Burma Hop

27 July 2011

My Thai visa was set to expire on Saturday, so I set out from Kamphaeng Phet, boarding the morning bus to Mae Sot. The Moei river divides Mae Sot, Thailand from Myawaddy, Myanmar, and by crossing the Friendship Bridge and coming back again, I’d get a fresh 15 days stamped in my passport.  Seemed like a prime deal, so off I went, expecting to be home that afternoon.  (A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour…)

One bus ride and one bowl of noodles later, I was riding the back of a motorbike, eyes squinting into the raindrops smattering my face, a satisfied grimace curled on my lips: I was going to one of the most repressive countries on earth, a country (relatively) few curious foreign eyes have seen since the junta took over in 1962: exotic Burma. The bike pulled up to the iron gates, and I strode to the immigration booth. A window snapped open and a woman’s head popped out in a military cap. “Help you, sir?”

Thanks, don't mind if I do.

“I’m going over there,” I pointed at Burma, like Napoleon at Russia.

“Sorry sir, border closed.”

“Pardon me?”

“No cross! Border closed one year.”

“Wait. What? Why?”

In her turn, she pointed across the river: “Over there, is a war.”

Well. Fair enough.

“It’s okay, sir, you just go to Mae Sai, cross border there.”

Relief. “Ah! Terrific. Where is Mae Sai?” Sounds like it would be close to Mae Sot.

She nodded upriver. “That way. Six hundred kilometers.”

“Oh.”

I sat down. My overwhelming urge was to retreat home, back to Kamphaeng Phet, where the worst thing that could happen was the bespectacled man who owns the coffee shop would laugh at me for trying to cross a closed border. But sooner or later I’m going to need to leave this country; unless I want a trip to prison and a lifetime ban from the Kingdom of Thailand, I had no choice but to make the 13-hour journey north, to the northernmost tip of the country, and cross the border as soon as possible. That was clear. So I went.

My bus left before dawn the next morning, and it took me to Tak, where another bus picked me up and took me to Lampang, rolling through endless rice paddies and sugarcane fields, then Chiang Mai, then a fried rice lunch, then up through the mountains of Chiang Rai, then a pork bun snack, then, as the sun set behind the cliffs and the glimmering gold mountaintop Buddhist temples of northern Thailand, to Mae Sai, where I found myself again just across the river from Burma. A narrower, swifter river here, up in the highlands. Worst comes to worst, maybe I could swim.

I left Thailand the next morning. The immigration official looked at my passport. “Overstay two days!” He said.  The guy sitting next to him cackled. “Hah! Overstay!” They let me off with a fine. On the Burmese side, the officers in their white uniforms didn’t have much to say, but explained that they’d do me the favor of hanging on to my passport while I explored their country. Fine, pal, see you in a few.

Burma early on Monday morning is not so different from anywhere else on Monday morning. The monks go door to door looking for donations of rice. Buddhists, Muslims, the odd Hindu and Christian sit an an outdoor restaurant, drinking tea, eating fried dough, and watching TV: on one screen, a monk praying, on another screen, a Burmese version of N*Sync perform, on the third screen is an Animal Planet program in which lizards flick out their tongues and eat bugs in slow motion. Up a hill, the temple is quiet, a few people praying before the shrine labelled “Monday.”

Young MonksThe Hills of BurmaRice DonationMega-WatBuddhist spires
Burma1

Young Monks

Burma2

The Hills of Burma

Burma3

Rice Donation

Burma4

Mega-Wat

Burma5

Buddhist spires

In Thailand, they drive on the left. In Myanmar, the right.  This creates a confusing and potentially dangerous scenario halfway across the bridge, where all the tiny sedans and lumbering trucks laden with cabbages suddenly are instructed by arrows on the road to swerve into the opposite lane. I dashed across with my head on a swivel.

Back again in Thailand, again riding the back of a motorbike, headed for a southbound bus. As we approached the bus station, the driver turned his helmeted head and asked: “Chiang Rai?” Sure, I said, Chiang Rai. And he slammed on the accelerator, racing past the station. Before I had time even to consider what was going on, he pulled up alongside a bus already racing down the highway, and started waving his hand and yelling. He slipped in front of the bus and started to slow down, easing the bus to a stop behind us.  “Chiang Rai,” he said, jabbing a thumb backward.

Sitting on buses for 26 hours in two days, naught for company but Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Robert D. Putnam (great guys, great beards, but they spent most of the trip snoring on my lap), I developed a critical appreciation for the raunchy, slapstick Thai comedies that play interminably on the screens above and blare incessantly in your ear. The midget, the ladyboy, the moustachioed gangster– these stock characters show up in every film. The sound effects, too (boi-oing! tweet! ahooooga!), accompany every punch line. And apparently, a guy sitting on a toilet with bad diarrhea is considered hilarious by a subset of every population– a subset that includes the enormous middle aged woman sitting just behind me who shrieked with laughter at every exploding fart sound.

So I also spent an awful lot of time gazing out the windows at the fields, jungle and hills rolling by. I watched the bugs buzzing mindlessly content over the hot asphalt. Those poor little guys have no idea what a bus is. Evolutionarily, their brains predate buses by millennia. I see a dragonfly humming along, and think how he doesn’t even have a context for the single greatest threat to his existence right now. It’s as if an ascot-wearing gentleman of the 17th century were plopped down in the middle of Asian Highway 1. Then I imagine the dragonfly talking like a 17th century gentleman as he dodges the buses and the trucks hurtling past him: “I say!” and “Good gracious!” and “Heavens above, a great beast indeed!”

And then I’m home, back in Kamphaeng Phet, back to being a project manager, back in the shower for the first time in a few long days. Burmese dust rinses from my hair and swirls brown down the drain.

Thoughts?

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