We needed to renew our visas, one does this by leaving the country and then reentering. Since things are fairly calm at present we went in to Mae Sot, to cross the bridge into Burma. The easiest way to organize it was at the weekend, avoiding disrupting teaching, and this weekend was also free of special events. Not like last weekend, and next weekend is Easter. So we had a weekend break in Mae Sot.
Mae Sot is not really a tourist town, though there are national parks nearby. We will be taking a three day trek in one, a bit south of Mae Sot when our time here ends, before we return home, to see waterfalls, wild orchids, and birds; and to go bamboo rafting and elephant riding in the forest. Actually Mae Sot is most famous as Thailand’s “wild west”, in the past a haunt of smugglers, and from time to time dangerously near the fighting between the Myanmar Army and the rebel forces. At least to a tourist on a weekend away, there is little sign of all this in the busy border town today. However, one can hardly cross a street without reminders of the refugee “business”. NGO volunteers are the commonest Westerners, easily outnumbering the tourists. Guesthouses and restaurants hold collections of money and other things to help. Many of the people are not Thai, but Karen – in terms of appearance, most of them will be Thai Karen (people of Karen ethnicity but born in Thailand and of Thai nationality) though who knows how many are “illegals” working for a pittance till the authorities “catch” them and return them across the border.
Mae Sot is a great town for shopping (less sophisticated than Bangkok or Chiang Mai, but with far less crowds and hassle, Sarah was even able to try a couple of tops on before buying). There are bargains, Barbara and Sarah each bought beautiful batik cloths for only 50Bhat (about NZ$2), and I got a couple of packets of delicious locally grown smoky roasted coffee, and the plastic and glass tea pot to make it in cost 40Bhat – the same price as my fine sturdy walking stick. Karen cooking is super, and the food at the camp has been consistently delicious. But after weeks away it was nice to enjoy a meal of frankfurters and bacon with chips (French fries for North American readers) and salad as a change.
As an indication of our commitment to Karen (and Thai cooking) Sarah and I bought a kilo of garlic in the market (another 40Bhat) and hope we can persuade the young women who cook to show us how to make the delicious deep-fried garlic that often garnishes and adds fragrance to the already fragrant dishes. (Garlicophobes beware, if you once try this dish, or the Thai prawn and deep-fried garlic, you may well find yourself converted on the spot!)
This morning, however, we set off for the border. We planned to catch a Songthaew (a ute with seating in the back acting as a local bus, or a lorry – “truck” for NARs – for longer distances) from town to the bridge. There was a small misunderstanding over the price before we could start, a simple cultural difference. There was only one other passenger at the time the run was due to start, we had been told the price should be 10Bhat each. The driver asked 20Bhat each. We demurred. Finally, we got the message, if we paid 20 each the bus could go now, if we insisted on paying 10 we’d have to wait for 6 passengers more to arrive! We paid happily, and our fellow passenger indicated (by International Standard Gestures) how “thick” he thought we were to take so long to understand!
At the bridge, the Thai authorities duly stamped us out, and retrieved their forms from our passports, to show that we had left the country. We walked the 400M over the high bridge across the rather dry river (it is the dry hot season here). We were amused to watch locals crossing below us on small rubber rafts and large inner tubes, with bags of shopping somewhat precariously balanced. At the other side we were ushered into an air-conditioned office and invited to fill out our immigration forms, give our passports to the Burmese officer, along with 500Bhat each, and told helpfully to be sure to be back before 5pm when the border office would close.
We wandered up the main street, and down a little market lane. Burma is either just like Thailand, or totally different, depending on what you look at/for. The brands and products are much the same, the people are not strikingly different, on both sides of the bridge there are many Karen, for example. Both sides of the bridge have a mix of market stalls and small shops, with clothes, cloths and baggage as popular items, and similar small food stalls, with grilled snacks on sticks and baked items. Yet in Myanmar everything is older, more worn, and dirtier. The goods are more basic, with far less luxury items. On the whole too the people look less happy, with only a few exceptions (women at the café we stopped at for a drink and the Karen party in festive clothes on the back of a flag decorated vehicle were two notable exceptions) people simply look less happy, with little of the joy that Karen and Thai alike seem so often to display this side of the border.