19 March 2009


Samaparp Satpretpry is the greatest friend to have in Thailand. If he lived in Switzerland he would be the greatest friend to have in Switzerland. The same would be said for Ghana, Peru or any country he lived in. The reason is – Sam likes to drive, he likes to chat and he likes to show off his country, and he often utters phrases that start with “Well, you can stay at one of my family's condos and then we'll.....”

Sam, coming from a well heeled family, had attended four years of high school in Winnipeg (of all places to send a Thai person) and he and Sean had been Dungeons and Dragons pals. He moved back to Thailand after University and Sean contacted him for the first time in years on facebook mere weeks before we landed in Bangkok. Not only did he meet us at the airport and take us for 2am Chinese food, the next day he laid out a road atlas of Thailand on the table and over drinks (for him, 4 cokes and for us – Chang beer) detailed a week long trip of the North he was planning. It would take him to the Northernmost point in Thailand, the largest dam in Thailand, the Thai-Burma border and, for good measure, the floating market at Damnoen Saduak. Oh, and did we want to join him?

Well, emphatic yeses were exclaimed, and we set out a few days late,r after Sean and I explored Ayuthaya and Kanchanaburi independently. With Sam we stopped and cycled around the ancient ruins at Sukothai and Si Satchanalai, and as we got closer to Mae Sot (the Thai town on the border with Burma) Sam revealed that he had arranged a day trip into the Burmese town of Myawaddy for us and that we wouldn't need visas. Now we had a bit of a dilemma. Sean didn't want to go to Burma at all, but rather than risk offending his long lost pal he grinned and beared it and we crossed the “Friendship” bridge the next day in a hired van with a driver.

Sean did not want to come here, and I suppose I shouldn't have either, but the Lonely Planet articles I had read described Burma's empty beaches, a remote and ethereal temple balanced on a cliff by a single strand of Buddha's hair, its friendly and open people and of a rich animist tradition. I was excited! I saw this daytrip as a precursor to a longer, thorough tour through Burma, from Rangoon to Mandalay and Inle Lake, and I was thankful to Sam for the opportunity to introduce Sean to the idea of this future trip.

Sean had every reason to abhor the idea of visiting Burma – and the number one reason is Myanmar. Myanmar is the new name (a name that the people do not support) that the military junta has christened Burma in the hope that the West will drop its negative associations with the brutal regime that controls the country. This is the same government that has repeatedly jailed democratically elected president (though she has never been allowed to take office) Aung San Suu Kyi, that has shot peacefully protesting monks dead in the street and that refuses to allow any sort of free speech. This is fascism with no ideology behind it, and these are the officials fattening themselves with pork and beer bought with money bribed out of honest people's pockets. This is a hell on earth. Sean was a member of an Amnesty International group in high school, and Burma was one of his pet causes. I could see on his face that he was also excited to see the culture that he has studied and revered, but was deeply conflicted about this visit.

I, on the other hand, ascribe to a belief that even in countries with highly corrupt and violent governments there can be benefit to visiting. I wanted to remind the Burmese that the West has not forgotten about them, that we care and we are not all ignoring them like our governments are. I wanted to put money directly into the hands of guesthouses and restaurants and small shops. And as we entered Burma in our AC van I realized that this was not the kind of daytrip we were going to have.

Myawaddy is not a normal Burmese town, I should point out. While everywhere in Burma people are crippled by poverty, hopelessness and ennui, Myawaddy is a tribally administered area and these problems are coupled with corruption and violence at the highest levels. This is like “Burma Extreme” where the Karen people who are a minority elsewhere are armed and in charge. There is lore that there are pockets of Thai nationals who have been stuck in settlements in the hills for decades, and that if they emerge and try to make it home they will be surrounded on all sides and shot.

This is not a pretty picture. This is not a pleasant place to be.

We had embarked on a tour of poverty and desperation, and we were those people in a van staring out our windows and gawking at the locals. And, in true ironic style, the day we did this tour was Canadian Thanksgiving.

Our modern minivan began navigating streets and small alleys to visit a few places of note, and immediately I noticed the unpaved streets and open sewage running in the gutters. We pulled up to a strange Buddhist temple, the grounds paved in shiny pool tiles and decorated with humongous statues of “Nats,” half human/half animal gods that are remnants of the native animism of this region and that have been absorbed in Buddhism the way that we have absorbed things like the Easter Bunny into Christianity. The temple was filled with people, lazing around in the cool shade and staring at us with absolute indifference. I realized that this was midday on a Monday, and I asked the guide why so many people were here. Shouldn't they be working? Our guide, and extremely sensitive and educated Thai man who spoke the local dialect well, did little to conceal his laughter.
“No jobs! No work. No money. So come to temple.”

We parked outside of the local market, and left the coolness of the van. A wall of moist heat hit me, making me queasy with its intensity, and I prepared for the mad rush of touts and vendors who I expected would swarm us. But no one even approached us. No one tried to sell us a thing, until we were leaving the market and we passed by a large amount of cycle rickshaws parked in one area, their owners napping in the bucket seats or chatting in groups. One young guy noticed us and shyly asked
“rickshaw?” The small glimmer of hope in his eyes slammed into my chest.

As we got back in the van, I noticed that the bank was closed. It was 1pm on a Monday, and the “Myanmar Bank” was gated up and deserted. The guide saw us pointing and talking about it.
“Yah, banks close now.”
“Is it a holiday?” I asked. “Is this normal?”
“Yah, normal. You put money in bank, government take it. Government take your money if they want it. So, no one use bank. Bank have no business, bank close. Bank close for good.” We stood, stunned, at the prospect of a country forced to close its banks because of its own corruption. There wasn't even pretense here. No one was pretending that things were okay.

Back in the van, we wound through streets and small lanes, seeing one sight again and again – small bamboo and thatch huts filled with men. The guide told us that these were casinos – the only businesses that thrive in this part of Burma. We also passed throngs of women and children just sitting around, their eyes lifting to ours and then slowly sinking back down. No one had discernible expressions on their faces – rather than seem happy or angry at our presence they seemed to not care at all. This was something that I had never encountered. This was hopelessness.

And why not? Why have hope? We passed beautiful houses on our way to the next sight, multistoried mansions in comparison to the reed thatched cottages everywhere around us. These, the guide explained, were the houses of the government men – the Karen tribal leaders. We saw, with our very own eyes, huge shipments of building materials bearing the stamps of the UN – supplies meant for the Cyclone Nargis victims in the Irrawaddy Delta a thousand kilometres from here. We saw them being used to build houses for the local politicians. What must these people think of us? What kind of manufactured truth must have trickled down from Rangoon to explain the presence of these materials here? With the heavy censorship of the internet and state run media, what chance did the average citizen of Myawaddy have to learn about what was happening in the world, what was happening in their own country? My face burned with a mixture of anger and shame.

Though my brain was calling out in was in distress, we had one more sight to see. We climbed to a graceful Wat perched on a green hill, removing our shoes and climbing the hundreds of stairs with our bare feet sizzling painfully on hot marble. At the top we were greeted by snoozing monks and women with babies, as well as a painted and gold-leafed tortoise that a monk roused from under a bench for our amusement. I stood on the top of the stairs, gazing out onto the countryside of Burma, and I felt completely numb. I wanted nothing more than to leave this place and forget what I had seen. Us being here was of no benefit to the locals. Sean and I couldn't even make eye contact.

We descended the steps and a small boy about 9 years old silently approached us, holding out a bouquet of greenery he had in his hand. It didn't even contain flowers, it was just leaves and ferns. I have a policy of never giving money to children (I don't want to encourage the adults who put them there in the first place when they should be in school or playing) so Sean and I ducked our heads and murmured “Sorry, no. Sorry. No....” We got in the van.

As we pulled away the little boy's eyes met mine through the window.

“STOP!” I hollered. “Stop. Stop the car.” I reached into my wallet and pulled out 150 Thai Baht (5 bucks Canadian) and thrust it at the child, accepting his bouquet. He looked at the money quizzically, and our guide explained to him how much it was worth in Burmese kyat. Slowly, and in my memory it is in slow motion, his eyes widened. He was stunned for a few moments, and then magically, his face broke into a huge smile. Our van was pulling away and he chased after it, waving the money in the air in thanks or celebration or shock, like he didn't know what to do. I sat in silence the rest of the way back to Thailand.

We arrived back in Mae Sot mid afternoon, and sat down at a Thai-Muslim restaurant near the town's mosque for a fiery curry. While we were waiting for our food, Sam asked us, “So, what did you think of Burma?” Sean and I both struggled for words.
“Um, interesting. Thank you for arranging the trip.” We headed for the Golden Triangle, and didn't speak about it again.

There was something so ironic, so terrible about being in Burma on Thanksgiving, especially the hope-drained city of Myawaddy. For it is a special kind of evil to rob people of their natural inclination to work and create – when the instincts that make us human have been robbed from us, what is left? When we are herded into casinos, when our money and future are stolen, when we elect a woman democratically only to have her rot under house arrest rather than lead the government – hope is lost. This is not a “triumph over adversity” happy ending sort of story – there is no revolution for Burma, peaceful or violent. The military government is relentless, corruption is rife and human rights are meaningless, yet countries like India and China still trade with them, gobbling up their vast oil reserves and textiles, their greed making the West's feeble embargoes meaningless.

The Burmese government dip their fat sticky fingers into everything, including the small amounts made from the burgeoning tourism industry, and so it is nearly impossible to backpack Burma without lining the government's coffers. Even sacred cows like foreign aid medicines and food supplies are confiscated and profits divided between the rich and important. There is a sense of futility – even activists have given up.

People who speak out disappear.
The only reason Aung San Suu Kyi hasn't is because of her high profile, her Nobel Peace Prize.
In Burma, there is often no hope.

But there can be comfort. One thing – one memory of this day keeps me from despair. Throughout Southeast Asia, spirit houses are found in the yards of those who practice Theravada Buddhism (about 90% of the population.) They are elaborately decorated shrines, a small representation of your home that sits at eye level atop a pedestal, like a large birdhouse that is meant to be a place that disembodied spirits can live happily without cursing the inhabitants of your home. Every evening people present it with offerings – fruit, juice boxes and yoghurt, candies, and it is not uncommon in Thailand and Laos for a spirit house to be very costly and posh looking. It wasn't until we were driving through a slum-like neighbourhood on our way back to the border that I saw one in Burma. It was made of plain, unadorned corrugated metal, the same metal used to roof the more permanent looking structures in town, and it was bent into a simple curved A-frame shape. It was perched in front of a small shack, its crudeness unlike any other spirit house I had seen, but still unmistakable as such. I imagined a woman, filled with faith and love and concern for her family, setting sweets and fruits in front of the shrine whenever she could afford to. I can't decide whether the image is heartbreaking or uplifting.

They can't take everything from Burma. People will still dream, even if they have to be shaken awake to do so.

So there. Now you know. Tell other people.

1 comment:

chris said...

i love this post. this helped me understand whats going on in burma.i feel sad for its people but still it wont stop me from visiting this place.i'm planning a trip next year.do they really need your dollar bills to be so crisp?