Sunday, June 1, 2008

So…I went to Burma

For those of you who saw Rambo, don’t worry, I’m okay. You may be wondering why our group decided to go to Burma despite the dangers resulting from its tyrannical dictatorship. The answer: We were getting our visas renewed. When you enter Thailand you are allowed to stay for 30 days. If you want to renew your visa you can do it for $60 in the city, or leave the country and come back in for $10. We chose the later and took a road trip. So all 11 of us rented a van and Brother Dang drove us to the Golden Triangle (a central port in the opium trade). We’ve been told it is completely safe to enter Burma in the north. It was an amazing trip.

On the Thai side of the border outdoor markets flourished, shops and restaurants were well maintained and busy with customers, the paved roads were in good condition. I was surprised at the immediate difference I saw on the Burma side of the border. It felt like I had gone back 50 years. Outdoor markets were not nearly as numerous as in Thailand. Road were cracked and decayed. Buildings were falling apart and homes and shops were built with the thin metal, cardboard, and grass. I’ve seen conditions like this in Thailand, however, it was surprising because this city was on the border. Border cities are usually centers of commerce and wealth, yet this city exhibited the traits of a poor country village. It would be interesting to go deeper into the country and see what the living conditions are like there.

We only spent a few hours in Burma, but something happened to me in that country. We rode around on little motorbike taxies and tour several temples and Wats, but it was the people who were the most fascinating. Most of the women and children wore chalk on their cheeks to protect their skin from acne causing oils, and from the sun. Some images that day will forever be burned into my heart. As we rode down a dusty street we passed a 30-ish year-old man squatting in a pile of trash he dumped from a nearby garbage and feasting on its contents like he hadn’t eaten for weeks. We passed a 10-ish year-old boy smoking a cigar.

As we were getting ready to leave the country a small skinny boy, 5 or 6, dressed in rags put his hands together and gave me the most piercing gaze as he begged for a few cents. All I could do was stare at him. I knew he was putting on a show for the tourists, but his overly dramatic demonstration held the undeniable truth of his circumstances. I could feel the stress of his life reach up and grab my heart. My friend dropped a few baht into his little hands and I broke my gaze. A few minutes later I was informed that the little boy had reached his hand into the pocket of someone in our party before he was caught. I congratulated myself at first for seeing through the boy’s act, until I suddenly realized that I was also an actor in a much more sickening game. Denying monetary support was not nearly as despicable as my delusion of superiority.