I woke the next morning before my alarm – and hit snooze for several hours.
For the first time since I’d left home I had absolutely no desire to go out and explore the town I was in; no compulsion to wander the streets and no wish to meet people. I tossed on the bed, turned the fan on and off, listened to the unabating noise of the school below (the periodic bells had no effect on the number of children in the yard and, while I had heard the occasional organized chanting, it was mostly cheerful cacophony). I wasn’t feeling well physically which was party of the malaise (almost a week later and I’m still battling the same cold, frustrated by the same lack of energy, worrying about on-and-off low grade possible fever, and fretting over my burn).
I went out to the balcony and watched the street below, trying to rally myself. I was alienated, not threatened. Lonely, not in danger. Under-the-weather, not truly ill. I couldn’t remember why I’d come to Burma (I went back through the reasons that I had given my family and friends, what the grad students and aid workers had told me: friendly chatty locals – no; exotic good food: no; an inside look at an isolated region of an isolated country: not yet, really; supporting the local economy: at least) but, given that I was here already – I ought to at least do it properly. I’d have a walk through the market, find at least one temple and a tea house and a restaurant at which I could try some of the Burmese dishes I’d been recommended.
I can’t say it was much of a pep-speech but it did get me out of the hotel.
I found the red-bearded samosa-seller and bought a selection of what he had to offer. I let a rickshaw driver sell me a tour through Tachilek.
The first stop was a temple. It was, by Tachilek standards, well maintained – but obviously still derelict. I was the only visitor. Antique intricate wooden carvings decorated the rafters. The stone pillars were painted with simple black lettering. The floor was hard wood – a set of dusty footprints, not mine, lead around and behind the altar which would have sent any Thai into a fit; the golden Buddhas were covered in flashing LEDs, Christmas lights strung around the area (icicle-style, flashing red and white) and, behind and above the head of one of the statues to give the impression of a halo, were more lights blinking a swirl-pattern. Tinsel was everywhere. There was no incense, no flowers, no carpet upon which to kneel. One monk swept the front steps while another, hidden in a dark recess far from the altar, meditated. Constructions noises from outside broke the peace in the temple.
The second stop was – I’m not quite sure. Perhaps the rickshaw driver’s home or perhaps was passed for a handicraft center in Tachilek. A small alley of wooden houses on stilts, a large loom in the courtyard, and five girls who descended on me as soon as I stepped out of the rickshaw. Their goods were cheap, tacky, tawdry, and ridiculously overpriced: small bags with sequins in the pattern of elephants, fake silver jewelry, rough pieces of course fabric poorly woven and only partially dyed. They were, however, quite insistent, grabbing my waist and my skirt so fiercely that I could barely manage a few steps. I tried to walk around but they didn’t let me go far. I tried to take their pictures, gesturing for permission but getting no response, but they deliberately stepped out of the frame. Finally, I bought a necklace – a few black (plastic) stones on some string for a 100 baht (more than I generally pay for a guestroom in Chiang Mai; more than a meal or even two expensive hours of internet) and distributed my loose change among the others – which only served to infuriate them. I looked around for the rickshaw driver but couldn’t see him; wielding my camera as a weapon, threatening to take their pictures, I made it back to the rickshaw and climbed in. A few minutes later he finally appeared, shoving some food in his mouth and smiling apologetically.
We went to a few more temples. I wasn’t, being female, allowed to enter one of them. I wandered the grounds which were full of women selling drinks from carts and washing the monks’ robes. Two stages were set up behind the temple, one with a microphone on a center platform. I reached for my camera and was emphatically yelled at by an old woman. The second temple looked more Disney than Buddhist; baby blue elephants decorating the outside, soft angles on the corners, and not a monk to be seen. Three smiling women invited me inside and called me sister; I stepped over a sleeping cat on the threshold and around a crawling baby, cheeks painted with the Burmese powdered sun-block, who gurgled as I passed.
At the golden stupa I was, at least, not the only tourist. A large group of Thai tourists posed for an exorbitant amount of pictures. As I began to climb the steps up the stone hill to the stupa, a young monk approached me with his bowl; I dropped twenty baht in it – the last of any small denominations on me. I continued climbing and was quickly approached by two more monks – both children and no more than five they appeared to have risen straight out of the stone as I hadn’t seen them before they reached me. They were nearly as insistent as the girls earlier – tugging at my clothing, jumping up to try and reach my hair – despite their monks’ robes.
I tried to get the rickshaw driver to take me to the bus station but he dropped me at the border instead. I got a motor-taxi (a bearded old man with a turban, no English, and only one eye) to the bus station where I discovered that I didn’t have enough money on me to even buy a ticket; knowing that the child beggars no doubt doubled as accomplished pick-pockets I’d taken little money with me out into the town. I was told to arrive at 7:00 am the next morning to insure a seat on the 9:30 am bus.
After another nap I set off again for dinner – considerably earlier this time. I’d spotted a misplaced touristy-looking coffee shop (hill tribe treks, airfare rates, lattes and cappuccinos advertised on the window) earlier in the day and headed back towards it.
“Hello!” Said an Australian accent.
The only man near enough to have spoken was quite dark skinned and looked, perhaps, Indian. He was wearing a dirty baseball cap and a loose white shirt over equally loose linen pants.
“Hello. Where are you from?”
“From? Why – here! Well, Mandalay – you know Mandalay?”
I did. But his accent…?
“I’m a tour guide! So I’ve got a bit of a mix… I’ve friends from Seattle, though, they were just visiting – you sound just like them. You hail from the Great Red White and Blue, then?”
“Bit late for you to be out ‘n about, no? Border’s closing and you don’ wanna get stuck.”
“I’m staying the night, actually,” I explained. “Had to do a border run and figured I’d stay a day or two and see what it’s like here…”
“So, footloose and fancy free in Burma?”
He finally got a laugh out of me – it was a bit chocked and turned into a cough halfway through, but he was still quite obviously proud of his wit.
I grilled him a bit about the town (I’d already seen all there was to see, apparently), asked some questions about Kengtung (nicer, he said, much nicer than Tachilek), and asked after a tea house. He offered to guide me to his favorite – just up the street, on his way home. I hesitated.
“I gotta get home to my wife and kids,” he went on and I relaxed slightly, “so I can only just point it out to you but we can have a chat on the way.”
That sounded alright.
“So, you’re a tour guide? In Tachilek? Haven’t seen enough tourists here to give you a job!”
“Yeah, ya get maybe three or five spending the night, sure – ten at the absolute max – but there’s dozens of day-trippers coming in for their visas. I hang out at the market and show ‘em around. I speak Spanish and French -”
We bantered a little in French; his was significantly better than mine.
“I saw a few tourists in the market yesterday – a few other farangs,” I held my arm out and gestured to my shockingly white skin, “but I haven’t seen so much as another tourist all day today – besides a few Thai. I think I’m the only guest at my guest house, too.”
I was trying to subtly get the conversation back on Tachilek; I wanted to know if the riots last year had had a significant effect on the town’s tourism, but knew I couldn’t ask directly.
“Where ya been shacking up?”
“That’s bottom low,” he said with a whistle.
“Really?” I knew it was. “I was getting 80 to a 100 baht in Chiang Mai.”
“Yeah they got more tourists. I hear tourism’s down this year in Thailand too, though – down more than 30%.”
“Tachilek doesn’t seem like much,” I said. “What’re you doing here?”
“Oh, you know how it goes. Got married, have kids – now I’m stuck. I could probably get myself back to Mandalay – but my family’s another story. ‘Sides, I do some odds and ends and it’s not too bad. Teach English to the kiddies. ‘S’alright.”
I tried not to laugh at the idea of a classroom of Burmese children with speaking with his idioms.
“Here we are,” he pointed. “Romantic Tea House.”
I’d noticed it earlier from the Rickshaw. It looked decent enough; the tables were about half full of customers and a screen was showing a film. It was next door to the Regina Resort and Golf Course which, on the internet, claimed to be a five star hotel with a casino. It was shabby and dirty. One large pillar on the porch was broken, a few men in sarongs were milling about; there was no sign of any current guests – and I doubted that there’d been any in a while. There was a dead brown field to the left – the “golf course”, probably, with a handful of emaciated cows attempting to graze in it.
“Actually the one I like’s down that side road a hop, but you’ve a better bet of finding something to eat at this one,” he told me.
I thanked him and held out a hand, realizing we’d never introduced ourselves.
He grinned, displaying a bottom row of blackened teeth and blood red gums. the center of his bottom lip was similarly crimson. “Like Slim Shady. See you around tomorrow – maybe at the market!”
He stepped off the curb directly into the traffic – not that there was much of it – and managed to disappear.
As I crossed the street – having chosen to wait for a lull – I felt a momentary regret for not having any contact info for Slim. Not that I’d be, of my own free will, spending any more time in Tachilek nor recommending it to anyone else and, on top of that, I had some serious doubts as to his true career, but… collecting email addresses was becoming a reflex and it’s never really a bad idea. Oh well.
There was no food to be had at the Tea House, only a dusty plate of plastic-wrapped cakes and cookies. I got a cup of sweetened milky tea and a thermos of green tea and spent an hour or two writing in my journal and smiling at anyone I caught staring. The film on the screen – something American about football gambling – changed to something Burmese about guerrilla soldiers and then to Memoirs of a Geisha, with interludes of Burmese music videos (painful; incredibly painful) in between.