March 10, 2013
Today we’re going to Myanmar/Burma to lengthen our visas. Ou would have driven us, but I’m not well enough to sit in an open songtaew for such a long journey. Christof booked a driver, who unfortunately hardly speaks English but has a wonderfully comfortable jeep.
He takes us to a tea plantation in Mae Salong, set in the green foothills of mist-covered mountains rising up from the native jungle and reminiscent of the type of Chinese paintings that radiate a gentle, peaceful atmosphere.
The history of Mae Salong has been anything but peaceful. It’s the home of the descendants of China’s ‘lost army’ who refused to surrender when the communists won the civil war in 1949. The Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division spent years fighting communism from within the Burmese jungle, supporting their need for arms with the opium trade and, intermittently, with the help of the American and Taiwanese governments. In the 1960’s, the remainder of the 93rd Division accepted the Thai government’s invitation to settle in Mae Salong in exchange for continuing to fight against communism: the Communist Party of Thailand on the inside and foreign infiltration on Thailand’s northern borders. The Chinese refugees were involved in the opium trade under Khun Sa, the infamous drug war lord who controlled all of the Golden Triangle. Under his rule Mae Salong became one of the largest heroin refineries in Southeast Asia, responsible for producing more than half of all the heroin exported to the USA. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s when Khun Sa and his army were pushed out of Mae Salong and across the border to Burma that the descendants of the ’lost army’ were willing to leave the drug trade and take up the crop substitution plan to cultivate tea, coffee and flowers.
It’s Sunday and nobody is harvesting the dark green tea leaves because they are up to their ankles in the water of their own emerald green rice paddies, protected from the sun by wide- brimmed straw hats.
Inside the plantation cafe, which offers a wonderful view of the mountainous estate, we’re unsure what to order, and because nobody speaks English, at a loss. A Thai gentleman visiting the plantation with a group of friends comes to our rescue. All the tea grown here, he explains, is Oolong tea – Chinese tea – and although he isn’t an expert (many Thais prefer locally produced coffee) he recommends ordering two different types, a strong concentrated tea and a milder one. We follow his advice and receive a tray containing two large glass containers of green tea and two diminutive white porcelain bowls. The taste of both sorts is bitter and after the mild aromatic Ceylon teas, we find them awful and unpalatable.
The Mae Fah Luang Botanical Gardens is one of the initiatives taken by the Princess Mother, mother of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand to provide the hill tribes with an alternative to opium. The Doi Tung Development Project was set up to prevent further deforestation and to establish a garden specializing in temperate annuals. At the beginning of the 1990’s the Akha village of Pa Kluay was uprooted to make space for the new ten acre garden, and its inhabitants were relocated to a spot some 500 meters away.
Colorful, perfectly maintained annual beds have been laid out in a steep narrow valley that has separate sections for tropical and desert plants. A large bronze sculpture titled ‘Continuity’ is the focal point of the garden, and symbolizes the crucial virtue necessary for for all endeavors to reach successful fruition.
The Burmese border at Mae Sai is as seedy as the one at Poipet (Day 197), but plastered with more stalls selling cheap nondescript, unmemorable articles, while crowds of people transporting bags of goods traipse both ways across a wooden bridge. Here, in pleasant contrast to Cambodia, nobody speaks to us or tries to sell us anything. The visa process is painless and quick. We simply walk across the bridge into Burma and then turn around and walk back into Thailand. The stamp in our passports now reads March 24 and will expire one day before we leave the country. Annoyingly, when we get back into Thailand our driver has disappeared, and we have to sit and wait for him for 45 minutes!
The Opium Museum, another Mae Fah Luang Foundation initiative, is entered through a long, dark hallway filled with eerie sounding music that hovers and hangs in the air. At regular intervals, spot-lights show sculptural groups of emaciated figures, grimacing horribly and stretching their boney hands up into the air for help. The visitor feels the agony of addiction before entering an exhibition portraying the 5000 year history of opium. There are photos of different poppy varieties and boards depicting production and trade methods. The largest section of the museum is devoted to the opium wars. That Britain was able to exert its interests against China, a country roughly 44 times its size, and win two wars in the process is quite astonishing. The Emperor who viewed all foreigners as culturally inferior took no notice of them and as a consequence was barely aware of being engaged in a conflict with them. The closing of the Cantonese port to the British was only one small skirmish in his vast empire. Lin Zexu, appointed High Commissioner to Canton by the Emperor and responsible for ridding China of the opium problem, was the only one to take the British threat seriously. He had the choleric fire to have 21,000 barrels of opium (worth six million silver dollars) dumped into the harbor, an action that precipitated the first opium war. Lin Zexu wrote the following letter to Queen Victoria, naively hoping for her insight and assistance:
… so long as you do not take it (opium) yourselves, but continue to make it and tempt the people of China to buy it, you will be showing yourselves careful of your own lives, but careless of the lives of other people, indifferent in your greed for gain to the harm you do to others: such conduct is repugnant to human feelings …
The British remained callous and indifferent to the damage they were inflicting on the Chinese, preferring to focus their attention on the lucrative opium trade instead. Lin Zexu was later recast as a hero by Communist China, the first man brave enough to stand up to Western Imperialism.
The last stop for today is a visit to a village of ‘Long Necks’, another of the Princess Mother’s initiatives. The Karen-Padaung mountain tribes, originally from the Tibet, were heavily involved in the opium trade in the remoter areas of the Golden Triangle. They were invited into Thailand ( in order to escape horrible conditions in Burma), given land and encouraged to live in their traditional thatched roofed huts made of bamboo. To earn a living they were forced to allow tourists in to visit their villages. The controversy is whether they are being held captive – they are stateless and without passports – tolerated by the Thai government only as long as they wear brass rings around their necks and open their villages to tourism. Advocates claim that while this arrangement limits their freedoms, it is preferable to deportation to the Burmese refugee camps, which would otherwise be their lot.
The brass rings, worn by women to create giraffe like necks, are thought to enhance their beauty and to protect against tiger bites. Christof dislikes intruding into their private space and photographing them as if they were zoo animals. I am fascinated by the people, the quiet of the village where oxen are used to till the soil, pineapple fields and gardens are cultivated, chickens raised and hand-crafted objects are made and sold.
Women and girls sitting on the ground in front of simple huts are weaving scarves on primitive small looms. I buy two scarves for our daughters and Christof uses the opportunity to ask the woman if her brass neck coils hurt. She admits that they do, but says the pain is bearable. Later we read that girls start wearing the coils when they are five. The weight seriously deforms their collar bones, and it’s impossible to remove them again because the neck muscles atrophy and can no longer carry the weight of their heads. They can only drink through straws as the neck rings prevent ordinary throat motion.
I ask one mother why her daughter’s face is covered with gold powder and she says because it’s pretty and cools her off in the heat. Whenever teenage girls or young women want to beautify themselves they take hand-held mirrors out of their bags and rub their faces full of white powder. Perhaps powder is the Asian equivalent of rouge?