I wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible. My original plan was to escape north to Chiang Mai, but just before leaving Cambodia I heard that Myanmar (Burma) – the country I planned to visit after Thailand – would soon be holding their first elections in two decades. Myanmar’s military dictatorship isn’t particularly easy-going under normal circumstances, so dropping in right before or after a once-in-a-generation election (if you can really use the word “election” in that context) did not seem wise. The government strictly forbids foreign journalists from entering the country, and it was easy to imagine the attention I’d draw each time I whipped out my oversized camera and tripod.
So I rearranged my itinerary. I’d go to Myanmar as soon as possible, fly back to Bangkok well before the election, make a quick run up to Chiang Mai, and then hopefully still have time for two weeks in Nepal before meeting Marie in India. It felt strange that suddenly I needed to hurry up.
Working out the logistics required some scrambling. The first step was to get permission to enter Myanmar. Just one week earlier the government had stopped granting visas on arrival, so I needed to apply in person at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok. A travel agent, warning me about long lines, advised me to get to the embassy at 7:00 the next morning, about two hours before it opened.
In other countries I enjoy tuk-tuk rides, but in Thailand I find them exhausting (pun intended). The drivers in Bangkok are much higher-maintenance than they are in the other Southeast Asian cities I’ve visited. Not only do they want to know where you’re going, they want to know why. And then they try to talk you into going somewhere else. My experience that morning was fairly typical. I walked up to the first tuk-tuk driver I saw – a wiry, dark-skinned man wearing a baseball cap. I said hello and asked, “How much to go to the Myanmar embassy?”
“Eh?” he grunted, looking annoyed. Anticipating blank looks, I’d asked a travel agent to write down in Thai the name and address of the embassy. I handed the address to the driver and repeated myself. He squinted at the slip of paper. “Oh, very far,” he said, shaking his head sadly.
“How much?” I asked again.
“Why you want go to embassy?”
“I need a visa.”
“I take you to travel agent,” he advised me. “Much easier.”
“I’ve been to a travel agent. She told me I have to go in person to the Myanmar embassy.”
“Hmm… Very far.” He pondered the immense distances involved before grudgingly naming a price that would make it worth his while: “200 Bhat.”
“At my hotel they told me it should be 100 Bhat.”
“100 Bhat!?” the driver yelled in disbelief, struggling to comprehend a world in which such a ridiculous number could even be suggested. “I take you for 180.” And so it went, back and forth, for at least five minutes. When the price hit 140 Bhat (about $5), I caved. I couldn’t haggle any more, even though it meant the roundtrip to the embassy and back would be more expensive than the bus that took me all the way from Cambodia to Thailand.
The driver threw out one more standard ploy. “We make a stop, you pay only 50 Bhat.” The stop, I knew from painful experience, would be at a tailor shop that compensates drivers for delivering potential customers. I told the driver no stops.
The ride to the embassy took about 25 minutes, much of the time spent waiting at red lights. Even at that early hour the streets were clogged with traffic. Every breath I inhaled contained enough carbon dioxide to kill a small bird.
The agent sighed. “Show me plane ticket.”
“I don’t have my plane ticket yet. A travel agent told me to get a visa first.”
“You cannot go,” he said, turning away from me.
Ugh. I thought he meant that he wouldn’t even accept my visa application, but I kept asking questions until I understood the rules. To get one-day visa turnaround I needed to show my plane ticket, but he would take my application without a ticket if I only wanted two-day turnaround. I told him again that leaving the day after tomorrow would be fine. A second agent asked me for a copy of my passport and, not having one, I had a moment of panic before they offered to make a copy for me (for a fee, of course). They told me that if my application was approved it would be available for pickup the next afternoon.
That meant at least two more nights in Bangkok and three more tuk-tuk rides between my hotel and the embassy, but it would be small price to pay if the visa was approved. The next afternoon – Friday – I returned to the embassy as instructed and only had to wait in line for about an hour before my turn at the window. One of the same agents from the day before took my receipt and handed over my passport, which now sported a shiny new Myanmar visa. Approved!
I walked out of the embassy and made a bee-line for a travel agent who could help me book a plane ticket. The smiling agent, a tiny woman with a permanent smile who hunted-and-pecked on a computer that looked like the Apple II I had in 1980, helped me find a relatively inexpensive Sunday afternoon flight from Bangkok to Yangon. I thought I was good to go.That relaxed feeling lasted about an hour. Back in the hotel room, casually reviewing my guidebook’s advice on Myanmar, I noticed something I’d missed before – the country has no ATMs, and credit cards are only accepted at a handful of luxury hotels. When you enter Myanmar you need to bring enough cash to last your entire visit. And not just any cash. With very few exceptions, money-changers only accept crisp, new, unmarked and unfolded U.S. dollars.
I dug through my wallet – about $200 in U.S. dollars and $100 in Thai Bhat. Not nearly enough. No problem, I thought, I’ll just have a bank give me a cash advance on my credit card. The next morning I walked up to a bank and must have stared in confusion at the “CLOSED” sign for at least a full minute before it dawned on me that it was Saturday. And banks are, uh, closed on Saturday.
Back to scrambling. A helpful young woman at my hotel’s front desk tipped me off to the fact that banks in the Siam Paragon – a vast, upscale Bangkok shopping complex – are open on Saturday. Another tuk-tuk negotiation, another ride through throat-choking clouds of exhaust, and sure enough, the banks were open. But they didn’t have U.S. dollars, which meant I had to take the cash advance in Thai Bhat. The money changers at the Siam Paragon didn’t have U.S. dollars either, so I tuk-tuked back to Khao San Road (the Bangkok “backpacker ghetto”), where every tenth business is a money-changing kiosk. After an initial scare – the first five money changers I checked didn’t have any U.S. currency – I found someone who could replace my whole roll of Thai Bhat with pristine $100 bills.
It turned out to be a close call, thanks to my failure to do even the most basic advance research, but I was finally ready and able to leave for Myanmar. I ate dinner on Khao San Road and marveled at the surreal scene. It’s like a debauched street fair every night, the intensity ramping up and up until well past midnight. I was definitely ready to leave.