Myanmar – Day Return Only
There’s something about borders that’s always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s the excitement of entering another country, or perhaps it’s the patent absurdity of drawing a line on the map and saying that one patch of dirt belongs to one country, another patch to another country. Borders where I live, Western Europe, are a little too easy: I prefer a border crossing with drama, tension and hopefully a souvenir set of passport stamps to boot.
I was in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand, on my way, indirectly, to India. Burma, the pariah state of South East Asia, blocked my path, its borders shut to all but the most cursory of visits. Poverty-stricken, wracked by ethnic conflict, Burma is shunned by the West and condemned by human rights campaigners. Its military government have changed the country’s name to Myanmar and prevented its democratically-elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, from taking up office. But the border crossing between the northern Thai town of Mae Sai and its Burmese twin, Tachileik, is open and is used on a daily basis by Burmese market traders and Thai daytrippers. Breathing the fetid air of military dictatorship seemed an enticing prospect: after all, it’s not every day you get to visit an Outpost of Terror.
And it’s surprisingly easy. You can even take a tour – at least as far as Mae Sai, although, not wanting to feel like a total package tourist, I took one of the regular buses to Mae Sai from Chiang Rai, for a mere 25B. As we left the ribbon development on the outskirts of Chiang Rai behind, 7-Eleven stores and Toyota showrooms were replaced by rice paddies, groves of teak and banana trees, and a range of angular mountains that drew closer as we neared Mae Sai. This was Asia Highway 2, the nearest thing there is to a main road between Thailand and China, and at present the only thing blocking this important trade route is the paranoia of Burma’s military government.
Nonetheless, trade is the lifeblood of Mae Sai: when I arrived, the town’s streets, right down to the river that forms the border with Burma, were full of Thai shoppers and Burmese market traders selling cloth, vegetables, cheap consumer goods from China, and plastic sacks of dried mushrooms. It came as a surprise to see such unfettered capitalism at the gates of what I had assumed was a closed country, and as something of a disappointment, to learn that so many other people had got to the border before me.
On a hill above the organised chaos of the market is the border viewpoint. From up here, both countries looked as if they shared the same beautiful green hills and the same drab, concrete-block architecture, and it was hard to pick out the line of the river dividing them. Borders are absurd places, but this one had a particularly cruel lunacy: in the houses on one side of the river lived Thais who voted in their country’s election this year; in the houses on the other side lived Burmese whose country has been run by the same clique of generals since 1962. At the viewpoint itself, the Thais have put a huge metal scorpion, its tail and pincers pointed across the river towards Burma: a potent symbol of the hostility between these two Buddhist nations.
Getting into Burma was easier than I possibly could have imagined. I gave the khaki-clad border guard my passport, which he kept to stop me going any further into Burma than Tachileik â€“ an interesting way, incidentally, of getting a new Thai visa â€“ and US$5 cash, which the Thai borders guards exchanged for me at the not very good rate of 50B to $1. And I was in.
A pair of clocks on the wall of the immigration shed on the Burmese side of the bridge revealed Myanmar Standard Time to be thirty minutes behind the time in Thailand. Thirty years might be more accurate: the main road through Tachileik is a dusty, depressing place. Ahead of me, a polio victim hauled himself along through the dirt on his hands and knees, his feet trailing uselessly behind him. Stinking water runs down the gutters on each side of the road into the river, which would be nothing but a fetid, rubbish-clogged trickle were it not for the border that runs along it.
But Tachileik is not entirely without charm: men still wear the sarong, the traditional Asian dress that has long since fallen out of fashion in Thailand, and the Burmese script, seemingly comprised almost exclusively of interlocking circles, has an elegance of its own. Something else surprised me about Burma: there are no images of any of the country’s military leaders anywhere in Tachileik, and apart from a vague anti-drugs message at the border, no political slogans. Very un-Orwellian: or perhaps this is what Burma looks like once it’s been tidied up for tourists.
Tachileik’s number one tourist attraction, if it has one, is the Shwedagon pagoda, whose gold stupa can be seen from across the border. And like tourist attractions anywhere in the world, it’s not without its fair share of souvenir sellers. Boys sell songbirds in wicker cages, which Thai or Burmese Buddhists would release to gain good karma. An old lady, wearing a sarong and a conical straw hat, gave me a toothless smile, told me her name and that she lived in Tachileik, and showed me a few of the souvenirs she was carrying in a plastic bucket. Among the things she pulled out of her bucket was a set of pristine new Burmese banknotes, and a much older set, with a man’s portrait on them. ‘This Aung San Suu Kyi father’, she said, pointing to the man. I was shocked to hear Aung San Suu Kyi’s name mentioned publicly inside Burma. Is the cage that imprisons the Burmese people not as tight as I had imagined? Or was this particular songbird driven by poverty to test its boundaries? Somehow, it didn’t seem good karma for either of us for me to try to find out. I settled instead for a set of Burmese notes, which were cheap at 100B: I hoped that buying a souvenir, and supporting Tachileik’s economy, if only a very little, might repay some of the karmic debt I incurred by paying the Burmese government’s entry fee in the first place.