March 13, 2009

China to Myanmar Overland

My decision to see the world by overland transport, crossing borders by train, bus, taxi and boat, has provided some fascinating observations mixed with some stark realities; a simple dividing line can separate a country that on one side is filled almost entirely with mosques while on the other these are immediately replaced by orthodox churches, or, in the case of the border between Israel and Jericho in The West Bank, the disparity between a territory with money and a territory without becomes undeniably visible right at the checkpoint.
My entrance into Myanmar overland from China required me to arrange a special “escort” through a government designated restricted zone, then onwards by myself to the small town of Hsipaw. Arriving at the border of these two countries reminded me very much of Israel and Jericho, whereby the Chinese side had paved roads, potted palm trees, casino’s, Japanese cars and freshly painted cement buildings containing shops and restaurants, while only a few short paces into the Myanmar side, there was one severely potholed main road with branching dirt side roads, one-speed tractors and improvised carts with wheels as transport, and bamboo thatched shacks as shops and homes. The contrast was so palpable that you could literally have one foot in a developed country and the other in one that is still struggling for basic 21st century infrastructure.
My guide for the six-hour ride from Muse to the innards of Myanmar was a young Chinese-Burmese boy who sprayed saliva through the air with each sentence he spoke.
“Hello, my name is Morris,” he introduced himself, hitting me in the forehead with the contents of his mouth.
“Hi, my name is Andriana,” I replied, stepping a few feet back to avoid the next liquid onslaught.
“Where are you from?”
“I am from America”
“Oh, I love America. Are you traveling alone? You are very pretty.”
“Um, thanks Morris. You are very kind and, yes, I am traveling alone.”
“So what are you… like a B or a C? he asked, his eyes resting directly on my restricted zone.
Hmm, welcome to Myanmar Andriana?
I tried hard not to match an intentional round of my saliva in his face as I wondered just what kind of “escort” I had hired to get me into the country, but luckily, after a few hours worth of paperwork, we were joined by a nice driver who put me at ease as I nervously thought of all the secluded stretches of potholed road Morris and I would be sharing.
When the fog of the previous night’s sleeper bus journey started to wear off and I began to observe my new surroundings, I felt like Alice walking through the magic door into Wonderland: enormous Buddha statues towered above the trees as gold tipped pagodas poetically dotted the rolling hills filled with forests, neon green rice fields and banana trees. My eyes were mesmerized by the passing caravans of people: women and men were tending shops, houses, children and fields in sarong-like longi’s as monks in deep red robes and nuns clad in pink and saffron splashed vivid color and a feeling of the exotic against a humid and dusty backdrop.
After a six-hour car ride, I was finally sprung from the prison of Willie’s wandering eyes and free at last to escort myself to Hsipaw. As I let the weight of my tired body sink into the seat of the bus, I felt, after just twelve hours in the country, keenly curious and culturally overwhelmed. Earlier I had crossed over a dividing line of obvious imbalance and in my travel exhaustion, I had not quite found my own equilibrium. I knew the only way to start processing the sensory overload of Myanmar was to quickly get myself to the next important border crossing: the one between a guesthouse hallway and a bedroom door. 

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