When last seen in January of 2016 the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and Lucky Dave were enjoying a fine repast at the Khao Mao Khao Fang restaurant, a paradisaical place in the otherwise shitty little town of Mae Sot on the Thai/Myanmar frontier.
Directly across the Moei river lies the even shittier little town of Myawaddy in the almost hermetically sealed country of Myanmar . If you want to learn more about Myanmar (better known as Burma) read the previous post.
Myawaddy is one of the few places where a traveler can legally enter Myanmar by land. Yuppie tourists are welcome to fly into the heavily policed colonial capital of Yangon (Rangoon), take a tour, and stay at a fancy hotel, but independent travel is strongly discouraged. That is because dictators never like it when penniless Hippies, many of whom have a political agenda, wander around loose in the countryside talking to whomever they please. What if they were to meet a dissident and tell the world about it?
I first walked across the so called Friendship bridge into Burma in 2009. At that time Myawaddy was cut off from the rest of country. Visas were not issued, but travelers could surrender their passports and stay for a day provided that they were gone by the time the sun went down. It was an eye opening experience.
The Moei river looks just like the Rio Grande in Texas complete with mangled scrub and illegal immigrants crossing the river on inner tubes.
In 2016 we merely passed through Myawaddy, so allow me to recount a few incidents of travel from that memorable day in 2009.
At first glance Myawaddy exactly resembled any small town in Thailand. The main drag was paved, full of potholes, and lined with shops. Motorized tricycles (tuk tuks) thronged the streets, and Buddhist temples were thicker than Baptist churches in backwater Georgia. I later learned that this resemblance was due to the fact that the Thais had paid for everything as a goodwill gesture.
The place looked like Thailand, but the people did not. The were darker of skin and furtive of glance. Many were Muslims. It was obvious that everyone was suspicious of everyone else. I had entered a nest of spies!
No sooner had I stepped out of the Police booth than I was set upon by would be tour guides. I chose the one who spoke the best English, a devious fellow named Jaw Too (which means “Famous person”). He spoke English because he was an out of work school teacher. In Burma there is no better way to be destitute than to be a school teacher.
I wanted to walk, but Jaw Too insisted that an honored guest deserved nothing but the best so we selected a rickshaw peddled by an old man. When I protested he asked, “Do you want the old man to starve?”
I thought tricycles are supposed to have one wheel in the front and two in the back?
In three minutes we reached the edge of town. The pavement ended and a police checkpoint prevented the curious from going any further.
The most famous tourist attraction in Myawaddy is the Crocodile temple, and it is a wonder to behold.
Those who give all their money to the monks and feed their children to the crocodile will be seated next to the Buddha in the afterlife.
Wait a minute, I was cheated! I don’t want to sit next to a skinny Buddha! Even the damned monks are skinny!
But then everyone in Myanmar is skinny. (Other than cops and soldiers) If you want to get fat you have to cross the bridge back into Mae Sot where the Buddha has done quite well for himself. He even has a money bag!
We ran out of tourist attractions so we toured the affluent suburbs.
I was curious about urns that were spaced at intervals throughout the neighborhood. I supposed they were votive offerings, but was astounded to discover that this was the city water supply. The government doesn’t supply any potable water, so the monks filter river water through used underwear, then set pots out for the thirsty citizens.
In the distance I could see what looked like a gigantic chicken coop. From within came a din like all the devils in Hell raising a lament. It was complete cacophony. Jaw Too explained that it was the public school.
He later corrected himself to explain that there was no public school. Wealthy families have tutors. This was a school run by the monks for the benefit of the poor. It received no funding whatsoever. Parents simply abandoned their children here in the hopes that they would not starve. Every morning the monks went out to beg for rice and shared it with the kids. Girls were nowhere to be seen.
When the kids saw me utter chaos erupted. I was greeted like a famous gangsta at a rap concert. Yo Bro, it’s about damned time!
In remote areas throughout the world I have observed that the first western meme to be adopted by village kids is the mimicking of hand signals typically used by urban thugs here in the States, a gestural form of pre language communication best suited to monkeys. No wonder so many countries strive to prevent their children from having any contact with toxic western culture.
Pedagogy consisted of illiterate monks whacking the kids over the head with sticks. Nary a book was to be seen, for the three “Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) were not on the curriculum.
Despite all that the kids were great, friendly and obviously intelligent, but what future can they possibly have?
Now back to 2016.
Crossing the frontier was easy. We had already arranged visas, and Myawaddy was now connected to the rest of Myanmar. That didn’t mean we could go wherever we wanted, most of the country was still closed, but after decades of war parts of the Kayin state had been sufficiently pacified so that tourists were allowed to travel between Myawaddy and our destination Hpa-An.
Myawaddy looked much the same only bigger, dirtier, and meaner. The taxi stand now included vehicles other than tricycles, there were even a few beat up cars!
We contracted a ride to Hpa-An with a sinister young man who owned a tiny rattletrap with bald tires. He charged us 10,000 Kyat (Pronounced something like “chat” or “jat”) per person, about $10 apiece for the 80 mile ride. It seemed like a good deal, but we soon came to regret our decision not to wait for a bus.
The creepy young man was extremely macho, His teeth were stained from chewing betel nut juice, and he was probably high on “yaba” (Methamphetamine mixed with battery acid). He was so jittery it was hard to determine whether his bad driving was due to drugs or an unsteerable car.
The road was brand new, but it was already in such bad shape that it was one way on alternate days to prevent head on collisions on the mountain turns. There were countless potholes, and he managed to hit every one with a shuddering bone crushing thud. He had agreed not to pick up any other passengers but did so anyway. That forced Ann to sit squashed in the middle of the back seat. Every time he hit a pothole her head hit the ceiling.
Eventually she became so angry I thought she was going to strangle him. That wouldn’t have been too difficult since she is about twice as big as the twitchy little twerp. Ann rarely gets angry, but when she does it is a terrible thing to behold. It is always entertaining to observe the behavior of third world macho men when confronted by big strong western women who don’t know their place. Most are smart enough to back down, after which they go home to beat their wife and kick a few dogs.
Along the way we passed several checkpoints. It was not clear whether these were army or police checkpoints. At each our deranged driver handed over a few Kyat before we continued on.
I later learned that some of these checkpoints were run by rebels from the Karen National Liberation Army which is in effect a parallel government that controls much of the countryside.
The Karen have been fighting the Burmese since 1949, which make it the world’s most protracted civil war. They have been fighting since the day I was born, and that was a very long time ago!
At the time of our visit the Karen had established a fragile truce with the Burmese government. This truce was the reason why we were able to visit the area. It also allowed the Karen to turn their attention to fighting the similar Mon National Liberation Army which controls rural areas further south. One might suppose that, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, but no.
These folks have been fighting for so long that no one remembers why. The goal of independence was abandoned long ago. Now they pretend to fight for autonomy within a federal system, but in reality it is all about natural resources. Who will get to rape and pillage the land, the tribes or the central government? Meanwhile they (both the army and the rebels) collect pennies from passersby at checkpoints. It is no different from rural banditry, so just shut up, pay up and be on your way!
Insofar as the appearance of the land was concerned, it looked just like Thailand. The Dawna range, a subdivision of the Tenasserim mountains, was composed of resistant metamorphic rocks and cloaked with seasonally dry monsoonal forest. All of the big trees had long ago been cut and the logs smuggled into Thailand. The whole place looked ragged and dry, a forest fire waiting to happen. Where was the wild jungle of my dreams?
West of the mountains we entered a broad plain filled with rice paddies and studded with occasional karst outcrops. As we approached Hpa-An these outcrops rose to become limestone pinnacles over 1000 feet tall.
History hangs heavy in the humid air of Burma. During their tenure the Brits tried to bring progress, but after they left the whole place reverted to it’s original timeless state. Now all that is left of the British empire in Burma are a few derelict colonial structures in the larger cities, and rows of magnificent rain trees that have taken centuries to mature.
The rain tree, Samanea (Albizia) saman, is one of the world’s largest and most beautiful trees. It’s general form resembles that of the superb Live oak. At times the entire tree is covered in pink blossoms.
The rain tree is native to Central and South America, so how did it get to Burma, Hong Kong, and other such places? As you can see, the blossoms resemble those of the closely related “Mimosa” tree which is a weed here in the eastern United States, but Samanea is anything but a weed. A great deal of effort was required to transport such a large long lived species to the other side of the world.
It all goes back to my personal hero, the great German explorer Alexander von Humboldt who, at the beginning of the 19th century, discovered a gigantic specimen in Venezuela and raved about it to fellow Victorian naturalists.
During the glory days of empire the Brits spared no efforts to turn the entire world into an English garden. Consider the travails of Captain Bligh who brought Breadfruit to the New world. It is a shame that they ultimately failed, but at least they brought the rain tree to Southeast Asia. Now these trees stand as mute testament to a noble effort.
In these troubled times of identity politics, economic inequality, and racial strife it is popular to decry the legacy of colonialism. I beg to differ. It is inevitable that abuses will accompany empire, and if you suppose that all peoples are equal it is presumably unfair to impose one culture upon another, but I would argue that the material benefits of “civilization” outweigh the affronts to “fairness”. Was it wrong to bring sanitation, literacy, science, medicine, and the rule of law to nations beset by tribalism and intellectual darkness?
Some ancient highly developed cultures such as those of India and China had sufficient depth and coherence to successfully transition from colonialism to independent nationhood, but others did not. Can anyone seriously argue that places like Belize, Zimbabwe, Palestine, and Iraq are better off because they are independent? No, they have descended into primordial savagery. What of Burma which became a military dictatorship the moment the Brits left and has remained so ever since?
I would suggest that those overly concerned with human rights swallow their indignation, get off their soft derrieres, and visit a few such places before passing judgement. Just be sure not to drink the water!
So it was that we arrived in the grubby but bustling little city of Hpa-An, the capital of the Kayin state.
We had no choice but to lodge at the run down government approved Soe Brothers Guest House, for it had been a requirement of our visa applications that we do so. There were a few other government approved dumps, but those were all full.
It is illegal for any foreign traveler in Burma to stay anywhere other than in a government sanctioned guest house. Any local who allows a foreigner to stay in their home overnight, even if that person is a spouse from abroad, will be arrested and interrogated. In other words, every single person who works in a government sanctioned guesthouse is a spy!
Our hostess Pu Pu was a beautiful and highly intelligent young woman who spoke perfect English, a cunning cunt if ever I have met one. She was very displeased when I asked if she was Karen or Mon. With an icy smile she replied, “We are all Burmese here”. I later determined that almost everyone who was in a position of authority had the surname Soe, which was synonymous with “government agent”.
Before checking in we had to have our photographs taken and our passports and visas scanned. We filled out elaborate legal forms in quadruplicate, then had them stamped by the police who were conveniently located right around the corner. Needless to say there were fees for all of this.
The place was a total dump, and so packed with hippies from all corners of the earth that it was almost impossible to move around inside. There was no place to sit and no place to shit without waiting in line. Need I describe the beds? The noise was horrific, more on that later.
Needless to say we were famished, so Pu Pu recommended the best place in town, a traditional restaurant named the San Ma Tou. I should mention that I was still sick from a gastrointestinal illness picked up several weeks earlier in Thailand, but now it was time to see if I could possibly get any sicker!
Burmese food is nothing like Thai food, more like Indian curry, but prepared and served in a peculiar manner. It is very tasty but also deadly.
For incomprehensible reasons Burmese food is only prepared early in the morning. Then it is covered with a greasy rag and left sitting in the sun for the rest of the day. Since large amounts are always prepared at one time, the remainder is left unrefrigerated for as many days as it takes to eat whatever the rats and flies have not already consumed. To make matters worse, it is served communally.
Thus stuffed I strolled about. Just for fun I decided to explore the police compound which occupied about half the town. It was more like a city unto itself. Those not in jail were busy enjoying a game of chinlone, also known as kick volleyball. It is played with a hollow rattan ball, and is easily the most exciting and skilled sport I have ever watched. Try doing a double back flip to kick the ball down your opponent’s throat!
These fellow were allowed to run around loose because they had heeded the warnings!
As the day ended I wandered down to the docks to watch the sunset over the mighty Salween (officially known as the Thanlwin River).
The Salween is one of the most romantic and unknown rivers on earth. I have long yearned to explore the headwaters in remotest Tibet, but that may have to wait for another lifetime.
I have tried to live an honorable life, so I hope to be reborn a minnow in the glacial water of Nagchu, then swim to oblivion in the hot tropical sea.
In the Immortal words of Grace Slick:
“Snow cuts loose from the frozen
Until it joins with the African sea
In moving it changes its cold and its name
The reason I come and go is the same
Animal game for me
You call it rain
But the human name
Doesn’t mean shit to a tree
Snow called water going violent
Damn the end of the stream
Too much cold in one place breaks
That’s why you might know what I mean
Consider how small you are
Compared to your scream
The human dream
Doesn’t mean shit to a tree”
Oh, to be a Buddhist and have such hopes!
So ended our first day in the belly of Burma.