Thailand and Myanmar: Part 11 Daytripping across the border

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Today was to be a full day. Our itinerary called for us take a longtail boat across the Mekong into Laos and Myanmar. Our guide was to meet us at 10:00 AM. Anantara Resort gave us free tickets to the Opium Museum, which was located right across the street. Our only chance to see it would be this morning, so we elected to start over there on our own at 9:00 AM and have the guide meet us there at 10:00.

We rode our first tuk-tuk from the resort to the museum. I don’t think that really counts, since it was the hotel’s tuk-tuk and was all spiffed up. We should have taken one of the Bangkok “take your life in your hands” tuk-tuk rides!

As we rode through the lush grounds, we saw the mahouts and their elephants out for the morning walk.

I was blown away by the Opium Museum. It was a huge building with exhibits on two floors. No photography was permitted so I will just have to give you a brief description. We entered the museum through a cave-like tunnel that went for hundreds of feet. The lighting was low, and after a time, our eyes began to adjust and we began to notice that the walls were not just plain rock. It was bas relief: there appeared to be faces, writhing bodies, skeletons, all coming out of the wall. Genene said she saw something that looked like Munch’s painting “The Scream” and a Medusa. It was quite creepy and set the tone. If this is what an opium trip looks like, I don’t want to go on one.

We didn’t do the museum justice. We took about an hour and 20 minutes to run through it. It was easily worth 2 to 2 1/2 hours. It traced the history of the opium trade, and the British were definitely the villain of the piece. Basically they traded opium for tea in the region for centuries, and an industry was born. The museum also summarized the various opium wars and the geopolitical reasons for the trade and the various governments and corporations that have profited from the trade. I can’t believe I just tried to summarize several centuries of history in two sentences, but there you have it.

We saw photos and a depiction of two different opium dens. There was a den for rich people, with a nice day bed with a cool, smooth surface, a hard pillow to rest your head, all the necessary “appliances”, tea and snacks for afterward (apparently it gives you the munchies). The den for the pathetic addicts was much simpler: a hard block to lay your head on, a hard platform to lay on, dirty equipment and nothing more. They also had a room full of pipes and scales, some of which were quite beautifully crafted. There was a complete mock-up of a British clipper ship that would have been used to carry the opium from India to China, where it was exchanged for tea and spices.

At the end, there was the usual warning about how doing drugs will ruin your life and a description of the efforts made by Thailand’s king to stop the opium trade in their country. The royal foundation spent $10 million building this museum, and the intent is to open the eyes of the world to the moral hazards of the opium trade. It was very well done, and I was sorry we didn’t have more time to spend there.

We met our guide, a lovely woman named Toy, at the exit to the museum. She began discussing a change of plans immediately. She was quite worried about the itinerary, which called for a longtail boat ride across the Mekong River into Laos and Myanmar.

The Mekong River was very high. We knew that from looking out our window at Anantara. No one there seemed concerned about it, but I guess no one was trying to cross it in a junky little boat with a car motor attached to it. Toy explained that the Chinese were releasing water from dams upstream to relieve their own flooding situation. They were causing downtream flooding to their “good neighbors” in Thailand and Vietnam. Toy shrugged her shoulders and said, “They are a big country. They can do what they want.” Toy suggested that we go to the Golden Triangle and make a final decision after reviewing the launch point.

We got there, and the first thing we saw was this boat going sideways down the river. Toy joked that they would probably end up in Vietnam.

Can you see the floating logs and trash in the roiling river?
Doesn’t this sound like a news story that you could hear any given night: “Tourists killed when boat capsizes in flooded river.” I hear stories like this all the time, and I always think, “What kind of idiot would take a risk like that?” We had a pang of disappointment that we wouldn’t get to check two more countries off our passport list, but we have Genene to consider. Greg and I pulled the plug and told our guide to think of something else. Perhaps if we had been on our own, but even then I am not sure I would have done it. We didn’t want to put ourselves in danger for a boat ride and a passport stamp. We had already been on a great longtail boat ride in Bangkok. I didn’t feel the need to make an unscheduled stop in Vietnam on The Minnow.
We settled for a family photo in front of the big Buddha.
Our guide seemed relieved we had decided against trying to make the crossing, although I think she would have done it if we had said the word. She suggested that maybe we would like to see a tea plantation or some hill tribe people. We told her that we had already done those two activities and did not really have a desire to repeat them. She got on the phone with the hotel for a few minutes and came back with a new plan: she suggested we might be able to do an overland crossing into Myanmar at Tachilek. We were all over that. We said, “Vamanos!”
Along the way, we saw rice fields being planted. Toy said that the farmers were planting about a month later than usual because water has been scarce. She talked about the effects of global warming and the fears of the farmers for their crops. Her husband is a farmer so she has first-hand knowledge of the difficulties.
I asked her to stop, and she obliged. One nice thing about a private tour is that you can do what you want when you want. We watched the workers planting the flooded paddies. They work amazingly fast. They stoop to plant each rice plant one by one. It is back-breaking work.
It was pouring rain, but I suppose it doesn’t matter much when you are going to be wet all day anyway.
We got to the border and found it open. The waters were high but people were crossing freely. Crossing can be accomplished by car or by foot.
We walked across. I believe this was Genene’s and my first land border crossing.
 
Even the name of the country is disputed. In 1989, the military government changed the name from Burma to Myanmar to remove all references to the English occupation. Some governments refuse to recognize the authority of the ruling government to rename the country.
The original cost of our border crossing ($10 each) had been included in the tour, but only US dollars are taken in Myanmar. I happened to be carrying some on me, so we saved Toy a trip to the bank and used mine. (She gave me the equivalent in baht. More money for souvenirs!) Toy warned me that the immigration officials were very particular about the bills. I pulled out $30, and the official liked my Andrew Jackson but he turned down my Alexander Hamilton. I had some more Jackson in my pocket, so I just spread them out on the table and let him choose. He might have forgotten to give me my change, but Toy was there to remind him to give me back a crisp, tidy Hamilton. They were the friendliest border officials I have ever encountered. They were all smiles, and one of them had the betlenut stains all over his teeth. They invited us to take a seat in the tiny office while they did the paperwork. There was a map of Myanmar on the wall, and Toy used it to show us the lay of the land, while they pitched in helpfully with their limited English skills. The only time I saw them frown was once when Toy called it Burma. One gentleman quickly corrected her: “Myanmar!”
The Mae Sai River separates Thailand from Myanmar. It was on a rampage this wet day.
Some of the markets were flooded out. Toy shook her head sadly and said that some people had lost everything.
The streets were bustling.
All over Thailand and and today in Myanmar, I saw children riding with their parents on mopeds, motorcycles, scooters. Sometimes three and four people are on one motorbike. Helmets are seldom used.
Toy grabbed a tuk-tuk driver, and we started our tour of the city.
I saw this pretty cat sitting in a market area.
The streets are quite narrow.
Toy took us through the local market.
Pepper, anyone?
Pig foot? Pig snout?
This pretty little guy stared right at me.
Want a fresh fish?
Toy showed us a Buddhist temple. She told us the pillars were gold leaf. The picture does not fully capture the gaudiness of the Buddha display. There were blinking lights, much like Christmas lights, along with neon. In one of the buildings adjacent to the temple, we saw many people gathered. Toy explained that they were illegal aliens and would be returned to their countries after they received a meal here and got their paperwork processed.
We were scheduled to have a picnic lunch back in Thailand, but it was noon and we were already starving. Toy suggested that we stop at one of the food stalls. I think this was the bravest thing we have done so far. The “kitchen” is just what you see here: a table with some ingredients on top. A pot of boiling water is out of the frame to the right of this lady’s leg. Toy insisted that our snack be steamed, which I thought was a great idea. Hopefully the bugs would be killed.
We ate a rice crepe with vegetables and pork. It was actually quite delicious, though Genene initially had a hard time using the chopsticks to eat it. The nice lady offered to use her scissors to cut it for Genene, but we had all seen her using those scissors on EVERYTHING in the food prep area. Genene got motivated and started stabbing that thing with her chopsticks and declined the offer of the scissors of doom.
Our chefs. Can you see the white powder-like substance on the lady’s face on the right? We saw this on many of the ladies in Myanmar. Toy explained that it is a fashion statement. The substance is the ground bark of a particular wood, something like sandalwood. It is called thanaka. It is cooling and provides sun protection. Most of all, the wood is expensive, so wearing it is like a status symbol. It says, “Hey, look at me. I’ve got money.”
The town well.
The tuk-tuk driver took us to the highest point in the city.
Thailand does not allow casino gambling, so for those so inclined, a border trip can scratch the itch. Toy asked us if we wanted to see a casino, and said, “Sure!” The road up to the casino was much different from the dirt pathway in the city.
I was not allowed to use my camera in the casino, so I will just say that it looked like a very small version of a casino you would find anywhere. There were slot machines and baccarat tables. We saw games that looked something like roulette with dice. The room was filled with smoke. We got a few odd looks as we walked through the place with Genene. The biggest difference from an American casino was that there was no alcohol. People were dead serious. They are there to make money. Toy told us that she knew many people who had lost everything there. I told her we had a saying for that: “The house always wins.” On the way out the door, there is a desk where you can sell your cell phone, if you need to play just one more hand.
We headed back down toward the border. Greg tried a Myanmar beer while Toy sipped a Coke and told us a little about herself. She met her husband at university in Bangkok. She was a “big city girl” from Bangkok while he was a farm boy who had done well enough to go to the city for an education. They met and fell in love, but the match was not approved by either of their parents. His family had chosen a different spouse for him, and likewise her family for her. They were stubborn and refused the matches. They had to wait 10 years for both sets of parents to wear down, give in and let them marry. As a condition of their marriage, he had to return to his parents’ home and go back to farming, and so they live with his parents. She can make more money from tourism than he can make from farming. They have two children and are happy together.
The water continued to creep into the markets.
Need a bra?
 
 
We saw at least one stall selling endangered animal parts openly. The Chinese people sometimes frequent this border crossing because they value rhino horn and ivory. I did not take a photo.
People walk through the stalls.
We headed back to Thailand, where this cheerful sign was waiting for us. I wonder if I could get a job translating government signs.
We had our late picnic in a quiet park pavilion back in Thailand, and it was delicious.
Toy would have taken us to see the old city of Chiang Saen, but it was already after 3:00 and we were toured out. We asked to go back to the hotel.
The river bottom at Anantara continues to look threatening.

 

We spent some family time at the pool.
Some people enjoyed the bubble massage more than others.
We had Thai dinner at the hotel. We will be sad to leave this place. The food has been wonderful and the service first-rate.
I had a delicious beef salad.
The elephant motif is everywhere at Anantara, even on the candleholders.
During our walk back to our room, we saw this big fella on one of the outer walls. There’s nothing to show you scale, but he was at least six inches long and an inch wide.

Our gear is packed. Tomorrow we leave Thailand and head for Cambodia. The adventure continues.

 

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