From my vantage point on the longtail boat in the bay separating Thailand from Burma, or the Union of Myanmar as it is presently called, seems shrouded in a cloud of mystery. All that I have read about this secluded country made it sound almost a mythical place, steeped in inexorable tradition and lost in time. The oppressive government is disinclined toward Western influences of any kind, and nary a Coca Cola crosses the borders except at the hands of entrepreneurial smugglers who sell it on the black market. Johnnie Walker and Lucky Strikes have practically usurped currency in Myanmar and are traded in lieu of cold hard cash. With these things on my mind, I watched as the verdant hills of Burma grew closer, allowing me to spot the golden splendor of the myriad temples dotting the countryside, twinkling gaily in the light of the sun.
As we neared the dock at the border town of Kaw Thaung, we spotted immense signs facing the harbor spewing messages like “Let us all cooperate for eradication of narcotic drugs,” and “The fight against drug menace is a national cause.” Considering the fact that Burma is one of the leading exporters of opium in the world, the signs seemed misguided in their choice of audience. The dilapidated buildings lining the waterfront looked antiquated indeed, crumbling beauties from centuries past. Once safely ashore, we were greeted by two self imposed tour guides, Johnnie Walker and Ali Baba respectively, who navigated us through the lacksadaisical process of Burmese immigration. We were told that we only had 10 minutes in the country, but managed to negotiate a stay of one hour. Our guides led us up serpentine alleys peopled with monks in saffron robes and old women balancing baskets of fruit on their heads. The pungent aroma so prevalent in developing nations—a mixture of roasting meat, rotting garbage and excrement—burned my nostrils. As we walked, Johnnie Walker explained that it was difficult to import brands from outside the country, but that the Burmese were very resourceful and manufactured what they needed within the country’s borders. I suppose he was speaking specifically of needing alcohol, because he went on to say, “Beer, whisky, gin, champagne—we have them all in Burma.” After leading us to a backwater handicraft store purveying Burmese souvenirs, our time was nearly up. I wished I could visit the northern cities of Mandalay and Rangoon, but doing so would require an entirely separate visa and extensive travel arrangements—the Burmese government does not allow travel by road and there are no trains. In fact, foreign tourists are only allowed to visit four cities in the entire country.
Back on the dock, our “friendly” tour guides demanded 150 Thai Baht each for being such phenomenal guides. We paid up, boarded our rickety longtail boat and watched as Burma floated back into a veil of exoticism.