Tuesday, May 02, 2006

2 May 2006

So, Thailand and Myanmar, Part 2. Many people think that Asians "all look same," but despite that, neighboring countries in Asia have separate identities and different traditions. Moving to Switzerland, I thought that having four official languages in one small country would make things difficult, but in Myanmar, the Country Formerly Known as Burma, they speak about 40 different languages, all of which are so different from the language spoken in neighboring Thailand that Thais and Burmese often speak English when trying to communicate with each other.

Thailand's government is a benevolent token monarchy, but Myanmar is a military dictatorship that has kept the most recently elected president (attempted president?) under house arrest for over a decade. You would think that in such circumstances, border control would be a big issue. When it came time for our boat to cross into Burmese waters, however, the Thai customs official pulled up on a scooter, took off his shoes, boarded the boat, and stamped our passports, and then the Burmese customs official took off his shoes, hopped on board, stamped our passports, and took our visa fees. The main difficulty that arose was that some of the bills we gave him (they only take US dollars) were not brand-new, and they only accept current-issue, un-creased, unmarked bills. You would think that with the elected president under house arrest and dissidents breeding discontent, they would have more pressing issues than whether the Benjamins are folded or not.

Despite being neighbors and "all look same," Thailand and Myanmar celebrate their New Years at different times. Thai New Year fell on April 13, and was celebrated on our boat by a lot of crew members running around throwing water at each other and at us, apparently to bring good luck for the coming year. Burmese New Year happened about a week later. That has to be confusing, if you're from adjacent countries, and talking about "last year" or "next year," and having to specify whose years you're using.

We went on shore briefly at a border town in Myanmar, and their abject poverty was made even more obvious by the dead heat and humidity. Not being able to afford sunscreen, locals smear some sort of home-concocted paste on their cheeks to try to block out the harsh sun. The pavement is strewn with trash and spattered with red blotches from the betel nut that a lot of the local men chew. Street children follow foreigners everywhere, trying to scrounge some spare change. The temple is populated with young monks whose families couldn't afford to raise them. Nobody puts on a show of good squalor like Asians do (I should know, since my apartment clearly reflects a genetic gift for squalor). In Asia, I think it's due to a combination of heat, humidity, poverty, population density, and a love of food that really stinks when it goes bad. I'm still trying to come up with an excuse for myself, though.

While in Thailand, I rode a motorcycle (something I've always said I'd never do, the whole death on wheels thing) without a helmet (double death on wheels). After that brush with hypothetical death, I sampled a single grain of rice that had touched food that my Thai dive guide said was spicy, even for him (so he only had one plate of it), and my mouth quickly informed me it was not meant for human consumption, since it was made out of fresh lava. I think it was as risky a venture as riding the motorcycle. When in Asia, do as the Asians do. Then come back and write about it from the safe squalor of your own apartment.

Ljubljana was great, but I'll talk about that next week. Going to Geneva this weekend to meet up with a friend who is visiting (whew, seems like it's travel season for me again).

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