Friday, 23 December 2011

To Burma and back

In which we nearly go to three countries in one day, but in the end, I can’t be bothered and there is a traumatic incident with a rat.
Starring Nancy the comedienne who kept us all to time and convict masseurs.

The problem with travelling overland to Thailand, as I previously discovered to my expense, is that they only give you a fifteen day visa.  Abby was down to three remaining days and so we booked on a 12hr round-trip border run to Myanmar with the express purpose of getting her a new stamp and seeing some ‘stuff’ along the way.

Our tour was being led by Nancy who, sporting a very stripy top, leant over from the front seat and dictated the itinerary.  All the various sites seemed to be conveniently spaced an hour and half’s drive from one another and we would have an allotted twenty minutes at each one.  Despite being repeatedly reminded that we would make the driver very tired if we were late, it was always him we were standing around waiting for.  Nancy went on to describe various aspects of Thai life including what the horn beeps mean – two short means ‘Hello’, two short one longs means driver see pretty girl and one long means nearly have accident! Ha ha.

First stop was a hot spring which had been converted into a sort of fountain that the tourists stood around getting rather soaked in the sulphurous smelling mist.  The main activity here is egg boiling – you can purchase an egg of just about any variety in a little basket and dangle it into the hot pool to boil. 

Then another ninety minute beep filled drive away were allowed out at the White Temple.  It’s an incredibly beautiful structure that you are not supposed to touch – partly because its sacred but also because of the need to keep it clean.  It looks like it is made entirely out of plaster of paris mosaicked with mirror.  The entrance is flanked by two very strange sculptures which incorporate devils heads, whiskey bottles and cigarette packaging to demonstrate the evils of these twin vices.  Inside the murals were still being done but the completed back wall was enough to keep us entertained with its graphic depictions of the epic battle between good and evil that featured – towards the more fiery end of the mural – Michael Jackson, Darth Vader, Freddie Kruger and Kung Fu Panda!  Our reveries were interrupted by Nancy, scuttling around gathering up her flock by clapping her hands “Come on, come on, 5 minutes left.”

From there we went on to the Golden Triangle, a confluence on the Mekong where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos all meet around a little island of No Man’s Land.  In the absence of anything else to do we signed up for a boat trip that took us on a little jaunt up the river to look at the long grass of no man’s land (where 400kgs of opium still manages to cross between the countries a year) and admire the series of casinos that line the shores in every single one of the countries. The boat trip then briefly deposited us in Laos on a small island called Donsao which has been economically ceded to China for the next ninety years and as such, shows signs of over concreting.  The point of going to this little island is to take a picture under a sign that says ‘Welcome to Laos’ and pretend you are there. When actually, you are not.  Abby had some kip to spend (the Laos currency) all the prices were in Baht and they all got out their calculators to tell us the “local” equivalent.  We bought some Beer Laos to have with our lunch resisting the more obvious temptations of snake whiskey and tiger penis juice before getting back on the boat across the river to Thailand.

“Anyone who is not here, raise your hand” said Nancy, throwing back her head in laughter.  To be fair she did seem to be genuinely enjoying herself which is more than you can say for most tour leaders.

After lunch, Abby went to Myanmar.  I decided not to as it was a bit of an effort – involving the completion of at least three forms and parting with £10.  Just as well as due to time constraints, Nancy forcefully turned Abby around at the Myanmar immigration office and marched her back across the bridge before she’d so much set foot on Burmese soil and justified her entry stamp.  The debate about whether this entitles her to sew the flag onto her bag continues.  I spent my time wandering through yet another market, looking out at the pretty bridge and drinking a very nice cup of coffee at a café I caught the scent of from across the road.
The Bridge to Myanmar

We ended the day by stopping in to a couple of hill tribe villages which was just as awkward an experience as we had had in Pai.  The locals actively avoided us and it felt as if we had just wandered, uninvited into someone’s living room.  Everyone was back in the van long before the 20 minutes were up; Nancy didn’t even have to clap her hands.

Back in Chiang Mai we were dropped at the night market on the outskirts of town and after a bit of shopping we wandered back towards our hotel.  The evening would have been very lovely if I had not been witness to the woman in front of me inadvertently stepping on a recently deceased rat whose intestine exited its body via its mouth.  No dinner required.

We spent our last day in Chiang Mai (prior to a 24hr bus ride down to Ko Chang via Bangkok) further availing ourselves of some of the towns local pleasures – delicious fruit shakes, enormous chicken salads and massages at the local Women’s Correctional Institute.  Her Majesty the Thai Queen has set up a project here to improve options for women in prison by training them up in crafts and massage.  Obviously we were delighted to help out this worthy cause by purchasing a two hour session that included being bent backwards by having your arms pulled towards your ankles, and at one point, lifted skyward on the feet of the masseur, curled in an arch.  We came out of it feeling supple enough to cope with the bus. 

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