STRIKING OUT ON THE BURMESE BORDER:
Camp Primer & Upcountry Dating Guide
The morning of the day I decided
to visit a student refugee and rebel army camp in Burma/Karen State, I
read an article describing the torture and deaths of several students by
the Burmese army. They'd left a camp called Uthuta after a promise
of amnesty, but one was found planted up to his knees in cement, and another
had "boiling pig lard poured into his mouth until blood ran from his eyes
After a military coup on September
18, the Burmese government started shooting student
demonstrators in the streets. Thousands fled Rangoon, Burma's capital,
to areas near the Thai border controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU),
the insurgent army of the indigenous Karen tribe, which has been fighting
various regimes in Rangoon since the end of World War II. The students
were welcomed as political refugees at KNU camps thoughout Karen State
and are now being trained as guerrillas.
Seeing Burma was one of the
goals of my Asia trip, but since this trouble started, it's been closed
to independent travel. Lately they've let in big-budget groups, if you
have that kind of cash and want to support a military dictatorship that
shoots students demonstrating for democracy. But I'd heard there
were other ways of getting in.
Dianne and I travelled together
for a couple of days along the Mae Kong River in Eastern Thailand, and
rendezvoused again in Chiang Mai, in the north. A Jersey girl on
some boondoggle IBM grant (a folkcraft shopping spree, apparently), she's
been in Thailand for six months, and has a lot of connections. She
said she could help me with Burma.
We meet, my third day in Chiang
Mai, on the unkempt lawn of her guesthouse, at a picnic table between flying
strings of traveller's laundry. Dianne tells me about her friend
Pippa who runs a small relief organization that aids the student refugee
camps. She's sent "sympathetic" journalists into Burma before. "She's
out at the University. You're having lunch with her today."
Lunch? I complain about
the diarrhea I picked up on my Authentic Hilltribe Trek, but Dianne, a
doctor's daughter, produces a handful of pills and makes me take two.
(M.D.'s kids are good this way.) They're something called "Disental."
(As in: "Of course I'm sympathetic to the rebellion--I take Disental!")
Chiang Mai U., a mile out of
town, is still flush from graduation ceremonies the day before, featuring
the Beloved King (they're crazy about him) and his Rotten Son (notorious
for his mistresses and killing men in bar fights). Grads in gowns
are still having pictures taken near the gates and at flowerboxes.
I meet Pippa at the noisy campus "canteen."
An attractive, quietly intense
woman of Thai and British descent, Phillipa Curwen, known as Pippa, teaches
English at C.M.U. and helps out Burmese rebels on the side. Is she
Mata Hari or Florence Nightingale or what? As we talk I try to make
my "sympathies" clear.
I refer obliquely to General
Chavalit, the Thai army chief who's been conducting trade talks with Saw
Maung (the current Burmese strongman): "That bastard Chavalit, dealing
with the Saw Maung regime in Rangoon. No morality, it's incredible."
"You know he stands to make
a personal profit of 90 million baht if this trade deal goes though."
(Even if a baht's a tiny thing, that's got to be a lot of money.)
"He's also leading the PR campaign
in Thailand to encourage students to return to Rangoon. And we know
what happens to them. Keeping up his side of the bargain."
Like I know what I'm talking
She pulls out some black and
white photos from her visit to the camp the week before: Guys lying
on the floor of a bamboo hospital with IVs in their arms, guys in fatigues
standing in rows, eating with their hands in huts. I'm thinking,
"Boy, I'd be disappointed if all I came home with were those photos.
"You must not be too blunt with
them," she's saying. "I took a German last week who told them, 'No
one's going to give you guns.' It's true, but you mustn't talk like
that. All they have is their hope. He was of the Green Party,
and also had 'mixed feelings' about their logging. But they have
to do it, you know, for the money.
"It's very important politically
that no more students leave the camp. They are an irritant to the
Saw Maung regime--bad publicity." Her tone is cold, and I have a
quick vision of her as some sort of warrior-wife with a vicarious bloodthirst,
knowing and blackhearted. Things may be hopeless, but they must fight
and die for the sake of P.R. She shuffles back to a photo of a 13-year-old
boy with a rifle. "He told me he'd never go back, this one.
It was wonderful."
Her boyfriend, a Burman, is
somewhere out there organizing 23 disparate opposition groups into the
Defence Alliance of Burma, the DAB (one of a score of acronyms I would
never remember). She's not seen him for months, but I guess he's
She gives me a copy of the DAB
newsletter, in English and Burmese (a script that looks like, what?
Overcooked spaghetti? Patterns on a figure-skating rink? Worms on
the sidewalk?). And here's the rhetoric: stories of "15 dogs
killed and 6 arrested"; but of course, "4 of our soldiers gallantly donated
their lives to the nation." Same shit, propaganda for the good guys.
Pippa writes instructions for
me, how to get there: the 4-hour bus to Mae Sariang, the supply truck through
the jungle to Mae Sam Laep, then a boat, ten minutes up the Salween River
(the Thai-Burmese border there) to the camp. She tells me where to
stay and how much each thing should cost. The camp is called Uthuta.
"It would be good if you could
take something with you." I'm thinking, cool, I'll smuggle...what?
Bullets? Drugs? Documents? She is, in fact, asking for a donation:
"If you have a little extra cash, bring some medicine, or buy a bag of
lentils at the market. They like lentils."
Seat number 55 at the back of
a crowded bus to Mae Sariang turns out to be fine. The window open,
green, spreading scenery--banana and coconut palm plains below crooked
blue mountains--and a very fast driver. One stop for a snack in a
town called Hot (fresh pineapple, spicy dried squid), and then into the
mountains. Steep and winding, over ravine and river, a good road
and just as fast, pressed hard by Newton's Third Law against my neighbor's
side, left, or the bus wall, right. Some tribal people from out of
the sticks hail the bus and pull their sacks and grimy kids aboard.
They ride in back a short way, producing a few small coins from deep pockets
and smiling keenly the whole time at this miracle of modern transport.
Sunset and blue sky, white and
billowing clouds lit orange drift over the lush, four-season farmland surrounding
the town of Mae Sariang. I follow preliterate signs from the empty-square
bus stop on dirt roads to the Riverside, the guesthouse Pippa recommended,
and get a room with a screened-window view of the grassy river. Four
mats and blankets on the floor of a bare room, lots of little bugs flying
around the fluorescents--50 Baht ($2). The girl there confirms Pippa's
instructions about the truck to Mae Sam Laep, the market town on the Thai
side of the Salween: 7 o'clock tomorrow morning at the store across
the from the movie house. The ride is only 46 kilometers (28 miles)
but it takes 3 hours.
Around town I see a small mosque
with some Muslims standing around, and a couple of Buddhist wats (temples)
with Chinese-style pagodas. There's a Christian church too, but I
missed it. At dinner I listen to a French couple complain about the
Back at the guesthouse I find
a group of traveller-types sitting around a table speaking English with
an undetermined North-Europe accent. I sit with my notebook at the
next table but this outgoing blondish fellow invites me to join them.
They offer me Mae Kong whiskey, Krung Thip cigarettes and tokes off a local
World travel, as practised
by the young, weary disciples of the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guidebooks,
is not a means to discovering cultures, but an ends in itself. We
never talk about Where We Are--only Where We've Been, How We Got There,
and Where We Are Going Next. It's oneupsmanship disguised as advice.
The usual rank-and-file exchange
of travel stories ensues. Mostly this guy (Dutch he turns out to be): he's
been in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Jordan--Israel recently. "Oh the Sabbath
there is awful, you can't do anything. They go crazy on Friday and
close up Saturday. It's stupid, you can't even buy a razor.
And Egypt--too many Tourists. Oh, those groups! And hardly
any Travellers." Tourists (Them) and Travellers
(Us)--this is his key distinction; it saves him from recognising the Tourist
in himself. Who were the people who carried the first Baedekers?
"Well, I don't know, but the people you drink whiskey with in the hills
of North Thailand, these are Travellers!" is the attitude.
Also at the table, and, I should
say, the real reason I'm lingering, is the new and true object of my still-oblique
attention: a tall blonde woman, six-one if she's a millimeter--Veronica,
a New Zealander. A large-sized woman, a major distraction.
Dutch Boy, with his stories
of self-righteous road indignities, is a pain in the conversation.
He's also generically anti-American, but worse--anti-New York. (I've
been answering "What country are you from?" with "New York." America?
they say. No, I explain.) He holds us responsible for the fact that
poor natives charge rich foreigners money for things. Like we go
around conducting small-business seminars all over the Third World.
I gradually pull Veronica away.
She's solo, no plans, probably
moving on tomorrow. I bring the talk around to Burma: "It's
supposed to be amazing...too bad it's impossible to go." I'm testing
her waters, not letting on until she's primed, and alone. (Travel
Rule: The quality of a world-travel experience is inversely proportional
to the number of people in on it.) Then I let out with one of my
more memorable pick-up lines: "So, how'd you like to go to Burma
Veronica's in front of the guesthouse
at 6:45 the next morning loaded with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a change
of shoes. I sigh, and suggest weightily that we travel a bit lighter,
that is, more discretely, within the potential war zone. If we have
to make camp one night in Mae Sam Laep without our PJs, we'll handle it.
I'm thinking: A mistake? After coming all this way on so serious-minded
a mission, to succumb to my instincts and invite this attractive Kiwi along
sans thought two? "I must not let my attraction to or responsibility
for her interfere with my duty as a sympathetic journalist," I tell myself.
OK, let's go.
A loud and mud-splattered Toyota
pick-up pulls up across the street from where we're having an almost-American
breakfast. We approach the young driver (a candidate for a Thai Camel
Lights ad) and he tells us 50 Baht to Mae Sam Laep. So we wait and
watch them load the truck--not disinterestedly: wondering how high they'll
pile, which egg carton or Coke crate we'll be sitting on. But at
9am a couple of Thai kids jump on top and the driver gestures us into the
cab with him.
The road is paved, then hard
dirt, and after about 15K we stop at a checkpoint. A Thai Army guy
looks at our papers, more kids jump on, and we're waved into the jungle.
The road disintegrates into loose mud and deep ruts and rocks and river.
The track is steep, the mud slick, and sometimes we slide like dogs on
ice, which is a concern when you're skirting the edge of a ravine.
Through the beautiful, green-dense
jungle we pass cows and water buffalo, even an elephant blurs by being
led along the path by Karen tribesmen. There is a joke about this
road: you only have to cross one river--a hundred times. So we're
splashing through hub-deep or, what the hell, running right up the middle.
We never get stuck, and I'm amazed in general by what a 4-wheel-drive can
(I even compose a commercial
in my head: "In the jungles of Northern Thailand there's a narrow
dirt track they call a road that makes it tortuous way from Mae Sarieng
to Mae Sam Laep on the banks of the mighty Salween. To support their
insurgency, Karen Rebels depend on supply trucks to get down this road
every day, rain or shine. That's why, for their most important loads,
they trust TOYOTA...")
We pass a couple of huge logging
trucks coming out heavily loaded, monsters, like tanks rumbling through
the verdure. When I twist out the window to take a photo, a guy riding
on top of one mimes shooting me with a gun. This probably has less
to do with the natural modesty of the Thais and more to do with the fact
that logging is illegal in Thailand.
Last November floods and landslides
killed thousands of people in Southern Thailand. Severe erosion,
the result of unregulated clear-cut logging, was blamed for the devastation.
Following a public outcry and student demonstrations, the government declared
a total logging ban.
The teak, mahogany, etc., in
abundance on the Burma side, shot up in value. Thai entrepreneurs
rushed to border areas like Mae Sam Laep to buy logs. But around
here, the people they're buying logs from are the KNU, the Karen rebel
army. Thai lumber-baht is now the main financial support of their
longtime guerrilla war against the Burmese Government.
It's not a big problem.
Since the September 18 massacres, the Rangoon regime has few friends.
In fact, every country aiding or trading with Burma cut ties with them
except one: Thailand. The Thai government, swine like Gen.
Chavalit, want to be the first to get their fingers in the pie when Burma
inevitably opens up. Burma--though its isolationist policies have left
it in economic ruin--is rich with natural resources.
The Thais are neither moral
enough to break with Burma, nor loyal enough to stop buying lumber from
the Karen. But they are endangering future patronage from the Burmese
government by buying from the Karen Army. And since the Thais are
buying Karen logs sub rosa, they have no way of proving that they aren't
banned Thai logs. There's an ingenious solution.
On the hill over Mae Sam Laep
is a Thai customs office which collects and records duties, tarrifs and
taxes paid on things that come over from Burma/Karen State. (What
part of this is bribery and what "legal," I have no idea.) Here the
Thais collect sales tax on the Karen logs. But the ingeneous part
is that the tax is paid to the Burmese government.
This appeases Rangoon:
We'll pretend you're not supporting our enemy if you pretend you're buying
from us and pay us real tax-money. By paying real taxes to Burma,
the traders get the documention they need to prove their logs aren't Thai.
Everyone's happy. More money for guns.
We pass this interesting customs
office and a big sawmill operation and descend into the market town, perched
rough and ready on the banks of the Salween.
Mae Sam Laep is a tumbling run
of shack-stores built of sticks and branches on the bluffs of the Salween
and on the flat flood plain below. A dirt track winds along the bluffs,
serving the upper market; another road bisects the shore market and runs
arrow straight to the river's edge.
It's a constantly bustling,
thriving place, with dark-skinned Karen from both sides of the river coming
and going all day. The stores are jammed with everything you could
possibly need in Karen State: food, clothes, boat supplies, watches, cameras,
stereos. Look close and you notice some nice homes nestled above the town:
people are getting rich in Mae Sam Laep.
We get out of the truck in the
moving crowd of the upper market and run right into two kids in fatigues
who start talking to us in English over a display of cheap watches.
I wasn't expecting to see soldiers on that side of the river, and I hesitated
a second before realizing they were of course KNU, not Burmese or Thai.
The Karen have controlled the area for 40 years, but hell, if I could waltz
in there, anyone could. And this is, after all, War.
They're from Manerplaw, the
main Karen camp about an hour downstream. That's where Pippa's boyfriend
is, and they've heard of him: "Oh yeah, he's DAB." They tell
us it's safe for them, they're just doing some shopping and won't stay
long. We say good luck and follow steep dirt steps down to the lower
The road is narrow between stalls,
and ends at the broad blue Salween where colorful longtail boats are stacked
like driftwood along the shore. Down the beach brown boys are riding
huge logs being winched from the water by trucks.
Veronica follows me around in
the business of trying to find a boat to take us upstream to Uthuta, but
after a couple of failures she retires to the shade under the eves of the
riverside huts with other crouchers. The river taxis keep pointing
me to other boats and they keep pointing me back.
A few boats are away from the
main shore; I jog up an outcropping of rocks to talk to some boys
there. I decide "How much to Uthuta?" is better than "Will you take
us to Uthuta?" (I have this much Thai): puts the money upfront and No isn't
an answer. The longtailed boatman (the boat, not the man) wants 200
I try to get him down to 100
or 150 but he won't budge. That's a lot (there at least: $4 here), but
considering where this little ride will get us, I agree. Veronica
scrambles on and the kid starts the engine with a rope pull.
A longtail boat is like a long
wooden canoe with a stripped car engine mounted on the back. It's
very simple: the driveshaft has a propeller on it and extends diagonally
from the engine into the water. Revved up it sounds like a chainsaw
and leaves a huge plume of spray as it slices along.
Ours was painted bright
orange and blue, stretching 25 feet ahead of us as we pull a wide turn
into the upstream current. We hug the bank to lessen the drag, twisting
up the inter-mountain turns of the wide Salween. High jungle on both
sides, occasional river huts under the steep bluffs. Is an army crouching
in those dense green hills? What would you do if you saw it coming?
At a sand bank on the
opposite shore the boatman asks, Uthuta? I ask, Uthuta? and he nods,
so we step off onto the hot shore between a couple of bamboo huts.
Soldiers, shaded except for the ends of their rifles, peek out as the boat
whirrs away behind us. "Welcome to Burma," I say to Veronica.
At the near hut the young soldiers
look us up and down, don't seem to understand English. They're not
threatening but don't seem too happy either. Languidly they point
with their guns up the hill to the camp, but we demur with meaningless
sounds and move carefully down the beach to what I guess is the "mess tent."
Pippa said we'd find English-speakers there.
On the dirt and sand floor of
the bamboo mess hut, crouching men, only a few in fatigues, are cutting
vegetables and boiling beans and rice. They look up suspiciously
when we enter, and as fast as I can, I tell them I'm a journalist, a friend
of Pippa. At their friend's name the two who understand relax and
smile, shaking our hands and translating for the others.
I'm not resting on these laurels,
so I start pulling from my camera bag articles from the Thai press, the
DAB newsletter, Pippa's card. They bring out their own scrapbook,
also with Pippa's card in it--it's like an exchange of passwords.
A boy on the floor is carving chess pieces from driftwood.
"You must join us for lunch
and tea," they say. The idea doesn't appeal: the meagerness of their
food and the quantity of flies buzzing over it. But it's just a gesture,
and soon they're leading us up the sand bluff to the camp proper.
At the center of Uthuta is a
large open barn with a wood floor and beams supporting a metal roof--more
permanent-looking than anything we've seen since Mae Sariang. We
sit on two heavy carved-wood couches at the far end of this empty space
under a large banner proclaiming the new year and the continued resistance
of the KNU.
Several more boys join us, introduced
as members of the Committee, the student government. They're young
and fresh faced, excited to see outsiders, and stand in respectful awe
of Veronica, her blonde hair and long bare legs. They wear glasses
and smiles and some, longyis, the traditional Burmese skirt. They
close around us and someone brings two cool bottles of Sprite. In
this airless place, that product of a Coca-Cola Bottling Company somewhere
is ineffably refreshing. We drink slowly; they sit back, ready to
At one time there were more
than 600 students at Uthuta (they call it "Salween Camp," in English).
Now there are fewer than 400. Those who left were sick or unprepared for
warrior life, but are not considered deserters. "It is better for
everyone, that those who are here are committed."
They've formed this skeleton
government (the All-Burma Student Democratic Front, ABSDF), but the main
business is military training under the KNU. Ideology isn't part
of their education, though they talk all the time about Democracy: for
instance, how lucky we are to have it. You could think them naive,
but for the dreary purpose of this place.
(Though she keeps getting in
my pictures--"Very authentic, yes, but who's the blonde strolling through
your combat photos?"--it's good to have Veronica here, to help me think
of questions. We are the outside world and it feels important to
be informed and concerned.)
What about the Karen camp two
hundred kilometers south overrun by the Burmese Army last week? 3
killed and 7 missing, mostly young kids trying to escape across the river.
A present danger? "Oh no, after such actions the army always withdraws
and strengthens itself for a few weeks," I'm assured. ("Strengthening
itself," in the jungles of Burma, means rounding up men in local villages
and forcing them to work as porters, to carry supplies or build new roads
into the jungle. Another way the Burmese military is endearing itself
to the population.)
For me, the key question
is, what would I have done in their place? What would I have done
back at school if the Administration, rather than heed our demands for
a Fall Break, had machine-gunned us instead? Would I have been so
extremely changed, from student to soldier? I wanted to know how
politically involved they were before the killings.
"I was very involved," one Committee
member told me. "But we were students. We studied, went to
demonstrations. We wanted elections. The people supported us,
we didn't believe we would be murdered. The coup was convenient.
It justified the killing and made the world think there would be change.
If we had stayed or if we return, we would be killed. We must learn
to fight. They have given us no choice."
They want me to explain the
USA to them, why it ignores them and gives so much money to the Contras
and Jonas Savimbi and Afghanistan. "Your cause is too small, and
probably too pure, incorruptable and hopeless for our country to be interested
in," I'm thinking. "I don't know," I say.
All this is fiction to me.
Smiling, intelligent kids repeating stories they've told many times.
Around us, green hills, hot sun, bright river. Is it possible the
Burmese Army could come swarming over the hill, that these nice kids--peers--will
soon be fighting and dying so resolutely for their one little cause, so
obscure on a world map of Causes, one of a dozen stories on the Evening
Below us, three hundred
kids in fatigues and black face are drilling in the hot sun, their shouts
and grunts booming through the heavy air. "1-2-3-4," in Burmese then
"1-2-3-4," in Karen. "We Burmese are a peace-loving people," they tell
us as we walk down to the parade ground. "But we have a dark side."
Despite the coal on their faces,
it's hard to see a dark side in the hundreds of smiles, shining eyes, and
joyfully sweaty brows that greet us on the hot cleared field at the center
of the camp. A break from training is called and a bunch of kids jog over
with their heavy steel rifles (or wooden facsimilies) for photos.
The rest sit on a hillside out of the sun. Their Karen trainers,
KNU officers--professional-looking, older and more fit--stand to the side
chatting in their trim uniforms and purple berets.
If they're affecting high morale
for the sake of the press, they do a very thorough job of it. I shoot
them posing dubiously warlike with their fake wooden guns (to dramatize
the need) and with some shy children hanging around, the offspring of long-time
KNU soldiers. One kid, the joker of the bunch, break-dances for me,
wildly, throwing his limbs in every direction to the claps and hollers
of the others.
It's like the rowdiest kids
at a frat party thrown at high noon in a clearing in the jungle with all
the brothers dressed like Che Guevara. When I run up for a jolly
snapshot, I almost trip over one of those prone machine guns on a tripod
with a snakelike string of bullets resting in the dirt alongside.
Then we go to the hospital.
According to the papers, 60%
of the students in Karen camps have malaria. There are 30 in the
hospital now, though it's hard to tell which of the people hanging around
in the long bamboo hut are patients. There's no doubt, however, about
the kids lying on the floor with IVs taped into their arms.
I wander through, slowly, down
an aisle between kids lying on straw mats staring blankly, some with smooth
smiles, most with IVs. They don't mind my picture-taking, all attention
is sympathy, something they need.
A couple of Karen women are
attending the sicker patients, the worst being a kid with three brands
of malaria at once, including cerebral. His IV-arm is taped to a
wooden splint and he's unconscious, shifting and moaning, some invisible
torment working in his fevered brain. There's one doctor--a third-year
med-student--and a cardboard box of medicines on top of a crate at the
end of the aisle. Veronica gives the doctor some extra diarrhea
pills and a bottle of iodine for sterilizing water when we get outside.
Maybe this is the saddest thing I've ever seen: these feelings are approaching
me, stealthfully, like a guerrilla army in the jungle. I'm struck
hard by the starkness of what I'm doing here, of what I am: a rich and
distant foreigner pursuing and purveying images of depth and hopelessness
too real to relate to otherwise.
I've come for photos and stories: my camera and pen are
the weapons I use to keep that army of feelings away.
Back in the barn a philosophy
teacher says he hopes they can soon get back to real classes at the camp.
With him is a strikingly handsome boy whose smooth rounded features show
our proximity to India. These kids, these friends. Making plans,
getting ready to die.
You're a Burmese rebel student.
A spaceship swoops down and takes you on a 5-dimensional light-speed flight
past your imagination, a lifetime in an instant, and you're dropped back
down on this same piece of dirt with a wooden rifle in your hands. Would
you still be tied to this "motherland"? Prepared to die for your
people and cause? What are causes for? A therapy for the traumas
that created them, for what happened in Rangoon? What are our actions
but different therapies for a life than ends in death?
They see us, we see them. These questions are not absurd.
But they know about breakdancing,
they know about TV. A kid from America waltzes in with the pockets
of his loose cotton clothes full of baht, toting a fancy Japanese camera,
towing a leggy blonde in shorts. They're from mythical lands, speak
perfect English, and disappear as they came. A UFO more foreign would
We, the visitors, have no intention
of staying till dusk when the poison malaria bugs come out. Anyway,
we're out of good questions to ask and support to offer. We've reached
the wall of our committment, the place where I become an American guy who's
had his degree of adventure and is looking forward to a degree of comfort
where he spends the night, even on the road. "We have to meet a truck
in Mae Sam Laep at 4," sounds like an excuse.
Before we leave they present
us with what looks like a greeting card. On the front, a woman in
rebel gear (there are 12 women in the camp, one on the Committee) holds
an M-16 machine gun defiantly aloft while stepping on a captured Czech-made
G-4. On the inside, a message about moral and financial support,
and on the back, a poem in squiggly Burmese which I ask them to translate:
We hold guns in our hands
We hold pens in our hands
With diligence and force
Who dare to revolt
Will take victory
They are public heroes
The fighting peacocks.
(The fighting peacock is the symbol of the ABSDF.)
Veronica recovers her thongs
and we're escorted to the shore by the Committee chairman.
At the shore-side shack with
the KNU pre-teens, one in a pink shirt, all smoking cheroots. A half
a dozen in various stages of repose, casually guarding the shore with their
live M-16s: in hand, slung on a shoulder, within reach from the swinging
We stay in the shade, except
to look upstream for boats. The chairman helps us. He's a tall
skinny guy with big black glasses. "I have had malaria three times, here,"
he says, pointing to his head. "The body is sometimes weak, but the
mind is strong--for Democracy!" he exorts, raising a hand in the air.
A couple of boats ignore us, the third pulls over. I press 500 baht
into the chairman's hand and he'll only accept it when I insist it's a
donation to ABSDF, for medicine, for food. Not for guns, not for
On the boat, pressed between
Karen going to market, we watch our friends foreshorten, waving goodbye
from the shore with big smiles, left to their isolated, ascetic jungle
camp in a beautiful spot between Salween bends and green mountains.
We slip around a few curves, drop some people off, the image drifts.
A woman washing clothes by the river gives me a long stare full of confidence
and mystery, beautiful Burmese eyes, and is gone too. We pull to the stack
of boats and scramble off in Mae Sam Laep, Thailand.
An Israeli guy Veronica knows
is taking pictures of naked kids at the shore. We say hi, but don't
share where we've been, hoarding that distant place and those people just
ten minutes upstream.
But it's 3:45 and we have to
find our truck, and also get something to eat. (Travel Rule: Never
enter the Unknown on an empty stomach.) No fast food in the shore
shacks, and no sign of the Toyota, so we're backtracking hopelessly when
a guy going the other way, about 40, asks us what we're looking for.
We say a truck to Mae Sariang. "No problem, one leaves soon.
I tell him to wait," he says, walking ahead of us. We wonder what
he's up to, but after some years of travel I'm finally learning to not
look so mistrustfully at these inevitable, remarkable gift horses.
He leads us to a little closed
store, and while we wait he brings us some fried rice with egg and vegetables
and hot sauce, delicious, washed down with warm Cokes from crates.
A truck pulls up a few minutes later.
A Ford. The driver
pulls a twelve-point turn between market stalls, and heads down the road,
the wrong way. We come off the hill about a kilometer downbeach of
the lower market.
The "road" along the "beach"
is the most absurd moonscape of craggy boulders, rubble and rock formations.
It's slow and jarring and crazy that a truck can scale this stuff, but
we creep through, high-stepping Moon Rover-like, maxing-out the suspension.
Half an hour later we reach
the lower market we could have walked to in a minute. The guy cuts
the engine and honks the horn to scare up passengers. Locals climb
in back, more junk is thrown on, the driver runs into the market for a
bag of penny-candy. He offers us some and hangs the plastic bag on
the cigarette lighter.
In the jungle we're flagged
down by a couple of men. On of them, a thin, middle aged Thai in
loose work clothes, starts talking to me through the window. I answer
the standard traveller questions...but distractedly: his English is better
than I've heard from any non-native speaker on this trip (and that includes
the Australians). "Where'd you learn to speak English?" I interrupt.
"Oh my dear, one picks it up. Your language is not uncommon."
He and his partner (flirting with Veronica at the other window) are mining
some mineral--allanite, anthracite, something like that. City-bred entrepreneurs,
running the jungles with the locals.
The road smooths out, and by
the time we make Mae Sariang I'm beaming with the success of the day.
I made it in and out as planned, I got good pictures to show, a great story
to tell, and a big girl to share it all with.
But back in the world, Veronica
doesn't seem excited enough by these events, nor even aware of the shit
she's stepped in. I want to revel in the experience, but for her,
it's already come and gone. This bugs me, but she joins me again
in the complicity of not sharing our story with the Dutch guy. (A
triumph of oneupsmanship by remaining silent, one of the more satisfying
forms of restraint.)
After showers and before dinner
Veronica appeared in a long white cotton dress. She had complained,
cramped in the truck, so I offered her a massage--serious, platonic, covering
her long flesh stretches. Later, walking the dark streets under bright
stars (and only disturbed by kids roaring by on motorbikes every minute
or so), I was all over her--like a cheap suit, like a cliche. I was
playful and honest, but
she would have none of it. We had stumbled into a wat's dark courtyard;
above us a couple of boyish monks in orange robes giggled sexless in a
small lit window.
Veronica told me about her boyfriend
back home (Archie--no shit), and her religion (disturbed Catholic, now
into "Seth" books). I knew I was up against a brick wall--though
there is no denying a certain pleasure derived from running into such walls,
repeatedly, headlong. But the large morals of the equally large woman
would not be induced or bent to allow me the bliss of a perfectly imagined
The next morning we walk to
the dusty parking lot where she's meeting a bus to Mae Hong Son.
I'm going the other way, back to Chiang Mai to catch an evening flight
all the way to Bangkok, mad city of angels.
We kiss. She puts a foot
on the bus, points a long finger at me and says, in a voice of tempered
apology (for last night?) and mild scolding (for the future?), "Now you
be sure to write me--I want to see a copy of this story...."
[UPDATE: General Chavalit
came back from Rangoon with his big lumber deal sewed up; the Japanese
have resumed trading with Burma--Saw Muang's promise of elections in the
'90s is good enough for them; on April 18 the Burmese Army reported killing
600 Karen during a two-month battle for the KNU camp near Maela, 100km
north of Uthuta; and I'll send a copy of this to Veronica as soon as I
Burma November 1988