Visa Run

Our splintered longboat sloshed across the olive-brown tidal estuary of the Kraburi River. We approached a drab building that rose out of the water on rickety stilts and bore the weathered emblem of the Burmese government. The tiny immigration building looked like a sea gypsy hut. The driver moored at the base of this top-heavy structure by literally crashing into the other boats parked there, throttling up the engine, and driving apart the conglomeration of longboats like a lumberjack's wedge. He smiled, tossed a frayed loop of rope around a post, collected our passports, and zipped up the eroding concrete steps to the office. The passengers just kind of looked at each other like, "this is seriously how they do it?"

Minutes later, we were stamped for entry into Burma. The diesel engine coughed back to life and we wedged out of the swarm of boats in a cloud of exhaust. Shielding myself from the spray of the white-capped river, I turned to the old Australian man next to me:

"Have you done this before?" "Every two weeks for three years." "Any they just stamp everybody in? No questions asked?" He looked at me over his glasses, "If they started asking questions, they'd have more to lose than we would, mate."

After passing a handful of islets encrusted with bizarre religious shrines we came upon Kawthaung, the southernmost point of Burma. The abject poverty here was immediately apparent. The shore was crowded with houses that were nothing more than dirty concrete shells or driftwood planks that have been lashed together with fishing net. The streets were piled with trash. We drove parallel to the shore for about 15 minutes, getting a good look at a place we're lucky to have not been born in. Coming up to the docks, there must have been a hundred wooden boats lined up on the beach like toothpicks. Again, we crashed into the mob, clattering up and over the other boats, scraping and grinding them out of the way, like a gradeschooler pushing to the front of the lunch line.

When the driver killed the engine and we stepped onto the shore, there was an eerie quiet about the place. All the subtle things that made the atmosphere in Thailand so friendly were gone - no distant music, no sizzling of food being cooked, no excited conversation in shops and restaurants, nobody laughing or even smiling. Until very recently, a corrupt military regime had been controlling the nation, and it showed. Burma - or Myannmar, I can't figure out which to call it - gained independence from the British in 1948 and has been locked in an unresolved civil war ever since. It's the least developed country in Asia and ranked in the absolute lowest place out of 160 nations on the World Health Organization's ranking of healthcare systems. Yeah, it's bad.

Our small group quickly walked past the contraband carts and beggars lining the dock and filed into a dilapidated government office. We were met by a small balding man at a desk who was surrounded by a half dozen beret-clad soldiers with machine guns and lit cigarettes. One by one, we handed the man our passport, a color photocopy of our passport, and a crisp American five dollar bill we had to purchase in Thailand specifically for this exchange. The bald man regarded each of us for much longer than it took to simply match our faces to the ID photos, then stamped our passports with much more force than was necessary to simply apply the ink to the paper.

And that was it. We left as soon as we could, passing the motionless soldiers on the way out and squinting to identify our longboat out of the hundreds strewn on the beach. When our driver was finished haggling over a stack of cheap cigarette cartons and a bottle of Burmese rum, we were back on the water. Re-entering Thailand was strictly routine, and bought us another two weeks in paradise. I had a feeling the old Aussie would be back.