by Tom Brecelic
Looming over the border between Burma and Thailand in a haze from the recent bush fires is a large triumph de arch like building with the The Union of My mar emblazoned on it. This is Mae Sai, Thailandís northern most town. Itís also a vibrant border town and one of the few official land crossings open between Burma and Thailand. Lonely Planet recommends not coming here if you are looking ìfor bags of atmosphere.î (Now that's not very charitable).
Admittedly Mai Sai is one large outdoor market, selling laquerware, gems, jade and other products shipped in from neighboring countries. But itís also the launching point to the golden triangle and the border town Tachileick in Burma.
A German scout from the Hangover Guide and myself went on a quick duty free spending spree while updating our visas. ìShopping therapy,î he called it. We paid 250 baht to get into Burma for the day at the Immigration office where Mission Impossible was playing in the dark lit room which was dominated by a portrait of a top SLORC honcho. Tom cruise was swinging off a crag in the Grand Canyon. This spy thriller was to be prescient and an apt intro to one of the most intriguing ASEAN countries. Winston Churchill could also have called Burma a ìpuzzle wrapped in an enigma surrounded by a mystery." This place leaves impressions, and you are left scratching your head as Burmese Daze streams surreal experience one after another in real time; and we were only in Burma for 30 minutes.
Walking the gamut to Burma, dodging merchants carting their goods across no manís land, signs jump out at us, ìPlease take care of international tourists.î Well they certainly did. There was a jungle of posters in our faces also, advertising day trips to the Long Neck villagers.
ìHere, take this,î said one tout who offered me a kyat note, while my German friend was being swarmed by touts hawking their wares- black market cigarettes, erotic lighters and porn CD's. ìNo, I can't accept it,î I told him. There had to be a catch somewhere. ìYou get nothing for freeî, advised Knut who parted 250 baht for a carton of 555. ìThis is Bac Ho's favorite cigarettes,î he beamed at me, happy with his bargain.
Meanwhile, my tout persevered, showing me his collection of pawn. 'This is from Thailand, very good," he said, showing me a wide collection of pawn that would even give Panthip Plaza a run for their money in variety and price. ìHere, take 7 discs for 100 baht.î No, I insisted. Besides, I donít have a computer to play them on, I added. He wasnít convinced. I must have pervert written on my forehead in 12 point bold idiot font. Then he showed me a picture of a long neck woman, and whispered, conspiratorially, ìYou want lady?î They are a determined bunch. Then we double-timed back to the sanctuary of the Thai border. My guide departed with his best shot, ìYou mister, one carton of 555 for 80 baht. ìScheisse,î my friend exclaimed, heíd been ripped off.
Back at Rim Num restaurant under checkpoint Tachileick, on the Mai Sai River, on the Thai side, we order the special of the day- frog in gravy. Beneath us in the stream were Burmese fisherman. One of them had copper wires attached to a net that sent electrical shocks into the sand, powered by a battery floating on a rubber tire. This guy should have got a Noble Prize for his ingenious invention that stunned the fish. Why he didnít get electrocuted, Iíll leave for Mr. Ripley to solve
Meanwhile, kicking back over a few beers, recounting our bit parts in this surreal interlude, a Burmese man stares intently us. ìHe probably thinks we are Western mercenaries who want to take up arms for the KNLA,î quipped my friend. ìWeíre probably being followed by the Burmese Junta? I jested.
Paranoia can be fun for a day. So if you want to be a character in a Graeme Green Novel, hit Mai Sai and Tachileick . And it has tones of atmosphere LP Joe, but thatís just my opinion!