Sunday, December 28, 2008

Burma's Barriers to Entry

Barriers to Entry

Fields outside of Kengtung

Fields outside of Kengtung

Some places are hard to get to. Some so much so that almost no one ever goes.

I like the sound of that.

I started in Chiang Rai. It’s the last major city in the northern tip of Thailand. From there I boarded a bus to take me north, to the Burmese border.

Within twenty minutes, we hit our first police checkpoint. Barricades across the road, soldiers with machine guns. The bus stopped, and the cargo doors were opened, contents inspected. A policeman in a black and grey camouflage outfit and bulletproof vest boarded the bus, checking one ID after another, surveying each passenger in turn. Satisfied, he exited, and the bus was cleared to go.

Thirty minutes later, another checkpoint. Same process. And another one shortly after that. It’s a good thing I’m not in the smuggling business or a fugitive, or these searches would have caused some serious anxiety.

We reached the northernmost point in Thailand, the little border town of Mae Sai. On the other side of the river, the rarely visited country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).

At the guarded bridge, the Thais stamped my passport and let me through. I walked across, noting the high metal fencing and barbed wire on either side. Although relations between Thailand and Myanmar are mostly cordial, there are occasional disagreements. A few years ago Myanmar let loose on Mae Sai with some artillery, and the Thais returned the favor. But today the border was open.

On the Burmese side, I had to declare each city I planned to visit. If I didn’t include a city, I wouldn’t be allowed to travel there. Since there were only 3 permissible cities in this part of Myanmar, this was not a difficult task.

I was photographed and issued a 14-day visa card, with permission to go as far north as Kengtung. My passport was confiscated, to be picked up when I returned to the border to leave Myanmar.

As if being without a passport wasn’t bad enough, the bus company took my visa when I boarded to go to Kengtung. I felt naked. They also took the ID cards of all the other passengers (I was the only foreigner) and kept them in a little booklet at the front of the bus. Soon, I understood why.

Each time we stopped at a military checkpoint, the soldiers would look through the booklet of IDs (and stamp my visa). My journey was being thoroughly documented. If I go from point A to point D, I had better show time stamps for points B and C or face some serious questioning.

At one of the checkpoints, my eyebrows shot up. Soldiers with machine guns I can understand, but a number of these serious fellows were holding bazookas. The only purpose of such a weapon is to blow a vehicle up into a thousand charred, flaming metal pieces. Sure, we were traveling through the heart of opium territory in what’s known as the Golden Triangle, but the fact that they had these out and about instead of in a back room somewhere was telling.

Five hours and numerous checkpoints later, the city of Kengtung. It’s a trip through mountainous terrain that only four years ago, before the small road was built, would have taken one week. My visa (with all its new stamps) was returned to me, only to be surrendered again half an hour later at my hotel. The authorities required that it be brought to them and stamped each night. No sneaking out and sleeping anywhere other than where I was supposed to be.

Ah, and now I was here. Kengtung. The most remote city in one of the most remote countries in the world.

Time to explore.

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