A dip into Burma

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December 6th 2009
Published: January 20th 2010
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From Sukhothai, I take the bus to Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city. I end up doing a whole bunch of nothing there, despite or maybe precisely because of the broad variety of hedonist activities on offer. You can do river cruises, trekking to minority villages, rock climbing, white-water rafting, abseiling, mountain biking, meditation and massage courses, cooking classes and visit elephant sanctuaries. I feel intimidated by the choices and the multitudes of travellers, backpackers, flashpackers, tourists and luxury seekers taking advantage of them. I spend a few days in the city mainly exchanging money, going to the night market and planning my onward trip, before evacuating myself to Chiang Rai.

My host Félix, a Quebecois, warns me not to take the tourist bus. "When they see your farang face at the bus station, they'll want to put you on the luxury bus with aircon and complimentary water bottle. Take the local bus, it's cheaper and better." For reasons unknown to me, the local bus doesn't run that day, or so the lady in the ticket booth says, and I end up in an airconditioned bus where an overweight ladyboy-cum-steward distributes water bottles and tasteless biscuits, to ensure I arrive in Chiang Rai disgusted by myself.

After Félix picks me up from the bus station, we go to his place, a small flat that costs about $40 a month, but which has everything one needs, bed, bathroom, kitchen and fridge. We have a can of Chang, the local beer, and listen to grindcore while he shows me pictures he took at the Maryland Death Fest last year, and I decide this is one of the best receptions I've got in a long time. It's rare enough to find somebody on the hospitality network who shares my taste in music, but Félix even listens to the really sick stuff. His English is flawless, only with a slight accent, but different from a French accent, if there were French people who spoke English that well. He's probably the person that uses the most filling words such as 'like', 'you know', 'I mean', et al., that I've ever met, which derives from an "elocution problem", as he puts it himself.
He currently works as a math teacher in Chiang Rai. Before that, he worked for 10 months in China. There are a bunch of notebooks on his table, containing exercises in Chinese and Thai script, which I find impressive. There are also several dictionaries, not only for the aforementioned languages, but also for Russian, which he aspires to learn as well. He also sports a number of amusingly bad tattoos, like the logo of Suffocation, the band, and of Wacken, the Metal festival in Germany.

After a while, a friend of his from back home arrives, Jean. They know each other from their time in the army, which was more like a normal job than it sounds, Félix assures me. We head out to a Chinese vegetarian restaurant to eat dinner. As with any self-respecting Chinese vegetarian restaurant, they have all the fake meat, and I indulge in it, stuffing my face with spicy soy sausages and fake beef. Another friend of Félix arrives, a small Polish guy with a crazy look in his eyes and a nose that is so crooked that it looks like he was punched from the side and the doctor couldn't be fucked to straighten it. He sits with us for a minute or two, speaking in five languages and chewing on ginseng root that he carries around in a container, and then suddenly ups and leaves.
Afterwards, we go to a Reggae pub, where Félix plays pool with a bunch of Frenchies, while I sit in the backyard with Jean and some Thai hippies with dreadlocks playing the usual Bob Marley favourites on their guitar. And thus the night ends.

The following morning we are crammed onto the local bus to Mae Sai, where we take a sawngthaew to the border. We check out of Thailand and walk to the Burmese side. It's quite interesting to see the cars coming from Burma change lanes when they exit Burma and drive towards the Thai side, there always seems to be this moment of "Let's see who caves in first" with the oncoming traffic from the Thai side on the same lane. In the end they always switch at the last second, and there are no crashes. At the Burmese checkpoint, we have our photo taken, which is then glued into a small booklet that allows us to stay in the border region for 14 days. For travels beyond that, we'd need a proper visa. Our passports remain at the immigration office until we come back.

The town directly after the border is Tachileik, where most people only go to visit the market. Consequently, as we walk through the market, we are approached by myriad sellers offering us porn DVDs, viagra (which we all find a bit insulting) and knickknacks. The currency used in this town is still the Thai baht, so we don't even bother changing money.
We eat a nice lunch at a local restaurant outside the market area. The owner and his family don't seem to get many foreigners, as they are thoroughly confused by our presence and our strange requests, i.e. my pointing frantically to the Burmese word for vegetarian in my phrasebook, since it's impossible for me to fathom the mysterious pronunciation.

Félix calls up a friend of his, Justin, whom he met on a previous trip to Tachileik. Justin is a Chinese Burmese who looks a bit like the Pillsbury man, and it's quite hard to resist poking his tummy. He comes to fetch us with a couple of friends, all on motorbikes, so we all get a ride. He shows us a hotel where we can stay for the night. We haggle a bit, check in, and put our luggage into the room, while the Chinese crew waits for us to take us along to their school. At the school, there are kids of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers, and some of them, like Justin, seem to live there with their families. We play basketball against a bunch of small kids who are really keen to show their skills against the foreigners. When some older guys challenge us for a game, I pass, and walk around taking pictures of the school.

Justin invites us for dinner, and while he's busy cooking, we wander around to check out that part of town. We find a small bar packed with people on diminuitive plastic chairs, drinking beer and watching football. We find out Burma is playing Laos in the Southeast Asian games, and decide to join in. Both teams seem to be possessed by the delusion that you win a game by running as much as possible, and the crowd starts getting hysterical when their team crosses the midfield line, as if they were about to score a goal. Both coaches are white European men, at least one of them is German. Both look a bit desperate, which I can understand watching the game. Their directives are interpreted by lackeys running up and down the coaching zone. The game ends in a draw, 1-1, and the people in the bar immediately get up and leave.

Back at Justin's place, we are served a great dinner of rice with different veggies. He was so nice as to cook without meat because of me. After we finish eating, Justin looks at the time and suddenly seems to panic. He urges us to finish our beers quickly and ushers us out onto the motorbikes, where his friends drive us once again back to our hotel. After this sudden end to a nice dinner, we don't feel like sleeping, and wander around a bit more. We enter a Christian church, where a big festival seems to be in progress. There's some sort of a Polynesian dance going on on a makeshift stage, and once the locals become aware of our presence, everything seems to stop for a moment, and everybody looks quite weirded out by us. The dancing continues, but all the people in the church appear to be watching our every move, intrigued by what unfathomable potential may linger beneath that surface of pale skin, long noses and deep eyesockets.

In the morning we wait for Justin's call, as he wants to take us along on a school excursion. The call doesn't come, so we go back to sleep. All of a sudden, we hear somebody shouting in the hallway. It's Justin, again smitten by panic, urging us to hurry up. We ask him why he didn't call, but he just says he didn't have time. We go back to the school, where a sawngthaew crammed with people is already waiting for us. The teenage chicks onboard look a bit annoyed, as if it's our fault that we're late. The boys are loaded onto the top of the sawngthaew, whereas I take the last spot inside with the chicks. I get eyed suspiciously, but after a while, the giggling starts, and all other communication attempts fail miserably. At least they give me a mandarine to eat.

We go through a military checkpoint, where we are stopped and not let through, apparently because of us foreigners on board. There's a bit of confusion for a while, but everybody assures us it's gonna be fine. We back up and take a different route towards the mountain that is our destination. When we finally arrive after going down a long, dusty road, our friends start distributing food bags and water bottles for everybody, and there are even two big bags of chips and dozens of mandarines. Chinese really don't like to go hungry, it seems.
The hike up the steep mountain is both beautiful and strenuous, and I'm happy to be out in the nature and get some exercise. At the first stop the older boys pull out a bottle of red label and start drinking small shots. Everybody else just eats chips, and I observe with horror how all of them throw the empty bags onto the floor. We make an effort to collect all the empty bags in a bigger bag and leave it there to take with us later on, but it's an uphill battle, since some dogs start leafing through what we collected. On top of the mountain, we are amazed by the rock pagoda, which looks like a big gold nugget with a pagoda sticking out of it. We eat our lunch, which is sticky rice with chicken, so it is sticky rice for me. Again, I'm horrified by the littering skills of our Chinese friends, they seem to be making an effort to chuck their rubbish as far into the bush as possible, but the immediate area around the rock pagoda looks revolting as well. There's plastic bags and bottles, chicken bones, empty chips bags and clumps of sticky rice everywhere. The whisky has transformed the boys' behaviour towards us from shy into brazen, and they all want to practice their nonexistent English and take pictures with us on their mobile phones. Our newfound superstardom weighs heavily on us, and we are quite relieved when we finally descend and head back to town.

We collect our passports at the Burmese border, get our exit stamps and enter Thailand again. We hop on a bus from Mae Sai towards Chiang Rai, but get off halfway to make our way towards Mae Salong. We ignore the sawngthaew drivers who quote us rip-off prices for the trip, and hitchhike on the back of a pick-up. The road to Mae Salong winds its way through the mountains of Northwestern Thailand. The view is superb, and I enjoy the landscape and the wind in my face, happy that we got a free ride and that we beat the system. After about one and a half hours, we arrive in Mae Salong, a Yunnanese village that consists of little more than one street. There is a Chinese majority in town, apparently descendents from Kuomintang members who fled China when the Maoists took over. We eat a fabulous dinner, me an excellent spicy curry and Félix and Jean a Yunnanese hotpot. The two Quebecois share stories about their time in the army, but in French, which makes me feel a bit left out, and I get pissed off. When Félix asks me what the matter is, I tell him, and they switch to English. It was that easy, no bitching, no drama.

In the morning we get up early and hike to a temple on top of the mountain to enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside. There are quite a few tourists from China visiting the area, but fortunately no big tour groups, just couples and families. We go back to town and visit one of the many tea shops of Mae Salong, where we try maxing out the free tea samples we get without buying anything. In the end, Félix buys some anyway, and we don't need to have a bad conscience. We hike through a tea plantation, at which entrance lies a tiny hill tribe village, which we cross cautiously, not without feeling like intruders. When some snot-nosed, naked kids see us, they start screaming 'farang, farang!' and we move on as fast as possible. We take a shortcut downhill through a tea plantation, which proves to be a bad idea. The track is muddy and slippery, and every one of us falls down at least once. At the bottom of the hill, we cross a river and climb uphill again, towards a strange teapot monument that towers over the town like a reminder that all our lives depend on the herbal drink.

Later, we hitch back to Chiang Rai, and eat dinner at a nice Mexican restaurant for a change. Félix' girlfriend invites us for drinks at her and her older sister's place, and I learn that they're actually Burmese refugees from the Shan state, which wants to be independent from Myanmar. They drink Thai whisky and soda and sing Burmese karaoke songs while I drink a beer and marvel at the Burmese alphabet. Félix' girlfriend downs drink after drink, she really wants to get drunk for some reason. Her sister is depressed because she had a fight with her Australian boyfriend, and when he calls she asks us to say Hi, and I just shout "G'day mate, how yer goin', yer ooright?" from the background. Gf urges us to drink more, but I refuse, although she calls me a ladyboy when I don't down my drink. After a while, the inevitable happens, and she's horribly drunk, which makes Félix kind of embarrassed. Somehow she manages to lock us in, and luckily Jean comes around after a couple of minutes. We pass him the key through the window and he unlocks the door. In the meantime, gf has knocked on the door of the Polish guy, who doesn't seem to be home, and her sister races towards her and slaps her in the face a couple of times, takes her head, and knees her in the head, Muay Thai-style. Félix tries to prevent her from inflicting further damage, and breaks up the fight while his gf runs towards their motorbike, crying, and speeds off, which is the last we see of her that night. The next morning, she's covered in bruises and scratches, and so is the motorbike. She had an accident, and her sister is in a big shit with her, understandably.

That day, I bid my farewell to Félix and hop on a bus to Lampang. Lampang is known for its horse-drawn carriages. That's all. But in fact, it's a nice little town that makes for a pleasant stopover to catch your breath before going back on the tourist trail.

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25th December 2014
Best sign ever

"Best sign ever"
Can you tell me the meaning of this picture?
26th December 2014
Best sign ever

Probably means you shouldn't take too many people along for a ride on your scooter. But my Burmese is a little rusty, so can't be sure. ;) Cheers, Jens

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