Final afternoon sortie

Very interesting ride to the edge of town which took me across muddy tracks with streams, purple water flowers, huts standing in flood water. I see a 16 year old girl struggling with a cart full of plastic bottles collected to recycle, it’s an effort through the ruts and puddles. A Bangladeshi farmer ies me and ushers me into his muddy farm yard, full of ducks and hens and a shed which contains his prize asset…It’s this he wants me to photograph. Not him, not his 10 year old son in the traditional Islamic skull cap and silk tunic. It’s his fawn coloured bull. His prize. I oblige with the pic and I ascertain through gesture that he wants the picture. I use the iPad to write his phone number. His son types his name and his father’s and his small friend’s. quite a clash of technologies and cultures. The ol man with broken teeth standing in this primitive hovel typing on this device.

Further on I encounter youn boys herding cows across the fields, women with snacks in baskets balanced on their heads calling door to door at the water stricken houses. A stream where 2 mothers are scrubbing the laundry while their naked kids frolicking in the water. The sights go on and on, and these refugee encampments are literally a couple of minutes from the centre of town. Across the files are the golden domes of a mosque, a man with a white rice farmers hat is fishing next to his bicycle. Brooding grey clouds drift over the wall of corrugated iron shacks. It spits with rain and the call to prayer from this mosque and the one on the opposite side of this open space begins its call also. A different voice, a different tune. It’s like they are in competition. Why do people bother with religion when there life is as poor of this. What does Allah fix?

I hit a paved road that in comparison is a veritable highway and head away from town, past some pools where more boys are playing with a ball in the water, and back flipping in. God knows how dirty the water must be. On the banks of a stream is a little crooked cow herder of around 70 . He calls me over and we do another cow and owner shoot!

I’m unable to go much further up the road as it is flooded, the water being around 1,5 feet deep. Traffic is passing, including bikes, some even carrying several people, but I decide to stay dry. I dismount to watch the vehicles crossing and a guy on a scooter pulls up. Around 35, white vest, gold chain, a faint tattoo on his shoulder. He has stopped to chat. He is Burmese and now lives in Finland. Married with a Burmese. His teeth are red from betel.

Back into town for a mint and pineapple smoothie. Strange how distant my life is from what I have seen. Strange how physically close it is.

 

 

Saturday, last day in Mae sot

I have developed a routine, habits and locals. It has been nice to feel settled here. A few more engaging people to hang out with would have made it perfect.

I intend to have a slow day, which only gets going after a leisurely tea and chat with Peter..I’m keen to move him away from talking about teaching, but it’s all engrossing for him….

I cycle out of town toget my Chiang Mai bus ticket, but the bus station from which it leaves does not sell tickets. At least, I am given to understand after 10 am! I’m told to buy it in town, but I have no idea where, and cycle round in circles, which involved trying to snap pictures of the cage once more. The prisoners have visitors. On my third lap of the town I come across a DHL office where I’m welcomed by a stocky smiley Burmese who runs the place and via a phone call, and delivery by motorcyclist my ticket is procured. Meanwhile and for another hour we talk. His English is quite strong. He left Burma 20 years ago and has worked in ticket agencies in Khaosan Road. He now has this company at which he tries to employ as many people as possible. All Burmese. Currently 25. We talk at length about the Burma situation. About the in-fighting between ethnic groups, the govt playing one off against the other. We are both critical of religion and monarchy. How will Thailand fare when the king passes away? This is a question the Thais will not entertain. He is the one shared pillar of unity. Perhaps because he is unique it blinds Thais to the big problems, or they put too much faith in the spirit of the king. Just like religion, with places like Thailand and especially Burma there are big temple building projects in which money, labour, time are lavished to the detriment of proper housing for the people. You cannot live in the temple. You can pray, make merit, but this is all for a next life. If there is such a thing. Jo, the DHL guy, and myself are more pragmatic. He wants to address real issues. He does so by providing a living for people. He feels lucky, but there is also a sense of guilt that he has left others behind, including his parents.

He too has an arrest story and of spending 2 nights of discomfort, heat, airlessness in the cage for which a 6000 baht release fee was required. The only food and drink you have is the stuff you bring with you. He talks about being shipped around by the police in a cattle truck, covered with onion sacks. The Thai police do not speak Burmese. They exploit this power over the Burmese and extort money in bribes. Jo has a friend who was arrested in Burma by the secret police and tortured. His crime being involved with the student freedom movement. The tactic is to scare you into passivity. He is now in Thailand.

We talk about Thailand’s interest in Burma being primarily one of trade. Teak. Export of food stuffs. China has similar interests. I ask Jo about his DHL shipments. Mostly food, dried fish, from Burma.

I have an awesome lunch at a place behind the minibus station. It’s all vegetarian, Burmese, unusual dishes such as mashed jack fruit, tamarind curry, many ingredients that I cannot identify. Back at the market I buy 2 kg of fruit!!

Wadee

Wade is a Burmese restart rant opposite the golf driving range, the 25m high nets of which I can see from my window. It’s a small place with three tables under a roof, a bar and an inside space, the grandmother seated at the back. It’s dead when I arrive this time. A cluster of staff around the middle table texting or playing on mobiles, who come alive o me, their only customer. On the end table there is a couple of local guys chatting in a languid drunken way over a bottle of local whiskey which they drink with a lot of ice, procured by tongues from a bowl of meltwater. The staff move inside and continue online activity around a couple of laptops. Two of the girls look very similar and they come and discuss the menu with me after I have grilled it for 10 minutes. Khao soy is off no mangoes….the one who seems in charge, who I later learn is called sunni actually remembers me from 2 nights ago and even what I ordered. We discuss my options and I settle for fried suki, which is glass noodles with carrots, beans, greens and tea leaf salad. I had read about this as a famous Burmese dish. It’s fermented green tea leaves, shredded, mixed with shredded onion, peanuts, roasted broad beans, crushed, some other crunchy pulse. There some chilli in it to taste, but generally Burmese food is not. Spicy. It strikes me that I have never had or seen Burmese food in uk.but Thai, yes, of course. I begin to wonder why, and I reckon it’s due to the key ingredients being the dish itself, and ones that cannot be substituted. We can’t get water spinach,fairy mushrooms,fresh bamboo shoots in uk, so we cannot make the little dishes I haven’t here. Thai food is more about the flavours and the meat or vegetables can be substituted for what is available. Kaffir lime, galangal, lemon gras, even holy basil can be o trained in uk,so making the base of a curry is simple. The difference would be that the uk curry doesn’t contain pea aubergine, wing beans etc. the food is nice, interesting. My lychee smoothie also refreshing.

While I eat the staff are all engrossed with YouTube or whatever. The thai boy who works there is wearing as amusing galaxy mini t- shirt and is some kind of expert on mobiles. A local guy arriveson a motorbike to ask for some help.

After eating Sunni comes and sits and we chat. Her family are Burmese and own the business. That is she, her sister, her grandmother, her brother.her you gets broth is the guy from Brian’s class who asked me if I was short or long…. She is 32, though looks around 20.theother girl in orange is actually her niece! She tells me what is coming quite a common story of leaving Myanmar and leaving behind some family and friends. The problems of keeping in touch, with telephones and Internet not being so widely available I’m Burma, calls costing a lot too. Se has a sister now in Australia, married to him, and she has been there, but now she no longer has the one year passport, that costs and is not free to travel outside of the Mae sot region. She asks me about other Asian countries, I trellis her about the ethnic differences in Malaysia and the way Singapore is setting itself apart from Asia. By chance tiziano’ s next chapter is also about this….

I go for my habitual night time saunter by bike.its Friday but town is shutting down. People now replaced by marauding packs of dogs, giving no heed to. Traffic, chasing cyclists.

School and sauna

Today I went to peter’s school, which I would never have found had Kaye, 27, a volunteer administrator not taken me there. Amidst the back streets behind the hospital, in a poor Burmese area on the due of town. The school is a concrete building with 3 teaching rooms, a library of very soiled second hand or hand me down books, each room giving onto the next, no doors. To the rear is a long area that serves as a kitchen, and where lined up are small plates of fish in sauce, the students’ lunch. On entering the building I find myself in a class, and also there is a long table which seems to serve as an admin desk. His is where Kaye works. Peters class numbers 16 and the students are an even mix of 17- 21 year olds. The boys mostly wearing longyis. They converse amongst themselves in English. Peter is rather paternal in manner and the students are called in turn to stand and address the class. They seem confident, expressive and imaginative, and are not fazed by my initial presence. Brian is another post 60 year old Ozzie and has a lower level class. He is doing a rather clumsy and pointless exercise in following instructions. A drawing dictation which doesn’t really go anywhere. I place my finished cup of tea on a flappy table chair top and it slides of crashing and smashing on the floor. How embarrassing, but nobody is perturbed. Peters lesson is about creative story writing, involves drama, characterisation etc. he doesn’t frame it very well, and the students that I talked to wre not entirely sure what it entailed. They act these out hen he gives them a similar task for homework. There are no language aims, but the fun element is there and the students seem quite content. I spend some time with Brian’s class and never have I sweated so much in a lesson, my salmon shirt is dark with perspiration.They are invitee ro ask me questions. you would expect them to ask the standard ones like : are you married? whats ypur name? but the first one was from a little boy with short hair, white shirt and purple longyi whi asks me “are you sort or long? ” he is talking about height…! what a strange opening gambit…anyway i explain that or a european im not veryfall. i ask him how tall he is and he replies “5 inches”! i ask him to to stand up. obviously he means 5 feet. interesting how the burmese use feet and inches.I discuss with them where I’m from. Their world geography is unsurprisingly minuscule. They know I’m a native speaker but they are guessing I’m from Spain. They think paris is a country in the uk etc…..

 

After break I talk at length with Kaye and learn about his life here. He is studying psychology at university, but finds it tough going. Critical thinking is a challenge, so too are very new and difficult concepts. He has been here for 7 years as a refugee. Most refugees have I’d cards issued by he Thai authorities and are restricted to the Mae sot area. There are immigration road blocks. In fact I encountered one on the way in. He is able to travel all of Thailand if he wishes. He tells me more about the cage, where he was once locked up, for not having his papers with him. There is no food provided there. He bailed himself out with 6000 baht. Twice a week the detainees are transported by boat back to Burma, and many of them just keep coming back. It’s like a yo yo. I learn from him about the Chinese food aid. This happens once a year. A few years ago it was so hectic that a baby died in the crush. There is also a yearly Muslim aid hand out too. I hear about the occasional antagonisms between local and Burmese workers and sporadic killings off migrant workers and hushed up burials. I tell him about my experiences in Burma and he acknowledges the inequality of the society, the self- interested power borking, the useless and corrupt police.

Brian’s second class is about business and trade. He models a transaction and introduces vocabulary in the context of trading mangoes for chickens. Interesting that when role playing the kids do not have much desire to make profits…..

At lunchtime the classroom is cleared out and 2 tables positioned for the 3 teachers, Kaye and myself. There are 3 simple dishes and rice prepared for the staff by the administrators and a student. We sit and eat,the students mill around the other rooms and eat their fish.

After lunch I circulate with my bags of longans and mangosteens, and sit with a group of boys and chat about English football. They ask my views on Alex ferguson, and why Liverpool and man utd hate each other. I get a a group photo then begin to show them pics of Brighton, not conscious that I’m cutting into their next lesson!

I make a gracious farewell and depart, getting lost on the way. It was nice being in a school where nobody is feeling under pressure to learn, where the mood is so relaxed, where the students are so open and smiley. I’m not sure about the methodology nor the language content. It’s all how I imagined an expat volunteer school to be. But, these students are producing English, are motivated and its a nice environment.

Cycling back I come across the end of Friday prayers at the mosque. Many cultures here, many religions! I’m now going to get out of my sweat soaked clothes, relax, then probably hit the sauna again.

On the way to the sauna I buy another half kilo of longans. The stall holder mimes to me how to eat them…as if I don’t know already! I’m an experienced longan eater now!

There are already 2 guys in the sauna. One has many boils or similar all over his back. The other talks to me through the fog. He is a police officer with Chinese blood. He has two grown up kids,his wife has a banana stall. He asks me if I’m married. I hate that question actually. It’s expected of me robe married at my age….anyway he says see you tomorrow as he leaves. Soon after the big guy who I saw last time arrives. The one who rocked around flapping his arms. He speaks quite good English. He is Karen, has been in Thailand 45 years and doesn’t want to go back.he has a Thai wife and 2 kids. He Gets changed into his coloured sarong again and begins once more the same pacing, flapping routine. Although he has put some money in the box, I don’t think he goes in the sauna.

After 5 or 6 ins and outs from the steam room, I’m done, I take some photos and wander the temple grounds. Back to base, where the mosquitoes are active this evening.

Burma

I’m back from 5 hours in Burma and it felt like a lifetime. Being in Mae Sot feels like the height of developed civilisation. The so-called friendship bridge is reached by following a long straight highway with trucks parked up along the sides. I initially don’t take the crossing and instead cruise the area under the bridge, the backside is all churned up and there is debris in the bushes from the recent 2 meter high flood waters. On the riverbank behind the concrete emabankment and behind a coil of barbed wire are a few makeshift stalls, the holders calling out to me offering their wares: Viagra, cigarettes, sectors. I’m guessing that they are in no man’s land behind the wire. On dry land is a covered market with many stalls selling finely carved Buddhas and teak furniture which young lads are polishing.

At the bridge I’m approached by a dark skinned guy with a scarred swelling on his neck. Not so skinny and quite smartly dressed in a shirt and long trousers. I’m immediately suspicious that he is a fake guide, working for the government in Burma. I’ve read about these guys. He shows me where I can park my bike and escorts me out of Thailand and onto the bridge where Burma looms. 300m away. He tells me he meets with foreigners to practise his English. Entering Burma is swift, I pass under a gazebo where some uniformed border agents are lounging around. I’m shown a tree stump which I believed to be where I should sit, but as I move to do so they all laugh at me. I was supposed to stand on it so they could frisk me. I’m ushered into an office then another by a series of well fed smiling white uniformed immigration officers, one of which welcomes me and asks for my 500 baht, which will go straight into the governments pocket. Heis civil, and I am fawning. They take my passport as guarantee that I will return and give me a laminated card with the number 3 printed on it to redeem it. I learn later in the whole day only 8 foreigners have crossed here.

Once off the bridge I’m in the town centre. A main drag not unlike poor Thailand. With food stalls and various uniformed figures sitting around. The side streets are unpaved, muddy, under water, the houses wooden shacks on stilts. My escort is called Mike and I attempt to suss him out by pushing him to talk about the government, police, religion. I realise he is genuine. He doesn’t have faith in the police, and tells me at length how they failed to get back his stolen motorbike even though he had identified the thief. He is critical of the army, the government. Laments the inequality in society, but forever remains optimistic. I ask him if he is afraid about speaking out. We sit on the polished teak floor of the pray hall at the pagoda and I wonder if anyone is overhearing our conversation. He says he is not afraid and not worried. I discover later that this is not entirely true. He deplores the medical service in Burma. His 18 month old son died recently as a result of disease caused by the flood. Later he shows me his picture. He also lost his brother in law recently too. Liver failure. Alcohol.

The pagoda is lively, kids playing and running through. Like all these poor places, it is opulent and a very stark contrast to the hovels that most people are used to. Mike takes me to his house. The roads are mud and puddles, shacks that serve as shops, barber shops, phone call centres. It’s very much third world. His house is on stilts, rattan sheet walls, very thin, plastic mats on the floor, it is squalid and I feel slightly ill at ease inside. There a no chairs, no tables, no kitchen, no bathroom. There is a tv, and electricity which is hooked up from a neighbouring rich house which is kind of like an electricity hub. There are kids playing in the mud outside, chickens running around, a pig snorting in a cage. The path is sandbags. His house too was deluged by the recent flood water. He shows me a book that has passed through many many hands. An Oxfam guide to health in a place where there is no doctor. It describes among other things how to deliver a baby. He tells me malaria is a problem here and how he has had it.

His young kids arrive then disappear again, left to their own devices, at 9 and 5. no school today.

I need a pee, but am wary to ask, as there doesn’t look like there is anywhere. He says he will take me to a friend’s house where I can relieve myself. This turns out to be a sort of cafe…some benches, a table a fridge, some young guys, one a transsexual, I later learn, sitting around bored looking, smiling, passing an unrelenting nothingness of existence. I use the toilet, I drink some water. Mike talks a lot. He is quite repetitive and is becoming a bit boring. His English isn’t so easy to follow and typically he doesn’t listen or ask questions. Still I am very grateful to him. He has no job, and lives hand to mouth. He has shown me things I would not have had the courage to explore myself. Back on the road we have some betel nut rolled in a leaf, given free by the stall holder. It’s bitter, crunchy, a bit aromatic, chewing it supposedly cleanses the mouth. It produces red juice, which a user spits periodically. This stuff turns your tongue red and blackens your teeth with extended use. I saw many cases of this. The people are gracious, not shy to having their photo taken. A couple of oddballs walk up to me and welcome me. One guy is wearing a pith helmet has a long beard and is carrying a plastic toy machine gun.

We take lunch near the bridge. Numerous dishes all very tasty: mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a bitter green vegetable, rice and a pile of assorted leaves.

After lunch the trouble starts that turns this stimulating trip into a confusing and bittersweet adventure. Mike takes me into a room off the Main Street, through a curtain. The room is full of young men clustered around big flat video games with multiple players. Kind of shoot up games which I think they are gambling on. My presence is noticed but nobody is perturbed…until I take a couple of overall pictures. Suddenly Mike is by me, and a tough looking guy in a pit helmet with narrow mean eyes grabs his arm and takes him up a flight of stairs at the back of the room. I sense something has gone wrong. I feel uncomfortable. I edge out of the room and stand by the doorway. One of the players invites me to join, I indicate I’m just watching. Mike appears some minutes later no longer looking relaxed. The mean guy walks with him to the door, a scene develops as this guy looks at me madly and is obviously berating me. I do the usual hands raised in submission, humilty and apology, I’m just an ignorant foreigner. Mike walks me away from the place and around the block, under the bridge. He says this guy is Karen army and that they control the betting in these places. This guy had a gun and threatened Mike because of my photographic activities. I am aware that all this has not diffused. Mike is very bothered. I’m blaming myself, when perhaps Mike is blaming himself. I then gather that his wife, who I hadn’t met, is also in that place. Mike tells me he has to go and get her. I wait across the street. When he appears five minutes later he is with his wife who is hysterical and shouting and doesn’t acknowledge me. Is she mad at me? I decide I should return to Thailand now. There are other people now surrounding us as she carries on shouting and Mike is in heated debate with some other sympathetic guys. Apparently the mean Karen mafia guy assaulted his wife with a chair. He hit her! Mike speaks to the police, but what can they do? He says I should do something about his situation, but what does he mean and what can I do. On the bridge he engages the police, customs, immigration officials. They listen, but don’t act. None of them speak English. In the end Mike suggests that I report this. What does this entail? The guards get a blank piece of paper on which I write my name, date of birth and fathers name. Nothing will happen….pointless…….I have now seen how terrible things a in Burma. Organised crime, police are powerless, or corrupt, or turn a blind eye. The victims are the poor. The foreigner walks away back to his own better life.

Mike sees me through customs. I redeem my ticket to get back my passport. The genial customs official delightedly tells me that it is now possible to visit all of Burma. Something I know is not true. Not even the Burmese are free to travel throughout heir own country. On the bridge we exchange phone numbers. Mike had wanted me to buy a Burmese SIM card from the stall at customs. A cut price rate for foreigners. Unavailable to Burmese. The stall is closed. I give him 500 baht for his guidance and I cross back to Thailand in the strong sunlight. looking back I do not see the big slimy dog shit that I subsequently step in. Sums it all up nicely.

I feel relieved to be back in Thailand. This is a place I at least understand a little. Burma scared me.

On the way back to Mae Sot I call in at a large temple complex, Burmese style, novices playing that game like volleyball where you use a rattan ball and your feet. Workmen building a path to the reclining Buddha. The idiot sweeping up. Two monks smoking cheroots in the doorway to the mirrored Buddha hall.

I’m exhausted.

Rainy morning

The heavy rain crashing down on the corrugated roof wakes me. I think this hasscupperedmy planned trip to the Burma frontier today. Regardless I think it would be interesting to see how mae sot carries on in the deluge.many roads are once. Again reduced to almost streams. That need fording. Strangely cycling is a better option than walking. Your feet stay dry. Life goes on, just less to-ing and fro-ing and more bright capes and brollies. I’m at the brilliantly named vegetable restaurant, which is rather jolly and lively and also quite popular. A whole team of contented workers cutting, mixing, stirring, assembling. Adjacent is a wok stall under a. Briht red and green umbrella selling corn fritters and fried banana. Ihave palate of rice and 2 half dishes, one with green beans and tofu, the other greens and tofu. It costs a meagre 25 baht.

Not sure of today’s plan..but actually it doesn’t matter much. If the rain eases off, then Burma is an option.

Last night I had a tranquil cycle around the back streets of the town, yet still ended up by the Chinese temple. On the outdoor theatre stage some historical opera/ play was being acting out. Formal rigid backdrops, heavily painted men in silk with shrieking voices both in song and speech, that overdubs to a live performance were most disruptive. All this accompanied by gongs and shrinks and percussion, so complex that it seemed to have no rhythm or pattern. The audience amounted o no more than 10 bemused Thais. Incomprehensible to them probably. It certainly was to me and brought on a headache!

I’ve changed my mind..I’m going to cycle to Burma…