Tachileik, Mae Sot and Myawaddy (June 2008)
It didn’t take Siri long to navigate the countless tricycle rickshaw drivers to reach the outskirts of Tachileik.
“Ohhhh…” she screamed as she gently tapped the brake as to not draw too much attention. I could see immediately that she was peering forward at a brigade of Burmese soldiers about 50 yards up the road thoroughly checking every truck and auto trying to make it out of the city.
“Any other ideas?” I asked. She reluctantly swung her head slowly back and forth suggesting ”no”. I surmised that my plans to pass unnoticed beyond the city’s boundary had been thwarted.
Siri dropped Tau and I off near the border crossing booth we checked in with only a couple hours earlier. The two hugged each other goodbye and Tau and I somberly made it back to the van. The driver smiled, once again exposing his gold laden central incisor and handed me a bottled water. On our way back to the hotel Tau asked me numerous questions about life in the United States. I still remember her utter shock and disbelief when I mentioned that my television Cable-box had more than 200 stations.
Back at the Legend Hotel Chiang Rai I said my goodbyes to Tau and the driver. She asked me if I still had plans to enter Burma. “Yes”, I said, albeit a bit more reluctantly this time.
The Golden Pagoda and longhi clad citizens had given me even a deeper thirst for exploring this culture somehow frozen in time even further.
After a short phone call to Bangkok and the owner of the Thai Travel Agency, Ms Didi, I was promised a plane ticket to the western Thai city on the border of Burma, Mae Sot. As the reservation was for early the next morning, I started packing my camera gear and clothing.
This time my air transport out of Northern Thailand was what we here in the US refer to as a “Puddle-jumper”. Rather than jet engines, the small aircraft was propelled by twin rotary propellors, one on each wing. After climbing the stairs and entering the fuselage, I was surprised to see that the flight was wide-open (maybe ten other passengers on an aircraft built to seat fifty or sixty). My blue cloth covered seat was about as tattered and lumpy as a bus I had taken in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico I had the misfortune of taking years before. All that was missing were the chickens in the aisle.
After roaring to a stop in Mae Sot, I grabbed my bags and ordered a taxi for the hotel Ms Didi had booked for me. She warned me over and over that it was not very luxurious but about as good as it gets in these parts of Thailand.
After checking into the Central Mae Sot Hill Hotel, I immediately made my way to the concierge and tried to arrange a guide for the nearby Burmese city of Myawaddy. She warned me that US nationals were not being allowed across the border at this time. I stated that I understood but asked if she might arrange to have a guide meet me anyway. She nodded and reached into her purse for her cell phone. After speaking to someone in Thai, she courteously covered the hand-piece and asked me if 45 minutes would be too soon. I said that would be fine.
It was hard to believe it had been less than a week ago that I was denied a Visa by the Burmese consulate in Bangkok. So now it had come down to being set up with a Burmese fixer in the Thai border city of Mae Sot by a concierge I had known for less than thirty seconds.
When the fixer arrived, the concierge suggested I meet him in the humid outdoor dining space of the hotel’s lobby. She had coffee and tea sent out to our table as we got to know one and other. He introduced himself as Toni in perfect English and had long black hair, a large diamond stud in his right earlobe and a shiny white pair of Air Jordans with laces fashionably untied. He confirmed that the Burmese militia was no longer issuing day passes into the border city of Myawaddy. “We shouldn’t have a problem”, he exclaimed but asked if I wouldn’t mind laying down in the back of his van just before and after the border crossing. I was in.
In a deserted alley about 100 yards shy of the Friendship Bridge into Burma, Toni helped fold me in between tattered boxes in the back of his van and then covered me with a dirty black sheet that smelled like mustard. As we stopped at the crossing I could hear him joking with one of the guards and then we promptly drove on. After being given the all clear I was still a bit leery when he stopped the van so that I could get into the front passenger seat. He explained everything was safe as the town was actually run by Karen forces, more in line with the Thai government, that presently had a truce with the Burmese generals.
Driving through the dusty open lanes of Myawaddy was like stepping back half a century. Both women and men wore longhis and many painted their face with tanaka root in almost tribalistic fashion. Balancing baskets on their head, women carried fresh produce from the local market and tricycle rickshaw drivers pedaled their patrons through the congested streets. Young boys short of even being teenagers, rode in the back of pickup trucks bracing automatic weapons between their legs (it was explained to me that these were the young recruits of the Karen forces). I was in the wild wild west, I thought to myself!
After finding a local street market, Toni allowed me to get out and take some pictures. Unfortunately, my stroll didn’t last for long as I had attracted a bit of attention from the locals, many who evidently hadn’t seen a white person before. Toni suggested we visit a Pagoda just outside town hidden in a fairly desolate area. “Let’s go for it!”, I stated.
We made our way to the small pagoda and I got out of the van. In the main temple area I was introduced to the local tortoise slowly meandering among the monks. One of them gave me a small bit of vegetable to feed it. Then from about twenty yards I spotted a young monk dressed in a traditional red robe sitting on the teak floor of an open portion of the temple. Sunlight streaming through a small portal of light behind illuminated the incense smoke that engulfed him. I reverently bowed, focused and got off two frames with my Leica M8 before he was called away. It wasn’t until I got back to the US that I noticed the large scar over his right shoulder.
Just after shooting the young monk, Toni motioned towards the van and I nodded back as I knew it was time to go. On our drive out I noticed the monolithic facade of a crocodile’s mouth that would make any Theme Park envious. From there we headed out to the main road leading to the Burmese delta region to see if the path was clear. Once again my attempt to get deeper into the Burmese countryside was blocked by a truck load of Burmese militia conspicuously going through trucks and autos in the distance on the two-laned dirt road. At Toni’s suggestion, we turned back and headed for Thailand. It was just after getting out of the back of the van once we were safely over the Thai border that he suggested we visit a Burmese refugee camp supported by an international NGO about 45 minutes north of Mae Sot. Since getting past the Burmese border was looking impossible , I regrettably agreed.
(To be continued….)