Mae-Sai, a border-town
1 Grab a green bus to Mae Sai
2 Find TV show DVD
3 Drink a cup of coffee
4 Find strawberries – don’t buy, just try one
5 Take tuk-tuk or richshaw to the border from the bus station and back
6 Find a traditional Burmese outfit
7 Give a beggar some money
8 Eat a piece of pork on a stick
9 Picture at “the north point of Thailand”
10 Wash hands in the river
I browsed the market for some time, and used my supreme height advantage to spot and dodge cigarettelighterknivespecialpill vendors.
Mai pasa-thai mai dai. I do not speak Thai. This was my ace-in-the-hole, my get-out-of-jail-free card for my adventure today. Richard, a teacher at the FLC school, had put together a list of goals to be done in Mae-Sai, a border-town between Thailand and Myanmar/Burma. A farang with no thai language skills had to do them. Enter. . .me. Mae-Sai is about an hour and a half away from where I was staying, in Ban Du. The public transportation in Thailand is a cross between downtown Manhattan, and any country you can name south of California. I waited on the side of the superhighway, watching cars, tuk-tuk’s, song tows, and motorcycle’s casually slide from lane to lane as soon as there was more than six inches to spare. It’s an impressive and chaotic sight. If you ever want to feel inadequate about your driving skills, come to Thailand. After the 20th time, I wasn’t surprised anymore to see five people on a motorcycle built for two. Or the driver being a 13 year old. I saw the green bus coming, and I stuck out my arm and waved it down. It slowed down to a walking speed so I could jump on and almost get my balance before being lurched off my feet by the forward momentum.
I made it to a seat and was asked my destination by the little old woman collecting fare. I’ll assume it was a question of where I was going, since she could have been telling me ingredients for cricket soup and I wouldn’t have known the difference. “Mae Sai”, I said. She laughed. Then the passenger behind her laughed. They were followed by the whole back row of the bus, and I’m pretty sure there was a military general of sorts leading the crowd. Either that or he just liked his flair. The woman collected 15 baht, which seemed awful cheap for a 1 ½ hour ride. I had to sit a bit sideways, because the seats were built for a people 60 lbs lighter and 4 inches shorter than me (on average). So with my knees edging closer and closer to my ribcage and my proportionately massive bulk taking up a good 2/3 of the seat, I began my day trip to a different city in a foreign country. By myself. With no Thai for Dummies book in sight.
The 1st leg of the ride was fairly normal I’m sure, with clouds of dust randomly attacking me through the windows and open bus doors. This was segmented by road bumps that reminded me I was a bit taller than the rest of the passengers when my head hit the carrying rack above the seats. Banana trees and rice paddies flashed by, with the distant blue mountains creating a backdrop through the morning haze. Poetic, much? We passed a temple (wat) on the side of the road that had evidently been made by Foghorn Leghorn and Chicken Little. Man-sized rooster statues fiercely guarded the entrance, with dozen of life-child sized fowl looking tough in mini-gangs, scattered across the front of the wat. While I was contemplating on how someone had set up a ‘parody-temple’ so quickly and whether or not there was free chicken inside, something caught my attention from the opposite window. A scarecrow had been hoisted up in the middle of the superhighway. This one had a police helmet and uniform. The bus pulled over quickly as it passed the effigy, and the Thai police jumped on. They were very serious. They must have just spotted the chicken temple.
A murmur went through the crowd and everyone reached for their ID’s. I grabbed my passport, and asked my seat partner if that was the right thing to do. He nodded, and then became nervous fast. He couldn’t find his ID. He motioned for me to get up out of the seat so he could move, and briefly I thought how exciting it would be to watch one Thai person tackle another, and if the show “Cops” did as well overseas as it does in America. Seat Partner looked in the seat behind us but didn’t find what he was looking for. I was motioned back down; perhaps he thought he could hide behind me. He probably could have. Easily. The officer made his way down the aisle, randomly grabbing ID’s, frowning, and handing them back. Seat Partner began to fidget. The officer stopped at my seat, stared me down at us for just a second, and then shrugged past. Seat Partner relaxed and the bus started up again on the road.
After too short a time, my fare lady (hah) told me to get off the bus when we pulled into a town very far from Mae Sai. Fortunately she understood my foreign touristy stupidity and pointed to another bus stop that would take me to where I needed to go. I figured the laughter from earlier was because I’d gotten on a bus going the right direction, but not that far. In Thailand everything happens on ‘Thai time’. Things get done when they get done. Don’t worry about it! That attitude is hard to remember when you’re waiting for a bus and you have no idea where you’re going. The bus showed up within a half hour and the rest of the trip was smooth. Metaphorically speaking. Mae Sai bus depot was the final stop (check that off the list), and from there I grabbed the last spot on a song tow (hanging onto the bars on the platform outside the bed of the truck) to get to the border. There was an American swinging off the back of the song tow with me, an older man who had lived in Thailand the last few years and was going to the border to renew his visa. I found out he had written several books on learning Thai and distributed them throughout the country. Of course, he didn’t have any on him. Thanks for nothing.
We arrived at the border after a few minutes, and stepped off into A.D.D. heaven. More color in 10 feet than an entire kindergarten classroom and an average of 3 people for every square foot. Meat, clothes, nuts, toys, jewelry, carvings, weapons, DVD’s and any vice popular within eyesight of every turn and corner. Compact market streets wound away out of sight, intersecting back with themselves and then trailing off again. I explored the area by the border gates, attempting to look at things without getting caught by the store owner, who would then do everything but carry me into their shop for ‘lucky money’ purchases. It was difficult to pull off, seeing as I was a white guy with dreadlocks in a bright orange t-shirt and a bulky camera slung around my back. Also in the middle of all the market streets which are just wide enough for 5 people to walk side by side I still had to watch out for cars, vans, and motorcycles pushing their way through.
It wasn’t in my plans to cross the border, since I didn’t even know if I could have made it there in the first place, but now that I’d made it I kept eyeing the crossing. A river separates Thailand and Myanmar, and the bridge is the border crossing. I’d heard that things were even cheaper across the border, and I’d gotten used to the idea of paying a U.S. dollar for a full dinner, so cheaper than that didn’t sound bad at all. Plus, I was right there – I had to go for it. I found the right line after watching for a few minutes and stumbled my way through customs. I got the Myanmar stamp in the ‘ol passport (yes!), and crossed the bridge. In the immigration office they swapped out my passport for a visitors pass; telling me I would get my passport back when I returned. I chose to believe the officer, decided that the pile of passports next to him were in fact, from visitors, and not, as my imagination would devise, trophies. I got off the bridge and headed down into the markets, which made Thai’s market seem like ‘vendor lite’. As soon as I stepped down, vendors swarmed me, demanding I buy cigarettes, knives, lighters, and many, many options of special pills with various effects. Most of the sellers were kids, which made some of the items and their pitches funnier to hear. The price for everything starts high, and continues to drop as you reject it. At a certain point, the price stays the same but the pitch starts over again, word for word. There looked to be roughly 4 vendors per shopper in the market. After a few minutes I collected my own posse and we all headed through the market. I had a list of things to find, this was a great place to start.
“The Market” wants you to buy. Period. Whether you’re buying from one vender or another, everyone is extremely helpful in getting you where you want to shop. The second item on my list was to find a TV show DVD. As soon as I said ‘DVD’ one of the boys took off, waving for me to follow. Within minutes I was browsing my way through brand new Blue-Ray DVD’s, each for about a $1.10. The TV show seasons/series ranged $3-12, and there was everything from the 1st season of Growing Pains to the current season of Desperate Housewives. As tempting as ‘Sex and the City, the series’ was, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. Even for $17. I picked up a couple movies, including ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which is still (or at least very recently) in theaters and I haven’t seen yet. I should have gotten more. I browsed the market for some time, and used my supreme height advantage to spot and dodge cigarettelighterknivespecialpill vendors. I needed to find a traditional Burmese outfit, and my ‘Burma!’ and tugging at my clothes guided me to an Abercrombie shop. Well, more like an ‘every-brand-that’s-expensive-in-america-shop. That’s about as far as I could be from what I was looking for. Maybe I’d have better luck later. I went to the entrance of the store and. . .oh no! My posse was waiting for me! They were playing cards on the street, probably discussing new and improved tactics to take me down. I doubled back, looking for another way out. I found my opening. Halfway down the next block, I looked back. They were gone. I turned back around and nearly fell over: they’d come up right beside me! Freaky. I worked my way back towards the outside of the market, and gave some baht to a beggar I passed (goal). He had a bum leg that wouldn’t allow him to walk without assistance. It was intense to see someone in forced into that condition, to have to beg for food every day. A solemn reminder of how much I take for granted. I had almost reached the edge of the market when a new breed of vendor blindsided me . . . from the side. The tuk-tuk and song tow drivers. The drivers will take you anywhere, and they all have several routes ready-to-go, with mini-advertisements to point out the highlights of where you’ll be going. The guy that nabbed me was good. I quickly haggled down the price for one of the shorter tours to 120 baht ($3.25). By haggle, I mean walk away until the price got lower. The driver had this winning line: “nice camera –use it!”. Flattery can get you everywhere.
Definitely touristy, definitely worth it. Sey Seye (the driver), took me to some great locations: old Buddhist temples, viewpoints, pagodas, and rites and ritual areas. Timing worked out that there were few or no other tourists at many of the stops, so it felt much more authentic. We stopped at a huge hilltop golden temple that looked like the tops of Aladdin’s palace had been removed and set down a few countries over. There were stations around the base for every day of the week. A calendar was used to find what day my birthday landed on, and then I was taken to the correct ‘day station’. At each station was a life size Buddha over a ceramic basin of water. In the basin was a smaller statue, and below it was another tiled well with an animal statue in it. I was directed to put some flowers I’d bought (for 10 baht) into a vase on the side of the statue. Then I picked up a bowl and poured water over the hands of the Buddha, the statue in the middle, and the animal below, three times. After that I was led to the Thai version of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum(statues) to hit a bell that hung between them nine times. A pagoda visit followed that, and before we left the area I saw a line of Buddha statues and a fun idea popped into my head. I went over to the statue line, and asked Sey Seye if it would be disrespectful if I took a picture with them. He got the idea, and said it was alright. Good, because I would have sneaked it somehow anyway. So I hopped into the line and my orange shirt blended pretty well with the gold paint as I disguised myself as a local statue. “First time,” said Sey Seye. I’d come up with an original picture idea, most likely because I’d been willing to diss the whole country for a goofy photo.
Thai designs are very sharp, colorful, and elaborate with points and extreme curves to everything: buildings, statues, and rooftops especially. One of the temples I went to was under construction, it was cool to see scaffolding built out of bamboo. The temple was operational other than that, so I got curious stares from all of the monks walking around. I gave my own curious stare to the Buddha displays inside; the man sized statues were adorned with blinking lights that changed color. A bit of a vegas-style flash to contrast the rich dark wood, cloth, and beadwork everywhere else. Maybe they had extra Vesak (Buddha Day) lights left over. Sey Seye told everyone we came across I was from California- that got some ooo’s and aahh’s. I decided not to correct him, let the people fake their pseudo-interest and make me feel like a celebrity. I had a sneaking suspicion (never proven) that Sey Seye might know more English than he let on. There is a certain annoying charm to broken English. In the time we arrived and left at the temple, they had set up foot-high desks on the floor for school, staring later that day. There was a tree in the yard that looked like 30 smaller trees had grown together over the last few hundred years. On the way out I caught a glimpse of laundry hanging out to dry: monk robes next to a pair of camo-cargo pants. Awesome.
I went shop to shop, bartered with a calculator for a few items, and looked for my next goal
Sey Seye asked if I wanted a beer. I said yes. The sizes were big and biggest. He asked several more times before the first (and only) one was finished. Later, as I was deciding how much to tip him, I realized the strategic placement of the earlier question. Great beer, though – and I’m normally not a fan. Ninety-five degrees and a foreign country create the perfect storm for dehydration. I made it back to the market but wasn’t able to dodge the vendors fast enough, they were on me again. I made my way towards the edge of the market and the deals got better the closer I got to the edge. By the time I reached the steps to get out, knives were being pushed into my hand and sellers were demanding payment for the product I’d just bought. I escaped the knife-wielding vendors charge-free and made it back across the border successfully, after a brief inner-freak-out because the immigration officer couldn’t find my passport right away. I had the rest of my list to finish, and my earlier exploring helped tremendously.
I found a food cart near the bridge in an out-of-the-way street; it was run by a bizarrely 1950’s suburban Thai woman. Westernization in clothing and technology was all over, but this lady looked liked she’d just finished baking cookies and was on her way back from dropping kids off at school. Pick any sexist stereotype you want. ‘Moo’ is the Thai word for pork. So I had the pleasure of ‘mooing’ my way through a few carts before the vendors ‘mooed’ back at me. On my way out of the side street I met a pimp. The options of nationalities available were varied and exotic, but I asked to take his picture instead and left it at that. I left the seedy side streets and went back to the main road. I had to get to the river to wash my hands (another mission goal). I made my way down to the river just in time to catch a very naked triple cannonball. The boys were very excited to see the camera and wanted me to take pictures of their acrobatic journeys through the air to the water. They splashed down and ran back up to see their picture, then ran back to try and top their previous splash. I was able to get them to copy me, and we all made faces at the camera. I hid my camera in my backpack and put it on a bridge support, so I could get photo evidence of my river hand-washing without my camera getting snatched. It took a few tries with timing, and I was blocked a few times by naked butts, but I got it. The river looked normal enough, ruddy brown with mud, until I looked upriver to see the trash piled in the center. So that’s why I had to wash in the river. I probably should have rinsed my hands somehow after that before I ate, but, I haven’t gotten sick yet. . .here’s hoping.
I sat down for an iced coffee (goal) in a café and watched the end of a Thai action flick. Basically, if the guy hadn’t loved the girl so much, he would have been fine. But instead he’s dead. On a final pass through the markets I saw some marionette dolls with elaborate costumes. “Thailand?”, I asked, pointing to the dolls. “Burma”, the woman said, shaking her head. Bingo. I’d found the traditional outfit – it counts. A particularly impressive shop housed 2 sets of elephant tusks that were set up so they reached from the ground and curved over a myriad of dolls, carvings, pipes, jewelry, and bronze work. A dried up wasp nest the size of a desk hung above it all. I went shop to shop, bartered with a calculator for a few items, and looked for my next goal. The strawberry challenge was still on my list. I was able to find a fruit cart at the main street, which was great, because I didn’t want to have to get off the bus for a side-of-road stand on the superhighway. My acquisition of the strawberry involved lots of mute pointing, holding up the number 1, convincing her that I did not want a bag, and ultimately winning me a strawberry with rotting spots on it. Goal check. I wandered the market streets up and around to a sweet temple with scorpion statues in the back and snake/dragon towers in the front. And of course all of the amazing intricate detail covered the rest of the temple. My time limit to get back to Chiang Rai was shortening, so I went down to the main street, and got a song tow back to the bus station.
I didn’t make it to the bus station. I had told the driver I was going to Chiang Rai, and as we pulled onto the street where the bus terminal was, the song tow stopped. The bus for CR was on its way out! The people in the back with me told me to get out and get to the other bus (I’m paraphrasing my Thai). I made it to the other bus and the ride back was one shot – I sat next to a monk for half the trip, and the other half was spent getting suspicious looks from military police stops, a routine event I later found out. I made it to home base at 4:30, half hour to spare. I had gotten everything on the list and additionally come away with some cool souvenirs: elephant pipes, a Burmese mask, some outrageously low priced and illegal DVD’s, and a small painting. A very exciting and silly day, and I didn’t embarrass myself nearly as much as I thought I would.
update: I got a lil’ sick.