June 10, 2013
In early 2005, after I’d finished an assignment for the New York Times in northern Thailand, I took a weekend trip to Myanmar. Myanmar, or Burma, as it’s also known, was under exceedingly tight military rule back then, but Americans could, for reasons I didn’t try to understand, cross the border without a prearranged visa, provided they stayed less than fourteen days and did not travel beyond eastern Shan State. Since I had just a couple of days free, and wanted only to see the unusual and fascinating hill tribes of the Golden Triangle, the famously lawless opium-and-gun-smuggling region, these were hardly onerous restrictions.
My friend Bonnie Yoon, a graphic designer who was visiting me from Los Angeles, and I arrived at the border post of Mae Sai just before 4 p.m. and began the process of changing countries. The Thai border guards stamped our passports good-bye with little ado, and we crossed a small bridge over the river and into Myanmar. At the entry point, an immigration officer, a polite young Burmese woman whose cheeks were dusted with yellow sunblocking powder made from the thanaka root, approached us and offered to help us through the process. First, she led us to a photo booth, where we paid several dollars to have our pictures taken. Then she brought us to an immigration kiosk, where another officer, a broad man in a pressed white shirt and embroidered sarong, handed us visa applications and the woman glued our pictures into what she described as “internal travel documents”—single sheets of rough purple construction paper, printed with a form in Burmese and folded in half, like a first-grader’s art project. These we’d use in place of our own U.S. passports, which, she informed us, the authorities would gladly hold for us here at the border until we returned.
“Is that okay?” she asked expectantly.
Bonnie and I looked at each other. Leaving our passports here did not seem like the wisest course of action, particularly in a country where journalists, foreigners as well as locals, were commonly arrested, deported, or worse. On the entry application, I’d written “video game consultant” as my occupation, and while I didn’t expect we’d get busted, keeping at least some official identification on my person seemed like a good idea, just in case.
“Actually,” I told the woman, “I think we’d like to keep our passports with us, if that’s okay with you. We’d feel safer that way.”
“Oh, no,” she said, “that’s not possible.” She shook her head, looking down and smiling apologetically. Then she looked back up. “Is that okay?”
It was, we decided, okay. Was the Burmese government really going to steal our passports? We accepted our purple travel documents and entered Myanmar.
The difference between the two countries was instantly obvious. The Thai side of the border had hummed with energy and commerce, the signs electrified, the automobiles new and shiny, the streets well-paved. Here, in the town of Tachileik, it was as if we’d stepped back in time a couple of decades. The concrete was cracking, and the lightbulbs were feeble. Frankenstein cars, assembled from whatever parts were available, rumbled slowly down the streets. The only commonality between the two sides was the goods we saw for sale in markets or being loaded onto trucks: international-brand shampoos, diapers, soaps, melamine dishes, bottles of Johnny Walker Black and Red, acrylic blankets, and rice cookers. This was a border post, and goods passed through as often as people.
The gates of the town, we were told, were about to close, and we wouldn’t have time to travel onward until the morning, so Bonnie and I found a hotel for the night and set out to explore Tachileik. Tachileik turned out to be a very small town. A few old brick buildings in disrepair offered hints of the British colonial era, but architecturally Tachileik was dumpy—all concrete structures assembled without regard to aesthetics, as if everyone had arrived in a hurry but with little intention of sticking around. And why would they? It was a border town; it existed only because the border existed, and the diplomatic machinery of the border required certain support services: mechanics, food vendors, a market, hotels, a Buddhist temple or two, and somewhere to drink and sing karaoke.
Just after 6 p.m., night began to fall, as it does at virtually the same time every day in the tropics, and in the dark Bonnie and I began hunting around for somewhere to eat. On a street whose overgrown empty lots hinted at the wilderness that lay just outside the limits of town, we spotted a couple of bars, open-air platforms whose low tables were forested with tall glass bottles of Myanmar Beer. We hustled over and ordered two bottles, along with a tomato salad, its bright red slices scattered with fried shallots and briny dried shrimp.
As we clinked glasses and started planning the next day, we noticed a man sitting at another table. He was tall and thin and dark-skinned, with a long straight nose, and his posture, his demeanor, and his outfit—loose white tracksuit, white baseball cap—made him look out of place among the other Burmese guys at his table. He couldn’t be Burmese too, could he? Australian, I figured, or Singaporean.
The man noticed us watching him, nodded hello, and came over to join us. In perfect English, he introduced himself: “Slim—like Slim Shady,” he said. He smiled, and Bonnie and I knew: He liked Eminem; ergo we liked him. Over the course of a few more beers, we learned more of Slim’s life. A physics graduate at Mandalay University, he’d been unable to find work in his hometown because, he said, jobs went to ethnic Burmese, while he, a Muslim with Indian roots, was denied. And so he’d moved his wife and young child out here, to the forgotten end of a forgotten country, where he hoped to work as a tour guide. He spoke English and good French, and Western tourists such as ourselves occasionally passed through.
For a moment or two, I wondered if Slim was actually an intelligence agent, a member of Burma’s legions of secret police come to check up on us foreigners. His story, though touching, seemed improbable. Who decided to become a tour guide by moving to one of the least-touristed corners of the country? Or was that just canny planning?
In the medieval dark of the Tachileik night, the stars were easily visible above, and as I looked at them I realized I didn’t care if Slim was monitoring us. We were having such a nice time, Bonnie and I had no ill intentions, I wasn’t even planning on writing about this side trip. Nothing could go wrong. Indeed, everything was right with the world. There we were: Slim, a Burmese-Indian Muslim; Bonnie, a Korean-American Christian; and myself, an American Jew—bonding over beers in the Golden Triangle. This was how it was supposed to be—this moment, however brief, was why I traveled. I was happy.
From The Turk Who Loved Apples by Matt Gross. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
MATT GROSS has written nearly 200 articles for the New York Times Travel section. He lives in Brooklyn. His latest book The Turk Who Loved Apples is available from Da Capo Press.
Photo credit: Tracy Sham