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DAY ONE: Border Run to (and into) Burma

Tachilek is the sort of town where the architecture far outshines the furnishings.”It’s a border town,” I’d been warned, “don’t expect too much.”

I’d pictured a Tijuana, full of embroidered sarongs rather than piñatas, tinsel Buddhas rather than dayglow Christs; when I arrived I felt more like I’d stepped onto the moon. It was, fittingly enough, gray and overcast without as much as the suggestion of a breeze. Not only were the people and the cars mysteriously missing (the roads were more than wide enough but in two days in Tachilek I saw perhaps ten cars – most of those parked) there was no sense of desperate fervor. The buildings were too large for the inhabitants, the clothes too big for their wearers. Tachilek resembled a colonial ghost town – faded derelict colonial architecture and rusty motorbikes with no review mirrors.

Crossing the border was surprisingly painless. I’d spent the previous night in Mae Sai (the Thai “twin town” to Tachilek) because my bus had entered town (despite all promises beforehand to the contrary) ten minutes after the border had closed and had procrastinated as long that mornings as I reasonably could. Searching out a pharmacy to get the proper supplies to doctor my burn I made friends with the woman who ran it – we sat talking for hours, swapping English and Thai lessons when she pulled out a list of words she needed help pronouncing, and exchanging life stories (the sort versions). I reluctantly dragged myself to the border – walked under the bridge rather than across it, stopping for an iced coffee and a last phone call home before entering No-Man’s-Land. The river was shallow – and filled with trash. A few boys on the Burmese side threw their shoes across, piled their clothing on their head, and waded across… Given the interest that both the Thai and Myanmar governments have in preventing the flow of refugees into Thailand I doubt that they were, seriously, truly, illegally crossing the border – but that is what it looked like. My coffee finished, my stomach full and the menu unappealing, I pulled myself up; I’d yet to photocopy my passport or take the (questionably) necessary three passport photos for my visa; the border officials would know where to send me and a false attempt would serve as a dry run.

There are, however, no dry runs to Burma. Once you step on that bridge – you’re on your way.

I walked across the bridge, dodging a truck or two and into a building marked “Passport Control”. Despite the numerous lanes, I was the only one there. The Thai officials were particularly brief and curt; neither my greeting nor thanks, when my passport was shoved back at me, were acknowledged.

The Myanmar officials were marginally more polite. My blue American passport in my hand I was waved past all but one of the windows – and pushed, literally, through a blue curtain into a small room. I paid the fee ($10 USD), sat upright in the proper chair, stared directly at the blinking webcam (it was ancient and resembled a Lego more than a camera), and followed the waving arms to the table near the door. They filled out my Entry Card and kept my passport.

“We will give back to you later today when you return,” said a man dressed entirely in military camouflage.

“I can spend the night in Myanmar?” I asked for clarification. “I can stay three days?”

They all laughed. Eyebrows were raised. There was a smattering of what I assumed was Burmese. Even a guffaw.

“Yes, yes, no problem. Stay three days – if you want. Stay fourteen. Visa is valid for two weeks.”

“Just three days,” I said, stepping out of the way of a group of French tourists come to reclaim their passports.

“Finish.” Declared the man in camouflage.

I continued down the bridge, waiting to be stopped again. I wasn’t. That was it? I’d expected my bag to be searched, at the very least, perhaps a question or two – didn’t they prevent you from bringing in cameras or cell phones? Didn’t they want to know why I was coming – why I was staying?

Apparently not.

I walked the rest of the way down the bridge. I was followed by a small dirty child; she held her hands in a wai above her head and, as I continued walking and failed to respond, grabbed my skirt and bag. I shook her off and tried to walk faster. There was a market to the right of the bridge and I headed for it; the girl left me as soon as I set foot on the steps at the end of the bridge but another child, even younger and dirty, grabbed me as I entered the market. I spotted a few other tourists – a young man or two, nervous Thai girl clutching their arms; a cluster of fanny-pack (that would be money-belt/waist-pack to you Non-Americans) wearing middle aged tourists with sun burns and nylon clothing (their tour group must have given them the afternoon to wander the Burmese market). My bag was heavy and I wasn’t comfortable wandering with all of my belongings. I tried not to look lost – or worried – and I was half-heartedly assaulted by touts.

An Indian man with a red beard and a cap, dirty white apron over his collared shirt and sarong, spoke to me.

“Samosa?”

Why not?

He wouldn’t let me pay for it and set me up with a rickshaw diver to take me to my guest house, translating for us.

“Alloy mak mak! Korp kun ka!” I complimented his samosa (small and sweet it was filled with potatoes rather than the salty ground beef that I’d been hoping for) and thanked him as we pulled away. I hadn’t, regrettably, taken the time to learn so much as hello or thank you in Burmese before I’d come; this close to the border I hoped that Thai would do and it seemed to.

Dream Flower Guest house – the one and only guest house that I had been able to find any reference to online – was down a maze of dusty
streets. The building was quite large – ornately carved wooden doors and lanterns, hung from fancy wrought-iron hooks, off the walls. It was three or four stories. Tiled steps lead to the lobby. A small skinny man was crouched in the courtyard working on a motorbike. He jumped when he saw me. He wore a grimy white cotton tank top (wife beater) sizes too large for his frame and dark shorts past his knees. With a morbid fascination, I watched his protruding shoulder bones move as
spoke.

“You see room first?”

I didn’t really care but it seemed to be expected. His hand hovered over the key rack, waving back and forth before he selected one and we climbed another set of tiled stairs. I was out of breath and clammy. The room was simple. Two beds. Fan above the door to the toilet. Multiple lights. Electrical outlets. A shower, even, on the wall, and a Western toilet. Toilet paper, surprisingly, no bugs to be seen (in the room; there had been a parade of ants and a lone pioneering cockroach in the lobby) and the sheets seemed clean enough.

“Tow lai?”

“Two-fifty baht.”

It could have been worse.

“Fine. Ka. I will take.”

Back downstairs to the counter where I made to fill out the guestbook before he stopped me. Instead he claimed my Entry Card. “We give back in the morning,” he said. I wasn’t happy with the idea but I’d told the border officials where I was staying so I suppose they’d know where to look if I showed back up without an Entry Card.

I saw no other people; it was eerie. No women cleaning or cooking, no men hanging around the courtyard or lobby. I was undoubtedly the only guest though the hotel could probably have held over a hundred. With the exception of a racking cough the second night, I heard no noises from inside the hotel. Children’s voices, the universal wallah of chaotic merriment, bounced into my room when I opened the windows; the hotel was directly above a school. I left the windows open; it was a rare sound of life in Tachilek and incredibly welcoming.

I lay down on a bed and attempted to remember why I had come to Burma.

I took a nap, slept later than I intended, and left my room in search of food. The man downstairs suggested I go to the main road and head left. I’d taken only a few steps before he called out and came running with a white piece of paper. It was a (photocopied and hand drawn) map. “My hotel,” he indicated in one corner. I circled it – ripping the paper in the process – folded it carefully and put it in an inside pocket of my bag. He regarded me seriously (the man never smiled nor, as far as I could tell, blinked) as I thanked him and set off. I wanted to be back before dark and was in a hurry.

I was the center of attention as I walked down the lane. I made eye contact and smiled when I could. Children looked at me in askance. Two small boys, obviously brothers and neither older than four, laid on their stomachs on a table outside of what must have been their parents’ shop. “Wooooo-” said one as I passed. My fingers itched for my camera but I wasn’t that sure of myself. I smiled and waved instead. “Weeeeeee!” said the other.

I reached the main road and walked for nearly twenty minutes without seeing anything recognizable as a restaurant or even outside eating area. I slowed down and looked harder. Plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk, a lit cart with a pot of noodles and various greens, boiling broth, customers – there had been plenty inThailand, enough that they had presented a traffic hazard at night in Chiang Mai. None in Tachilek. I saw a few people eating deep inside the rectangular cement hollows that passed for rooms; I couldn’t tell if they were families eating dinner or perhaps simple restaurants. I supposed that, either way, I could always offer to pay them for food and see what happened. A few food carts – empty and dusty.

I stopped at a Chinese guest house and asked for directions to food.

“You eat anything?” I was answered in decent English with a look of confusion. “Or you look something particular? You eat Chinese? Burmese?”

“Anything,” I agreed and held my hands out wide.

Her confusion increased.

“Plenty of restaurants. All around. You pass already – many!”

I thanked her and headed back the way I’d come. It was getting darker.

Finally, I found a man with a cart. He had noodles. Some sort of fried bread-like dumpling-things. Two large metal pots over open
flames. He even had other customers – seated so deeply inside the dimly lit cement rectangular cell I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t seen them the first time that I had passed.

We communicated solely with gestures.

A wave of his ladle. A nod and a point to myself, to my mouth. He smiled. I pointed to the noodles. He pointed to the larger pot. I gestured as if opening the lids to peer inside and he obliged. The large one held what appeared to be custard and the small one what had to be milk. I pointed again the noodles and held one finger up. I waved at the greens. He waved his ladle at the tables inside and then at the street: for here or to go? I smiled, nodded, and sat inside at the only table – there were only three tables – left open. It was at the far back.

My bowl arrived.

The thick yellow stuff resembling custard was, in fact, custard. It was tasteless and moderately unappetizing but a liberal helping of chili powder rendered it edible. My gratuitous hand-waving had also provided me with a glass of the warm milk (it was sweetened to the point of saccharine). I ate out all the noodles and greens; he brought me a spoon for the custard and I winced, begged for the fried dumplings. It was pitch black by the time I was finished. I grabbed my bag, held out a handful of coins and let the man select as much as he wanted (smiles and half-bows on both sides) and squared my shoulders for the walk back.

I walked fast and nervously, one hand white knuckled on my bag and the other trying to clutch my sweater over my chest. There were far more “Hello!s” than there had been in the daylight along with “Sister where you go?s” I didn’t respond; it occurred to me the next day that I had probably walked past a half-dozen taxi drivers but, at the time, the only thought on my mind was retracing my steps and reaching my room.

I turned up what I thought was the correct street and walked at least twice as far as I should have. The chorus of questions picked up volume and frequency but I was afraid to stop – and knowing that the odds of finding an English speaker on a side-street were incredibly low – didn’t see a point. Candle light poured out of doorways and young men sat outside on their motorbikes drinking beer. No more children ran around. Women gave me strange looks while bustling themselves inside. Finally, I couldn’t pretend I was going the right way; I stopped at a fork in the road I’d never seen before and peered around.

“Hello madam where you go?”

It was an old man in a sarong and glasses.

“Dream Flower Hotel.”

“Aha!” He clucked. I pulled out the map. He peered at it intently with little seeming comprehension. A crowd gathered around us and he batted off the various hands that reached for the map. He tried to explain the direction to me – back down the way I’d come and over right, down and then left. I stared back blankly. A middle-aged man in a white sarong seized the map and set off. The old man said something to me – I couldn’t tell if it was to follow the man, or not, but I didn’t want to be separated from my map – and as unappealing as the idea of setting off into the night behind the strange white-saronged man was, the idea of not getting back at all was even worse. I hoped that the entire crowd might follow and, at first, it seemed to. We hadn’t gone more than a few yards before a motorbike whizzed past. The crowd jumped and squealed. The bike turned around. The driver wore the bright orange vest of a taxi driver. Wonderful. The man with the map explained and I got on the back. I turned around to wai and the crowd and thank them in Thai. There was a cheery chorus of laughter.

Photos

Tachilek

Kentung

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