23rd november. thailand, burma, laos.
There are a lot of random things that I dearly love, and one of those things are hammocks. I also love long, monotonous drives. Something about them excites me. While everyone else is passed out and drooling, I am alert and drooling, staring out the window at whatever passes us by, lost in the abyss of my own thoughts, hopes, and dreams. Usually my mind first jumps into the future, endlessly plotting and planning where to go next. It’s the American in me, always wanting to do more, more, more. This morning, no more than an hour into the bus ride I said stop, stop, STOP! Stop planning, stop plotting! It’s not doing you any good, and you’re missing what beauty lies past this glass. Today, today you will know where to go next. Just listen to your intuition and don’t over think it.
Another thing I love about long drives is how it tends to bring me back. A year ago, driving from Patankot train station in India, I remember looking at the forrest and thinking, this looks like Costa Rica. In a split second I was back in Costa Rica, and I felt the smallness of the world and the overwhelming confirmation that everything really is one. Today I felt the same way. Driving across the flat plains of Thailand, looking out at rice patties and rolling hills, I was reminded of my first train ride in India, where I awoke somewhere in the quiet countryside between bustling Delhi and vivacious Varanasi. This afternoon, on our way back to Chiang Mai, the dusty towns we passed through reminded me of some that I had seen in India. In the evening, when the stars appeared sharp and bright, as they do in the country, I was transported back to the banks of the Ganges, where I sat staring at the stars on a cool October evening outside of Rishikesh. Rather than invoking nostalgia for India, I just fell more in love with Thailand.
We started on the road just before eight o’clock, in an eleven-passenger van full of tourists. We drove three hours to a Wat (temple), where I made a fool out of myself by unsuccessfully pulling a fortune-stick (as I like to call them) out of it’s holder. There are about thirty of these little metal sticks sitting in a wooden holder, and you shake them to make one fall out. Each one has a number, and you pull a piece of paper from the box with your number on it. It took an awkwardly long period of time for my fortune-stick to fall out, and in the meantime the wat was filled with the sound of the metal clanking. What number did I get? Lucky (?) Thirteen.
In another half an hour we were at the Mekong River, climbing onto a long wooden boat and teetering between the borders of Burma (Myanmar), Laos, and Thailand. As soon as our boat left the dock in Thailand, we enter this “no man’s land” between the three countries. What a strange feeling. You know you are somewhere, but technically you’re nowhere. Past the muddy banks of the river one can see fisherman’s villages in Laos, with green hillsides poking the blue sky above them. Burma looks like Thailand, except for the enormous casino built on the banks of the river for tourists and Thais, who cannot legally gamble in their own country. After taking a gander at the building, we turned South to head to Laos. While our driver, Mr. John, does a 180, the tour guide depicts the casino with admiration, and briefly points out a slow-boat to China before changing the subject to material goods that we can purchase in Laos. As he rambled on about cheap cigarettes and whiskey soaked in snakes my mind jetted off to Adventure Land, as I imagine myself cozied up with bags of rice and water buffalo on slow-boat through China and into Tibet.
After passing our port of embarkation, we kept heading South until we docked in Laos. I hopped off the boat onto the creaky wooden dock, climbed up the crumbling concrete steps, and looked up to see that Laos is seemingly a country consisting of no more than twenty shops selling random souv
enirs. I was a bit disappointed. The first shop, which looked a whole lot like the rest of them, sold bottles of whiskey with dead cobra snakes floating inside, scarves, bags, and keychains. I kept walking through the stalls, talking to the women and admiring their adorable babies. Then the materialism was behind me, and all I could see were tall trees and a flawless green landscape. Laos is so beautiful, I could hardly take it all in–the landscape, and the people, with their round, smiling faces.
In the midst of this clearing that I stumbled upon, spotted with trees, I saw a five-foot by thirty-foot cage. I walked closer to see a bear inside, swaying madly. It was the saddest thing I have seen in a while. This bear was less than three-feet high, dancing and obviously deranged. I keep trying to grasp why, or how the animal got in that situation, but I can’t. I wanted to let it out or feed it, but each action felt futile. Instead, I took a video of it. I love and I hate the power of the media. It’s a fantastic tool to show and tell stories and tales that won’t otherwise get seen, but if one isn’t careful it can lead to exploitation. It’s a fine line to tread.
The next leg of the endless tour took us to Mae Sai, the border of Burma, and the reason for my trip. You see, I had to renew my thirty-day tourist visa before Wednesday so that I can legally stay in Thailand. A friend who took the Thailand-Burma border trip described it to me as, “Eh. Thats been my experience with it. The Burma side and is a run down version of Thailand. People pestering me to buy carton of cigarettes among other things and disfigured people on all four limbs crawling around asking for money. I gave the monks money though. There was this rather large street market selling all sorts of counterfiet items. I bought the box set of a DVDs for 500 baht. They’re re
ally good looking counterfiets too.”
Hence, my expectations for the border was a vast and desolate “No Man’s Land,” followed by a bombardment of people begging me for money. I was dead wrong. When I got out of the van I was a bit disoriented. Everywhere I looked there were food stalls and normal-looking shops stuffed to the brim with goods, and there were only a few people begging for money or food, but none of them were pests. One old man sat quietly on the sidewalk, hands folded in prayer, gesturing for change to be dropped on his hat that lay on the ground. I dropped seventeen baht onto his hat and asked for a photo, and his eyes glowed warmly. He was beautiful. I wanted to sit down with him, teach him English, or play a game with him. I’ve heard someone say, “you don’t know where those beggar’s hands have been.” We are all human. I personally would rather shake the hand of any beggar or leper than the hand of a corrupt politician or a CEO, for their blood-stained hands have been in far messier deals, devastating thousands and thousands of humans.
I stepped up to the customs window, handed over my passport and departure card, smiled awkwardly for a photo, and walked across the Mae Sae river into Burma. A man ushered me into a small room with five immigration officers. Two sat at computers recording photos and information, and the other three stamped the passports. I secretly snapped photos of the room as I waited, wondering if that was illegal like it is in the US. The mere thought of doing something illegal in Burma churned up feelings of fear and delight, and I jumped when a man asked me to sit down for my photo. After minimal paper work, and a bribe of 500 Baht, my passport was stamped “Myanmar.” That feels pretty neat. I’ve been grappling with this situation though…I stepped across the border of Laos and Burma once, so does that mean I can say that I have actually been there, or is that like saying you went to the Canadian Niagara Falls for a day and you’ve been to Canada? Either way, I intend to return to both countries, so someday I will officially be able to say that I have visited each.
On the ride home we made one final stop at a town where one of the many Hill Tribes of Thailand reside. Man, it was sad. The children walked around with handmade bracelets and Euro coins, attempting to sell each. The town consisted of rugged shacks brimming with novelties for sale. Prior to my trip I had heard a little about the Hill Tribes, and I was intrigued to find out more about their traditional way of life. The interaction has made me more interested in mindful travel.