Tuesday, January 03, 2012

To the Line

I walked the dawn streets looking for a place to have breakfast, filing past begging monks. Nothing was open, so I had to satisfy myself with buying bread and coffee at 7-11. I sat eating them on the banks of the Mekong. The sun was just coming out of the Lao jungle, shimmering across the river to me. I took my time here. We'd passed the better part of a week on or beside its waters, and today we'd say goodbye.

An obviously gay couple walked by, the third I'd seen in this small town. Chiang Saen must be on the gay and lesbian travel circuit. There were also some trucks vying to ruin my peaceful morning with their speakers -- one for a group called "Miracle of Life." At eight o'clock sharp, the national anthem came on and moved me along.

We flagged a passing song taa-ou for the ride north. The Golden Triangle refers to this entire area, but the town of Solp Ruak had adopted the name since it sits on the western bank of the Mekong where Thailand, Laos, and Burma come together. I'd debated a quick stop here, but the town was ugly and quite touristy, so was satisfied simply with this quick peek from the back of the truck. We began to take on more passengers now, including a few village folk, three monks, and a Burmese girl with a cosmetic of ground bark on her cheeks who was eating nuts and throwing the shells out onto the road behind us.

Mae Sai wasn't much to look at, but it certainly was bustling. I love borders and I love market towns and this town had all the best qualities of both. A real dream for people watching. Besides the obligatory Chinese, there were the broad faces of Burmese, and the dark skins of those from further west. Tribal people added color in headgear and dress. A few of them were topped with steep-pitched conical hats, balancing baskets filled with nuts across their shoulders. Dozens of vendors roasted chestnuts. I saw more
thanaka, that ground bark paste on faces, especially on the cheeks of poor kids who'd come up to me with hands outstretched upon seeing my white skin. One street kid slept in the doorway of the Thai Airlines office. We walked through the cavernous Chinese market, then down the main drag with its money exchange, gold sellers, and gem shops. In one flashy cafe, three monks sipped coffee. Border guards toting M-16s strolled around looking tough. Atop the hill was Wat Phra That Doi Wau, offering excellent views into Burma. It all looked like one continuous city from up here, except that Burma had quieter streets. Near the wat was a large steel scorpion, supposedly the biggest in Thailand. I still don't know why.

We had lunch at a Burmese Muslim place, hidden down a side alley, which did a good biryani and a nice noodle soup. Later, we did an internet time out, at a shop run by a friendly Burmese guy who spoke quite good Japanese. He'd been here 20 years and told us that the economy here was dying, the death knell being Thailand's decision to change visas from 30 to 15 days. I asked him about travel in Burma, and he suggested I ask at the border.

We were toying with the idea of a trip up to Kengtung, as a kind of visa run, arriving back in Thailand with a new 15 day visa, which would carry us to the day of our flight back to Japan. I approached immigration and asked the woman there about doing a day trip. She was really funny and friendly and told me to simply walk across the border and ask. I gave her my passport and did just that. There were quite a few people sitting on the bridge, including more begging kids. Where did they belong? From here, I could see how close the buildings on both sides were. With a running start and some courage, a person could jump from the rooftop of one country to the next. On the Burmese side, a cop sat in a plastic chair reading a paper in the middle of the road, cars passing on both sides. Vehicles did a do-se-do into the opposite lane. I entered the Burmese immigration office and asked my question. A guy at a desk gestured to a guard who led me into Burma. Inside the tourist office, I found a man writing something on a piece of paper. I asked him if the road to Kengtung was open, and his answer was what was written on the paper: "The military allows people to go to Kengtung only with a guard." I pointed at the paper, and asked, "Hey, are you studying English?" He said, "Yes," and we both laughed. The military. So the situation wasn't political, but some type of unrest. The officer told me that we could take the bus, at a cheaper price that I'd thought. But we'd have to pay the expenses of the guard --salary, room, transport, etc. I thanked him, nodded to my guard, and walked back to Thailand. There was a brief moment of tension when I couldn't present my permit to cross the border, but that was cleared up with a phone call. My five minute foray into Burma ended without incident. I was amazed how relaxed and playful everyone was, far removed from the tense border I'd heard about.

Miki and I spent the rest of the day at Mae Sai Guest House, a group of bungalows on the river. They were perhaps the nicest lodgings of the trip -- walls and floors of woven bamboo with good light and strong hot water. We sat on the veranda and looked at Burma 10 meters away across the river. It felt like nosily spying on neighbors. Life there didn't seem so different from over here. The family 'next door' was busy cleaning its garden. I was annoyed with the way that the patriarch would toss veneer trash bags over the wall into the water. It was funny to see his dog eating the same trash, then be called to be fed up above. A large snake swam from Thailand to the Burmese shore, then returned again. Didn't have the correct visa, I guess.

After dark, dogs on both sides of the border began barking at one another. A drum beat from somewhere off in the hills. From the Burmese side came the sound of voices. Two or three times, the crack of gunfire made me wish I'd paid attention to the design of our bungalow's roof...

On the turntable: Van Halen, "Fair Warning"
On the nighttable:
Wiliam Eastlake, "Lyric of the Circle Heart"

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