards the border in order to find a quieter road going south. But alas it was not going to be. After about 15k the police found us and without further explanation made us turn back. We tried discussing with them but there was just no point at all.

The police was a bit of a constant in all our time through Myanmar as well. Sometimes when people talked to us we just got a feeling that it wasn’t just out of curiosity. And more often than not we were than asked for our passport. Sometimes they followed us for a bit but never really for long.

Mostly we just met really nice locals though. This guy for example was originally from India and had been transferred here a long time ago. There was a big Indian population in this area which was especially apparent in the food choices.

A few times we slept in monasteries as well. This one was really interesting as it functioned as a social hub for the whole village (in the middle of nowhere). They had a TV and at night everyone (well, the men) gathered around to watch sports and chew Betel.

On the next day we chose an off road route to Hpa An as the Highway riding was getting on our nerves. It started with hard packed dirt which was nice enough. The locals that we asked about the route seemed to be rather concerned and not really sure if it would go through.

The path led through thick forest and bamboo and eventually became more of a single trail.

We met more concerned locals and even someone who – without words – asked for paper and started drawing a map out of this forest for us. We were humbled by this incredible kindness and showed him our map on the phone. Without the GPS we would have been seriously lost though. There were so many turns and not a lot of people to ask where to go.

After a while we came across some rubber plantations…

… and thankfully even here there was fresh water to be found.

Fresh pepper drying:

And then the perfect cycle path to Hpa An:

Once in Hpa An we spent a couple of days to relax and even did some sightseeing. We cycled to the Bat Cave to watch thousands of bats fly out at sunset… together with 30 other tourists all cramped at the viewing point at the top. Somehow I find sightseeing more and more boring the longer I travel. I can’t seem to muster the excitement for something that I already know to much about. I rather have the unknown and am surprised by what I find on the side of the road instead of reading guide books about what I will find.

Still a nice sunset though :).

We also caught up with fellow cycle travelers Guy and Camilla and in this picture Terry. We met her coincidentally for breakfast and in a few weeks would coincidentally see her again further south.

All in all it had been a wonderful month of cycling and relaxing in Myanmar and we were already happy to spend some more time here!

Into Myanmar: a warm welcome and a New Year at the beach

December 2016 / January 2017

Although we wanted to reach the West Coast of Myanmar rather sooner than later we still chose to cycle at least a little bit before taking buses. Cycling just lets you see very different sides of places and get a good feeling for them.

And as soon as we had reached Kawkareik we didn’t regret that one bit. When we were settling into our guest house SuSu found us and gave us a perfect Welcome to Myanmar. SuSu is one of the few members on Warmshowers, the cyclist’s hospitality platform, in Myanmar. The government still doesn’t allow locals to host foreigners though, so we met up, talked over dinner and went to see a big festival for the Karen New Year.

The next morning SuSu invited us for breakfast and told us more about her ideas for the small town she lives in. She wants to educate people about the increasing trash problem, starting with talking about plastic bags.

She is an amazing person and we are so grateful for that perfect introduction to Myanmar.

Not so early the next morning we got on on our bicycles and pedaled towards Hpa An. We took a small road that started out with perfect asphalt and led over rolling hills ever closer to our destination.

On this first full day of cycling we found out that getting water wouldn’t ever be a problem. In more or less regular intervals you can find clay water pots by the side of the road. They get refilled by locals from nearby wells etc. and are an amazing thing for the passing traveler. The water in the pots even stays relatively cold as the clay cools it down.

The road eventually deteriorated into a dirt track of the rather bad kind which I’m still don’t enjoy riding fully loaded. Oh well, at least there was almost no traffic…

When we got to the outskirts of Hpa An we made a rather spontaneous decision of asking for buses to Yangon, found one and took it immediately. Sweaty and dirty we settled into the overnight bus, together with a few other people and lots of wares. Comfortable? Not so much.

When we arrived in Yangon in the middle of the night we – again spontaneously – decided on a night ride to the other side of the city and took another bus to Panthein.

On the breakfast break we had some 3 in 1 coffee and watched locals plant rice in the warm morning light.

Once in Panthein we cycled around for a bit and found one of the nicest accommodations. Simple and affordable, quiet and with this view:

All we were looking for! Panthein also ticked a lot of other boxes. We really liked the lively but relaxed small town and decided to spend a day of rest after our not so relaxed night spent in buses.

Lots of walking around town, a few errands and a bit of doing nothing did wonders for us after the constant moving of the last weeks.

The small night market was a particular enjoyable experience for us: Lots of delicious food to try and many curious locals wanting to talk to us. We met one vendor who told us about the difficulties of earning money here and his work on big freight ships. Not easy on his family but at least a possibility for work in his eyes.

And then the day was here, the 31st of December and the day were we would celebrate New Year’s together with my sister and her husband! We had planned on cycling the last 50k towards Ngwe Saung Beach in a leisurely manner and then relax for a few days together.

Well, as always, you shouldn’t plan too much… The first 20k were really nice, flat enough and we made distance fast.

But then the hills started. Oh well, some hills you might think. Shouldn’t be that hard, right? Well it was the kind of hills that rise up so steep that you almost want to push but somehow you make it standing up in your saddle. To be followed by an equally steep downhill. And then up again. And… You get the picture.

The scenery around us was stunningly beautiful but I reached my limit quite soon. My mental limit actually. Yes it was exhausting but that’s nothing new. But I just wanted to be done with cycling for the day. I wanted to get to the beach already, to be done with the stress of having to be somewhere in time. And most of all to hug my sister and celebrate a New Year together.

Of course we eventually did get there. Not without a little freakout from my side but what can you do.

The sun set was all the more beautiful and the fireworks at the beach really nice as well.

The next week we spent relaxing at the beach. Between the fancy honeymoon resort and our more humble tent, the nice food, the language lessons at our guest house…

… the walks / cycles along the beach and foremost time with Vroni and Alex we couldn’t have had a better start to the New Year. Thanks you two and may this one be a good one!