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Thandaung opening up? Not quite yet

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The hilltop Zion Church guesthouse in Thandaung Gyi.

The opening of new areas of Myanmar to foreigners has resulted in confusion, with tourism industry sources reporting that travelers trying to reach these mostly unexplored regions are still being turned back by local officials. I decided to try my luck by traveling to the recently opened hill station of Thandaung Gyi in Kayin State – with decidedly mixed results.

When the Ministry of Home Affairs earlier this year released a list of previously restricted areas that are now open to foreign tourists, Thandaung in Kayin State caught my eye. I knew it was an old British hill station located east of Taungoo – and therefore not terribly remote from Yangon – but not much else.

Quick research revealed that there are actually two Thandaungs: Thandaung Lay, 21 kilometres (13 miles) east of Taungoo, and Thandaung Gyi, another 23km east, and at a much higher elevation.

The ministry’s list designates Thandaung Gyi as an area where prior permission is not needed but where travel is “permitted only in downtown areas”. Earlier this month I traveled there to find out how the town’s new designation as an “open” area is understood on the ground. The results were messy but rewarding.

I traveled with two Myanmar friends, and a week before the trip one of them called the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in Nay Pyi Taw to confirm that Thandaung Gyi was now open and no special permit was required.

The news was not encouraging. The man on the other end of the line spent 30 minutes checking with others in his office before giving a strong recommendation to seek prior permission. The request, he said, would go all the way up to the deputy minister of hotels and tourism for approval, which struck us as a cumbersome process that could take weeks or months.

We received more troubling advice once we reached Taungoo in Bago Region, where we spent one night before heading up to the old hill station. We consulted local resident Dr Chan Aye, who leads popular elephant-tracking trips into the Bago Yoma west of Taungoo.

“Technically, Thandaung Gyi is open to foreigners, but if you don’t have permission, you might be asked to turn back,” he said. He added, though, that he had never tried to take foreigners there, so he wasn’t certain about the current situation.

The staff at Hotel Amazing Kaytu flat-out recommended that we not try the trip. One staff member predicted that we would be turned back at the checkpoint at the Sittoung River on the eastern edge of Taungoo.

He explained that just a few weeks earlier, a group of Japanese tourists had tried to travel to the hill station, only to be stopped in their tracks at the first checkpoint. Immigration officials had later visited the hotel and given staff a hard time for “trying to send foreigners” to Thandaung Gyi.

But we also made a phone call from Taungoo to the Zion Baptist Church, which runs a basic guesthouse in Thandaung Gyi. They countered the negativity by assuring us there would be no problems, adding that a couple of foreigners had recently come up on motorcycles and spent the night.

There was one quirk in our travel plans: I had decided to ride my bicycle from Taungoo to Thaundaung Gyi, possibly becoming the first foreigner to cycle along the 44km stretch. My friends would follow in a car. Being avid photographers, they would be making frequent stops to take pictures so our overall travel speeds wouldn’t be much different.

We left Taungoo about 7:30am, and as we traveled east I was happy to see that the dreaded Sittoung River checkpoint was unmanned. The jubilation was short-lived, however, as I was stopped at another checkpoint about 5km further on.

I got there before my friends, and the appearance of a lone foreigner on a bicycle stirred up a storm of astonishment: Eyes widened, jaws slackened, betel quid threatened to drop from open mouths onto the ground.

An immigration official immediately asked to see my travel permission papers. My heart palpitated. Playing dumb, I handed over my passport. The official found my visa page and asked if I had photocopies of my passport, which I did not.

He turned his back and made a call on his mobile phone. During his muffled conversation, I heard him repeat the words “foreigner” and seq-bein (bicycle) about 10 times each.

In the meantime, another official wandered over and started making hand gestures indicating that I would have to turn around and return to Taungoo. The situation was not looking good.

Just then, my friends pulled up in their car and explained to the officials that I was a journalist who was planning to write about Thandaung Gyi. This news – which two years ago would have ensured that I was sent packing back to Taungoo, if not all the way to Yangon International Airport for an enforced flight to Bangkok – somehow helped clear the air.

We were allowed to proceed on the understanding that I would make photocopies of my passport in Thandaung Gyi and drop them off at the checkpoint on the way back to Taungoo.

Three hours and 1200 metres (3960 feet) of elevation gain later – Thandaung Gyi sits at 1260 metres above sea level – I pedaled up to the second checkpoint, located about 100 metres beyond the optimistic “Welcome to Thandaung Gyi” sign and within sight of the town.

The immediate reaction among the immigration officials was no, I could not enter the town. My Myanmar friends again came to the rescue, bargaining the officials into an agreement that I could enter the town but not spend the night. With a little more discussion, it was decided that I could enter and might even be able to spend the night if it was okay with the people running the Zion Church guesthouse.

So it was that our one-car-and-one-bike parade rolled triumphantly into Thandaung Gyi. We stopped to buy snacks at a shop run by a woman of Nepalese descent named Daw Suu, who told us that the previous week two Americans had come to town but were told to leave before sundown.

As if on cue, at that moment we were approached by a policeman who demanded to know how I had managed to reach the town without being turned back. We explained that my presence was obviously acceptable, as evidenced by the fact that immigration had let me through both checkpoints. The police officer wandered away, scratching his head in confusion.

That wasn’t the end of it, of course.

We were warmly welcomed by the family that runs the Zion Church, who invited us into their home and offered us food and coffee.

While we were arranging to spend the night at the guesthouse, Officer Friendly Number 2 came a-knocking. No, he started to explain, I could not spend the night in Thandaung Gyi, and furthermore…

One of the women from the church interrupted his spiel.

“The government says foreigners can come to our town, but when they get here you say they have to leave. Well, it doesn’t make sense,” she said politely but firmly. She also couldn’t help pointing out that I was from the media and would write about my experience.

Having been filled in on my background in Myanmar, she added, “He’s not even a tourist. He’s been living here for many years, and he’s also married to a Myanmar national.”

The police officer beat a hasty retreat, having decided that these mitigating factors somehow made it acceptable for me to spend the night, and we encountered no further problems during our stay in Thandaung Gyi.

On the afternoon of our arrival we ran into a captain in the Myanmar army named Maung Htwe, who managed a small factory that processed locally grown black tea for use by soldiers. He expressed dismay when we told him about the hassles we had faced reaching the town.

“Thandaung Gyi is open. Everyone can come,” Captain Maung Htwe said. When he found out I was a writer, he thanked me profusely for coming to promote the town as a tourist destination.

That’s something I’d be happy to do. The question remains, however, whether Thandaung Gyi can yet be considered a viable tourist destination.

This story was originally published in The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

September 24, 2013 at 3:05 am