The Weazel hopes his faithful readers enjoyed their fecal feast at “The Floating Raft house from Hell“. Tummy grumbling yet?
One might suppose that after such a sojourn in the netherworld our hardy adventurers, Dr. Ann, Dave, and the Weazel, might wish to rest and recuperate in the civilized city of Kanchanaburi. We did, but only briefly, for we had already arranged visas to visit Myanmar, not a mere purgatory like the raft house, but rather more like the pit of Hell.
But where and what in Hell is Myanmar? Let’s take a quick review before we descend into the pit.
The real name of the country is (ပြည်ထောင်စုသမ္မတ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတော်, The military dictatorship calls it Myanmar, and everyone else calls it Burma.
Note that this is an old map. It doesn’t even show the brand new capital of Naypyidaw, a Disneyworld like place set up to receive foreign dignitaries like Kim Jong-Un of North Korea. Apparently no one actually lives there.
Americans of a certain age know all about Burma. It is a far away place at the end of a long rural road somewhere in the hinterlands of North America inhabited by well shaven bad poets. There were once so many road signs pointing to Burma that it might as well have been Rome; but, search though they might, our grandparents never managed to find the place.
We could start at the beginning, but who knows when that was? So let’s start about a thousand years ago when the Pagan kingdom was established in the valley of the Irrawaddy around the same time William the Conqueror was storming the beaches of merry old England. These were the folks who later became known as the Bamar (Burmese) people, and they have dominated the country ever since.
The Pagan dynasty ruled for two hundred fifty years. It was a golden age of religious tolerance during which thousands of beautiful Buddhist temples were constructed. Like now, religious institutions were tax exempt, so the kingdom eventually went bankrupt. Even today most of the inhabitants are Buddhists, so Christians still refer to the place as pagan.
Lack of money with which to buy additional elephants left the kingdom ill prepared to defend itself against a Mongol invasion led by Kublai Khan.
After the fall of Pagan the usual dark age followed. During this several hundred year period chaos reigned and a succession of warlords fought battles against the Siamese, the Chinese, the Indians, and everyone else in the neighborhood.
The weakness inherent in such a situation attracted the attention of the British East India Company which was then busy looting the Indian subcontinent. The flash point was Assam, but any excuse would do, so in 1824 the Brits sent in troops. It proved to be a long and bloody war, but in the end Burma became just another part of British India.
The second world war brought an end to British colonialism, so another dark age started that has continued until today.
In 1946 there was a brief moment of liberty under liberal commie Aung San, but needless to say he was assassinated. He is still considered to be the “Father of modern Burma”, but modern is not a word that should be used in association with Burma.
In 1962 a particularly sinister general named Ne Win staged a coup and shut the door against the world. The military has been in charge ever since. During his dictatorship Burma was frozen in time. Unlike a black hole information neither entered nor escaped. That is why I find the place to be so interesting!
Aung San’s daughter Aung San Suu Kyi was held captive by the dictatorship for most of her life, but eventually emerged with her dignity intact. She was given a Nobel prize and was held in high esteem by the international community until it was revealed that she is not politically correct, and refuses to condemn the oppression of the Rohingya Muslims. Now she is a pariah, but I still think she is extra cool and pretty too!
During those dark times the only order of business for the military dictatorship was to oppress all other non Bamar ethnic groups, export opium, strip forests of teak, and run military procurement scams with Chinese businessmen. In this they have succeeded admirably.
Other ethnic group? It turns out that in a country approximately the same size as Texas there are some 135 different ethnic groups, many of whom cannot speak each other’s languages. The one thing they can all agree on is that they hate the dominant Burmese.
Here is a brief summary of several of the more important ethnic groups, only a few of which I have interacted with.
The Shan people, like many of the other minority groups, are of Chinese derivation. They occupy much of northeastern Burma. They are well organized, fierce, have an army, and have been waging war against the Burmese for several decades (actually centuries). Like other ethnic groups, their villages are often burned, and many live in exile. I have met a few Shan in the golden triangle of northwestern Thailand.
The Mon are an ancient and civilized people who live in eastern Burma and western Thailand. They used to fight the Burmese, but have recently become more accommodating, thus the opening up of some of those parts of Burma that I was able to visit on this trip.
The Mon are well accepted in Thailand, probably due to the fact that Mon blood runs in the Thai royal family! I have visited several of their villages in Thailand, and was much impressed. Here is a photo from Sangkhlaburi Thailand that I took earlier in the trip.
Notice that both men and women wear what we would call a sarong. The splotches on their faces aren’t mud, but rather thanaka, a kind of cosmetic sawdust paste that people from Burma have been wearing for the last 2000 years. I was told that it served as sunscreen, but that is nonsense. They do it to proudly proclaim, “I am a Mon woman from Burma”!
To be politically correct I must mention the plight of the so called Rohingya Muslims who live in western Burma along the Bangladeshi frontier. I say “so called” because the Burmese refer to them as Bengalis, do not consider them to be citizens, and hold them in total contempt.
I am sure that if I ever met a Rohingya refugee I would consider that person to be a perfectly fine human being; nevertheless, I understand the problem.
The main reason the Rohingya are hated isn’t just that they are originally from Bangladesh, but that they are Muslims. That is understandable because Islam is the most pernicious of the world’s great superstitions. Even worse is the fact that this hatred has led to the rise of right wing Buddhist nationalism, a development equal in its evil to the rise of Hindu nationalism. Can’t we just leave that shit to the Christians and Muslims?
It is worthy of note that there are other non Rohingya Muslim minority groups in Burma, but they are better assimilated and thus subject to less prejudice.
There is an even more fundamental reason why the Burmese hate the Rohingya. Much like the Palestinians they breed like vermin despite the fact that they have neither land nor food. Nearby Bangladesh is one of the most crowded, hungry, destitute places on earth, but the people just won’t learn. Perhaps they should take a tip from the mice in my overcrowded rodent breeding cages. When you drop a litter that you can’t feed, just eat them!
No culture wants to be subsumed by another, whether it be by war, population increase, land ownership, or social influence. This is the same dynamic that has driven the repeated massacres of Bengali people in Assam India, and the reluctance of many Americans to accept an influx of Hispanic people across our southern border.
I am not immune to such sentiments myself. I love and respect the Mexican people, especially those of Indian origin, but it is a fact that most recent Hispanic immigrants have been driven here by desperation. They are for the most part poor and uneducated. Like the Bangladeshis, they come from a culture that values large families, one that responds to stress by having even more children as a hedge against an unknown future.
The same thing happens with numerous other species of invasive organisms, both plants and animals, that prosper in alien environments to the detriment of their hosts. Were it not for an influx of immigrants from poor countries the United States would already have achieved population stability, and possibly even negative population growth. I wish!
Now at last we come to the poor Karen (ka REN), also known by their oppressors as the Kayin. They live in eastern Burma, but many have fled across the frontier into Thailand. Their conflict with Burma is one of the world’s longest running civil wars.
I will never forget meeting them, and seeing their squalid refugee camps when I went to Umphang, Thailand in 2009. It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to see such dignified people struggle in the face of adversity.
Here you see a tiny part of the Mae La refugee camp. It goes on for miles. There are 50,000 people in this camp alone. The huts are made of dirt, bamboo, and leaves, teak leaves to be exact (Teak leaves are fairly large and durable). There is nothing else with which to build a roof, so men walk up to twenty miles to climb high into trees to collect individual teak leaves, pile thousands of them into bundles six feet tall, then walk back with the 100+ pound load. They never complain.
All the Karen people ask of their Thai hosts is to be allowed to live in peace until they can return to the homes they recently left. They acknowledge that they are temporary guests, and are willing to mind their manners in the meantime. They have few children, are willing to work hard at any menial task, generally eschew crime and violence (there are exceptions!), and try hard to avoid cultural or economic impacts on their hosts. In this they differ greatly from the Roma, the Rohingya, or other potentially invasive groups. As a result they are accepted by the Thai people.
Here you see a typical Karen refugee who happened to be my traveling companion on the “Highway of Death” across the pass into Umphang. He doesn’t look happy, but then neither would you.
While in both Mae Sot and Umphang I met several very intelligent Karen refugees who spoke excellent English. They explained things to me. The Kayin state is not just a battleground between the Karen and the Burmese military, it is also a proxy battleground between right wing American evangelists, and their leftist “human rights” counterparts. Both groups are deranged Do-Gooders happy to destroy the Karen culture in order to serve their larger ideological goals.
While in Mae Sot I fell in with Dan Pederson, author of Secret Genocide: Voices Of The Karen Of Burma. He was keeping tabs on the so called “Free Burma Rangers” who smuggle guns and bibles into Kayin State to make sure the pot keeps boiling. It is run by a Christian crackpot named David Eubank, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer. He likes to take his kids into war zones to prove that God will protect them. With friends like that who needs enemies?
Now that you know something about Burma, and have become acquainted with a right wing Do-Gooder, let’s return to our story to meet the other side of the bad coin.
On January 29,2016, with growling guts and a growing sense of dread, we left our leafy haven at the Garden View in Kanchanaburi, then boarded a luxurious double decker bus for the seven hour ride north to Tak.
In Tak we shoehorned ourselves into an overcrowded minibus headed west across the Tenesserim mountains to Mae Sot and the Myanmar frontier. As is usually the case with minibus travel, the ride was horribly uncomfortable and the driver suicidal as he passed trucks on hairpin turns.
Just to remind you of where we are, here is a map showing the rough location of the Dawna range, a northern subdivision of the Tenasserim mountains. Most of the adventures described in this post took place within the area shown in red.
This was not my first visit to Tak province, or even to Myanmar. As previously mentioned, in 2009 I explored several of the national parks in the area, and briefly entered Myanmar via Mae Sot into the shitty little town of Myawaddy. At that time Myawaddy was cut off from the rest of the country, but it was the only place where one could legally cross into forbidden Burma. Later, from Mae Sot, I traveled south into magical Umphang province, the remotest place in Thailand, but those are all stories for another day.
Back in Kanchanaburi we had heard that lunatic adventurers from around the world were pouring across the Burmese frontier into Karen state (now formally known as Kayin state by the bullies), because the Karen state was the first place to be sufficiently “pacified” for tourists to visit. As a result, all the hotel rooms in Mae Sot were said to be full. Unfortunately, it proved to be true.
We trudged the darkening streets of Mae Sot with our heavy backpacks looking for a place to stay. To our dismay we discovered that all the hotel rooms were filled not with fellow adventurers, but rather with damned Do-Gooders, all of whom were out to save the world, or at least to stir up more trouble between the Burmese and Karen people.
These Do Gooders were all extreme leftists whose pockets were padded by the NGOs (Non governmental organizations) from whom they had gotten grants. Needless to say, the locals considered them all to be well paid spies so they doubled the cost of the rooms.
Long after dark we found shelter at a dump called the Bai Fern. Ann and I were fortunate to get a relatively quiet room in the back, but Dave was not so fortunate. The lobby was filled with loud Do-Gooders, mostly Spaniards and other Europeans. There were others too including a hapless Afro American from Houston, and most notably a militant young woman from California, probably Berkeley.
The militant young woman had the best gig of all. She worked for the United Nations as a “Conflict resolution specialist”. Even though she was only twenty years old she was an expert on conflict because it raged everywhere she went. The more conflict the better! She berated the poor black fellow for being a man from the south, and disparaged the Spaniards for their role in the genocide of native Americans despite the fact that it happened hundreds of years ago.
I thought the little bitch was hot, so I engaged her in conversation. That was when I learned that she had a passionate love of deep seated hatred. As a result, she was uninterested in any civil war of less than 60 years duration. Sixty years was enough time for hatred to be bred into the bones, so she was there to help. The Burmese and Karen had been fighting for centuries. Now that was interesting!
By bedtime all the Do-Gooders were at each other’s throats. As Ann and I lay in our bedbug filled room puking and shitting from bad octopus salad eaten way back in Kanchanaburi we could hear the conflict raging in the lobby, but at least it was distant. Poor Dave was not so fortunate.
The fetching young lass proposed to her befuddled angry coworkers that they resolve their conflicts by drinking several bottles of rotgut whiskey, a tried and true remedy that always brings people to their senses. So it was that around 3am as Dave lay sleepless in his bed he heard her scream, “I’m going to murder you! I’m going to cut you like glass!”
The following morning she and her coworkers staggered off to advise the Karen, an honorable and dignified people, as to how best to resolve their problems.
There was one more item of business to take care of, I had promised to take Dr. Ann and Lucky Dave out to dinner in Heaven before we crossed the border into Hell.
As mentioned, I had previously visited Mae Sot and Myawaddy in 2009. One day I went out for a walk. Mae Sot is not a particularly pretty Thai town, so while prowling the industrial outskirts I was surprised to discover a landscaping crew planting full grown trees in a beautiful garden. There was a big sign saying Khao Mao Khao Fang, but I had no idea what that meant. The place appeared to be closed, but the gardeners paid me no attention so I walked in anyway.
It was like Alice walking through the looking glass, I had entered an alternate reality where all was beauty and grace.
My photos from 2009 are better than those from 2016, so allow me to show you those.
There were very few people when I first walked in.
The entrance gardens are formal in the Chinese manner.
Ancient trees, like the one you see at the left of the above photo, had been recently transplanted and were thriving. Any certified arborist will tell you that is completely impossible.
Once inside things get interesting. The walkway to the main restaurant crosses a man made wetland.
Water surrounds all the buildings and flows throughout the site.
It was hard to believe that it was not only man made, but relatively new!
Every detail expressed grace and harmony.
The interiors of the pavilions were sculpturally superb.
I am, so let’s have a drink.
The toilets alone were worth the trip!
But where was my bartender? Thus far I had been politely ignored while the staff scurried about, but as soon as I made eye contact a maître d’ rushed up to usher me to a seat by the lake.
I decided to dine with the resident white pelican.
I ordered a sumptuous repast, then sat back to enjoy a cocktail. No one was there but the pelican and I. How could it be that such a place could exist in a run down border town like Mae Sot? You could be sure the refugees weren’t eating here, and Bangkok was ten hours away over dangerous mountain roads. It must have cost a small fortune to build, and a large staff was required just to keep the plants watered. How was it possible?
Just before sunset I heard a distant rumble. It was the sound of a fleet of chartered double decker sleeper buses that had just arrived from Bangkok. The place filled to the brim in less time than it takes to tell. Those jolly folks had spent all day sightseeing on their way to the Khao Mao Khao Fang, planned to get royally fat and drunk, then sleep all night on their way home.
It was a successful business model, and the owner, a genius whose name I do not know, subsequently opened another restaurant in Chiang Mai.
Some of you may know that by profession I design and build naturalistic landscapes with waterfalls for museums and the hospitality industry. You can see some of my work at http://www.environmentaldesigns.org/
Until I went to Khao Mao Khao Fang I suffered under the delusion that I was the world’s best environmental designer, but now I know better. I have visited many famous museums and gardens around the world, but none of them, neither Kew in London nor the Butterfly Rainforest, can compare to Khao Mao Khao Fang. It is worth a trip around the world just to see it, and yes, the food was great!
I know, I’ve veered off course. I promised to take you to Hell and instead you had dinner in Heaven; but don’t worry, Hell, which is to say Myanmar, awaits.
In the next episode of our thrilling adventure we will hire a pirate taxi driven by a meth freak to plunge into the belly of the beast, so buckle up because it will be a bumpy ride!