The Journey Om

10 Minutes in Burmese Myanmar

Thailand has long been a haven for those who want to leave their home country and live in paradise.  Cheap living, good food, plenty of islands and beaches, Thai spirit and charm, not to mention a large loophole that allows foreigners to live there indefinitely, it has all the makings of the permanent vacation for those who wish to consider themselves ex-pats.

Citizens of most Western nations can arrive at any port, airport or border post and get a 30 day ‘visa on arrival’.  This is a free, no obligation stamp that allows a 30 day stay in Thailand, and all you have to do to receive a renewal is leave the country and return.  You can simply cross the border into a neighboring country, come back immediately, and get a new stamp.  While they used to give these out indefinitely, a recent law (circa 2006) has limited these to 3 in any 6 month period, although this may or may not be enforced at a given immigration post.

The other option is to visit a Thai embassy or consulate in another country, preferably your own, where you can receive various visas for up to 1 year, depending on your purpose.  Most tourists can receive a 3 month visa quite easily, which, combined with the 3 visa on arrivals, give you an eternal renewal, albeit slightly complicated.

Cutting to the chase, there we were, the end of our first 30 days close at hand, and we had decided to stay in Thailand for at least another month, to explore our options, and more of the amazing country.  The simplest visa renewal option for visitors to Chiang Mai is a day run to Mae Sai at the border of Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar, depending on your political preferences.)  Myanmar is the name that was given to the country by the current military dictatorship, although many folks in international circles do not recognize the legitimacy of the current government, and call it by the old name, Burma, which rolls of the tongue much more easily.

There are horror stories of life in Burma; entire villages being slaughtered, torture, imprisonment, ‘disappearances’; things to make one’s skin crawl, but there is also a resurgence in the government of moving towards freedom and democracy.  The US economic sanctions against Burma are not helping their plight, but are rather enforcing the reign of terror and pushing them closer to China.

Politics aside, it was a mere 800 Baht ($20) per person to take a private car, driver included, on the 9 hour run.  It is 4 hours each way, and takes roughly 1 hour to get the visa.  Unsure of our level of commitment to staying in Thailand, we opted for simply getting another 30-day stay.  Arrangements were easy enough, and we met our driver at a gas station at 8 am sharp on the morning of our trip.

When traveling with children, there are always extra considerations to make.  They need to be entertained, fed, and constrained; else they will make your journey far more painful than need be.  The convenience store attached to the gas station had a few food items that served as makeshift breakfasts, including ramen noodles, yogurt and soy milk, and we bought some other snacks for those hungry moments on the road.

Chiang Mai is located in an enormous flat valley, which takes some time to get out of.  Our first 45 minutes was mostly spent driving through the city sprawl and rice fields that surround the ‘Rose of the North’.  And then we hit the mountains.  Ah, the gracious mountains, with their winding, curvaceous roads.

If I have not yet adequately described the style of driving that exists in Thailand, let me clarify the reality of it.  They are crazy fast, drive all over the road type motorists.  And while this seems most intense in the city, where everyone creates a synergistic mesh of mayhem, on the open road it is just plain scary.

Even going uphill, our driver was sometimes hitting 120 km/h, and blind corners were taken with the hope that no one was coming the other way.  We were all holding on as best as we could, and I for one was feeling a little nauseous.  Pressing on the anti-nausea acupressure point in the middle of my wrist seemed to help a little, and I did my best to hold down my less than ideal breakfast.

I remember looking into the back seat and noticing how Violet was lying down, her head in Theresa’s lap, and thinking, “It’s great how kids can be so tolerant of things.  I’d have thrown up by now…”

As we careened down yet another large hill, we passed another of the inactive police checkpoints to the sound… the sound only a parent could know, that casual emptying of the stomach, the splash of vomit as it hits… everything…

Did I mention that our driver didn’t speak English?  It took several seconds to convey to him what had happened, or perhaps the smell got to him, at which point he promptly pulled over.

Violet was mostly unfazed by the whole ordeal.  She was more upset that her dress was had gotten dirty than she was about being sick.  I ran back to the empty police checkpoint with her dress to wash it in the bathroom, to find out the bathroom was a squat toilet with a spray hose.  Ah, how I love those squats!

By the time I returned to the car, most of the mess was cleaned up, Violet had her spare dress on (which as all parents of a four-year-old will know, is a crucial thing to carry), and Theresa was spraying the affected areas with our natural citronella based mosquito repellant.  At least we would be mosquito free in our air-conditioned car.

I think the incident served as a wakeup call for the driver, as he slowed down a bit for the next hour, or at least until we hit flatter terrain.  Two hours into our journey, he pulled over at a roadside restaurant and resort for a short break.

When I had spoken to the woman on the phone to book the trip, she had mentioned something about a rest stop at some condos with carriages.  Sounded luxurious enough, as condos usually have nice amenities.  As we pulled over at a restaurant for our respite, I looked up at the giant sign beside the restaurant, and realized I had misheard her, or that something had gotten lost in translation.  The billboard depicted several colourful giant happy looking condoms with a large banner reading “Cabbages and Condoms Resort and Restaurant, Thailand”.  You know, just in case we forgot what country we were in.

We had been deposited at an exclusive women’s resort, where proceeds go towards raising awareness about condom use, and the prevention of AIDS.  The owner’s mantra was “Condoms should be as common as cabbages.”  He even had the support of Bill Clinton.  Maybe if Bill had heeded his own advice, he would have exited office more gracefully, or at least without leaving a damning stain on a certain red dress.

As it turned out, the restaurant was closed, and the gift shop had little by way of real food.  We got some sodas for the road, and headed out.  Luckily, it was mostly flat and straight for the next hour and a half, and we made the duration of the journey without any other mishaps beyond a serious case of boredom.

As we pulled into Mae Sai, there was little to differentiate it from any other small town we had passed through.  Dirty and desperate, it had the same sort of squalor and filth that hangs on to border towns and greyhound stations everywhere, where most people are passing through or preying on those passing through.  Our driver let us off a few hundred meters from the border station, and as we entered the large concrete building, it began to rain.

We handed our passports to Thai passport control, who removed our exit papers, and informed us how we could only make one more visa run like this.  Thank goodness.  As we left the safety of Thai grounds, we entered the no-man’s land of the bridge between the two countries.

Several groups of people were milling about in the middle of the bridge, most of them looking like they had nowhere in particular to go, which is odd, because they were theoretically supposed to be going to either Thailand or Burma.

As we entered the Immigration stand of the Kingdom of Myanmar, the first thing to catch our attention was the smell.  Off to one side was a small room with a squat toilet, of all things, and by this point I was in need of a restroom badly enough to use it.  Except that I still had to get my ‘entrance’ into Myanmar.

Handing our passports to the man behind the counter, I was praying (to whom, I’m not sure) that he would be efficient, and thankfully, he was.  I was made to sit down while he took my picture with a webcam, and finally free, I dashed to the bathroom – only to find that Violet needed to go as well, and apparently more urgently than me.  I had been holding on for the last hour of our journey, but never mind that, women and children first.

I escorted Violet into the bathroom and helped her get ready to squat.  Violet seemed to have developed a rather intense dislike for squats, and after waiting for what felt like an eternity, Violet announced that she didn’t have to go after all, her usual response when confronted with the confounded foreign amenities.

As I got myself ready, pants lowered and all, Violet decided she didn’t need to wait in the room with me and promptly exited the ‘bathroom’.  I can only say I’m glad those webcams weren’t turned on me then because there are some things I’d rather not see posted on YouTube, or on the Myanmar Government website.

Relieved, I joined my bedraggled family in time for the last photo, and handed them the 2000 Baht.  The man asked us if we wanted to go into Myanmar, which would require us to leave our passports with them while we spent our 60 minutes browsing cheap Chinese goods among the thieves and hawkers on the Burmese side.

Deciding that neither of these sounded like good options, we opted to turn around and go straight back into Thailand.  As our passports were handed back to us, Theresa noticed that there were only three.  Trying to explain this to the military clad men, who naturally spoke little English, there was a moment of tension, and I fully expected us to all be hauled off to some gulag and tortured until we confessed our roles as Canadian spies, until we found the missing passport – in the hands of a bewildered British tourist.  Retrieving our final passport, we started back across the bridge to safety and home.

Noticing the filth and dejection below the bridge, Theresa pulled out her camera to get some pictures.  I was approached by a young boy begging for money.  I told him I had none, but that did little to dissuade him.  He kept telling me to give him 20 Baht as though it were owed to him. Tiring of his pestering, I finally said Sawasdee Kahp, waved him goodbye, and walked off towards the safety of Thailand.

I’m pretty sure his next words weren’t pleasant, but he decided to move on to Theresa.  I had another child approach me, who seemed to think that he might fare better than the last urchin.  I used the same tactics to dispense with him, and watched my former assailant spit at Theresa when she refused him.  We could see more and more of these beggars closing in, and realized they were something akin to a gang.  Despite the intense security at the checkpoints, there was none on the bridge, and I half expected the young punks to start snapping their fingers and making hissing noises.  Gathering up our kids, we hurried across the bridge, away from those lost boys.

Finally passing back into the Thai checkpoint, we felt the safety of being where they could not follow, and sighed with relief.  Entry back into Thailand was quick and painless, and we were soon free to go with half an hour to enjoy the sights before our rendezvous with the driver.

We were all now starving, and set out to find somewhere to eat.  We had been warned not to eat the street food in Mae Sai, as there was little likelihood of you returning to voice your complaint about the violent illness you had acquired as a result of your foolishness.  Hoping for at least a Tesco Lotus, we managed to find a 7-11. Ah, how standards change.  A blind person could find a 7-11 in Thailand, as there is one on every other block, and they are just as devoid of food with any nutritional content as they are in North America.  Stocking up on more drinks and yogurt, we decided to try the street market across the boulevard.

As we started up the small side street, Theresa and the kids were peering into shops, and I was approached by two friendly youths who spoke as though they were trying to offer me something.  Kind Buddhists, wishing me blessing?  Helpful guides wishing to direct me to the cheapest place to buy pirated DVD’s?  I declined, not knowing what they were talking about, and kept walking.  Which they did as well.  Following me.  I started to feel like they were circling me, and I turned to spot Theresa and the kids.  I tried, as casually as possible to tell them to stick close, and turned to find my new friends holding out a bag of red pills.

Again picturing myself in some horrible prison where they leave you for life, the shock and indignation on my face as I cried No! was enough for them to realize that I was not going to be another happy customer, and they finally left me alone.  We kept on with the hunt for edible sustenance, and some ginger, which we hoped would help with Violet’s motion sickness on the way home.

Finding neither, we made our way to the meeting spot, to find the driver, sleeping in the car.  As though sensing what time it was, he stirred, and opened the doors for us.  We tried in vain to inform him that we hadn’t eaten, but the message didn’t get through, and we sped off down the road once again.  Within 10 minutes of setting out, Violet let us know that she had to go the bathroom.  Again.  Sort of.  So long as it wasn’t a squat.  This time, using a complex series of hand gestures, we were able to get the idea across to the driver, at which point he promptly sped up.  Not exactly the response we were hoping for.

Trying to address the urgency of the situation and the fact that we were comfortable with roadside squatting, he kept speeding away, until finally pulling over, 15 agonizing minutes later, at a gas station.  Upon seeing the outdoor squat toilet, Violet decided that she didn’t have to go after all, which was strange, as she had been crying a moment before about how badly she needed to go.

You know how they say “Pick your battles?”  Well, this was one of those battles worth fighting.  It took no small amount of coercion to convince Violet that we were not going anywhere until she had relieved herself, which she finally did.  Teary eyed at having lost the battle, but not the war, she stomped back to car as we took off yet again.

I wish I could say anything more happened on this trip; luckily for us, the rest of the journey was uneventful, if punctuated by a persistent hunger.  Three weary hours later, the driver dropped us off at our door, and we, thoroughly tired and starving, went out to dinner.  It was the best meal we had eaten in a long time.

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