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A Day in Burma, 2007

May 17, 2010

Photographs by Kit and Diana Herring

I’d always wanted to visit Burma but never thought the way I’d eventually get there would be via a one-day visit, after passing over forty bucks in cold hard cash at the Tacheleik border crossing from northern Thailand.  Well, it was $20 each for myself and Diana.  Nonetheless I believe this was the first time in 35 years of travel that I’d ever paid to cross an international frontier for a get-out-of-Dodge-before-sundown excursion.

And no, I won’t validate the crooks that run the country of Burma by calling it Myanmar.

We were staying in Thailand’s former “Golden Triangle” area – now nothing more than a tourist catchphrase – when it occurred to us that hey, why not see what was happening over the Burmese border.

1) The Thai-Burmese-Lao border

The opportunity was one I embraced with mixed emotions.  An old dilemma stared us in the face – give some money to a tyrannical dictatorship for a chance to visit a country on the outs with the world – or stay away in protest.

We chose the first course.

2) The river between Burma and Thailand.  Maybe it’s called the Mai Sai…

We hired a guide on the Thai side to maximize our mobility once we crossed the border.  A small region is open to day tourism in Burma and one can go about 25 kilometers inland from the crossing.  We told our guide what we wanted to do so she arranged transport in Burma and we drove to the frontier.

The town of Mai Sai doesn’t have much to recommend it and we passed through quickly.  The border post proved to be a gaudy one.

3) Border post

Inside the Customs offices, sloppy Burmese officials took two twenty-dollar bills and processed our entry.  They also kept our passports for the duration to ensure our return at the end of the day.

Once in Tacheleik we noticed the change of vibe immediately.  The town had an almost Indian chaotic feel. Tacheleik existed mostly to support a free-wheeling market where all kinds of goods were sold, from endangered antelope carcasses to Chinese ersatz Viagra.

4) The Tacheleik market

A young teen-age boy attached himself to us quickly, tugging at my shirt sleeve and surreptitiously showing me a blister pack of pills.  I tried vainly to blow him off, but he persisted.  I finally relented and asked to see the drugs in question.  Sure enough, Chinese Viagra!  I had a hard time to keep from laughing.

But then the kid tried insert his fingers into my pants pocket.  I slapped them away and told him forcefully that he would have to refine his pickpocketing skills to a more advanced Peruvian-type level before he’d get a chance to steal from me.  The kid decided to slip into the crowd and disappear.

I did buy a carton of Marlboro cigarettes in the market.  The first packs offered to me were obvious fakes so I told the vendors to come back with more the real item.  They dashed away and returned with more skillfully replicated wares.  I didn’t notice until I lit one later.  The smokes weren’t very good but they were cheap.

5) Buying smokes

By now we’d had enough of the market.  It was time to head for the hinterlands.  Our guide had already engaged a small covered pick-up truck and we left town, squatted in the rear bed.

6) On the way out; the back streets of Tacheleik

Our guide said we could drive twenty kilometers to an indigenous village.  We arrived in due time to find an ongoing disaster.  In the hamlet’s grim poverty we discovered that many years previously most of the inhabitants had fallen victim to a leprosy outbreak.  Several of the older residents still exhibited the ravages of the disease.  Our guide interpreted for us.  Diana, a Nurse Practitioner, quickly realized that no active infections were present.  But there was more to the villagers’ story.

Years before, American Baptists had arrived with medicine.  The locals saw quickly that their old religion was not a match for the new gods that cured leprosy, so they became Christians after a fashion and succumbed to the temptations of the strange doctrine.  Just as native peoples world-wide forsook their old ways for the superior technology of the European conquerors.  It was a depressing tale.

But the Baptists had split when times and politics got rough, leaving the villagers to fend for themselves once again. They slowly reverted to their old traditions and the church was now a locked ruin.

The village did still have a school, at least, although it was empty this day. This was the only spot we photographed during our visit, out of respect for the inhabitants.

7) Village school

Near the village we saw the end of the New Economic Zone or whatever the rulers of Burma called the area that was unofficially open to foreigners.  A large gate blocked the road.

8) Gate and toll booth at the end of the excursion

And so that was the end of our foray.  We returned to Tacheleik and stopped at the pagoda,  a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon.  Here we circumnavigated the stupa and offered our wishes for a return to freedom for the unlucky citizens of Burma.

9) Diana posing at pagoda shrine commemorating birth dates – this one was hers

We had the good fortune to meet near the temple one of the leaders of the democratic opposition in Rangoon.  He was hiding in the area from the central government and the sadness in his eyes was palpable.  He spoke perfect English and was no doubt better educated than me.  Our conversation was an oblique one, probably better for all concerned.

We retrieved our passports at the river crossing and returned to Thailand somewhat subdued from our brief trip.  I had been reminded pleasantly of my time in India so many years ago but at the same time the human toll caused by an oppressive regime had been thrust in our faces.

More contradictions to reconcile.

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