Monday, 7 July 2008

Barry Tompkins: What's real, what's faux in Burma?

By Barry Tompkins
Marinij News

'GIVE NOTHING to the monks who come up to you," said Toi - our guide on this day.

Wait a minute. In this country where monks are revered and looked upon as the wisest in their community, you want me to rebuke their asking for a financial offering? "They're not really monks," Toi said, her usually affable face as stern as we'd seen it all day.

Welcome to Burma where things are just never the way they seem. Even as far as the name of the country is concerned. Monks aren't really monks, time isn't really the time, and Burma isn't really Burma anymore. I fully expected to run into Rod Serling of "The Twilight Zone" standing around the next corner.

To the world, the old Burma is the new Myanmar. To the Thai people, the old Myanmar is still Burma. "Myanmar is the ancient name of the country," Toi said. And it seems the new militaristic government that runs it prefers the ancient - in every way.

Westerners are not welcomed in Burma except in the mish-mosh of humanity that is the border town of Tachileik. And, the only way in for anyone holding a U.S. passport is by foot through the northernmost outpost of Thailand. Of course, a visa is required to enter the country and a handsome photograph of the entrant is taken by the Burmese border police, which makes everyone who enters look as though they should be placed immediately on the 10 most wanted list. Somehow, the Burmese camera even made my wife look like Rasputin.

But then, that's the way everyone in this border town looks. Except for the faux monks who confront you immediately as you enter, asking for whatever loose change you might have - be it American quarters, Thai baht or Chinese wan. The rub here is that all the "Rasputins" are actually quite pleasant, and the cute little monks are street urchins in saffron robes impersonating the real thing. Real monks never approach for an offering without being beckoned.

There's a time change as you cross the border into Burma. Not an unusual thing to be sure, but when it's 10 o'clock in Thailand, it's 10:30 in Burma. A HALF HOUR LATER.

At the end of colonization in Burma they wanted nothing whatever to do with the Brits, who, in their minds, had held them hostage for a century or two. So, not only did they toss the Bangers and Mash from their country, they also threw out their tea time. In fact, they threw out their watches. "We'll show you guys," said the Burmese. "We're setting our clocks ahead 30 minutes. Now leave. In fact, you're already a half hour late."

Tachileik seems to be the drain of Burma. That is to say it is a melting pot of people who are lightly regarded by the current regime. Many who have settled in this community did so with the hope of seeking work in neighboring Thailand and thus providing for their families. Others did so because the opium trade - thanks to the efforts of the king's mother - has dried up in Thailand, but is still fertile in Burma.

The Shens, for example, are a sect of Chinese immigrants who, our guide said, are hardworking, familial and industrious. They live across an alley from the Was, another group of Chinese immigrants, about whom she said, many are involved in the drug trade. The two neighbors don't speak. It is a community of contradiction where it seems nobody gets along with anybody except in the marketplace. Fortunately for the well-being of the entire area, the whole town seems to be a marketplace.

Here you can buy just about anything you'd want to whet your appetite. There's live eel or turtle to be whipped up for a scrumptious meal. And some yummy insect larvae and dried grasshopper to munch on before the main course. Dessert could be durian fruit - in season now and a taste treat. Don't let the fact that they smell like sweat socks deter you.

And maybe we can sit down - all of us, visitors who look like Rasputin, Shens, Was and monks both faux and real - and break bread.

Lunch is at 11:30.

Barry Tompkins is a longtime sports broadcaster who lives in Marin. Contact him via Article Launched: 07/05/2008

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