Thursday, April 6, 2006

Chiang Mai 31-01-2006

This email comes to you from Chiang Mai where we arrived last night for the express purpose of souvinear shopping and breaking up the trip to Bangkok (we go tonight).
Chiang Mai seems the same as it ever did although the night market was especially flat and lacking in atmosphere. This could be because the whole thing was flooded three times in about october-ish last year and so it now looks like a bit of a construction site and lots of the market is closed off and many stalls are missing, but the thai vendors were out-numbered by tourists about 5:1 and I got the general impression they didn't give a sh!t whether we were there, or whether we bought anything or not, lines were said by rote, eyes didn't meet ours, not even the Akha women tried to sell us anything properly. Oh well.
The phad thai and pancakes from the street stalls are just as good as they always were, better than Khao San phad thai and pancakes by a mile.
We have succumbed to the budget and have lowered ourselves to catching a backpacker bus direct to Khao San Road tonight, the upshot is it goes from here to there with no taxis in between, and it's cheaper. The downside is we dont' get to stop for dinner so we dont get the adventure of eating bus-stop food.
Well, I promised to tell you about Thaton and our northern thailand, the part that passes tourists by.
Thaton is a little-bitty town in the far far north, over 3 hours from Chiang Mai, closer to Chiang Rai in fact but still in Chiang Mai province. It's right on the burmese border, a 10 minute walk out of town along the river will take you to the army checkpoint where you may go no further. Well, WE may go no further but in fact there is a constant traffic back and forth over the border by hill tribes, the army and of course (this being Thailand), drug runners. Stay here long enough and you may even get to hear a gun-battle in the night.
You probably wouldn't realise on a quick visit to this country just how much of an impact drugs have, especially in the rural areas. We're not talking opium, that's old news. We're talking yaba, crazy medicine, dirty speed, meth-amphetimine plus rubbish. Here, in the north it's kind of the Thai army's responsibility to keep check on the constant stream of drugs moving from the Wa army just over the border so it's a little bit ironic that something like 60% of the soldiers use yaba even if they aren't addicted.
Dealers and the police seem to go hand in hand most of the time, every second cop is on the take.
Within the Wa people (they're the ones that make a lot of the yaba) if someone get's caught actually using it a deep pit is dug and they're put into it for a couple of months, in the dark, squatting in their own filth. What does that say? They know it's bad but it makes money (funding a rebellion against the Myanmar Junta Generals?), what's good for the goose is NOT good for the gander.So yep, big problem up here.
Around Thaton, in fact in much of the north there are hill-tribes. I've already mentioned Susan's charges, the Lahu/Musa boys. But there's also Karen in their long blue shifts, Padang with neck rings that attract tourists like flies, Akha with their colourful silver decorated headwear that will sell it to you as soon as you look at it, Shan with their slight figures and darker complexions and others.
Naturally where there are hilltribes there are tourists. They come in their buses, buy trinkets off the Akha and drive off or go rafting down the River back to Chiang Rai looking at elephants along the way.
You see, there is the tourist and royal-funded, king's project ,nice, neat tidy Akha village with the cute, well-fed kids who go to school. But over there, over the hill, round the back are the other villages. NOT funded by the government, full of people who have no identity in this country and certainly NOT visited by tourists. Dirty kids, under-nourished, high on glue. And do the Thais care? Of course not. Thailand has a whole class system and these people are right at the bottom of it (thanks to Adrian for this info!), last on the list.
So if you're an illegal resident, say a burmese refugee, how can you become legal? Well as I understand it you might be able to get yourself on a village list. And how does that happen? You look different, you sound different, people have to lie bare-faced to the authorities and swear blind you were born there or whatever. Well, they do say money makes the world go around. And it takes a LOT of money, more than your average refugee would be able to rustle up. So, no thai identity card. Can't go anywhere, stuck in the same area. You can work mind you, the shitty jobs that no one else wants to do, picking fruit and so on (hispanics in america ring a bell?), heaps of Burmese work up here.
Call me cynical but I've met Ume, possibly 12 years old. Can't count because he's frazzled too many brain cells in part of his brain inhaling fumes out of a plastic bag. Gruesome burn scars over his torso and legs after an argument over some petrol he had plans to sniff and the other kid set him alight. Maybe it was an accident, maybe it was on purpose. Either way it's not a nice thing to think about. Ume had been sold to that village to work, he ran away later but not before the burns had festered and become infected and horribly scared. He just shrugs and said 'it hurt'.
On the weekends he often wears rags and begs from the thai tourists who come to visit the temple complex on the hill. He knows how to look destitute, he knows how to make the face. Not that the Thais would look him in the eyes anyway, they just give him money as they get 'karma credits' for doing good deeds. The best thing you could say about this is that at least he's working for himself, unlike many of the child beggers who work to fund an adult's habits.
It's maddening because he's a nice kid most of the time, if he's not high, if he's bathed, if he's not in trouble for stealing something he's totally likable. And he HAS a chance here. He's looked after, he doesn't need to beg. He has a village, he can possibly get an identity card in the future. Old habits die hard maybe, bad behaviour persists. And it's not just him, there must be hundreds of kids just like him here.
Dylan has just said I dont make this sound like a nice area of the world so I guess I need to clarify something. It IS a beautiful place. It's quiet, it's calm and peaceful (if you ignore the fact that people shoot anything that moves). There's rice and garlic greening the fields, a nice and fairly clean river running through the venter of town, bamboo swaying in the breeze, lychees and oranges (let's just gloss over the fact that they are a bit of an environmental and social disaster and more chemical than organic probably) and some fairly good looking forest. People are friendly, there's a cafe where the guy makes the best chicken and cashews nuts in Thailand and of course a fabulous monkey sanctuary.
What I mean to say is that when you visit a place like this don't just go 'oh it's nice, quaint, and the people wear funky clothes'. Look beyond the surface a bit. Don't be one of those tourists that does everything and sees nothing.
I know I'm lecturing but the whole 'hill-tribe trekking' scene gives me the shits.
Anyway, nuff from me for now! Just got a couple of hours to go and we'll be on our last bus trip, to our last guesthouse and counting down the last noodles and curries and our last baht. Not the last trip of course, we've already made tentitive plans for another one next summer (after christmas this time :-P), we're thinking fly to BKK, overland to Vientiane, Laos, bus to Luang Prabang then sail up the Mekong on a slow boat to Huay Xai then onto monkey world for an extended stay, because that place has us firmly in it's furry hands and refuses to let go. I miss Peter the monkey already, my squeeky boy.
This may or may not be my last post, depends how bored I get of window shopping in Banglamphu. We're on our way home and it feels very weird indeed. Half exciting, half depressing, bundles of emotions. Still, we have a wedding and developing the photos to look forward to (yes, still a film affecionado), and I'm in a motivated mood for uni for now at least and motivated to start making and saving up more money for more holidays and for my own bit of earth to dig my toes into.

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