Ancient Kingdoms and Frontier Towns

Trip Start Jan 22, 2009
Trip End Mar 19, 2009

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Sunday, February 15, 2009

I have to say, it's quite a pleasant experience starting my morning biking through the former 700 hundred year old  Siam kingdom ruin Sukhothai. Here, as in other ancient kingdoms such as the Incas' Machu Picchu in Peru, and  the Mayan jungle temples in Tikal, Guatemala, there's a beautiful haunting mystique as well as a profound reverence wthin their confines. Confines is actually a misnomer since their energy suggest a transcending cosmic realm, without any earthly boundaries.

The early morning light always enhances this sensory response.

I wonder if 700 years from now the ruins of the ancient civilizations of Los Angeles, New York or London will evoke the same response?

The vast Sukhothai complex is sprinkled with buddhas, wats and bell-shaped chedis, in various stages of decay,  some quite well preserved, thanks in part to recent preservation work. The ruins are separated by large grassy stretches and large graceful trees that still provide some relief from the days' intensifying heat.

The next day, a more off the beaten tourist path took me to Mae Sot, a  frontier border town situated along the Thai / Burmese border. Few travelers make there way here, however, numerous NGO volunteer workers do, primarily because of the growing supply of Burmese refugees coming across the border.

The ethnic mix in Mae Sot is quite intriguing; Indo-Burmese Muslims sporting long goatees and sarongs, Burmese women identified by their facial adobe-colored makeup streaks, and Chinese, Bangladesh and Thai merchants. You'll find both Buddhist wats and a mosque. The merchants, among other things, trade in a significant amount of gold jewelery and precious stones. I've noticed an increase supply of new SUVs driving through town.

One Muslim gentleman had intensely dark circles around his eyes, which only added to his already intense furrowed brow stare. I just grinned back, held the grin, and his stern resolve vanished as he too broke out in a grin. So did  the skinny bearded Muslim  man who, while walking from the mosque steps, saw me, looked confused and disconcerted and briskly walked ahead. I purposely continued my walk behind him, dogging him for three blocks until in passing, he too smiled. See how easy it is to resolve religious conflicts! 

One young NGO worker I met seemed a bit disenchanted after six months working with an NGO that was providing solar energy driven utility installations for the Karen tribe Burmese refugees.

The mission's original premise was to establish these solar powered units for the refugees, teach them them how to use them so they would eventually become self-sufficient. Instead, when the power units break down, or just somebody forgot how to turn on a switch, the Burmese just wait for the NGO workers to show up several weeks later and fix them, happily dependent on the NGOs for this new service. Time for the Burmese seems better served watching Thai soap operas and drinking cheap whiskey.
His image that all volunteer participants, like himself, had only noble unselfish intentions in their work was equally tarnished after receiving a swift firing (he's a volunteer !) by his middle-age Thai female boss once she determined he would not accept her advances. Ah, life's lessons!

The labor and service industry workforce in Mae Sot primarily consists of Burmese refugees, a convenient new source of cheap labor. Mae Sot's city limits act as a sequestered "don't ask don't tell" immigration zone for the Burmese refugees (Gee, similiar to Santa Fe's quasi immigration arrangement) which is a far more livable arrangement in Thailand than the alternative back in Burma.

Another young NGO had gone to help Thai's vanishing wildlife, in particular the Bengal tiger. After three months involvement in their tracking, identifying and monitoring sytem he had yet to personally witness a tiger firsthand. Statistically, there had not been a documented tiger attack in Thailand in over thirty years.

Other NGO volunteers taught English and took general care of Burmese Karen orphan kids as well as provided medical care. Programs were often closing due to insufficent funds.

You have to admire these good souls who travel half way around the world to take care of a perfect stranger, two-footed or four.

My hotel was a beautifully deceptive diamond in the rough. Outside appearance was hideous but once you reached the hotel lobby and scaled its hallways you were in the grandest tribute to woodcarving genious. The entire interior was a woodcarving; lobby furniture, banisters, ceilings, bedstands, tables, teak and mahagony masterpieces crafted into a  gothic Burmese style. How often do you get a rush just staring at your hotel  hallway ceiling!

My room has cable TV and from this equally remote and strange crossroad to the global world at my TV remote fingertips I had Fox news, Aljazeera, BBC, German news, Le Monde news, India, Thai and Chinese soaps and movies, and third rate American cable shows.In ironic jurnalism juxtaposition, the Fox News Channel and Aljazeera New Channel were right next to each other. If I changed the channels quickly enough, I could hear a coded mantra that went, starting with FOX: Fuck The Peasants  (then Aljazeera) Help The People......Fuck the peasants, help the people, fuck the peasants help the people. FOX of course is annoyingly fascist while Aljazeera is tediously maudlin. I finally settle on the best world TV has to offer.... The Cartoon Network.

And of course, as a seasoned intrepid (or is it foolish ) traveler, I had to, in Jim Morrison's words, "break on through to the other side". So it was no surprise I found myself one hot morning, casually walking across the Friendship Bridge  bidding adieu to Thailand (at least for several hours) and entering Burma. All custom officials were prompt and courteous. No barbed wire, only a bridge and a river separated the two countries. Minor distinctions were apparent between the two countries like lack of cars, slightly different style wats, and more stares from the locals dressed in sarongs; understandable greater curiosity since I was basically the only foreigner walking the streets that morning. I was even happily surprised to see two monks wandering the streets, what with the horrendous events that took place last year. Otherwise, for my border excursion, the sceneric change in nations was Same Same Only Different.

Next stop..... Nong Thai, another border town, this time on the Thai / Laos border.

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