Published in The Myanmar Times on 21 January 2013
When a friend in Australia emailed me to say she was considering teaching on the Thai-Myanmar border in Mae Sot, I fired back an email imploring her not to. “You could end up nursing a bullet wound,” I wrote with more than a touch of hysteria. My views had been based entirely on the book Restless Souls by Phil Thornton, albeit published in 2006. I’d found his account so harrowing and potentially incendiary that I’d given the book away to a fellow traveller in a Bangkok guesthouse the morning I flew to Myanmar (another over-reaction).
My second-hand copy of Thailand Lonely Planet (published 2007) sounded less bleak, describing Mae Sot as a “slow but simmering tourist destination.” However as many would agree, the travel guide leans towards the alarmist and contained the following warning: “Border skirmishes between Myanmar’s central government and the weakening Karen and Kayah ethnic insurgencies can break out at any time, sending thousands of refugees – and the occasional mortar rocket – across the Thai-Myanmar border at any time, elements that add to the area’s perceived instability.”
However a travel writer who visited Mae Sot in April 2007 told The Myanmar Times that the area was calm when he visited and that while there, he met with a member of the National League for Democracy, who didn’t warn him about anything.
“We rode our bicycles from Mae Sot to the border crossing,” he said.
“The only bad thing I heard was that the town attracted crusader type people. Ex-military Westerners apparently went to Mae Sot with the idea that they would cross the border and give weapons to the Karen people.”
However the travel writer said that the Thai police had no tolerance for such schemes and “rounded up” the people involved whenever they got wind of their plans.
On the goodreads website, Kelly Davio dismisses Restless Souls outright. She calls it, “A sensationalised tale of Mae Sot. Anyone who has ever lived or worked there will get quite a kick out of his harrowing description.”
Alas, my friend had decided to head to India instead; and as the bus wound its way around the thickly forested mountains I began to feel pangs of guilt. As we approached the bus station, the first signs I noticed were advertising resorts and a Tesco Lotus supermarket.
Up until the very recent past, Mae Sot attracted tourists primarily because it provided a “tantalising glimpse into Burma” (to quote a travel article in The New Zealand Herald from 2011). However with nearly every sanction lifted and Myanmar turning into one of the world’s most “it” destinations, people now simply come here to experience the real thing.
Chris, the owner of a Canadian restaurant called Krua, told The Myanmar Times that business is slow and the presence of NGO workers is seasonal. Moreover, while Mae Sot used to be a convenient visa run destination, a Thai visa on return from Myanmar is only valid for 15 days.
I couldn’t help feeling a little sad to see Mae Sot’s empty streets, particularly after climbing 400 steps to a forest temple with an incredible view of Myanmar and the Moei River, which divides Thailand from Myanmar. Wat Phra That Doi Din Kiu (Ji) is reminiscent of Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, with a golden boulder balancing inexplicably on the edge of a cliff. The notable difference was that I had the view to myself.
The hiking in surrounding areas is reportedly excellent and the wider province of Tak boasts Thailand’s largest waterfall.
The opportunity to return to Myanmar for a few hours was surreal – visas are issued in the blink of an eye but expire daily at 5pm. A guide showed me around Myawaddy in a huge air-conditioned van, stopping at sights that included a gigantic kitsch crocodile statue at a monastery overlooking a rodeo-type venue. Although Myanmar’s mobile network coverage extends across parts of the border (including the forest temple), the two towns have very little in common. Mae Sot has huge Ford showrooms and high-tech tractors for sale, whereas three-wheel diesel carts chug along Myawaddy’s dusty streets. Similarly, Mae Sot has boutique clothing stores and 7-Elevens selling wholegrain sandwiches late into the night, while Myawaddy’s main market was already closed by 4pm.
My guide said that his only customers are Thai tourists – for reasons unknown to him, Westerners rarely cross the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge these days. However the queue for locals at immigration was long in both directions and comprised mostly traders and people seeking health care at Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot.
Whilst some security appraisals appear overblown, Eh Thwa, a volunteer coordinator at Mae Tao Clinic (which is closed to tourists), said that 300-400 patients from Myanmar visit the clinic every day, either for emergency care or after exhausting their funds in Myanmar, where healthcare is comparatively more costly. Injuries caused by gunshot wounds and landmines are also common.
“Nobody clears the landmines,” Eh Thwa said.
According to the Landmine Monitor Report 2012, there have been 3,242 landmine casualties in Myanmar since 1999.
Eh Thwa said that the clinic works closely with Mae Sot Hospital for referrals, particularly after Medicines Sans Frontiers pulled out of Thailand in 2011 because it is no longer classified as a developing country.
However “there is no communication with Myawaddy. Even sharing data is difficult,” she said.
Eh Thwa said, “Many journalists ask why we don’t go back [to Myanmar] – the reason is because there are many migrant workers in the area,” with workplace injuries on both sides of the border being all too common.
My guide in Mywaddy said that some women choose to give birth in Thailand, so that their child can work and study there (provided they arrive two weeks before giving birth).
When I returned from Myawaddy to the motorcycle taxi stand out the front of a 7-Eleven, the taxi driver that had dropped me off at the bridge asked whether I was interested in watching a boxing match.
“You like Myanmar,” he said, “So would you like to watch Myanmar boxing?”
I said I would and agreed to meet him at 9pm.
I strolled along a main road to Aiya restaurant, which is something of an institution in Mae Sot. The Italian NGO workers I’d dined with the night before ate with enthusiasm, though I was quietly less impressed. While I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing, the tea leaf and tomato salads lacked the kick I was used to and the mains seemed closer to Thai than Myanmar cuisine, despite being described as the latter. A poster decorated with colourful hand-prints decried “One world, one government,” while the lacklustre band played covers of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. When I told one of the NGO workers that I worked for The Myanmar Times, she sniffed and said, “Isn’t that a state-run newspaper?”
During my second visit to Aiya, I decided there wouldn’t be a third. A waiter approached me and mumbled something about not wanting me “to waste time” – though before I could order he’d disappeared again. I gulped down my meal and left before finishing my beer, thinking “Solo diners of the world unite.”
The boxing matches lifted my mood, although seeing 12-year-old boys bruised and bleeding was something of a shock – even if they were treated like heroes afterwards. At least 100 people surrounded the outdoor ring, including mothers and fathers carrying tired toddlers. The Myanmar 20-somethings I stood next to told me that the winner of each match won 500 baht (US$16.50). I couldn’t work out the rules, or indeed if there were any, but simply understood that it was one of the most important nights of the week.