I left Bangkok after an all night binge with a young alcoholic who had lost his passport and was now stranded in Thailand. He had a kind face and a manner that invited charity, so as sobriety came knocking at 8am I took him across town to the British embassy to get him an emergency visa. After hours of negotiation we left only marginally closer to our goal, and headed back to my hostel room as he was without a place to stay. I woke the next afternoon with his arm across my chest and booze-scented breath against my cheek, and it was then that I decided it was time to leave the capital.
That afternoon I sat on a train between an electronics engineer and a rather dim looking recruit to the Thai army. Though he spoke no English we bonded by comparing piercings and tattoos. I rolled up my right trouserleg to show him the geometric design on my ankle; he laughed, smiled and hitched up his trousers to show me a large black swastika inked in the same place. Being unable to communicate beyond gesture and mime I felt ill equipped to lecture the young man on the error of his ways, and had to make do with shaking my head and tutting disapprovingly. This must have conveyed my message with less than devastating force, for he laughed, slapped me on the back and grinned inanely with a mouth full of poorly maintained teeth, then rested his hand amicably on my thigh for the rest of the journey.
Having bid farewell to the Thai Nazi I travelled first to the historic city of Ayutthaya and then the historic city of Sukhothai, both at one time or another the seat of vast Siamese empires, but honestly speaking neither one stirred much emotion in me. The ghosts of the past refused to speak, and wandering through the grassy temple ruins I found it hard to conjure up an image that would do justice to the glory of the societies to which they once belonged.
I was hungry for an experience rooted in the here-and-now, so I moved onwards and upwards, heading north and into the hills in a crowded minibus through monsoon downpour to disembark at a small border town by the name of Mae Sot.
Mae Sot is notable for being one of the few towns with an official border crossing station for the largely porous frontier with Burma. The Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge is a few hundred metres long and straddles the murky waters of the Moei river, the natural border between Burma and Thailand. For foreign travellers, crossing from the Thai side to the Burmese side and back again gets you a 15 day extension to your visa; for Burmese refugees, crossing from the Burmese side to the Thai side gets you a few days, weeks or years’ respite from political oppression and state-sponsored violence, though rarely is the crossing officialy made via the bridge. The border itself is largely unpoliced in any case, and travel from one side to the other is easily accomplished by boat, tire inner tube or simply swimming, so large groups of various ethnicities – Burmese, Karen, Shan and Hmon – are continually making their way across into Thailand.
If caught here without papers, they will usually spend a night in ‘the Cage’ (a stark holding cell about 50m away from my guesthouse) before being deported back to the other side. From here they are released and are more or less free to come back again; the overall feeling is not that of a game of cat-and-mouse, but a certain degree of implicit tolerance on the part of the Thai – police officers are often presented with quotas of illegals to round up, and go through the motions in order to comply with directives from above, not out of an especially strong desire to protect the border. That said, some police officers are known to be more zealous in their work, rounding up greater numbers of illegal immigrants in order to shake them down for bribes.
Having heard that Mae Sot was a stronghold of NGOs and exile groups working to bring democracy to Burma, I came to the town hoping to slide beneath the surface somehow and witness the turning of the cogs which kept this machine in motion. As it turned out, fortune had left a way in right on my doorstep: I struck up conversation with a long haired, square jawed American holed up in the room next door to mine, and learnt that he was a student from Utah spending his summer break working with refugee groups here, and moreover, was receptive to the idea of taking me on a tour the next day.
Which is how, after a traditional breakfast of fish soup and sweet milky tea, I came to be sitting in an air-conditioned room with a man who had spent five years fighting a guerilla war in the Burmese jungle.
For security reasons I can’t name him or the organisation he was working for, since doing so might bring unwanted heat to bear on him. Suffice to say his story was remarkable: a student in Burma in 1988, he was in the third and final year of a degree in public administration when he decided to join the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front and take part in an armed insurgency against government forces.
The man himself was calm, polite, softly spoken and given to long pauses as he carefully composed his sentences in English. His face was gentle and unlined, a far cry from anyone’s idea of a jungle warrior, yet warrior he was. Today his fight was no longer an armed struggle but a fight for the recognition of the rights of women displaced in the conflict, a job which he and his organisation were performing admirably given their severely limited resources. On the spot I volunteered to give what little time I had before my itinerary would take me onwards, and so that afternoon was spent beside him editing reports translated from Burmese to English on abandoned children who had come into the care of his organisation.
One minute it would be a technical job, and I would simply be redrafting text, asking for clarification on this point or that, fixing up errors in tense or restructuring confused sentences. And then with a paragraph finished I would read it over from start to finish and the meaning would sink in. It was a catalogue of young lives struggling against the most inauspicious of circumstances: HIV positive babies abandoned by prostitute mothers, siblings orphaned by the execution of their parents, teenage brides trafficked and sold at auction, fleeing pregnant across the country from the men who had bought them.
To read it through in the role of a mere copyeditor seemed to me absurd, skim-reading life stories for spelling and grammar, becoming a literary spectator of their world for just one afternoon… But I was only doing the work I know how to do, and at least I can feel that in some tiny, immeasurable way, I was helping their cause.
Mae Sot is a town full of such stories. It would reward a long stay, far longer than I had time for with a limited time in the country and my travel onwards already booked. But the town abounds with expats from all over the world who have been touched by similar tales, and decided to give a portion of their lives to supporting the Burmese people in their ongoing struggle for liberty.
Who knows, perhaps one day I will be one of them.