Make Way to Myanmar’s Open Borders
Not a month goes by these days without news from Myanmar of a reopened border crossing with a neighboring country. New and revived border gateways increase cross border tourism numbers and provide better and more flexible itineraries than in former times. Until as recent as five years ago, the only way to enter and leave Myanmar was by plane.
Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and shares a border with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand for a total of 6159 kilometers. The long coastline on the Andaman Sea measures 2228 kilometers. Prior to European colonization in Southeast Asia, nation states with defined borders did not exist. Rather, royal kingdoms or mandalas measured their reach into the surrounding region until their frontiers collided with another kingdom. These “borders” were dynamic and and people dwelling within the reaches of one or more kingdoms owed their allegiance to each kingdom.
The mandala system (Sanskrit for “circle”) of defining kingdoms ceased with the introduction of modern geopolitical demarcations in the late 19th century. Territories with fixed borders divided subjects into belonging to one or another state polity. As a result, pre-colonial ethnic minority people (such as those living in Myanmar and Thailand) straddle modern boundaries and identify themselves as part of a larger group rather than as an entity of one country or another.
Myanmar and Thailand are two countries that share a common border of 2107 kilometers, which runs mostly along mountainous areas. This long, shared border was crossed by ancient trade routes that have existed for centuries. However, during the past sixty years almost no border checkpoints were allowed to facilitate overland travel between these two neighboring countries and several divided ethnic minority communities.
In 2010 this situation changed fundamentally, and new land border checkpoints opened (or reopened in many cases) allowing tourists and trade to enter and leave Myanmar. One of the most famous checkpoints is the passage through the Mae Sot, Thailand into Myawaddy, Myanmar. Marked by the Friendship Bridge over the small Moei River, a number of ethnic groups are almost equally distributed on both sides of the border and driving convention changes from the driving on the left to driving on the right.
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A trip from Mae Sot to Hpa An near Myanmar’s Gulf of Martaban, leads through the heartland of the Kayin (Karen) community past former colonial sites such as the town of Mawlamying, the famous Golden Rock Pagoda and on to Yangon. Hpa An is a beautiful town and important trading center for goods from Thailand.
Visitors to Kayin State can also do hiking, visit caves or even paddle through flooded rice fields. Dramatic mountain peaks that resemble the limestone karst islands of Halong Bay or sailing down the Thanlwin River are two of the numerous excursions available in southeastern Myanmar.
Another popular border crossing is the Mae Sai-Tachileik checkpoint into Myanmar’s Shan State. Your travelers can now easily enter this relatively remote region and proceed to ancient cities such as Kengtung and Loi Mwe hill station. The mountainous area around Kyaingtong is famous for treks to hill tribe villages. While trekking in Thailand is a very well developed business, here in Kyaingtong the relatively low numbers of tourists in the region adds to the adventure. Silver Palaung people with their colorful outfits, the Ann with their betel nut blackened teeth, and the Loi are just a few of the ethnic groups that dwell in this area. It became known as the Golden Triangle because of the practice of growing opium and trading it for gold. Eastern Shan State is just an hour’s flight to Myanmar’s heartland to see tourism highlights such as Inle Lake, where the Intha fishermen dwell on the lake and harvest their floating gardens.
Crossing a border from Thailand into Myanmar is not just an adventure; it is a trip back in time. As the chief consular officer of the American embassy in Yangon from 1986 to 1988 explained: “People used to ask what’s the time difference between Bangkok and Rangoon?” The joke’s punch line is ”50 years.” Amusingly enough, it is actually 30 minutes and only because General Ne Win had decreed that time difference as one more way to separate Burma (Myanmar) from its neighbors.”
For more information about overland travel between Thailand and Myanmar to explore recently opened areas to international travelers, please contact to [email protected]