Thursday, January 22, 2009

Into The Backyard of Asia

Arrival into Bangkok after being smack in the middle of the third world is always a bit of a shock. The remote drone of modern multi-lane freeways, the banal scent of air-conditioned taxi cabs, the prevalence of American fast-food culture. However, nothing says, "look, I'm back to civilization !" quite like setting foot into the gay swank of an ex-pat luxury apartment. The roof-top pool, the fuzzy clean carpets, the fluffy white towels: post-Myanmar cyclone R-and-R in Geert's apartment is surely backpacking at its most decadent and debauched.

However, Katlijn and I were determined not to succumb to the comforting dystopia of a Thai fat cat. After a night out bowling with Geert's friends, a spicy dinner with some money boys, and a much-needed appointment with their hair-dresser, we were once again ready to head off into the big-backpacked, dingy-hotelled, noodles-for-breakfast universe that is budget travelling in Indochina.

The ruins of Sukhothai, Siam's first capital, is an obligatory stop when travelling to North Thailand. The elegant lines of the standing Buddha are typical of Buddhist imagery from this era.

A Giant Buddha statue and reliefs near Sukhothai.

While I can understand the allure of green jungles, white beaches, and bronzed Thai girls for the Western vacationer, and yes, the food is great and the sun always shines, Thailand has nevertheless always fallen short of truly capturing my imagination: too modern to be a great third-world destination, too sleazy to be a great first-world destination, and too many backpackers to be a great backpacker destination, it always struck me as Asia-minus, somehow watered-down for mass-tourism and mass-consumption. As Katlijn idly noted on our characteristically clean, punctual and spacious Thai bus while gazing blankly at a shoddy Chinese music video production on a flat screen TV, "it doesn't even feel like we're travelling anymore..." Somehow during our visits to India and Myanmar, the world "travelling" had taken on a darker and more nefarious connotation.

In a desperate bid to re-discover the true Asia and get back to the dirty business of real travelling, Katlijn and I had decided to deliberately avoid any place where a tourist might want to visit: we headed straight for Laos.

Just before leaving Thailand, this Thai Buddhist scholar showed us some of the tribal communities living along the Thai-Laos border.

The Htin tribal people are particularly skilled at manipulating bamboo to make everything needed around the house.

A tattooed elderly of the Mlabri tribe: probably the most primitive people we visited in Asia. The Mlabri are still mostly hunter-gatherers living deep in the jungle of North Thailand. It is hard to imagine such a primitive people only a day's drive from Bangkok.

The slash-and-burn agricultural practices of the other tribes in the area have destroyed much of the habitat needed to sustain hunter-gatherers, and the Mlabri people are in decline. As their lifestyle is not conducive to a Thailand embracing the future, the government is trying to encourage the nearby Hmong and Htin tribes to teach them how to build thatched huts so they stay in one place. Many of the Mlabri are having difficulty adjusting to this sedentary lifestyle and come across quite depressed.

Pork fat cooked on an open fire in a bamboo pole is a real Mlabri treat enjoyed by both young and old. Like this old man, many of the Mlabri people do not wear clothes.

Andrew tries his hand at getting a fire started with flint (harder than it looks).

Laos ! The backyard of Asia ! A country that only barely manages to occupy a vague association in the deepest recesses of the Western collective mind: "Laos ? Doesn't that have something to do with Vietnam ?" Always over-shadowed by its more famous neighbours: it isn't the economic miracle of Vietnam, it lacks the captivatingly abominable history of Cambodia, and even during its grand moment in the international consciousness, it was but a tragic side-show in a larger war. Digging deeper into its history, it only becomes more apparent that not much was ever said of Laos. The British thought of it as buffer state, while their French colonial counterparts pronounced it "useless."

But how does Lao food taste ? Who lives there ? What is the capital of Laos, anyway ? Like us, you probably never bothered to ask these questions, but are doing so now. And so, as we stepped off the bus and settled ourselves into a sheltered long boat destined for the far side of the Mekong river, Katlijn nudged me in the ribs and whispered eagerly,

"Look, just across the river. THAT'S LAOS !"

My god, she was right. In an instant, the overwhelming feeling of cynicism that Thailand always seems to bring out in me, vanished. I couldn't have been more thrilled. We were going to Laos.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

There was a big storm in Yangon

"There was a big storm in Yangon."

That's what a Mandalay hotel owner told me when I enquired about some images of fallen trees I saw in The New Light of Myanmar newspaper. It didn't sound like anything to worry about at the time.

Our thirty-day visa was about to expire so Katlijn and I had arranged for a flight to a town called Tachilek on the Thai-Myanmar border. We planned to cross by land into North Thailand, hitch a bus east, and slowly make our way into Laos. Our travel guide had warned us that the local travel agents and government officials in Tachilek were notoriously corrupt, regularly telling travellers that the border is either closed or that they had to pay through the nose to cross into Thailand. Thus, we didn't believe a word the Myanmar officials told us when they said we wouldn't be able to leave the country.

Andrew getting help from the Bagan locals to fix his rickety Burmese rental bike.

As Katlijn and I fought with the airport police to let us into Tachilek, we watched in wonder at a group of armed military personnel in green uniforms posing for a picture in front of aid boxes apparently bound for some place called "The Delta Region". At long last, we reached an uneasy compromise with the airport police: they would let us visit the city if we took their friend's taxi at only a slightly extortionate rate. We threw our cumbersome backpacks into the truck, and sped into town.

All-aboard Pyin U Lwin's morning rush-hour pickup service.

With an abundance of newly paved roads and cell-phones, Tachilek is Burma's most Thai city. However, unless you are an aging expat on a Visa border-run, Tachilek has little to offer except perhaps South East Asia's premier shopping destination for cheap cigarettes and dodgy Chinese imports. Within moments of arriving, we knew we didn't want to linger long.

A typical street in Myanmar.

Before us lay a short bridge spanning a small river into Thailand. Bright Thai flags and royal yellow ribbons decorated the Thai half of the bridge, while the Myanmar half matched this with somber ruddy flags and silver helmeted police guards.

"What do you mean you won't let us cross into Thailand !?" Katlijn demanded.

The grumpy passport official shook his head. "No go to Thailand from here."

"Can't go to Thailand !?" I barked back, "Everyone here speaks Thai, all the money is Thai, that gentleman behind me is trying to sell me fake viagra! This bloody well is Thailand! Just let us cross the damn bridge!"

Dinner for two, Myanmar-style.

Katlijn and I were adamant. There was no way we would pay the bribe. However, unlike previous experiences, our usual tactics of escalating loss-of-face didn't seem to be working this time around. A sympathetic Thai woman even offered us her cell-phone so we could make empty threats to contact our embassy. At one point, I actually managed to get hold of somebody at an embassy in Yangon. The direness of our predicament was made clear to us as I tried desperately to explain our situation in faltering school boy French to a befuddled Parisian embassy worker while a group of Burmese military personnel listened in unimpressed. It was clearly time to throw in the towel.

"Wow, these guys are good." Katlijn observed as we glumly walked back into the charmless town of Tachilek through a dense mob of pirated DVD salesmen and porn magazine peddlers.

The bridge to Thailand: so close, yet so far away...

"Why don't you just give them a bribe ?" Suggested the kindly Thai woman. In fact, that was the suggestion of nearly everybody we talked to from restaurant workers to hoteliers. They even suggested an appropriate amount (about thirty dollars to start with) and persuasive techniques (display the money to the official while asking for his stamp). Following the same advice from local travel agents, we marched back to the bridge to pay-off the officials.

At this juncture, we'd like to apologize to the staff at the Tachilek Myanmar-Thai border crossing because, frankly, we really did think you were a bunch of corrupt military bastards. However, after two officials refused us, nay "freaked-out" would perhaps be more appropriate, when we casually waved a fan of bills on the table while motioning conspiratorially towards the stamp, I am guessing you truly were not able to let us cross into Thailand. As it turned out, there was actually a law requiring us to leave through our port of entry, and as foreigners, we were likely closely monitored. We apologize for any trouble we might have caused you, but we really badly wanted to leave Tachilek as you might have guessed from the rather sizable sums and varieties of money we were heaping in front of you.

The Wells-Fargo-inspired Burmese budget cab service.

Frustrated and dejected, I slumped down on the bed of an uninspiring over-priced Tachilek hotel room. Outside our window on a yellow poster just across the river, I could see the smug face of the King snickering at me from Thailand. The only redeeming feature of being stuck in the nether-region between Thailand and Myanmar is the noticeable absence of government censorship. I flipped on the television to BBC and, for the first time, learned that the "big storm" we had heard about was, in fact, a "deadly cyclone".

"You don't suppose they heard about this back home, do you ?" wondered Katlijn sheepishly.

A ten dollar, thirty second phone call to Canada quickly confirmed that, indeed, they had. Over the roaring static of my overseas connection I could barely make out the distant panicked sound of my mother picking up the phone in the middle of the night. It turned out that our families had mobilized at least four foreign embassies who had been searching for us to no avail for several days causing serious distress on the home-front. I'm guessing the remote Pa Laung tea outposts between Namhsan and Hsipaw weren't exactly the first places they would have looked.

"CAN'T LEAVE MYANMAR ! HAVE TO FLY TO YANGON !" I yelled across the planet.

"But Yangon is a bloody disaster zone..." echoed back the faint, though distinctly alarmed, voice of my mother half a world away.

It sounded like a good argument to us. Katlijn and I marched back to the the bridge.

"... so you see, you have to let us cross the bridge because, well, I don't know where you get your news from, but I have have it from some very reliable sources that Yangon is a bloody disaster zone."

"Airport fine !" announced the grumpy guard. Katlijn and I launched a final spirited protest, but it was clear that our campaign to cross that bridge was in its last throes. When asked who made up these ridiculous rules, a couple of them were genuinely sympathetic and thumbed behind them to the picture of Senior General Than Shwe hanging on the wall.

"He does."

As I reclined back into the corrupt passenger seat of a corrupt Air Bagan airplane, it occurred to me that the one of the great tragedies of Myanmar is how we are always fighting with the wrong people. We roared off the ground leaving behind, hopefully forever, the frenetic sleaze of Tachilek.

Guard tower reflected on the water surrounding the Glass Palace in Mandalay. The last king of Burma, King Thibaw, lived here before being ousted by the British and exiled to India where he died of old age.

The plane landed in the ancient capital Mandalay, home to Burma's final dynasty. Then took off again, flying over the former capitals Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura. Past Bagan and Taungoo and Bago, all once thriving bright capitals since destroyed and forgotten. Finally, we touched down into Myanamar's most recent addition to its long and complex history of fading ex-capitals.

Post-hurricane Yangon looked like the disaster zone we had heard about: largely without electricity, filled with collapsed buildings, dirt and rubble everywhere, potholes in the street, and street urchins drinking unclean water- which is to say it hadn't changed much since the last time we were here. Truth be told, Yangon always looks a bit like it has been recently ravaged by a cyclone.

The most noticeable difference was that the formidable trees that once lined its streets, providing respite from the cruel April sun and adding to the city's dignified, if somewhat unkept charm, had all been sadly blown over. Many of them caused significant damage to nearby properties, the rest had mostly been cut up and cleared off the road. Despite some of the doomsday prediction I had seen on the television, the airport was functioning normally and, only days after the tragedy, Yangon was largely up-and-running again.

This massive old tree was up-rooted by the storm and hurled like a projectile into a house. In the aftermath of the storm, Burma received significant aid from their traditional allies of Russia and China. However, their neighbors in India and Thailand are so dependent on Myanmar, both for their natural resources and as an ally to quell their own smoldering insurgencies, that they lack the political clout to convince the junta to receive much-needed aid from most of the rest of the world.

The source of Yangon's rapid clean-up still remains a great mystery to me. The military police who roamed the streets were organized into largely feckless work gangs consisting of one poor sod with a hacksaw and about twenty cheroot-smoking layabouts watching him cut branches. A CNN reporter tried to explain the contradiction by suggesting he heard eye-witness accounts about armies of axe wielding monks diligently cleaning the streets by night- an account which, in our experience, sounded laughably ridiculous.

Back to work: a Burmese man crushes us up an icy-cold fresh lime juice.

That isn't to say there was no damage to the city. The hotel we stayed in had a tree in its roof, and we talked to several distraught locals who lost their homes. While Yangon may have fared better than expected, the same cannot be said of the surrounding Delta region. For obvious reasons, we were not able to visit, but one of our backpacker friends was in Yangon during the cyclone filming a documentary on Myanmar. He made it outside Yangon and got footage of nearby villages. According to him, where there used to be small communities of precarious houses, there was now nothing left except for several neatly stacked bundles of bamboo poles and orderly piles of thatch materials.

"... And the worst part of it was, all the people came running up to me when I got my camera out and kept smiling the whole time, and, you know how its, some of the kids toyed with my leg hair and whatnot. I just couldn't sell this stuff to any of the major networks ! 'Can't you just look a little upset for the camera ?' I kept asking 'Why are you smiling !?' your whole village was just wiped out by a cyclone !' "

A smiling people ruled by brutes, grasping out for a sense of inclusion in the world, a victim of its own wealth, Myanmar is, in the end, a paradox.