Myanmar, Part 6: The train ride to Hell

I went in search of Paradise but found myself in Hell. Surely that does not come as a surprise to anyone who reads my stories, or to the many who have suggested that I go straight there; so, join me for a horrific trip on a Hell bound train. Just be sure to hold on tight!

As you may remember, in the early spring of 2016 the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and Lucky Dave were in the gracious old colonial town of Moulmein in southern Myanmar. There we searched for George Orwell’s ghost, but learned that his shade had fled to drearier climes such as London where the fog and hypocrisy were thick enough to write about.

It was time to continue our journey south to the Mergui archipelago, (also known as the Myeik archipelago), a magical place that in my mind’s eye was the last real paradise on earth. Before departing on our journey allow me to explain why I had such high hopes.

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Many of my worldly readers are aware of Thailand’s well deserved reputation as a Mecca for international travelers in search of sun and fun. Returning vacationers speak glowingly of blue seas, white sand beaches, lush rainforests, cheap drugs, easy sex, great food, and above all else, the smiles of the friendly Thai people.

All of the above is true, but it represents only a tiny fraction of the country, specifically the experiences to be had in the area around the island of Phuket in the far south of Thailand. Unfortunately, as all those who have been there know, Phuket is Paradise lost.

When I first visited Phuket in the mid 80s the destruction was well underway. Club Med and other such loathsome resorts already littered the beautiful beach, and garbage littered what little remained of the rainforest. There were so many topless European travelers that I got tired of looking at sun tanned tits. Friendly Thai peasants had been replaced by rapacious whores, and the sea was turning opaque. The night was filled not with silence and the susurrating sound of palms in the wind, but rather with unceasing amplified music and the buzz of disease carrying mosquitos. Then came the condos. Then an asshole actor named DiCaprio made a movie called The Beach on Ko Phi Phi. Finally Mother Nature had enough and in 2004 swept the place clean with a tsunami.

Koh Phi Phi. Where are you gonna run to when the tsunami comes for you?

It didn’t stop there. The disease of unrestrained development spread to other nearby islands such as Ko Samui, and to any part of the adjacent mainland, such as Krabi, that had a beach. You’ve heard the story before, even Miami beach was a wonderful place once upon a time, but by now the goose that laid the golden eggs is long since dead.

(Note: Those who wish to see the full beauty of these extraordinary islands without flying halfway around the world should watch Louie Schwartzberg’s short film: Moving art: Season 2: Koh Samui. It is a feast for the eyes, has nothing to do with ugly development, and can either be rented for $1, or watched for free on Netflix.)

Beautiful tropical islands are scarce, but unspoiled beautiful tropical islands devoid of people are even more scarce. Where were you planning to go to live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasy, Hawaii? The Crib? The fact is there are few such places left on earth, and at the top of the list is the Mergui archipelago just across the Burmese border north of Phuket.

The Isthmus of Kra

The above image shows the isthmus of Kra. Notice that Hpa-An, where we started our Burmese adventure, is at the top, as is Moulmein, and Phuket is at the bottom. Ye is where we will be getting on the train to Hell, and Dawei is Hell.

Notice also how dark green the area is between the archipelago and the frontier with Thailand. That is because until quite recently the western slope of the Tenasserim range was one of the wildest wettest jungles on earth. Directly to the east in Thailand is Kaeng Krachan National Park, the biggest and most important protected area in all of southeast Asia, home to wild tigers and elephants.

In theory the dark green blob in the image corresponds with the proposed Tanintharyi National Park which does not exist. As soon as conservationists proposed the park the plan was denounced by Commie do-gooders who feared that the traditional lifestyle of the tiny number of indigenous Mon and Karen who lived there would be impacted; so, the plan was dropped.

Slightly further north the Karen have proposed the 1.35 million acre Salween Peace Park, a noble undertaking that is bound to fail for the same reasons mentioned above. Those with an interest in southeast Asian wilderness are encouraged to read an excellent article in Mongabay entitled, “For border-crossing Thai tigers, the forest on the other side isn’t as green“, that discusses the proposed peace park, and the dire conservation implications should such efforts fail.

Meanwhile the Burmese continue attacking the Karen, chopping down the trees, and shooting the elephants. Nevertheless, green is green, so I badly wanted to go there.

The Mergui archipelago consists of approximately 800 islands, all of which are emerald jewels set in an azure sea.

Courtesy nasa.gov
What, no condo? Courtesy cnn.com
Some of the islands are granitic, others , like this, are limestone. Courtesy Tripadvisor.com

How could it be that there are few if any people in such a place? I have no explanation other than disease, too much rain, too many snakes, occasional massacres, and no arable land. That leaves the sea for sustenance, which is (or was) rich in marine life.

Until recently the only inhabitants of the archipelago were the Moken people, also known as Sea gypsies due to their sea faring nomadic lifestyle.

The Moken are primitive Austronesian people who follow no formal religion, do not recognize international frontiers, and resist acculturation. As such they are utterly powerless and are often scorned by their neighbors. That, and the fact that they aided escaping Rohingya refugees, made them easy targets for Burmese tyrants who wanted a blank slate upon which to realize their Chinese casino dreams. Unlike the Mon and the Karen, who both have armies, the Moken can’t fight back, so they and their culture are being driven into extinction.

The Moken doing their thing.

For an example of Burmese brutality consider this, in 1998 a government patrol boat landed on uninhabited Christie island near the border with Thailand. There they found 59 destitute Moken who had camped out to collect firewood. Dictator Than Shwe, who should have had something better to do, ordered that they all be brutally murdered. Shortly thereafter a Thai fishing boat ventured too close to the island so the crew of 22 was captured and killed.

One might suppose that the Thai government would consider the murder of 22 Thai fishermen to be a casus belli, but the Thais are happy to have a failed state across the mountains on their western frontier, in much the same manner that Russia was happy to have Trump causing chaos in America. They won’t trouble us if they are too busy fighting each other.

The Burmese tyrants aren’t stupid. They fully realize that the Mergui archipelago, and natural resources from the adjacent mainland, are plums waiting to be plucked. No need to make the same mistake the Thais did and allow poor people to engage in low level ecotourism. Where is the money in that? Better to clear the bums out to make way for glitzy casinos that cater to fat Chinese businessmen. Add some rhino horn, a snoot full of yaba, a few Thai prostitutes, and the party is on!

With the Moken gone the last thing they need is to have a bunch of Hippie backpackers prowling around looking for things to complain about like human rights, logging, overfishing, and other such trivial pursuits. So it is that all independent travel is strictly prohibited! No one, not even other Burmese, can visit the Mergui archipelago unless they do so in a government licensed live aboard dive boat that takes them directly to a government approved resort or casino. There are damned few such facilities, but many more are in the pipeline.

Now  that you know why I had to go we can return to our story.

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Back in Hpa-An the nefarious Pu Pu had informed us that maybe, just maybe, foreigners would soon be allowed to take the train from Yangon south to Dawei which is just north of the archipelago. I could tell by her snicker, and the flicker in her eyes, that the train was not a recommended method of transport. In Moulmein we confirmed that both rumors were true.

Even further back, way back in Thailand, I had eaten an octopus salad far from the coast. A month later the tentacles of the octopus were still with me, curling around my intestines and sucking sweat from my ever more feverish brow. It may have been one gastrointestinal disease getting worse, or a succession of maladies. Damn if I know.

By the time we were ready to leave Moulmein I was too weak for any real adventure, and everyone had assured us that riding the train was not for the weak of heart, much less the weak of stomach. So it was that indestructible Dave took the train to Ye; whereas, Ann and I took the bus.

We were astounded to discover that Ye, which we had imagined would be a shithole, was actually a clean prosperous small town.

We had made arrangements to stay at the Starlight Guesthouse, a very nice place owned by an expat American named David and his Burmese wife. Despite applying for residency, owning land, and being married to a Burmese woman, David still had to make periodic trips to Thailand to renew his visa, and had to spend every night either in his own guesthouse, or in another government approved hotel. If he spent the night in his wife’s parent’s home he would be subject to arrest. That’s Burma for you.

The Starlight Guesthouse, Ye, Myanmar

Our room directly overlooked the city park which featured a lake and the usual ornate Buddhist pavilions.

How civilized!

The street below thronged with people, all of whom seemed prosperous.

No trash???

The road was lined with beautiful rain trees (Samanea saman) which were long ago brought here from Central America by the Brits.

Everything looked a bit dry and dusty, but that is because February is the hot dry season. In August when things cool off and the monsoon rages Ye receives an average of 52 inches of rain, about the same amount that Florida receives in an entire year.

Rain trees waiting for the rain

At sunset Dr. Ann joined the local ladies who come every evening to feed the fish.

Pretty girls were everywhere!

Queen Ann and her royal escort.

And there were fish aplenty!

Meanwhile Lucky Dave was missing in action. He had left at dawn to board the train. Our bus left Moulmein hours later and we arrived in Ye by mid afternoon. Dave arrived at 10:30 that night much bedraggled, for his train had run ten hours late. He was amazed by it’s decrepitude, and had been assured that from Ye south things only went downhill. That proved to be an understatement.

In the morning the weather was delightfully chilly. Where to go and what to do on such a beautiful day?

I am loathe to take a tour of any sort, but in Burma there are no other practical options; besides, the Starlight was desperate for additional income, so we decided to visit the village of Kyaung Ywar on a tour, then head upriver if possible. The cost was outrageous, almost $35!

Our driver “Sam” was an interesting fellow. He was obviously gay, very intelligent, and spoke excellent English. Like many ambitious young Burmese, he had gone to Thailand as an illegal immigrant to learn about the larger world and had prospered thereby. He even had a new car!

Kyaung Ywar,  which is pronounced something like “Jaung yun”, was a complete disappointment, just another grubby village, but it had a landing on the beautiful Ye river.

Kyaung Ywar. This is all there is and there ain’t no more.

We were told that for an additional $8 we could go upriver in a longtail boat to a strange monument, and from there walk to a previously untouristed Mon village.

All of the primary rainforest in this part of Burma had long since been destroyed. The gigantic stump below stands as mute testament to what has been lost. How many generations of Mon children must have leapt from the branches of this magnificent tree into the crystalline waters of the Ye?

The last stump

What must life here have been like before the advent of guns and chainsaws? Elephants would have been sure to time their migrations to coincide with the poor villager’s harvest, and whosoever wandered alone in the jungle was likely to turn into a tiger turd. Are the people better off now? I doubt it.

Our trip upriver was a short one. At a confluence with the next small river we beheld an inexplicable monument.

All hail the chief!

I don’t know who this guy is, but he damned sure isn’t the Buddha. It’s more like something Donald Trump might commission to commemorate himself. If so he must have been terribly disappointed to discover that the nearby temple wasn’t really made of gold.

All that glitters…

The river beckoned, so I urged the boatman to take us further upstream (Totally against the rules!) He tried and damned near flipped the boat in the rapids, so that was the end of that. There was nothing more to see or do, so we started walking up a well trodden path along a ridge between the two rivers.

On the trail to Bie village

The jungle had been entirely replaced by plantations of rubber and betel nut palms (Areca catechu) which are the tall skinny trees you see above.

Here is a rubber tree being tortured for its latex. First they peel its belly, then let its white blood drain into half a coconut. If only it would confess.

Hevea brasiliensis

The congealed blood is taken to a flattening facility that makes the famous Burmese rubber blankets that are so perfect for those wet nights on the ground in the jungle. I’m just kidding! Nobody uses a rubber blanket!

All purpose rubber blankets

I was delighted to find a lovely vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina). The Mon rubber tappers didn’t appear to be particularly afraid of it, but in parts of its range many people are terrified of these harmless sprites and call them eye pluckers because when threatened they make false strikes toward the aggressor’s eyes. This is also one of the few snakes with binocular vision.

Ahaetulla prasina

We soon arrived at the village of Bie. It was neat, clean, and apparently prosperous, yet we were astonished to discover that it was almost entirely deserted. It wasn’t like a ghost town, more like a  movie set.

Bie, Mon state, Myanmar

Every sunny spot in town was devoted to the barbecuing of betel nut.

But where were the people? The dogs? The chickens? We hadn’t even seen anyone working in the betel nut plantations. When visiting such a village it is customary to offer a donation to the school, but there was no one to receive the money. Eventually we found someone who directed us to the school master’s house. He was home but school was not in session.

The teacher has a library, electricity, and even a computer, but no students.

The teacher was happy to accept a donation, but we never learned what had become of everyone else. After walking back to the river we were joined by a  monk on our boat ride back to Kyaung Ywar.

Kyaung Ywar had oddly dressed inhabitants.

Why does the last guy have a megaphone?

After returning to Ye, David, our kind host at the Starlight guesthouse, agreed to make reservations for us in Dawei, our next destination, and the jump off point for any possible exploration of the Mergui archipelago.

Getting reservations proved difficult to accomplish, for all of the very few hotels open to foreigners were either full or very expensive. David finally procured lodging for us at the the ill named Dream Emperor. He also explained that Dawei was not a nice place like Ye, and that our proposed use of the train to get there was potentially suicidal. Truer words were never spoken!

In the morning we took a tuk tuk to the tiny trail station on the edge of town and purchased “upper class” tickets to Dawei.

All aboard!

The first thing I noticed was that the tracks were too narrow, only a meter wide. I had previously only seen such narrow tracks on lines intended to haul bananas, not people. I also leaned that the tracks had been laid in 1907, and had somehow survived bombing by the Japs in WWII.

The station stank horribly of raw sewage. I subsequently learned that this was due to the fact that the holes in the floors of the cars that serve as toilets were unusable due to the violent rocking of the train, so everyone waited until the train stopped, then shat directly on the tracks in front of the station. Thank goodness there were plenty of mangy dogs to gobble it up!

Our choice of “upper class” seats proved to be a mistake, for the “upper class” seats had reclinable seat backs that had all collapsed; whereas, the “hard” seats still had functional backs.

There were only five cars plus the engine, and none of the cars had any glass in the windows. There were lowerable louvers but they didn’t work. At the time I thought lack of glass was an unimportant detail, but I was mistaken.

Our car featured a motley crew of drunks, monks, soldiers, and various peasants.

Savvy travelers choose “hard” seating with seat backs!

As per usual, the train was hours late in departing. Once it began to move I realized we had made a terrible mistake. Top speed was about fifteen miles per hour. At that speed the car swayed violently back and forth, any faster and it threatened to derail!

The video above was by no means the worst of it. At times people were being thrown completely from their seats. I was amazed that we survived the first mile, but we still had 90 miles to go, and numerous stops to make, so darkness fell long before we were anywhere near Dawei.

Initially our route passed through settled agricultural land, but after dark we entered mountainous jungle with few villages. As we did the air grew thick with smoke and the train slowed to a crawl.

Suddenly something slapped me in the face and almost tore my glasses off. I realized that I had been hit by passing vegetation, so I turned on my headlamp to see what was going on. This is what I saw.

The jungle is hungry!

The jungle was trying to get in! Apparently the the right of way had not been cleared in many years. The jungle had grown to fill the space, but each passing train had trimmed it so that the wall of vegetation was exactly the width of the locomotive.

That would have been fine, but every falling branch, every vine, and every new leaf pushed down the existing vegetation so that it had nowhere to go but in through the windows. Here is another shot to give you an idea of what I mean.

Out Demon!

Despite the danger to my eyes and glasses, these were all harmless palms and grasses, but I knew that the Burmese jungle was full of rattan, and I shuddered to think what would happen if one of its barbed whips got around my neck. It could tear my throat out!

For those who think rattan is a friendly plant used to make wicker furniture, consider this; rattans, which are vining palms, behave more like angry animals than passive plants. Unlike other plants which simply grow upwards, rattan climbs like a monkey hand over hand to the top of whatever tree has the misfortune to become its victim.

Rattan accomplishes this by growing whip like structures that might as well be made of spring steel from the ends of the fronds. The whips can be up to three meters long, and are covered with wicked backward pointing barbs. Whenever anything such as the wind or an animal disturbs the rattan the whips begin waving violently about, then the hooked barbs, which are extremely strong, sink into whatever they touch like fishhooks. The effect is rather like a berserk animated bandsaw from a grade B horror movie.

The air was thick with smoke when the train finally ground to a halt far from the nearest village. All the while the temperature had been plummeting, and due to the open windows everyone on the train was freezing. There was no explanation for why we had stopped for no apparent reason in the middle of the jungle in the middle of the night.

What station is this?

It appears to be snowing in the photo above, and it was certainly cold enough, but that is actually falling ash. Why would the air be filled with ash? Because, as mentioned in a previous post, the whole of southeast Asia was burning, an unprecedented environmental catastrophe.

Eventually we got moving, but soon stopped again. After several such stops we arrived at a station in the middle of nowhere. Everyone got off the train to wander around in the night while trying to figure out where we were and what was going on. We learned that the tracks ahead were blocked by fallen trees and raging forest fires.

That was when I discovered that we were not the only foreigners on the train. There were several other Farang in the car behind ours, including a poor English girl named Oscar who had been riding the Train to Hell all the way from Yangon, 17 hours without rest, a journey that had reduced her to a Zombie like state. There was nothing to do so we started a fire in a failed attempt to stay warm.

The shipwrecked crew

We milled about shivering for an hour or so, then reboarded the train. Sometime later the train stopped again in the middle of nowhere. We were told that we had arrived in Dawei, but that didn’t seem possible. Dawei was a city, and we were still in the middle of nowhere.

We were herded off the train, this time not by the friendly conductor, but by very scary looking soldiers. Several of the Farang were reluctant to leave the train, but the soldiers angrily demanded that they do so. We were then ordered to get into the backs of two trucks. Were we being kidnapped?

Things went from bad to worse when we got to a jungle checkpoint. It was not clear whether we were in the hands of government soldiers or the rebels.

The apparent leader was a brutal twitchy thug whose eyes were rotating independently of each other. I had heard tales of deranged soldiers high on yaba who raped, robbed, and killed at will. That seemed to be what was going on.

The #1 thug demanded our papers and passports, none of which he could read. I saw him holding the documents upside down. When he got to the poor English girl he brightened up, now here was a juicy piece of meat!

He handed back our documents then he and a child soldier started tugging on the girl in an attempt to drag her out of the truck and off into the bushes for further ‘interrogation’. That was when we collectively said, “No way you son of a bitch, keep your hands off her!”

The poor fellow was baffled. No one had ever said NO! to him before. If one of the natives had said no he would have been shot on the spot, but we were foreigners, and who knows what might happen? He didn’t know what to do so he just waved his hand at the driver and off we went into the night.

To my dismay Dawei proved to be an actual city filled full of ugly concrete buildings. We had no idea where our hotel was, but trudged around town with our heavy packs until we found it, a highrise hellhole that was locked up tight.

We pounded on the metal grates until we woke up the entire neighborhood and the night guard appeared. He tried to run us off but we refused to leave. To our delight a Chinese fellow appeared who could speak both English and Burmese. He explained to the night guard that we had reservations, but he refused to believe us and kept yelling Full! Full Full! A word he had apparently learned from the Chinese guy. We kept yelling Reservations! Reservations! Reservations!

The poor night guard was as baffled as the deranged soldier had been. Why won’t these damned foreigners do as they are told? Eventually he relented and called the owner, something he had obviously been told never to do. From him, via the Chinese guy, we learned that the reason the hotel was full was because we had reservations! With great reluctance he let us in. I have never been so happy to be in such a horrible place.

We were exhausted and starving but nothing was open, so the English girl and I wandered the empty streets. Eventually we found a squalid eatery that sold the usual unrefrigerated glop, but the glop was probably a week old rather then the customary three days old. I remember thinking to myself, “This is a great way to get very sick”.

So it came to pass. Those who have followed this series of essays may remember that a month earlier in Thailand I had eaten a very questionable octopus salad; thereafter, I often complained of being sick, as did Ann and Lucky Dave. The symptoms varied from day to day, sometimes a fever, sometimes the shits, sometimes a general malaise. I tried hard to keep it from getting me down, and presumed it would eventually pass. To this day I have no idea whether it was one persistent gastrointestinal illness, or a series of unrelated diseases.

For delicate readers I hereby offer the following trigger warning: From this point on the essay will be all about shit, human shit, environmental shit, and political shit. In other words, all bad shit all the time as befits a story about a train ride to Hell. You have been forewarned!

As we walked back through the empty streets I could tell that something was terribly wrong. My guts were roiling and a fever was coming on. No news there, but this was something far worse than my previous symptoms. There was no possible way this could be due to the glop I had just eaten, not enough time had passed.

I felt like I was falling off a cliff, and could barely stagger back to the hotel. All I could do was to thank my lucky stars that the onset of whatever was wrong happened after I got off the train!

Sphincter pinching served until I got to my room, then the explosions began. To my great dismay I discovered that our room, though otherwise modern, was only furnished with a squat toilet.

I have never had cholera, but I have often had diarrhea due to amoebic dysentery, worms, and a host of other gastrointestinal diseases. They were nothing, mere farts in the wind compared to what was happening to me. Within seconds my bowels were empty and the walls of the bathroom were covered with a yellowish abomination, but that did nothing to stop the spasms. During my travels I have often used public toilets and wondered how feces could possibly get splattered on the ceiling. Now I was beginning to understand.

I rapidly became so dehydrated that Dr. Ann went into Full Doctor mode and began forcing Ciprofloxacin and water with electrolytes down my throat. My fever soared and I became so completely incapacitated that I was barely able to crawl the few feet to the toilet. Squatting was impossible, all I could do was bend over slightly and let it happen. Several times I knocked my head on the opposite tile wall due to the forward thrust.

Soon I became delirious. It is all a blur. Ann tells me I wasn’t completely unconscious because I kept trying to get back to the toilet where thunderous farts would herald the arrival of yet another spate of bilious yellow liquid. At 9am the following morning I asked Ann if it was sunset yet.

I can barely remember the next several days as I lay in bed struggling to get to the toilet every few minutes. I could eat nothing other than a few bites of banana. Despite downing countless glasses of water with electrolytes I was in danger of dying of dehydration.

What I needed was a continuous IV drip with glucose, electrolytes, and a regimen of hard core antibiotics, so Ann combed the wretched city in search of a local hospital, or even a doctor. She eventually found an AIDS clinic where she was told in no uncertain terms that she should somehow get me out of Myanmar and back to Thailand. If I went to a local hospital, or even to Yangon, I would surely die.

The problem was that leaving Myanmar is almost as difficult as getting in. There was no way I would survive if I attempted to go back the same way I had come. No more trains thank you!

One thing was certain, there was no way I was going to explore the Mergui archipelago either with or without permission from the authorities.

There are very few border crossings, but one had recently opened at a remote frontier village named Htee Khee that connected Dawei to Kanchanaburi province in Thailand. Ann made arrangements for transportation, then woke me up at 3am the following morning to begin taking Lomotil, a medicine better know as butt plug.

The day dawned with an evil looking surreal red sky. I took a double dose of Lomotil then began to pack. The problem was that I was too weak to lift my heavy backpack, much less carry it down three flights of a narrow circular staircase, so Ann had to do it for me.

A taxi van was waiting outside. The driver took one look and offered to let me sit in the prized “shotgun” seat by the window rather than be crammed in the back with a dozen other people. Normally that seat is reserved for the driver’s family and friends, or perhaps available for an extra charge, but he had no wish for me to puke and shit all over the other passengers, much less ruin the seats of his van, so I got to ride in style.

I had hoped that we would set out at 8am as planned, but nothing in Burma is ever that simple. As I have mentioned before, the government authorities were only somewhat in control of the area. They and the rebels had apparently worked out an agreement whereby the few pennies that could be extracted from passersby were shared between the two entities. That meant we had to drive all over town visiting various checkpoints to get our papers stamped and pay our bribes before leaving town.

The entire time I kept pinching my sphincter, taking more Lomotil, and looking at the ominous red sky. As we proceeded east the sun failed to rise and the sky became an even darker shade of red. It was like something out of an apocalyptic horror movie. Needless to say it was hard to breathe.

We were entering the dark green zone of rainforest that I had seen on google earth, but there was no green to be seen. Everywhere we looked there was ragged devastation. It wasn’t that the jungle had been clearcut and converted to agriculture, it looked more like a war zone with charred stumps, some of which were still burning. The few people we saw all appeared to be destitute. Much of the devastation appeared to be completely random; nevertheless, every single tree of any size had been hacked down for illegal export to Thailand. Only on distant mountain ridges was there any evidence of remaining rainforest.

This is what had happened to the last paradise on earth. The elephants, the tigers, the hope that this would someday become an international peace park, all were gone.

After what seemed like an eternity we pulled into what passed for a truck stop. Despite the fact that I could barely walk, I bolted to the squalid metal stall that served as a toilet. I had barely made it through the door before a massive explosion occurred. Needless to say there was no toilet paper. After scraping my butt with my hand, then wiping it on the corrugated door, I marveled at what I had wrought. All the walls and even the ceiling of the stall were covered in shit, just like what I had seen in the public toilets of Mexico!

Eventually we crossed the The Great Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) river. I had nurtured fantasies of being the first outsider to descend that legendary stream, and even carried secret annotated maps in my pack. As the van clung to the side of a cliff I looked down and saw that the blue waters were turning brown from gold dredging. It broke my heart to realize that the last paradise was lost, I had gotten there too late, and as an old man I would never have another chance for that last great adventure.

Oddly enough, the road improved as we went deeper into the ruined wilderness and closer to the Thai frontier. The air quality improved too because we had entered a zone of dry forest where the valuable trees had been cut long ago, and the resulting scrub wasn’t worth stealing or burning.

We got a flat tire which gave me the only opportunity I had to take a photo after falling ill.

The lonely road out of Burma

After five hours we arrived at the Htee Khee immigration checkpoint, a miserable shithole that had metastasized into a smuggler’s paradise. “Mister, Mister, wanna buy some jade?” There I bade farewell to Myanmar by shitting all over the wall again.

We had our papers stamped, paid a few bribes, then hired a taxi to take us across the six kilometer wide no man’s land to the Thai immigration post at  Phu Nam Ron.

There we were greeted by polite and friendly Thai officials who granted us entry visas, then waved us toward a fleet of gleaming new busses. The moment we crossed the border the air quality improved, and the hills, though still sere and brown from the dry season, showed glimpses of a glorious green spring to come. I had made it out alive!

In short order were were back in Kanchanaburi and it felt like home. We checked into the Green view hotel where I slowly began to recover.

The Green view hotel in Kanchanaburi, our home away from home!

It all seemed like a dream. Were we really back in Thailand? I took a little walk and discovered proof. Since the last time I looked someone had added something to the scenery.

All hail his serene chubbiness!

Only in Thailand, land of plenty, could the Buddha be so opulent and corpulent!

After a few days of recovery in Kanchanaburi we returned to Bangkok to complete the cure. We checked into our usual cheap digs along Soi Chana Songkhram, an alley where $8/night buys you a place like this.

Or you could stay at the Holiday inn for $100/night!

We had walked many a mile, so a foot massage was in order.

Zzzzzz

We were hungry too, and tired of pots of glop.

What would you like?

There were still a few bugs running loose in my belly, so I considered finishing dinner with the traditional dessert of scorpions and tarantulas. Everyone knows that scorpions are very good at catching bugs!

Like a popsicle on a stick, only crunchy!

So ended a most memorable journey to Burma.

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Those who read my previous essay, Myanmar, Part 5: In search of Orwell’s ghost, may remember that I had met ordinary Burmese people who held America in high esteem, and who had hopes for their own future. I went on to say that the election of Donald Trump had put such hope, both theirs and mine, on hold. Nevertheless, on November 3rd 2020 our would be dictator was deposed, and then on November 8th 2020 the party of Burma’s beloved Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide victory. Hope was in the air once again!

For us, that hope has worked out (so far), but just last week the thugs who run Burma’s military staged a coup. As I write this demonstrations are breaking out all over Myanmar. Ordinary people are risking their lives by taking to the streets, and no one knows what will happen next.

The Burmese military justified their actions by claiming election fraud despite the fact that they themselves had suppressed the vote, and that Suu Kyi’s party had clearly won. The elections were monitored by impartial international agencies, including by Jimmy Carter (Jimmy never lies!), and the results were found to be completely legitimate.

So how could the Burmese military claim election fraud in the face of such facts? Easy! They learned from us (though it is hardly a new lesson). Just tell blatant lies and stick to your guns, both literally and metaphorically. Perhaps enough fools will follow.

But there is a better lesson that the Burmese could learn from us. When threatened with insurrection America prevailed, not by calling out the troops, but by having dedicated public servants (the “Deep State” as they are sometimes called) respond calmly yet firmly to the crisis.

As long as our institutions are intact our nation will survive, but in Burma it appears that the chaos may go on forever.

………………………………………..

Dearest reader: This is the final installment of our current series of southeast Asian adventures, but do not despair, the adventures are not over.

In future Weazelwise posts we may review a few 2020 lockdown adventures right here in Gringolandia, then we will will return to our long neglected series of adventures in the wilds of Peru. So, stay tuned!

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “Myanmar, Part 6: The train ride to Hell”

  1. Augggggghhhhh. Dear SW, I’m sitting here. Wondering what to say.

    All I can come up with is something you told me years ago in our first meeting in the Ft Young Hotel in Dominica (thank you, Philip Nassief). You said your were the poorest Jet Setter, traveling in the world.

    And I was impressed…then, but I’ve come to see you as a poor man’s Anthony Bourdain. You are an intrepid ‘garnerer’ of experiences of people and land ceasing to exist… as you meet them. Living through and chronicling along the way is a wonderful thing you are doing. My world-loving heart is with you and Doctor Anne and all the brave sidekicks. Thank you, each of you, for keeping on.

  2. Lordy, Bruce, you go thru hell, so we don’t have to. The Burmese generals sounds pretty corrupt. Maybe that’s why travel is hard there, they don’t want anyone to see what’s being done to the to the country. My regards to Ann. Rick

  3. Until I read the account of your adventures in Myanmar 6, I assumed the explosive reverberations I heard coming from your residence were the result of gunfire. Now, with knowledge of your colorful and strident response to gastrointestinal distress, I realize I may have erred.

  4. Another great “Travel with Sleazel so you don’t have to!” episode.
    Thanks for the orientation via cartographic illuminations. Always appreciated.
    I had to look up a few words which is always fun. Now I have some new ones to forget!!

    I had a similar shit fest in Cuba about 20 years but I had the luxury of toilet paper and a private bath.

    Keep ’em coming!
    WV-Mike

  5. You are a scholar and a gentleman, Sleazel, protest as you may. We love your posts, please keep‘em coming.

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