Burma (Myanmar)

Nothing as thrilling to the veteran traveler than going where you're not supposed to go. Burma is one of those renegade countries that has practically sealed itself off in a similar manner as North Korea. The country was taken over at gunpoint and the generals have no intention of letting go. The world struck back and basically cut it out of the world map, so to speak, and forced all sorts of embargoes to try and get them to rethink their strategy. That was half a century ago and the standoff continues without any indication that either side is ready to relent. So getting there is not as easy as booking a flight on Orbitz. You have to apply for a visa long in advance and overcome a bunch of hurdles. And at any rate the country is not exactly set up with an infrastructure welcoming of tourists. So why would you want to go there? Just because I guess.

I hadn't thought of going to Burma when I left the states so had no real hopes of getting in without having first applied for a visa but there was a loophole that allowed foreigners to come overland with special passes good for a day trip. With the help of a guide from Chiangmai we drove several hours north to the four-way border with Burma, Laos and China and, lucky day for me, scored one of these passes to enter the forbidden country.

There wasn't a whole lot to see or do here in Tachileik, a podunk town in a third-world country, but I knew that already and didn't really care. The exciting part was getting through customs where you're checked over by dudes in camo carrying machine guns at the same time old beggar women a few feet away look on despairingly with outstretched arms at the rare foreign tourist coming this far out of the way. A bazaar thick with tiny shops overflowing with gadgets like pirated Thai movies, "pharmacies" selling dried tiger penis and walking sellers trying to get you to buy cigarettes, wind-up denture gag toys or their children for all I know smoosh together into a hypnotic visual that is too sensory to properly describe in words, photographs or even video.

All in all I spent just a few hours in this border town, being driven around to take photographs and see the Burmese going about their daily routines. There was this memorable moment of having a delicious lunch of some sort of spiced pork soup in a restaurant that apparently had never served a non-Thai foreigner for the waitress quickly brought out her family to come watch the spectacle of someone from some far-away country come eat here; as amusing to me as apparently to them. From the bazaar that was immediately opposite the entrance of the customs area where we came in, a girl of about twelve still remembered me from earlier that morning and chased me down in a second attempt to get me to buy her deck of cards. It softened me up a bit to see her dedication so rather than take her deck I offered her a couple of bucks but the offer was summarily rejected as though I had offended her and she ran off making me feel even guiltier. Back on the Thai side barbequeue chicken satay being sold from a hotdog cart was so mouthwateringly good that I ordered enough to make it dinner. Jesus those people know how to marinate!

This about wraps up the little Asian tour. The way back home is always bittersweet; you're happy to see your loved ones again, sad to let go of the fun that is traveling.

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