travel

DAY THREE: Border Run to (and into) Burma

Having lost my towel in Pai at the Reggae Festival (no, I can’t explain how that happened; I didn’t touch the inside pocket of my bag all evening and it was securely nestled inside – nothing else went missing from my bag, not my wallet, not my camera, nothing but the towel – and it simply vanished) and thereby broken the ultimate Rule of Backpacking (see: Douglas Adams) I’ve begun to pay more attention to the Maxims of Travel…

  1. Nothing is Ever Simple (Particularly When You Really Want It To Be).
  2. All Transportation Will Take At Least Three Times Longer Than Predicted.
  3. Bureaucrats Like to Stamp Things.
  4. Motion Sickness is Contagious (and Asian People are Highly Susceptible).
  5. Alarms Never Wake You Mornings of Bus Trips.

While no. 1 is rather obvious and no. 2 downright infuriating, no. 3 means that my Brand New Shiny Passport is already almost maxed out (I have two pages left… and 6 more countries to go), no. 4 is the real reason to take the VIP Tourist Bus rather than the regular one and no. 5 means that showing up three hours early to a bus and buying a ticket on the spot is preferable to buying one the day before – because I’ll just have to buy another ticket to a later bus.

I’ve been learning.

Other, more specific lessons include the fact that Myanmar time runs half an hour differently than Thai time (no, there’s not a logical explanation) and that, while the people of Burma may have allowed me to purchase a bus ticket no questions asked, they were not about to let me enter the bus with specific express governmental permission.

I’d asked the moto-taxi driver to pick me up at 6:30am (the turbaned one-eyed old man whose bike lacked review mirrors) and I’d set an alarm for 5:45am – enough time to leisurely pack, take a shower, and force a can of sweetened iced coffee (Nescafe is revolting but it does have a kick) down my throat before leaving.

I woke up around 6:45am.

I was downstairs, ready to turn over my room key and claim my Entry Card by 6:55am – neither the moto-taxi nor the man who worked the desk were anywhere to be seen. I cleared my throat. I coughed. I looked around. I pulled open the gate to the street myself. I worried. I sat down. I continued to worry.

And then I heard snoring.

The man downstairs was, at least, still downstairs – on a mat on the floor behind the counter. I made a variety of noises and was considering throwing something at him when, finally, the sound of the wooden handle to my key banging against the iron of the gate woke him up. He leapt to his feet in one jump, already apologizing. Assuming the taxi driver must have given up waiting for me I decided to head towards the largest intersection around and find another.

The sun had only just risen and it was still dim as I walked quickly down the street. Halfway to the large street I was passed by my moto-taxi – who, despite the fact that he was slowly inching along and despite my jumping jacks and shouts, didn’t see me, or turn around. I waited for a few moments at the corner before nodding positively at a man across the street in an orange vest; the heavy full skirt that I’d been wearing since I realized that the neighborhood of Tachilek that I was staying in was predominantly Muslim presented a bit of a problem, but I managed to get both myself and my bag on the bike, fasten the helmet, and find the back handle bars to hold onto before he started moving. (Women ride motorbikes sidesaddle in Burma, without holding onto the male drivers; I refuse to attempt the sidesaddle position but after the first look of abject terror when I put my hand on a man’s shoulder, I’ve learned to grab the rack in the back instead – it’s not as safe, but at least they give me a helmet which is a step above Thailand; I take what I can get.)

A few minutes later – we were several blocks away – my turbaned one-eyed taxi driver caught up with us. He drove alongside waving his arms angrily. I tried to apologize – but between the language barrier and the wind, I doubt much got across. I felt bad – but he had not only been late (so I thought), he hadn’t noticed me on the street; how hard was I to miss?

I got to the bus station, purchased a ticket, and asked about food. It took a while and a lot of hand gestures, but they sent me down the street – to another, much larger, and presumably much cheaper bus station. I found a woman frying rice, went through my normal routine, and sat at a table. A feast was laid in front of me – far more than I could have eaten at my hungriest. A large plate of rice surrounded by smaller dishes with various meats and vegetables. Some sort of pickled coleslaw. Some sort of curried chicken. Deep fried mushrooms. Fried small sardine-like fish. Other completely unidentifiable things – all of it tough and dried, but the best meal I would have in Burma. A cup of coffee, surprisingly good, and a thermos of green tea. I ate as much as I possibly could before I made my way back to the bus station. No other passengers had arrived yet.

I’d given my Entry Card to the bus company workers (they’d keep it until I arrived, I was told – at least, I think that’s what I was told) and I sat waiting, watching a family load up a cart with sacks. The youngest child, a girl, went back and forth with the smallest items; she wore pink glitter shoes with plastic heels that clomped and she ran and eyed me curiously. I made faces at her as she passed and she giggled. Her older brother stared as well – but quickly turned his head away whenever I looked at him.

Two of the bus company workers came out with my Entry Card, pointing to the stamps in the upper corner. ‘TCK’ it said twice. One had a line drawn through it. As I read it, ‘TCK’ was Tachilek and the stamps indicated that I had entered – ie, the line through the first stamp – and was expected to exit via Tachilek. I was sure that I was allowed to go to Kengtung. The bus workers were not. They pointed and shook their heads. Although the woman I’d spoken to the previous day – when I didn’t have the cash to buy the ticket, who’d told me to come back early – had spoken English, no one present in the morning seemed to.

We spent a good five minutes frustratingly waving our arms at each other in perfect understanding but a complete stalemate. They had seen my card before they’d sold me that ticket. I knew I could go. My ticket did not say Kengtung; they didn’t want to get in trouble.

Finally, a man gestured to a young man and a motorbike and waved at town. He pointed at my card and towards the border, miming another stamp. They wanted me to go back to the border and get permission? I glanced at my watch – the bus was supposed to leave in half an hour. The town was fifteen minutes away; there wasn’t really an option. Fine.

I pulled my things together and got on the bike (to a series of sighs and smiles, shoulders relaxing). The boy climbed on in front and we set off. We parked near the bridge and I scurried up it and into the Tourist Office – the last stop on the series of rooms. I presented my ticket and my Entry Card and the boy from the bus station followed, explaining.

“Ah.” Said a man who looked like a goat. (I don’t mean that metaphorically: he wore a fuzzy vest over his shirt, his beard was nothing but a tiny white wisp on his chin, his eyes were bloodshot and he had a serious overbite.) “You should have told us the day that you entered. This card was issued two days ago. We cannot change it now.”

“So what do I have to do? Can I go out and come back in again?”

“Ah yes! Yes, that is the proper course.”

“How long will it take?”

“Five minutes, no more.”

I didn’t believe him even at the time.

I went back to the small room behind the blue curtain and asked for my passport. A different man, also in camouflage, nodded and gestured for me to follow him. We crossed the street to the building on the other side. He spoke to a second man, who also asked me to follow him, and we went to a third room. They told me to sit and opened a metal filing cabinet; I saw several shelves, passports thrown haphazardly on them – despite the apparent lack of organization they located mine in only a few minutes. And spent nearly twice as long examining it before handing it back and ripping up my Entry Card.

Several attempts through the wrong lanes, one improperly filled out card for request of entry to Thailand (due to my hurry), several more stamps in my passport, my bag was sent through an xray machine – and I was in Thailand.

I turned around.

My passport was examined by Thai passport control – who raised their eyes and looked at me in confusion noting the dates of the stamps; I nodded and they shrugged – the Thai visa ripped out, another filled out, and I was sent onward. A few minutes walk down the bridge, dodging the begging children and confused tourists and I was back at the Myanmar office. This time there was a wait. I explained quite clearly that I wanted permission to go to Kengtung, paid the entry fee over again, and sat down again to have my picture taken; they refused.

“You must have three passport photos.”

“But I didn’t need them last time – you took them!”

“You must have them now.”

“I don’t have any. Fine. Where can I get them taken?”

The men looked at each other. I was truly in No Man’s Land now – my passport had already been sent to the locker, I couldn’t return to Thailand, and they didn’t seem willing to let me enter Burma. The youngest man, in a suit rather than a military outfit, nodded. The one behind the computer to whom I had been speaking turned back to me.

“At the end of the bridge. To the right. Hurry.”

I was escorted out of the office via a different door and through a separate lane past some guards; I nodded to the boy from the bus company and held my hand to signify five minutes (I could only hope). I made it to the end of the bridge and pounced on the touts who pounced on me, asking directions. They pointed and stepped out of my way. I ran.

I entered the building to find it dark and empty. I saw the screen, camera on a tripod, and a stool and sat on it before calling out. An old woman appeared, noticed me in surprise, and returned with a younger man. My picture was taken and, while waiting twenty minutes for it to be printed, I bought a bottle of water next door and re-taped the gauze over my burn. I bought six copies.

Back up the steps, back up the bridge, back into the room behind the blue curtain – I handed over the pictures and waited while they filled out paperwork. I was escorted to the Tourist Information Office and taken to the goat-man who filled out more paperwork. The bus company boy hovered in the doorway and the goat-man waved him over, handed him some papers, and sent him on what I could only suppose was a photocopy errand. More papers were filled out. More things were stamped.

“Finished?” I asked.

“Ah, no,” said the goat-man. “Please wait.” I saw no signs of activity whatsoever during the next ten minutes that they had me wait, but I waited regardless. Finally they called back in the boy, gave him all of my paperwork rather than giving it to me, and told him that I was free to go.

We got the bike and raced back to the bus station. The bus was already full of passengers and waiting by the time we arrived – only half an hour after 9:00 (according to my watch). I’d been given a seat in the front row, next to a woman with a small child on her lap, directly below the movie screen. Front and center. The easier for the government officials who stopped the bus to inspect the passengers to see me – and the bus would be stopped a dozen times.

I tried to sleep through the ride – bag on my lap, forehead on my bag. It didn’t work terribly well, particularly not after the entertainment started. Burmese music videos – women running through empty rooms in Western wedding gowns, staring across long distances longingly at men, waking alone in their own beds; men fantasizing over the toss of a woman’s hair and trying to paint her portrait, the deep symbolism in each color chosen from the palette written clearly on the screen in both Burmese and English; concert scenes of soft round men covered in flower-necklaces crooning into microphones; a younger man in a transparent black mesh shirt, nipples visible and hair greasy singing in a recording studio where the walls were padded with empty egg cartons, overlay of various ‘cover shots’ of him pouting mournfully into space; older women in traditional dress singing over overexposed shots of pastel flowers – all of it the same slow sweet singing over the same terrible synthetic musak. The films were somewhat better; there were three, although I don’t think that we started any at the beginning nor stopped at the end. One, surprisingly to me given the politically sensitive nature of the topic, was about a military group invading a village and the villagers resistance. The flags of the invading force and the counter-force who eventually rescued the village (although not until after the rallying figure and hero, a young man, had been literally crucified – sorry, not until precisely at the moment of his death) were prominently displayed, however, so perhaps it was acceptable as long as the right side was shown valiantly.

And then it started.

The vomiting.

First the young girl on my seat-mate’s lap. She nearly made it into the provided plastic bag. She was quickly followed by the older woman on my other side, and then man on her left. I heard retching though the back of the bus, domino-effect. The girl continued throwing up and her mother joined her – I offered them my plastic bag and then dug through my bag for more. A scarf I’d bought in the market and the bottle of water both came in plastic bags; I passed them around.

I breathed into my bag and understood why the front door of the bus was never closed, despite the chilling breeze.

A few hours later we stopped for a break – and lunch. Off the bus I breathed deeply, no appetite for food. Everyone else dived in. And then threw it up again on the second half of the ride.

We finally arrived and I seized a moto-taxi. They all seemed to know Harry’s Guest House.

“Harry! Harry! Yes!”

Harry’s was a large complex of mismatched architecture. Orange stucco buildings – looking almost Spanish – next to traditional wooden ones, other painted pink with pediments above the doors and balconies. Rooms were either 200 baht or 400 baht (the difference being aircon – unnecessary – and television) and all came with hot water and the softest mattress I had yet to find in Asia. I paid, exchanged some Thai baht for Myanmar kyat with the owner (Harry’s widow) and let them send for the trekking guide to talk to me about options. I wasn’t sure that there was much else to do in Kengtung and I hadn’t been on a trek yet – so why not? It was a bit overpriced for a day (850 baht) but I supposed the money would make it back into the Burmese economy.

I got a map (like the one of Tachilek, it was also hand drawn and photocopied) and discovered that Harry’s was on the far edge of town. I went for a short walk towards the center of town but, stopping at a Lake a little before sunset, didn’t make it much further. I had some tea and stared at the water, reveling in the difference I already felt between Kengtung and Tachilek.

Walking back to my room I ran into two other guests – tourists – farangs! A British girl and a Dutch man they were also staying at Harry’s – it seemed to be the only place in town, really – and we exchanged greetings before I excused myself to collapse for a nap and a shower. Waking up a few hours later, finally getting clean, I heard a guitar playing. It took me a bit to locate it – it was the floor above – and I found a young British man (he was traveling with the couple) playing. I asked if I could listen to him play but I ended up distracting him instead as we merely chatted.

His friends appeared and they invited me to go out to dinner with them. They’d been in the town several days already and knew their way around; it was nice to follow along, to relax and let someone else lead, and to be part of a group. James and I talked politics and history while Olivia and Kun paid attention to directions. The restaurant they’d been aiming for was already closed at 8:30pm but we found a place with food and beer; it was decent enough and, well off the main road, I’d never have found it on my own. (Didn’t manage to find it again on my own, as a matter of fact, after they’d left.) As we finished up they all turned to each other.

“So, the disco again, eh?”

“There’s a disco here?” I asked incredulously.

They grinned.

“Sort of. You’ll see.”

The disco was on the Lake – the far side.

“It’s this hollowed out old hotel,” James said. “It’s going to be all lit up at night but don’t let that trick you – shabby as can be in the daylight, totally worn down. It’ll be throbbing from the music.”

Beers from the restaurant still in hand, we paid the 1000 kyat (well under $1) cover fee and entered. Strobe lights and heavy metal music. No dance floor to speak of, high tables with stools scattered about. For the most part, each table was one gender or the other – a cluster of girls, another only men – and they stayed put at the tables to dance. By dance I mean head-bob – and by head-bob I mean violently throw their heads and necks back and forth in classic heavy-metal style.

“So what d’you think?” someone asked me.

“It’s different than Thailand!” I said. And it was. No scantily clad women. No prostitutes. Even better – no sleazy older men on the sidelines. Everyone was young and everyone was at least tapping a foot to the music.

“I know it’s not much of a nightclub…. and the music’s bloody shite…”

“No, no, I like that it’s different! And, well, yeah – the music’s horrible – but, well, we’re in Burma…”

We stayed a few hours. A few men came over to our table to meet Kun and James, insisting that they get up and dance with them. Although Olivia and I teased them, neither moved. (A bit later, when James jumped from a hand sliding up his thigh, I understood.)

“Later!” We all said. “We’ll dance later!” We gestured to our drinks, which we had only just begun.

A man in the fake-fur coat had been hanging around for a while, begging cigarettes and imploring any of us to dance. After the first twenty minutes he seemed to feel comfortable enough to address Olivia and I as well; he was the only man in the disco who ever talked to me and I can’t say I felt particularly comfortable about it. After Olivia and Kun left to get some sleep and James took a trip to the toilet, the man started to move in closer. I moved away. James returned and, seeing my distress, put his arm around me. “My wife!” he said. It worked.

“Alright,” said James, “let’s make some friends.”

I’d been eying a table full of girls and moved over to dance with them. James found a mixed table – half on one side, half on the other – and I followed.

The disco closed five minutes after we’d stood up to dance.

“So, what now?” I asked as we followed everyone to the door. “How do we get back? It’s at least a forty minute walk, right?”

James shuddered. “We’re not walking. Just – here’s the plan – just look confused. Pathetic. Drunk. Look really drunk and someone will take pity on us and offer a ride. It’s worked before.”

We joined the milling crowds outside and I put on my best look of confusion and desperation. It wasn’t too difficult; it was quite cold and I really had no idea which way was the guest house. We wavered down the steps, deliberately staggering and holding onto each other, to the crowd of motorbikes and frowned at each other and at the crowd. We were already center of attention.

“Harry’s?” I asked around, waving my arms as if in need of a direction – even a cardinal direction. “Harry’s guest house?”

A group of women laughed sympathetically. A pretty woman with long hair dressed in black was starting a motorbike, two of her friends behind her. One reached out to me and pulled me over; the girl on the back jumped off and gestured for me to get on. I looked at James.

“Go ahead – get on. I’ll find another.”

Most of the others had left by this point, however, and noting that the girl I’d displaced wasn’t climbing on another bike but instead sitting down on the steps as if to wait for her friend to return, I decided to see if I couldn’t get us both on the bike. I waied to the woman thanked her in multiple languages, and grabbed on to James, looking back and forth with a frown. The woman laughed. The other girl jumped off as well.

“Harry?” the woman asked.

“Harry’s, ka! Ka! Korp kun ka!” I said. “Alright, I’m in the middle,” I told James and climbed on. I hugged the woman’s waist; it was incredibly small. James got on behind and the woman kicked the motor with only a few extra tries, and we set off.

The fact that she had had far more to drink than we had became immediately apparent. The bike wavered. The bike zagged. The bike leaned. While drunk driving seemed to be a sport in Asia – I’d watched Thai people stagger to their motorbikes and barely make it onboard before zooming off far more times than I cared to count – I had no wish to compete.

“Maybe we should have walked?” I said.

“Let’s get off as soon as she gets to the main road,” he replied.

“Hold onto my waist instead of my shoulders, it’s more secure,” I told James. I had no idea if it was true or not but I’d been told time and again in Thailand that it was better to hold onto someone’s waist – and, at this point, anything was worth a try.

The woman laughed, turned to us and asked something. After asking James if he knew what she meant (he didn’t) I squeezed her in a hug, resting my chin on her shoulder, and thanked her again. She turned her head back to the road ahead of us. We turned onto the main road and she picked up the speed.

We decided it was time to get off – somehow.

I hugged the woman and thanked her again. I freed one arm and waved to the side of the road: “Here! Ka! Chai! Here!”

“Harry?” she asked.

“We walk,” I said, pointing up the road, moving my fingers to signify walking, and pointing to us. I pointed to her, back to the Lake, and said: “You, friends! Friends at disco! Ka!”

She slowed down and said something in a questioning tone; I said something in an affirmative tone.

“You sound like you know what you’re doing,” James said.

“I would if this were Thailand, or if I thought she actually spoke Thai,” I said – but it did seem to work. She pulled over and we climbed off, gratefully. We both thanked her again profusely – for the ride and for letting us off of the ride – and set up the street.

“Any idea how far?”

“Nope.”

It wasn’t more than two minutes before another bike stopped.

“Ah!” said James. “I know this chap!”

They slapped each other on the back and the man gestured to the back of the bike.

“Brilliant!” cheered James “Another ride!”

The Burmese man drove us – in a straight line – directly to the gate of Harry’s.

Photos

Hill Tribe Trek & Buffalo Market

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