One Foot in Burma - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

February 2, 2017

One Foot in Burma

A Day in Tachiliek, Myanmar

One Foot in Burma

I love Burma so much that I still call it Burma. Eight of my last nine trips to S.E. Asia have included Burma in my itinerary. It was natural, then, to feel like this trip was missing something important. But, we had no plans to visit Burma this time. Our decision to not go there largely revolved around the Burmese government’s decision to ethnically cleanse their country of Muslims. No need to give them any of our tourist dollars until they actually do the reforms they promised in order to get sanctions lifted.

We did, however, need to renew our Thai visas and slipping over the border to Tachileik for the day was something I had been looking forward to. I knew that a brief dip into Burmese culture, even for just a few hours, would be more like taking a long swim - an immersion.

We casually walked on the “Friendship Bridge” to about the middle at which point all pedestrians and vehicles crossed to the opposite side. The Myanmar Immigration Office anchored the end of the bridge. Entering it we immediately knew we were in a different world let alone country! Most of the plaster had fallen off the ceiling of the tiny crowded room. The dingy walls were streaked red with betel nut spit. A moldy-mildewy odor enveloped us as we sat down in front of an officer’s desk. I remembered that smell. It was the distinctive odor of Burma. There was a general feeling of disarray and confusion in that small room. I remembered that most of the country ran the same way. Strangely and inexplicably, I was thrilled to be back in Burma.

The Friendship Bridge to Tachiliek, Myanmar
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An officer told us we needed one passport photo and 1500 Thai Baht each and began to fill out some papers. That’s a whopping $45 each for the day! Fortunately we were prepared. A tourist in Chiang Mai had told us a crisp American twenty dollar bill would probably suffice. I laid the brand new bill on his desk. He looked up and said softly, “OK” and nonchalantly slid it across the desk and into his top drawer. He gave the slightest smile to himself, betel red, and went back to his paperwork. I thought two things: ‘Hmm, that was easy.’ And, ‘There’s a big difference between $10 each and $45 each, yet he wanted the U.S. dollars which was the $10 each.’

It allowed for an immediate assessment as to how the government’s recent policy to discourage the use and hoarding of U.S. dollars was working. Welcome to Burma where distrust of the government and its currency still exists even by government employees!

With the payment we were in. And, since Burma is a half hour earlier than Thailand, we had gone back in time. As we walked out of immigration I wondered if by setting time a half hour earlier than the rest of S.E. Asia, the Burmese thought of themselves as being ahead of everyone else. However, the other countries might think the opposite - that the Burmese are behind them. Different perspectives tend to be more glaringly apparent at border towns.

No matter who was ahead or behind or what time it actually was, all we knew was that it was time for Burmese tea. In fact, it was way overdue. We had been dreaming of the rich, sweet black tea and the Burmese tea house experience our entire trip. Burmese tea houses serve as community meeting houses and are always a buzz of activity. I think a lot of business is done in tea houses and they never ceased to be fascinating places to be even if all that was going on was a premier league soccer match on the TV.

As we began our search for a tea house I bought a sampling of fried snacks from a street vendor. We were then all set for a prolonged involvement with Burmese tea and whomever we met at the tea house.

Within a block of the bridge we came upon a large bustling tea house. We were welcomed inside by several thanaka-cheeked women and shown to one of the very low tables which are standard for tea houses. We settled onto our cute little stools and immediately it was as if we had shoved off from shore, entered the current and were at once flowing to the vibe which is purely Burmese.

Tea was placed before us. We raised the cups to our mouths and the slightly bitter, tannin-laden odor combined with the rich sweet milky taste to produce big grins on our faces. As we ate our snacks and enjoyed the tea we watched the woman who was concocting it. Her routine was art. She spooned large dollops of sweetened condensed milk into glass after glass quicker than I ever knew sweetened condensed milk could flow off a spoon. She worked on an entire row of glasses at a time. Then came the tea which issued from the spout of a large charred and dented kettle. She poured from a distance above in a long straight stream. The tea poured so thickly she only filled each glass halfway; a concentrate. Topping off with boiling water she then stirred two glasses at a time, clinking spoons against the glasses loudly knowing exactly when the melding of the ingredients was perfect. She obviously had done this dance many times.

The maker of Burmese tea and her servers.
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Workers at the tea house.
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The kitchen of the tea house.
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She was entertaining enough and the tea delicious enough that I would have been happy sitting there all day watching. But nothing ever is so singular in Burma. My experience is that it’s one entertaining thing after another all day long.

A man sat down at the table next to ours and immediately engaged us in conversation. He was a self-made guide for tourists in the area and in so doing had learned to speak English perfectly. We just don’t find many people who speak English perfectly in all the other S.E. Asian countries but the Burmese are different. I’ve always figured there was something about the Burmese language, with its Tibeto-Burman root, that made it somehow easier for them to pronounce English than other people with either a Chinese or South Sea Islands root for their languages. But there must be more to it than that. I think there is more of a drive to learn in Burma.

The man laughed a little when he told us his name was Slim. He was not only fluent in English but was intelligent, informed and worldly. And, uncanny as it might sound, he had a knack for English idioms. What an odd thing that so many of his countrymen and women have a desire to know as many idioms as they can. He had educated himself, as so many have had to do in Burma. Again, an intense drive among the Burmese, to learn. We had a great conversation with him about all sorts of issues the Burmese, the region and the world are dealing with.

We wanted to express our displeasure about the Burmese government enflaming tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Rohinga Muslims in the northwest part of the country. The government is actively trying to wipe out all Muslims in Burma. Muslim villages have been burned to the ground, tens of thousands marched at gunpoint and forced into Bangladesh, women raped, men murdered and no outside agencies from anywhere in the world allowed access to report on what exactly is happening. Slim agreed that it was a horrible situation but I think he felt as helpless as we. Plus, he was born a Muslim and even though he doesn’t actively follow any religion he has to keep a low profile. When ethnic cleansing is taking place in your midst, practice of the religion doesn’t matter, having been born one thing or another matters more.

The big problem is that the government is still controlled by a majority of military thugs and Aung San Suu Kyi is also helpless to enact change. The military government continues to do all the nefarious and evil things they have done for more than half a century. When you are getting unbelievably wealthy and powerful most humans will do whatever they can to continue on in the same vein no matter how unjust they are.

There is one thing we hear over and over in our travels from the common ordinary person, “Government is one thing but the people are something altogether different.” It’s possibly a universal truth because I often learn of governments doing terrible things but individuals not so much.

Slim had to move on to something more lucrative than talk; finding tourists who wanted to hire a guide. I think a number of tourists come from Mae Sai, Thailand to Tacheleik for the day and want a guide - their Burmese experience. Or, they want to go the 160 kilometers to Kyaing Tung and rules about going there change every few months rendering guide books useless and guides useful. I imagine Slim would be a great guide. And he’s easy to find. Just sit down in the biggest tea house in Tachileik for a few minutes!

This is a very large tea house as tea houses go in Burma.
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We ordered another cup of tea because, well, because we were in our beloved Burma for only the day, plus we had gained a half an hour, plus, we still had some fried snacks left. As I sipped I thought how astonishing and effective borders are at keeping cultures separated. Just a short stroll from cleaner and more orderly Thailand we enter a rather filthy and dissonant place where everything is turned upside down. But we find Burma and its people fascinating and exotic and rather enjoy the upside down aspect. All we wanted to do was walk around immersing ourselves in all the Burmeseness.

Before we could get on with our immersion a very young German backpacker sat down at the table where Slim had been. We greeted him and it was apparent he wanted (needed) some information. It seemed he had done no research about Burma but had big plans. He wanted to buy a motorcycle and ride it across to India. I looked at him and saw my 20 year-old excited self. He, as I was when I was 20 and traveling in Asia, was filled with wonder and adventure. And big plans. I thought that if anyone could ride a motorcycle into India it may as well be this guy and who am I to tell him it was never going to happen. Rules change all the time. Maybe he would be allowed to cross. A little money at some far-flung border might grease someone’s palm enough. Who knows? I was not going to dash his dreams.

He opened his enormous paper map and we gave him a lot of advice he might need. Then we wished him well and walked out to the street to pursue our dream of absorbing Burma for a day. We had no plans and hadn’t really ever spent time in Tachileik. We had dashed through the town several times on our way to and from Kyaing Tung or dashing from the airport trying to make it through immigration before it closed. (See our last CGOAB journal called Both Sides of Paradise and scroll down to “Border Dash”). We had remembered the streets to be rather dusty and the town kind of bleak but now there was a newly paved main street and beautiful new cement sidewalks. The town seemed to be booming with lots of commerce, lots of bustle.

Tachiliek is becoming upscale and modern.
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I wanted all the largest things in this shop
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Truck load of charcoal stoves
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We bought things we needed such as bags of peanuts, incense, peanut brittle, battered and fried quail egg round things, packets of traditional Burmese medicine (just for the graphics on the packet), two types of Burmese cigars, and an odd poster showing, “Foods that Shouldn’t Eat Together.” For instance, you never want to eat tapioca with peacock meat. I had always figured as much but it’s good to have it all spelled out with images of the foods. We will refer to it when we cook and it surely will save us from dying an ugly death.

Many interesting shops in Tachiliek
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Homemade implements
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This Indian saleswoman couldn't be bothered to get off her phone to help her possible customer but was just annoying ringing bells at Andrea.
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Lots of drugs cross this border especially meth and opium.
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Advertising "Sweety Wedding Bra"
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Quail egg and batter fried things
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We wandered through local markets and tried to take it all in. So many different foods and ways of doing things. Everyone was wonderful to us. Everything was cheap cheap cheap. Then we remembered we had intended to get our sandals repaired for months and now we had the time and it would be the cheapest place to get it done. We asked a group of motorbike taxi guys sitting around on their bikes at a corner where we might find a shoe repairman. We were actually quite surprised how little English anyone understood so it was time for pantomime. Then it was all smiles of recognition. They motioned that we should go around the corner and down a bit and then they said, “Temple”.

We saw the temple on top of a steep hill and as we were looking at the road leading up and up and considering how hot it had become, we suddenly noticed that we were standing right in front of the shoe repairman’s little shack. He was thrilled to have some business and he got right to work. In a short time he had both pairs of sandals in good shape again - $1.40 apiece.

Shoe repair man
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We explored a temple complex and a meditation center. By midday the heat had become quite oppressive and we retreated back to the tea house. We wanted to drink more tea anyway. I’m telling you, Burmese tea houses and the tea are special.

Guardian to a temple.
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It's not normal to see a temple painted black but this may be primer paint.
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It's not normal to see a black Buddha either but this is not primer paint.
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I guess they really don't want anyone climbing this pole which was next to a temple wall.
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After we were filled up with tea and had done a bit more exploring and shopping we called it a day. We wandered back to immigration to retrieve our passports which they had been holding. All in all it was a great day. There is something very appealing about the Burmese people. They are about as friendly and hospitable as any people can be. I was sad this trip to Asia had not included our usual month in Burma but at least we got a day. We will go back there someday and by then hopefully they will have figured things out better and made the roads less bumpy. I have this dream of riding our bikes across Burma and into India.

lovebruce

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Last chance for fried things on the bridge back to Mae Sai, Thailand.
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