Tag Archives: burma

Day 3 Sangkhlaburi excursion

My pink motorbike has a sticker that says “I love dogs”. Not true. In fact there are packs of quite scary ones on the roads. At least they would be scary if they were nourished enough to have the energy to chase you.

I take the road to burma. This follows much of the route of the mostly disappeared death railway. I take a detour down a windy empty jungle road to a forest park, which is deserted, and the gate is open. Tentatively I enter the park, park and begin a magical walk through bamboo groves, crazy unidentifiable vegetation until the path gets denser and follows an increasingly bubbling stream. Up stream is a myriad of low cascades, water falling in clear sheets in sparkling deep green pools, flanked by gnarled trees with complex twisty root structures. I'm in the middle of the river. On a little island, in fact. Cascades and pools all around me. Peace, the only sound is the rushing water. This is truly sublime. Not a soul present. Just me.

The spell is slightly ruptured when I meet a couple of rangers coming to check out who it is that's in the park…but they quickly disappear.

My ride continues to the Three Pagodas Pass. This is historically an important place, where the death railway enters burma, and where the armies of ayutthya fought the invading burmese. The pagodas are small are sited on a grassy island, with immigration offices on one side, orchid stalls on another. There is a couple of Hindu burmese selling little samosa in small oil boilers that they can pick up and walk around with. There are some fresh faced languishing soldiers in full uniform carrying assault rifles ostensibly guarding the border, but they look rather disinterested. Their posture and expression changes when I ask to take their pictures, and they stand rigidly to attention. To my disappointment, I discover I'm not allowed to make the short walk into the neighbouring burmese town. Apparently it's only for Thais. It's not a proper frontier.

Immigration is clearly an issue here. In the 20 miles or so I cover i pass at least 3 checkpoints.being a white face I'm greeted with smiles, waves and laughs. Has I been in a longyi, darkskinned and huddled in the back of a pickup, I'm sure I would have been subjected to severe scrutiny.

 

Sangkhlaburi day 2

Quite a chilly sleep, thankfully the karaoke on the other side of the creek stopped by 11.

I'm quite excited to get up for sunrise over the lake. Monks on the bindi baht are crossing the bridge. Long tail drivers are prepping their boats and cruising out into the golden water. A schoolboy dressed in Boy Scout type uniform is with his mother selling little fish in bags of water, to be released for merit making. I guess that's his job before school. I forget how early it is. 6 am? 7 am? The village is getting up. Mon women with yellow ash daubed faces with baskets balanced on their heads are selling tea and snacks. Across another small bridge, under which locals are tilling their vegetable gardens, I'm now in a more rustic environment of typical mon houses, bamboo platforms with thin woven walls. There are a lot of women with babies. At a store I drink some water and a guy on a motorbike generously offers to take me to the wat. It's burmese and very ornate. On the land next to it is a campsite. Tents for monks. There is a road which is strewn with dry leaves, rustling in the cooling breeze. This leads to a gilded stupa, next to which is a souvenir market. Here I see a small group of monks committing taboos: handling money, smoking, shouting to each other. Buying food and ice creams…I understood their food was from donations. In the road a small mangey pup has just died. A pack of adult equally scrawny and few ridden dogs aggressively police the small corpse.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Mae sot, teaching and prison

I’m going to hang around here for a few days more. It’s easy going,hassle free, cheap, stimulating, slow. But today I must stay put of the sun. I went for a breakfast. Time cycle around the town..it’s very small, and the breaking sun felt hot on my covered but singed shoulders.

I spent last night at the guesthouse over beer chat.ing with a fellow encumbrance, peter, 65, Australian, working as a teacher for 3 month on and off stretches at a school for Burmese. I learn a lot from him, and it’s quite inspiring to hear of kids (he teaches 17-19 year olds) who have real desire to learn and achieve and make something of their lives. It’s an interesting contrast with the students I work with, many of whom don’t recognise the fabulous opportunity their parents’ money has bought them, nor havethedriveor the realisation that an education can change their lives. Petter’s students are refugees, some using false names, some experiencing harrowing pasts. He told me of one boy, who he described as the happiest person he has met, a previous slave worker. This boy’s work was acting as a human shield for troops crossing potentially mined land.

His school scrapes by. The staff are volunteers, getting in recompense a lunch and a bicycle. They are undermanned, and resources are ones they cobble together through material donations back home, Catholic Church money and pillaging the Internet. I can see how rewarding the work is from peter’s immense pride in spite of he superhuman efforts he must put in. As he says,he is exhausted and will be going back to Australia for downtime to walk and swim. He lives in what he describes as a beautiful and natural environment.

Beyond here, I learn he is a very determined and focused person. He tells me of his walking of the camino. De Santiago de compostella. 34 days walking….physical, mental and spiritual battles, and days of crying. This is a walk that you do alone. Nobody else can walk your pace. His is a walk on which you learn about yourself. He tells me of his waking dreams and the. Battles through the near constant rain.once again, I sense him filling with pride as he tells me of this accomplishment.

I learn more about where I am through him too. The floods of several weeks ago forced him to relocate to this guesthouse.his former one being swamped with 40 cm of water, destroying clothes, the fridge floating away….

He tells me more about the precarious sitaution most of the refugees experience. The police spot check for pork permits, identity documents etc. those unfortunate to be caught out are stored in a place he ominously describes as “the cage” , near the abandoned project that is/was robe the new police station. My breakfast cycle takes in this place. And it is an apt name. Through an open gateway, so plainly visible to anyone passing, you can see a 2 storey wooden house. The ground floor is in fact the cage. Behind the bars I can see dozens of. Men and women, maybe even children. I didn’t have enough time to scrutinise, as, unsurprisingly, a coupled of immigration officials waved me, not aggressively, away. I don’t think they liked my camera. The conditions look pretty disgusting. How long they are kept there, I don’t know. As I pass by again I see a police prison truck back into the yard, the cage unlocked and a number of brightly dressed women shaparoned into he back. Evidently to be repatriated to Burma, where their fate Is probably not a promising one. Arrest, prison..or worse. I can only watch.

Breakfast is a bag of Burmese style pakora. 2 types. The most interesting contains pungent lime leaves. My bagful are freshly cooked on the road and cost 10 baht.

Mae sot refugee aid

It’s blistering hot. I’ve never felt such intense sun, so I’m now back on the corner by Canada bar. Opposite by the police station is the road with the Chinese humanitarian centre. Today is a special day. They a giving out sacks of food, and the street is awash with scruffy kids, mothers with new horns in their arms, men with broken teeth and betel nut stains, kids smoking cheroots, people now squatting wherever there is shade, including under the stage where the pink capped humanitarian workers are sitting on top of and guarding the sacks of food. They have a system for distribution, and it is guarded by guys in military uniforms. It involves a yellow laminated card with a red symbol on it. I gather it is gained by revolving around the stage and passing two checkpoints at which your hand is daubed with a different colour food dye, indigo then green. An overjoyed burman hugs me and shakes my hand, making me green too.

 

Opposite this stage is a Chinese temple and prayer hall a square with a gazebo in the middle and a stage on the other side. In the prayer hall a group of elderly Chinese monks, dressed in white sing prayers and carry out a ceremony. Inside the hall is a mountain of food bags which a shouldered out in line the crowd held back by an avenue of blue barrels, to the stage. The mountain there is growing, ready to be handed out. On the stage. Is a. Traditional Chinese play. Two large made up men, hooting and screeching. Sounds of Chinese percussion. The Burmese are hot, bemused, but. Patient.

On the other side of town the Thais are at school. In the street across the way the Muslims a being called to prayer. The Burmese temple is closed and full of sleepy dogs.

It’s 2 pm, and I can’t believe how much life I have seen already today.

Video to follow….