Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ruili to Bhamo -- The Details (Dec 2008) - China to Burma by land

If you are not planning to travel from Ruili, China to Bhamo, Myanmar (Burma) then you can stop reading now; however, it may be an interesting tale.

In Jan 2008 we flew from China to Myanmar - Kunming to Mandalay - for about 250 USD each so on this 2nd trip in December 2008 we wanted to go overland as the costs are about the same. However, we did not want to take the usual route of Ruili to Muse Lashio to Mandalay as we had spent 5 days in Mandalay just 10 months before and had traveled to Pyin U Lwin and Hsipaw which are both on the Lashio to Mandalay road. We decided to try to go from Ruili (or other nearby border crossings) to Bhamo or Myitkyina, areas not explored in January.

Disclaimer: One of our party, Sun-Ling, is fluent in Chinese.

So we inquired via email (actually a good friend in Shanghai did most of the work) and phone about crossing the Chinese border to Bhamo and Myitkyina. The results seemed to suggest that for 3rd parties (neither Chinese nor Burmese):
- the only border crossing allowed is Ruili/Muse.
- Ruili to Bhamo is possible for just a few more dollars than Ruili to Lashio; in fact, we got an email quote of 1800 RMB per person.
- Ruili to Myitkyina is NOT possible at all.

So we got our Myanmar visas in the US and after some traveling in China, arrived in Kunming about Dec 1st, 2008. We went to the Union of Myanmar Consulate and inquired about overland travel from China. The nice lady at the consulate who we remembered from January told us that overland travel to Bhamo and Myitkyina was not possible - the only route is Ruili to Lashio - and she gave us the business card of Steven Travel in the Camelia hotel who she said could arrange the trip since a permit and guide are required. Hmm. Also told us that there is a quota of 20 foreigners per month. Hmm again.

We went directly to talk to Steven Travel and the young man in the office confirmed that travel to Bhama and Myitkyina is not possible. He quoted a price to Lashio - 1400 RMB per person and said that we could make the arrangements with him now in Kunming or we could go to Ruili ourselves and make the arrangements there with his partner. Either way OK as we would have to contact his partner in Ruili anyway once we got there; just need more lead time ( 2 or 3 days ) if we just showed up in Ruili and contacted his partner. Lastly he said that the quota is no problem. Personally, I don't think that there is a quota but that's a digression.

So back to our hotel and we called the woman who had quoted 1800 RMB to Bhamo, a Miss Li, who it turns out is Steven Travel's partner in Ruili. She has an office in Muse but it's a Chinese phone number. She said that going to Bhamo from Ruili was possible and quoted us 1600 RMB per person. We asked why Steven Travel did not know about traveling to Bhamo. He doesn't know since he is in Kunming was the reply. Confusing. We told Ms Li that we wanted to go to Bhamo about Dec 15th and would call her a few days before we arrived in Ruili. OK she said.

When we arrived in Ruili, Miss Li and an associate came to our hotel. The price had mysteriously change to 1700 RMB per person and she claimed to have no recollection of quoting us 1600 on the phone, so we had to bargain hard to get her down to 1650. We agreed on a date of Dec 18th and Ms Li said to be at the Chinese side of the border a 9:00 and our guide would meet us and we would hand over the 3300 RMB to her once we had crossed the border.

So on the morning of the 18th we took a taxi from our hotel to the border; 4 RMB per person for the red cars that look like taxis but don't have a "TAXI" sign on top. We got there at 9:00 AM sharp and the guide came at 9:30 after we called Miss Li to ask where he was.

The guide followed us through the Chinese exit formalities, literally. There were some Chinese trying to jump the queue so we took advantage of the sign that said "Foreigners" and moved to the front.

Miss Li was waiting for us on the other side and took us into a official looking shack that was so small that Sun-Ling and I could both barely fit with our backpacks on. We signed a bunch of forms that Miss Li had filled out for us; customs, arrival card, travel permit requests, etc, without really giving them a good look but had no problems later on.

Then into a Toyota Wagon for the short drive to Miss Li's office where she made about 10 copies of our passports and travel permits, loaded up the guide with 3 or 4 bundles of cash, collected 3300 RMB from us (a 100 RMB note disappeared during the money counting process - not sure what happened - we may have been short, but it was not a professional money counting transaction on their part).

Anyway, Myanmar is 1.5 hours behind China so at about 9:00 AM Myanmar time we got back in the Toyota Wagon (British side steering wheel) and headed off to Bhamo. The guide sat in the front seat with the driver.

The road was pretty good - it is the Burma Road you know - and we made it to Namkham in about 15 minutes. In Namkham, we switched cars from the Toyota wagon to a Toyota Crown Sedan with a jacked up rear suspension and heavy duty tires. The driver already had a load of goods in the trunk so we stashed our bags in the back seat with us. Tight.

Soon after changing cars we hit the first of 8 or 10 checkpoints - I lost count - at the Shweli River. The procedure, which was about the same at all checkpoints, involved the guide nervously going into a small shack clutching a clear envelope containing our paperwork, the bag with the bribe or tax money hung over is shoulder, the driver confidently hanging out nearby, and both returning 5 minutes later with one less copy of our paperwork. We then resume the trip. We never had to get out of the car or answer questions and our bags we never searched. Sometimes it appeared to be a Military checkpoint, sometimes a just a bureaucratic checkpoint, sometimes it looked like simple extortion.

The pace was slow as the road was in terrible but passable condition and when we stopped for lunch at 1:00 PM the guide said we were halfway to Bhamo. It's about 65 kms from Namkham to Bhamo so we had covers 30 some kms in 4 hrs. Slow.

Lunch was at what is best called a truck stop. A few huts in the middle of nowhere. Right after the restaurant, we hit a checkpoint that was a bit different. There were about 10 guys standing around. No uniforms. The guide looked really nervous and did not want to get out of the car. The driver was nonchalant as usual. Two guys came up and peered in to the back seat at Sun-Ling and I. One guy looked friendly so I said hello. This time our guide was in the building for 15 minutes. While he was gone, one of the first guys to come up to the car, reached in the front and searched the glove box and the guide's jacket. Strange.

So at this point let me say a few things concerning several recent posting on Lonely Planet Thorn Tree about the overland route into Burma from Ruili. It seems unlikely that you can originally arrange the trip to Lashio, then once in Myanmar, simply tell the driver and guide that you want to go to Bhamo. For one thing, if you are in Toyota Wagon, you might not make it as the road is terrible. Second, the checkpoints seemed like serious business to me. The guide needs the right permits, right amount of cash, and 10 copies of the paperwork in order to make it through.

We arrived in Bhamo about 5:30 PM - 9.5 hours to go 80 kms. One last checkpoint somewhere inside the city. We drove to the Friendship Hotel then on to the Grand Hotel where we took a double room for $18 US per night including breakfast.

That's it. Questions, comments, and corrections welcome.

The China/Myanmar border as seen from the Chinese side.
The Border between Ruili, China and Muse, Myanmar Burma

The old bridge over the Shweli River.
Old Shweli River Bridge - Namkham, Myanmar

Our nervous guide (left) with his paperwork and the unconcerned driver (right).
Our Guide and Driver on the Road to Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

The lunchtime truckstop.
Truck Stop on the road to Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Some scenes from Bhamo: A cinema, the clock tower and stadium grandstand, a mosque, and Sun-Ling enjoying some deep fried veggies at a tea stall.

Za Bu Di Par Cinema - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Mosque - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Clocktower and Stadium Grandstand - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

Tea Shop/stall - Bhamo, Myanmar Burma

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

...ummm...would you do it again?

Fast Eddy said...

Holy bat guano, Robin! That's some harrowing journey. Sounds as if banditos could set up a checkpoint at will. Glad you made it safely if slowly.

Mark said...

Great story and pictures. Keep 'em coming!

rainbowprof said...

Very informative. My questions are: Was it an interesting route and were these towns more interesting to visit than the other route that was easier to get to?
Good photos too.
So can one then return to China afterwards if one has a multiple entry visa for China , do you think? Would it be feasible to then get to Pagan from there by road?

Happy travelling, buddy.

rainbowprof said...

If travelling as a family do you think I would need to pay that for for each child? Any hints?

john said...

@rainbowprof,
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. To answer your questions:
1) Yes, for us, going to Bhamo, Katha, and Myitkyina was more interesting than taking the conventional route to Lashio, Hsipaw, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Mandalay only since we had seen them on our previous trip (http://meckleyearth.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html). So I would also recommend that route providing that you stop a Hsipaw and Pyin OO Lwin and not head straight to Mandalay. Also, more and more folks seem to be stopping at Kyaukme (we did not) for homestays and trekking.
2) I'm 99.9% sure that non-Chinese cannot enter China at Ruili. So if your plan is to return to China then in my opinion it's best to fly from Kunming to Mandalay and then back to Kunming from Mandalay (or Yangon if there is a direct flight)
3) You can get to Bagan by road from Mandalay - by bus, shared taxi (maybe), or by hired car. Don't take the bus. Most folks either fly or take the boat from Mandalay. We took the slow boat from Mandalay (on our first trip - a wonderful way to meet locals) and took the bus out of Bagan (horrible and we are veteran 3rd World bus travelers)
4) Paying full price for children: Not sure but I would "guess" it depends on your bargaining skill and/or self-confidence since in that part of the world children mostly travel for free or very reduced price if they don't take up space (sit on your lap for example).

Great questions!