Yangon is the traditional entry point for regular tourists who visit the country for the first time. For the adventurous or those who have been in Myanmar several times, border crossings along Thailand offer more exciting trip and one of such crossings is through the Karen State. From Bangkok, there is a commercial flight to the northern Tak province, with Mae Sot sharing the border with Myawady, the southeastern gateway to Myanmar.
Myawady is a small border town you can mistake for an ordinary Thai town – the food is spicy and the products displayed in the stores are mostly made in Thailand. It is a transit point for most Myanmar citizen who would like to work in Thailand. It also hosts offices of Karen National Union (KNU), one of the biggest ethnic political group, and development agencies working with refugee agencies that dotted the border. Myanmar has one of the highest numbers of displaced persons in the Southeast Asian region because of conflict between the previous military government and the ethnic Karen. The number is aggravated by those who are looking for opportunities outside Myanmar and are using the refugee camps as their jump-off point to a third country.
With the improvement of political environment in Myanmar, refugee camps are gradually being closed and the people are encouraged to go back to their original communities. Refugees able to find employment and sources of income in the areas adjacent to the camps find it hard to go back to Myanmar.
From Myawady, the main road known as ASEAN Highway 1 (AH1) leads to Hpa-an, the capital of the Karen State. The road is part of the connectivity efforts of the ASEAN Economic Community, integrating the member-countries into one trade network. Along the road, you can see the ubiquitous AH1 signage and it is still a puzzle why the ASEAN highway started from this place. The new road stretches up to the Kawkareik Township, built on international standard with fine thick asphalt, wide shoulders, metal and concrete railings in risky areas, reflectors and signage in English. The gray asphalt runs amidst the brown soil chipped-off mountainsides. Some parts of the highway even had landslides when the monsoon rains cascaded down to the unguarded slopes. One time, we were stranded for two hours while heavy machineries cleaned up a landslide area.
The road was not yet launched and the first time I passed through it was in June. At that time, the motorists’ choice was only between the devil and the deep blue sea. Either use the old rough road, so rough that passing is alternated daily between those going to and coming from Hpa-an, or use the AH1 with its toll gates. Yes, toll gates manned by Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) soldiers who decided that each passing car has to pay 2,000 kyats ($2.00). The whole stretch have six tollgates, that means each car has to fork out 12,000 kyats, equivalent to the fare of one passenger from Myawady to Hpa-an. Daylight Highway robbery!
Some good things never last, so they say. There was a story that one time, those manning the toll did not let through the Chief Minister of the Karen State. They also refused to budge when the highest military commander in the area ordered them to leave the area and stop from collecting fees. Finally in July 1, the government soldiers moved in and dislodged the DKBA after a fight. It turned out that the collection was not authorized by the DKBA leadership, and so those involved were terminated from the DKBA, creating another splinter armed group. Now when you travel along AH1, there are no more toll gates but the along the road are Tatmadaw detachments making sure the DKBA splinter group will not try a comeback.
After Kawkareik, at the end of the new road another Myanmar reality – old Macadam roads, narrow by today’s standards with patches here and there. The uneven road would sway passengers as the vehicle veer away from holes big enough to break the shock absorbers or when the driver avoid the oncoming trucks from the opposite direction. The only consolation is the unfolding panorama of rural Myanmar – green rice fields during monsoon months and brown in summer, pagodas with glittering spires, and occasional chaotic commercial centers. When limestone hills and mounds appeared along the road, it means Hpa-an in near. A little more time and the grand Mt. Zwegabin will reveal itself, the mother of all mountains in Karen State.