The Quest for Mt. Victoria
May 05, 2004
It wasn't until that second week that I got my first real feel of the government's influence. I was helping out a sick tourist. My quick diagnosis was that he was sick enough that he needed to see a doctor.
I've been at the hotel long enough that I've made friends with a guy who works there. I ask my friend about doctors, and he recommends one that makes house calls and speaks good English. I then ask him about the hospital as a cheaper possible alternative. His response is a quiet, undecipherable mumble. I ask him again, and get the same non-response.
I'm confused for a moment, because up until this point his English has been good. Then it occurs to me that the hospital must be a government hospital. It's possible that my friend might be jailed for years for telling me the hospital is no good. He can't tell me that it is bad, but he doesn't want to lie to me either. Instead he isn't answering.
I was shocked. Freedom of speech is something that I take for granted. Tourists are largely left alone, but the Burmese live in constant fear of being jailed for even innocuous sounding comments.
The Quest for Mt. Victoria
Myanmar is off the tourist route, but I want to get even further off the beaten path. On a map, I find Mount Victoria. I know very little about it, but it seems the perfect destination for me. I like climbing mountains. And it is in Chin State, which I heard had been opened up for tourism only months earlier. There should be no tourists there. As I travel around Myanmar, I'm warned by locals not to go. "Evil Magicians will cast a spell on you" Of course, rather than discouraging me, the possibility of meeting witch doctors inspires me. I haven't been this excited about a destination since Palau Weh.
There is no information in the guidebook about Mt. Victoria, so I catch a bus to the town of Pakkoku which is on the way. I'm hoping to find information there, and bus to take me onwards.
At the hotel in Pakkoku, I'm greeted by a bit of bureaucratic madness. The hotel requires 9 copies of the registration form. Apparently, every government official within 50 miles wants to know my passport number, who I am and what I'm doing in Pakkoku.
The next morning, I get information about Mt. Victoria. It is a beautiful mountain. At the base of the mountain there is a forest famous for it's butterflies. Chin State is open to tourism. Unfortunately, tourists need a permit to enter Chin State, and the permits are only available in Yangon. I could try to enter Chin State and climb Mt. Victoria without a permit, but the last guy who tried was spotted, jailed and deported. I don't have the money, time or motivation to make a round-trip back to Yangon for a permit so I start thinking about alternative trips.
The village of Saw lies near the base of Mt. Victoria, but it is not in Chin State. There are, however, Chin people living in Saw, so there remains a chance of finding a witch doctor. There are no hotels or guesthouses in Saw, but there is a Catholic Church which might put me up. The one problem is the road from Pakkoku to Saw is a mess. Once a week a truck goes that way, but the truck as often as not breaks down or has to turn back due to an impassible road. It's suggested that I should instead detour to a town called Seikpu and then catch a bus from there to Saw along a much better road.
No tourists have stayed in Pakkoku in weeks. There are, however, some local guest and I meet them as I start unpacking. A whole family: Mom, Dad and two children are standing just outside the the doorway to my room. They're watching with me with fascination. I pull out a t-shirt and they stare. I brush my teeth and their eyes open even wider. In India it is annoying and exhausting when people stare at you. They do so with a fixed and unmoving stare. But in Myanmar when they stare they're smiling and polite. They talk among themselves, and with you. They rarely see tourists and are very curious. I almost enjoyed putting on a toothbrushing show for their benefit.
After two nights in Pakkoku, I caught the bus to Seikpu. It pushed it's way through dust storms, dry river beds and narrow mountain roads. But, I arrived in Seikpu without incident. I step off the bus and a crowd starts gathering. Few tourists come to Pakkoku, but few or none have ever been in Seikpu. A crowd gathers and everyone is very happy and excited to see me.
I talk with the crowd. Answering the standard questions: "What's your name?" "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?"
Then an immigration officer appears. He asks me pretty much the same questions with a different tone.
"Here it is"
"Where you go?"
"Saw, no permission!"
"Not Chin State, why no permission?"
"Dangerous, no permission!"
"I go Cambodia. Danger no problem for me."
The back of the Cambodian t-shirt that I'm wearing is covered with pictures of rockets, missiles and mines. I point to the t-shirt and smile. The crowd seems amused, but the immigration officer is unimpressed.
It seems that I had no choice but to accept his decree.
"Okay, no permission - I won't go."
My new found friends, the English speakers from the crowd of spectators, take me to the local tea shop. They tell me that going to Saw should not be a problem. In the morning, they'll get me the required permission. After tea, one of my new friends drives me on the back of his motorbike across the river to a hotel in the neighboring and slightly larger town of Chaulk.
The hotel owner is Chinese and as unfriendly as can be. "No tourist here" he growls. Then he spits out "Go back Bagan". I try to argue. But he's not going to budge. "No tourist here!".
I'm driven to the main immigration office outside of town. The conversation with the head immigration officer begins the same way as the encounter with hotel owner: "You go back Bagan!" I'm getting annoyed. I haven't been to Bagan. I'm trying to avoid tourists so Bagan is the last place that I want to go right now. I don't say any of this though. Instead, I listen as my friend tries to get me permission to go to Saw. I understand very little Burmese, but from the words that I do understand, the body language, and the occasional English "no permission" it's clear that I'm not going to be allowed to go.
My friend then tries to get me permission to spend a night in a hotel. The immigration officer isn't willing to allow that either. He wants me to leave tonight. The buses have stopped running for the night, so he's insisting that I pay $30 for a taxi to take me up to Bagan (where I don't want to go).
I refuse and we're left in a standoff. He won't let me stay, and I won't leave. Finally he gives in. He calls the hotel we visited earlier and gives me special, one night only, permission to stay. It felt like a real victory. I'm not making it to Mt. Victoria. I'm not making it to Saw. But at least I have one tiny triumph against the bureaucratic regime.
The Secret Police
I check into the hotel in Chaulk and wander the streets. I'm trying to experience as much as possible in the few hours that I've been granted in this city. Unfortunately, the only thing to do seems to be drinking tea. After 3 cups of tea I've had enough.
I return to my hotel and encounter a scene more like the stereotypical backpackers guesthouse than anything I've seen in Myanmar despite the fact that there are no tourists here. The hotel owner ("Go back bagan!") still isn't smiling but now he's sitting under a tree outside playing a guitar. A sikh guy with a big beard and a silly grin is drinking cheap rum and other interesting characters are hanging out listening to the music. I join them and start drinking rum.
Another guy joins us. He's perhaps more drunk than the rest. He grabs my arm and starts shouting at me. Between his drunkenness, his poor English and his mouth being full of betelnut, I can't understand what he is saying. I'm not even sure if he's speaking Burmese or English. Occasionally though, I make out a word or two: "CIA", "American Intelligence". At first, I think that he's complaining about the United States, but then I slowly realize that he's accusing me of being CIA.
I deny being CIA, but that doesn't deter my interrogator. He keeps insisting that I'm CIA and I keep denying it. When he wanders off, probably to take a piss, one of the other guys tells me that my interrogator is secret police. The guy, who I now know is secret police, staggers back and starts mumbling angrily at me again. The hotel owner has had enough and sends me to bed. I don't blame him, I suppose. The last thing that he needs at his hotel is for a tourist and a member of the burmese secret police to get into a fist fight.
That night I don't sleep well. Too much tea didn't help. The paper thin walls letting in the sounds of everyone snoring didn't help either. But, mostly it was nightmares that kept me from sleeping. I kept waking up sure that the secret police were about to knock down the door to my room. I wasn't afraid of being arrested. I've never been arrested and think that it might be an interesting experience. Instead, I was still afraid that they would confiscate my laptop. Of course, nothing happened.
The next morning, over breakfast, I'm speaking with a local. I ask him if there is anything worth seeing before I leave town. "Nothing here but oil wells", he replies. Oil and no tourists sites; It seems that the secret police, drunk or not, did have reason to be suspicious.
I grudgingly get on a truck... to Bagan.
I read your two new messages, saw the photos ---fabulous! and still have to reply your email ---I will do it soon.
Okay, you have on worries to be safe, but cares for the laptop. So, the hardware should not be a problem -- I mail you a new one the day after --- but where do u backup your notes and photos? The ones that are not in a server? There should be a way to avoid losing the material even of you lose the harware....
Hey, enjoy your tea and tigers (Gosh aren't they GOURGEOUS!) You will hear from me before heading to Africa...
hey by the way, ya know! Be safe! ... Ya right!
David - Jul 18, 2004
Never been arrested? Keep it that way - it's not a story to tell nor is it an interesting experience. You won't come through the other side (best case scenario) glad to have had that experience. People (various government officials) drastically change (not for the better) when they realise that you (a "wealthy" tourist)have broken one of their laws and that you are now at their "mercy". Not a fun or an interesting place to be but rather a terrifying one. Keep your head up - as always.
I believe that almost anything can be a good interesting experience. I've heard of several travelers who have wandered a bit too far off the beaten path, been arrested, been well treated, fed tea, and then released no worse for wear.
Ethan - Jun 01, 2007
I'm living in Burma and am planning a trip to Mt. Victoria now. I've not been before, but I have friends who have, so I'm hoping it itsn' impossible. I have to request the permits as early as a month before hand, though. Wish me luck! It was interesting to read your account of an (almost) trip to Mt. Victoria. I'd get SO frustrated at being told 'go back to Bagan'.