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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The American presence in southeast Asia: Chiang Rai province

I’ve mentioned before how useful my Swiss Army knife would be on these travels, and how I didn’t bring it because I (mistakenly) thought we’d be flying with only carry-on bags. Before September 11, 2001, I carried my knife everywhere, including on flights. I used it to open packages of peanuts. It’s been a pain not to be able to travel with it, but that’s the tradeoff for not getting hijacked by men with blades. You know?

Anyway, back to Thailand. The Western and in particular U.S. presence is becoming more obvious every town we stop in on this backpacker trail. In fact, for all the monks we see everywhere, the only Buddhist nun I’ve seen was an older white woman—bald of course. The main Americans who’ve been in our lives in recent days, though, are an unforgettable foursome, only two of whom are originally from the U.S.A.

We first encountered them in Chiang Rai, the delightful town in northeast Thailand where we based ourselves for a few days. On our last night, we stopped off for a “cock tail,” as the quiet bar called it, and a dose of ’70s music, which seems constant in these places. That’s when an American accent started cutting through like a piece of glass.

“Where are you all from?” T. asked gamely. One of the men is originally from Ireland (his mother back in Kildare is 96, so there’s an idea of how old he is), and his partner is a friendly woman from Spain. The other couple is originally from Illinois. I cannot describe the man’s accent and voice except with the cutting-like-glass image. I don’t think he means for everyone in a restaurant to have to hear him hold forth.

The same thing happened in a consulate where we were applying for visas, and a loud, perhaps hard-of-hearing North American man broke everyone’s concentration with his requests: could the officer look something up on her computer; could she verify whether their visas were approved immediately—none of which is how things work in this part of the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

We ran into our four new friends again at the border with Laos. And when we were getting our tuk-tuk to the boat dock the next morning, the driver said “Four more people,” and we just knew it was going to be these four, and all of their luggage. Or rather, not all. The Spanish-American woman assured us that they’d left their luggage back at the hotel in Chiang Rai—these were only their bags for the boat journey! They had hard-sided cases, more weight than what we’re carrying for two years. The Irish-American man was friendly as could be, but also a living stereotype: he’s lived in the U.S. for 50 years but wore a different Ireland shirt every day, voted for the current president (I didn’t ask), and, when we had some down time later, pulled out and commenced to read a thick green book about the I.R.A.

But as I said, these were friendly folks. The last time I saw them, the American couple was tootling along our road on rented bicycles, despite being the age they are and her having a problem walking. “Maybe it’s more comfortable for her to cycle,” T. said. You’ve got to hand it to them!

Back in Chiang Rai, I’d discovered my lychee wine from the Hmong women didn’t have an actual cork after all, so I didn’t need a corkscrew. Once again, I’ve managed without my Swiss Army knife.

We really liked Chiang Rai. It was another of those places where we felt reluctant to leave, even though we felt the same way once we got to the next place. We called in for lunch at a little place that had no sign in Roman script. I should have known something about it from the logo, though.

“Can I have a Coke, please?” T. asked. After a moment, the waitress explained that the issue wasn’t her English, but that they only serve Pepsi! Welcome to the so-called Third World.

We had good food from the Saturday night walking street, too, and the next day was Sunday. Just for a change, we stopped by the First Church as they were having services.
First Church of Chiang Rai, 1914. Sunday morning services are now held in a larger building next door.
I recognized the hymns, including “Fairest Lord Jesus,” from my church growing up, even though the words were all in Thai. Following along in English in the bulletin, I was fine until we got to communion. There’s always that moment in an unfamiliar church when I do something slightly wrong at communion. Fortunately, the fact that it was grape juice rather than wine (and the warm welcome from congregants) made me feel more or less at home. 

Our next stop was the Hill Tribe Museum, run by a nonprofit to educate about the Karen, Hmong, Akha, and other tribal peoples of the region. It’s a little dated (they still have displays about Laos being filled with dollar-a-day backpackers stoned on opium for months at a time, which has been cracked down on for about 15 years). But it's sincere, and they put their money into helping the communities with things like family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention. We booked a tour of the province with them for the next day.

One of the highlights of longterm travel is always getting clothes clean, since we have so few of them. At this particular guesthouse, reception took our laundry bag, and a little while later I saw the woman down the road bike up and put it in her basket. Turns out everybody on the road has clean underwear pinned to her clothesline. 

The Population Community & Development Association (Hill Tribe Museum) representative picked us up the next morning. She was bonkers, but in a good way. Next to her and the young Swiss women who were also joining our tour, I felt hideously tall. You can imagine how I felt as the day went on and we met some members of the hill tribes.

There was a lot of driving because we had to get high into the mountains, and on the way, we passed a billboard for something called “Vaginal Tight.” “Don’t know what that’s advertising,” T. said succinctly. We were distracted by the tourist attraction that is the Golden Triangle, the former opium-growing region where Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Laos meet. It’s not that we’re interested in opium, which is not grown so much by the hill tribes anymore. It’s that one particular border town, Mae Sai, offers the opportunity to cross into Myanmar without the usually cumbersome process of applying for a visa in advance.

Myanmar is supposed to be a fascinating country to visit now, but it hadn’t been on our agenda. After emerging from four decades of brutal military dictatorship, the country had such hopes with the election victory of the National League for Democracy and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Sadly, the Nobel Peace Prize winner seems less able in government than she was in opposition. While a disturbing pattern of “ethnic cleansing” [sic] goes on against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in western Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has taken to blaming journalists for reporting on the violence. One of my least favourite approaches is to claim that talking about a problem is the problem, rather than the problem itself.

We bought a day pass and dipped our toes into Tachileik, the town on the Myanmar side. All we did was visit the market, but we walked around and spoke to Burmese people, so I figured it was enough for me to collect another flag patch for my backpack. T. started pointing to my patches and asking salespeople where I could find one; she added a careful sewing motion, which I think is where the confusion began. Each person helpfully pointed around the corner or to the next shop in the bazaar, until we were thoroughly lost. Finally we found what we were looking for...a woman who was selling a cross-stitch set! I haven't done cross-stitch since back in Aunt Marie's time, though, so we gave up and just bought a patch back on the Thai side.
The Golden Triangle. L-R: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos
There would be three countries in twenty-four hours, but Laos can wait for another post. Our bonkers guide, who took lots of pictures of us as well as selfies, also showed me and the Swiss gals how to pray in a Buddhist temple. This one was called Wat Chedi Luang, like the one in Chiang Mai. I am beginning to think there’s something to this everything happens again and again belief.

Ban Lorcha is an Akha village, but a living one. So, while animal traps and the ceremonial village swing were demonstrated for us visitors, most of the villagers (who can afford it) now build their houses out of more fireproof materials than bamboo, and install satellite dishes. And I can’t blame them.

Akha traditionally hold animist beliefs, too, one of the least palatable of which is their attitude towards twins. This holds that only non-human animals give birth to “litters,” so the mother of multiple births (and her babies) have no future in traditional Akha life. This belief has become less common, though, as Akha have converted to other religions, whether Buddhism or Christianity. There’s a Christian church in Ban Lorcha today.

Each culture has to work out the balance of preserving precious traditions, while not at the cost of flammable houses or infanticide. Come to think of it, idolatry and child sacrifice are not unknown in the First World. But that would go back to the right to bear my Swiss Army knife.
I got an Akha bracelet, and T. got a picture with these women. Peace!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many good insights, including the fact that all cultures deal with the difficult work of knowing which traditions are worth preserving and which are not. In respecting many different cultures we inevitably change--doing so wisely is the challenging part! G & P