Our drivers brought us through the main street, lined with supply shops carrying Myanmar and English signs advertising all types of domestic and construction goods. The driver pointed out a hotel he said is popular among Thais passing through. Zooming through the main strip, my driver pointed out some abandoned homes, half-built.
“Those,” he told me in accented Thai, “were built by Burmese labourers who went to Thailand to work but never came back.
”I thought about all the migrant workers in Phuket, who probably outnumber the “local” working force, shacked up in crowded worker camps, on B300 a day, or less – apparently a lot of money compared with what they might get here in their homeland.
As the shops disappeared behind us, we took a sharp turn onto a bumpy, dirt road and my heart began to beat faster. “Could have sworn I told him I just wanted lunch...”
“Where are we going?” I asked in Thai, houses and shacks lining both sides of the dirt path, but not a person in sight.
“The temple,” he said.
“But we just want lunch today,” I reiterated.
We passed a new-looking building complex, which the driver said was going to be a hospital. It had rained recently as evidenced by a muddy, flooded puddle blocking the road ahead, fed by a small run-off stream that forced us to a halt.
I wasn’t sure if his bike was going to be able to cross, but he was more than confident and we made it across without incident, finally coming back out onto a main road again.
I exhaled with the sight of asphalt, and we soon turned into a little restaurant, relieved that we weren’t being brought to some back alley holding room to be held hostage… not yet anyway.
And to my delight, a huge banner of the country’s national beer hung in front of the restaurant. Our driver, Rut, as he goes by in Thailand, or A in his native land, is a dark-skinned, heav-set local man, 37 years old, who, judging from his red eyes and teeth, was buzzing on betel nut, further confirmed by him stepping outside to spit every five minutes.
His Thai was pretty good, but he didn’t speak much English. Nobody speaks much English in this village of some 3,000 households, he admits.
They’re all ethnically Burmese, many locals, others from Myeik, the major coastal sea hub in Southern Mynamar, which name is pronounced Ma-rick, formerly known Mergui, notes A.
And the majority of Mawdaung are Buddhists he adds, as the “authorities won’t allow any Muslims or Christians. They tried to come before but the government sent them away,”
Inside the restaurant, there were about 12 tables, all with designer plastic chairs. The place obviously serves as a drinking hole at night, evidenced by the kegs in the front, and full shelf full of whisky behind the counter.
Myanmar-brand beer posters and paraphernalia were everywhere, at the front, sides and inside of the shop. A Myanmar beer clock told me it was about 2pm.
A menu in Burmese script and small Thai stickers was brought over. Not spending too much time trying to decode it, I told A we just wanted some Myanmar-style food with chicken or shrimp.
I played my part as the curious tourist, taking photos of everything as mundane as the seashells hanging from the doorway, to the urinal out back, an indifferent dog out front, and of course the people – waitresses and ordinary customers alike, who were unmistakably from Myanmar in dress.
They were obviously curious about the world, fixated on the TV hanging at the back of the joint; Discovery Channel was relaying scenes of the savage food chain in the African savanna; no doubt, the day-to-day struggle for survival is something many Myanmar citizens are familiar with.
Food finally came, a few stir-fried dishes, colourful and flavourful, but not quite hitting the spot for the missus. Then the rain came pouring down, no telling when it would stop. I kept positive. After all, who could order the rain?
A’s Thai was good; he told us about his travels in Thailand, Myeik, Mawdaung; suffice to say, my Burmese didn’t improve at all that day.
For the beer and full meal, the bill was B350 or thereabout. I paid 400 and asked for change to be in Myanmar bank notes that we could take home as souvenirs.
The rain finally subsided and we hopped on our bikes back to Thailand, arriving to the Singkhon market some 20 minutes later. I paid A and his companion B700, B300 more than he’d initially asked. I was grateful for his company and that he didn’t hold us hostage. Did I exploit him and the future tourism market of Mawdaung? Time will tell.
Adapted, with permission from The Siamerican.