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Border Town

  • Written by Mega
  • November 30th, 2015
  • 21 min read





Prologue

Eight days back in Bangkok and I’d had my fill of it already. One may question why I continue to live there and to be honest I don’t actually have any singular answer apart from where I stay is just a 45-minute taxi ride from the international airport. At this stage of my life work considerations take precedence over all other concerns. Still, after two months offshore the first few nights back in the Big Mango still has a certain buzz about it. Even if it is short lived. However, after making the rounds of the usual watering holes and encountering the usual suspects the novelty soon wears off. A freelancer at Spasso’s asking for ten thousand Baht? Ah, no thanks and particularly not for the level of age and sloth one encounters there these days. Oskar’s with its usual bevy of pretentious, overpriced little tarts? The food and wine is good but that’s where it stops. Actually the demographics at Oskar’s are beginning to shift. In recent times there’s been an increasingly obvious shift to greater numbers of katoeys making the place their chosen “work” venue. I don’t have any particular personal gripe with katoeys but any old Thailand hand will soon tell you when the katoeys start moving into a venue, the real ladies invariably begin to move out. Little wonder that recently there appears to be less and less of the better looking ladies to be seen at this popular Soi 11 wine bar. The place has always tended to be a bit of a tourist trap anyway with cashed up, wealthy business types often seen hanging out there. Perhaps the katoeys are trading on the fact the naivety of some of these guys has them unable to distinguish a lady from a bloke? After a recent visit there and sharing a few beers with some younger expat bankers based in Singapore, it certainly seemed that way until I gave them a quiet warning they were chatting up a couple of guys.

Go-go bars? Prices are going through the roof and the drinks hustle seems worse than it ever was. Has the Shark Bar instigated the two drinks scam before being able to bar-fine a take out? It certainly seems that way from a recent visit. And all of them seem to be drinking that god awful rocket fuel, Tequila. Of course it might just be that I’m a burned out cynic? But I can’t help but notice a lot of the hostesses these days are barely concerned with the punter, aside from the mercenary drinks extraction program. After a short closure Rainbow 4 reopened having duly served its penance for not adequately taking care of the right people. The owners have tried to glitz the place up by erecting a flash new sign above the entrance but as soon as you push through the velvet curtains any pretence that idea had is quickly flattened by the myopic mood inside. Globalisation and consumerism are in overdrive as the girls on the sidelines are firmly in phone zombie mode.

Bored with the bar scene of lower Sukhumvit I’ve increasingly looked towards the internet dating sites but even that approach has become infuriatingly frustrating. One of the things which soon becomes apparent with girls one meets on the dating websites, or through apps such as WeChat, is the lack of English language ability of most of the ladies. I’ve begun to realise why many guys choose to relocate to the Philippines. Communication is paramount when attempting to get to know a lady and form a base for a relationship. I just can’t be bothered the childish nonsense so many Thai ladies seem to revert to when using a chat platform. Instead of trying to engage you in normal conversation they resort to those dopey cartoon apps. Tired, hungry, happy, sad, grumpy, good morning, good night, etc… Is this a sign of the times? My own take on it is the majority of Thai ladies using this way to communicate have the emotionally maturity of 16-year old high school girls.

Understandable then the excitement of being back petered out after just eight days and things are certainly hitting new highs, or lows, of boredom when the biggest decision I need to make each day is where I’m going to have lunch. On that note the Indian restaurant (Bukhara) on the corner of Soi 7 is highly recommended. Still, there is something to be said for technologies ever encroaching intrusion into our lives. After recently installing the WeChat app I was soon getting requests for home massage visits from all and sundry on lower Sukhumvit. Weird looking girls with Barbie like round eyes (the latest fad in surgical adjustments) and massive sets of silicone cleavage informing me within ten lines of script a home visit, special massage was just 2000 THB. Perhaps a few of these ladies are already being signed up for a starring role at the new Hooters on Soi 4. On a recent evening meal at the Nana Hotel restaurant I saw four of these weird looking mannequin girls talking to, and signing paperwork with a guy who appeared to be on a recruitment drive. Can’t speak English? Mai Bpen Rai, as long as the silicone is busting through the tight fitting tops that’ll do just fine thanks. Given the location this branch of the cleavage promoting franchise will be in one may wonder how long it will be before the waitresses crack onto the idea there’s more money in after-hours services. Ah Bangkok, there’s no place like on earth.

In fairness to the City of Angels there’s plenty to do here which doesn’t involve booze and butts. It’s just a matter of getting out there and doing it. And that unfortunately is something many long term resident expats here just don’t seem capable of. A bar stool down on Cowboy or Nana is often the limit of their explorations. Not that there’s anything entirely wrong with those places, it’s just a matter of keeping things in perspective and a matter of balance when considering ones options here. Instead of too many big nights out, a couple of quiet nights in with some morning exercise is a balanced alternative.

I feel fortunate in the fact that I have the financial capability and the motivation to get out of the big smoke when I need to. My feeling is there are many who don’t have this luxury and end up in a desperate situation where they are virtually stuck here living by their wits. The reality is this place becomes a trap and a downward spiral if you don’t have things sorted financially. The attractions – the bright lights and the pussy – that originally see guys flocking here often end up being entirely out of reach when it all goes south. It’s a paradox really, being stuck in a place surrounded by that which you want but cannot afford to indulge in. Eventually that’s going to suck the life out of a guy. Wanting something but not being able to have it will eventually breed a level of discontent bordering on resentment. Worse still if you’ve burnt all your bridges and there’s no exit plan in hand. I’ve seen the haunted look on some of the faces, compounded by booze, drugs and depression. That forlorn look in the eyes. The look that says “I’ve run out of hope and now I’m just existing, day by day.” I saw that look the other day as I was descending the stairs at the Asoke BTS. It was a guy I’ve known in Thailand for 17 years. We were friends once. But then there were just too many times borrowed money wasn’t paid back. And one thing I’ve learned about this place is if you want to steer clear of someone who is a credit risk, just keep one of the outstanding loans continually owed. The ongoing debt keeps them dodging their creditors. As I rode the escalator down to ground level he slinked back into the shadows of the terminal structure. I saw him and I know he saw me but there was no recognition there, just that blank, forlorn look which reeks of a hopeless situation.

After a recent strange encounter with a freelancer from Soi 11 it’s made me realise a lot of those “working girls” are in the same type of hopeless situation. The said demimondaine was quite attractive, spoke reasonable English but was fully aware of the limitations of her profession. In her mid-thirties and with three children to support the clock was ticking on her use by date. She confided in me she was desperate to find someone to “take care” of her but knew no men these days are willing to take on the responsibilities of three children sired by another. Perhaps it was the alcohol having a depressing effect on her? Who knows but during the course of our evening together she broke down in tears saying “I sell my pussy, I not sell my life.” I felt a degree of pity for her but in the back of my mind the constant thought is always no-one pushes these girls into a life of prostitution. It’s their choice entirely and as much as they would like everyone to believe they had no choice the fact is there are always other choices in Thailand; albeit at a reduced income level compared with hooking. Life is always about choices and no matter what we do or where we go there is always more than one choice. The problem for many in a desperate situation is they never fully consider the consequences of poor choices, which are often just a short term fix anyway. Once a way of life, or the way of dealing with problematical situations becomes habit it’s often hard to break those habits; particularly developed in our formative years. Habits become ingrained and people under duress will often revert to what they know when dealing with a situation or problem. Considering my own situation I’m quite aware I’m still basically a country fellow at heart. During my late teens and early twenties in New Zealand I spent a lot of time as a single guy in isolated coastal areas surfing and diving for my food. I think that’s the prime reason why after just a few days back in the City of Angels I’m thinking bugger it, I’m “going bush.” And bush this time around was Mae Sot and Umphang Province in the North of Thailand.

Mae Sot

I’d been considering a trip up to Mae Sot and Umpang Province for a few months and with a bit of spare time on my hands I decided to commit to a five day sojourn. Mae Sot interested me because it was only six kilometres from the border with Burma and I wanted to see how much of an influence there was in terms of a Burmese population in the town. As it turned out there was plenty. I also wanted to do an overnight trip to Umphang Province to check out Thailand’s largest waterfall: Tee Lor Su Falls. A full report on this impressive site can be seen on my travel blog.




Mae Sot

Tee Lor Su Waterfall – Umphang Province, Thailand



The provincial city of Mae Sot lies approximately half way between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and is roughly parallel with the ancient capital of Sukhothai. As mentioned it is situated right on Thailand’s western border with Myanmar and is known as a gem trading hub between both countries. The easiest way of getting there is on a domestic flight and in this regard the city is well catered for by the local carrier Nok Air who operates three flights a day out of Don Meuang Airport. A round trip is approx. 5000 – 6000 THB and flying time is roughly one hour on a prop plane. A good option for accommodation is the Irawadee Resort which can be booked directly or through Agoda. The rooms are clean and comfortable and the hotel owner is friendly and even speaks some English.

Before embarking on my trip I’d done some research on Wikitravel in an effort to determine what attractions in Mae Sot were worth checking out. The two which seemed to get the biggest mention were the town centre markets – including the gemstone dealers – and the Rim Moei border market situated directly beneath the Thai Myanmar friendship bridge. If you’re staying at the Irawadee getting to the town markets is easily doable on foot as it’s just on one kilometre from the hotel. The border market is probably bit too far to hoof it so a motorbike rental is the best option for the run out there. The owner/manager of the hotel suggested I could rent a bike from a guesthouse in the town centre called the Baifern – which also has an attached restaurant which serves a decent standard of Thai and Western food. The Baifern is actually very close to the town centre so it’s conveniently located if you want to do a tour of the markets and then take a spell with a cold juice and some grub. The guy running the guesthouse is Burmese and speaks a good standard of English. The motorbike rental day rate is 200 THB and you are required to leave your passport as collateral until the bike is returned. One of the things which soon become abundantly clear after I made my way into the town centre is just how many Burmese are actually in Mae Sot. They’re everywhere and the ladies are easy to spot as they all wear that white powder on their faces and many in the markets can be seen carrying loads around on their heads, Indian style. All of the waitresses at the Baifern are Burmese and the amusing thing is their English is better than their Thai.




Mae Sot

One of the lovely Burmese waitresses at the Baifern Restaurant in Mae Sot



To be honest, the food and raw goods markets aren’t all that special as I’ve seen better at Klong Toey in Bangkok. Apart from the live frogs and eels there was nothing very exotic of note apart from the ever pervading smell of the place. The lanes are also narrow and congested so the novelty of squeezing your way through the crowd soon wears a bit thin. The gem trader’s area, called Jewellery Street, is nearby the food and raw goods market and is much easier to negotiate as the shops run down both sides of a normal street. Just park your bike at one end then work your way down one side and back up the other.



Mae Sot

Burmese lass working her way through the market with a load on her head



I got talking to one of the shop owners – a Chinese Thai who spoke good English – and he informed me the main trade for most of the shops was rubies, sapphires and jade. As I made my way around the shops I was hit on by what appeared to touts hanging around the shop fronts. I politely declined their offers due to the fact I have absolutely no knowledge of what a good or bad gem might be. A lot of the shops had people sat inside manning small counters full of precious and semi-precious stones. There didn’t seem to be much going on in the way of sales and it all looked a bit strange. I couldn’t work out what the connection was between the touts out on the sidewalk and the people inside the shops. The gem touts, or whatever they actually were, had the same look about them as gamblers who hang around casinos. A kind of furtive look or one which suggests they have some kind of special knowledge the average man on the street isn’t aware of. In this kind of game it’s always a case of let the buyer beware. If you don’t know what you’re doing there’s only bound to be one result; you’re going to get scammed. Sure and simple.



Mae Sot

One of the gems trader shops with a load of raw jade

Mae Sot

One of the many gem traders shops on Jewellery Street in Mae Sot

An impressive display of Burmese rubies



After a couple of hours spent wandering about the market area in the late afternoon heat I decided to head back to the Baifern restaurant and chill out for a while. Apart from my breakfast at the hotel, the Baifern became my go to eatery for all other meals due to its reasonable standard/value for Western and Thai meals. As mentioned the Baifern is a Guesthouse with an attached restaurant and small bar. Due to its inexpensive cost for accommodation the majority of those seen staying there tended to be the backpacker and young travellers one often sees getting around Thailand on a budget. On one particular evening there was a group of these young travellers in the restaurant which had me considering past submissions to this site by American males commenting on the state of woman in the USA. There was a group of six American females and five of them were obese, two grossly so. By obese I would mean 30 – 50 kg overweight. The shocking thing was they were all just in their twenties and looking at the amount of food they were stuffing down their throats there was little wonder why. Now there are probably people who are going to read this and comment what business is it of mine regarding the physical size of a bunch of women I’ve never met? Fair enough I suppose but I would argue the point that aside from being a health issue (show me a medical report which has ever said being obese is good for you?) their size is simply down to a lack of personal discipline and nothing more. There’s a lot of nonsense talk out there regarding the issue of weight with some people pushing the ludicrous idea being grossly overweight is a gland problem. But the fact is it’s quite simple when it comes to being fat, or not. If you stuff more food into your gullet than your daily physical energy requirements, you’ll put on weight. Looking at the group of ladies bingeing on burgers, fries and cokes I couldn’t help think that if this is the future of the western world, we’re in trouble.

A nice half day’s outing, and just forty kilometres south of Mae Sot, is the Pa Charoen Waterfall site. I hired a scooter for the day and after an early breakfast at the hotel headed off down highway # 1090 in the cool of the morning. The ride to the waterfall is just over an hour and the road takes you through some nice rural scenery in the area. The waterfall, compared with the impressive Tee Lor Su, is substantially smaller. But it’s situated in tranquil jungle surroundings and has an easily accessible trail running up the left side of the falls to enable one to access the higher tiers. The falls are part of a wildlife site and there are amenities including toilets and a café/restaurant set a few meters back from the lowest tier. The restaurant has an elevated dining area and provides a nice view out across the surrounding lush jungle area and falls beyond. Take your time, have a coffee and enjoy the tranquil ambience that only nature can provide. The round trip from Mae Sot, including sightseeing at the falls, should only take about four hours and if you leave early enough you’ll be back in time for lunch.



Mae Sot

Pa Charoen Waterfall; forty kilometres south of Mae Sot and nice half day outing

The peaceful ambience of the upper levels of Pa Charoen Falls



Rim Moei Border Market

A trip out to the Rim Moei border market, when considered in terms for photography, is probably about as perfectly timed as one could ask for. The market is a late afternoon/early evening affair so for those who prefer shooting in the ideal light conditions of this time of day the timing is spot on. The best way of getting out there is to hire a scooter as this will give you the flexibility to ride out there and return at your own leisure. As mentioned the border is roughly six kilometres from Mae Sot town centre so it’s probably a bit too far to leg it. As far as public transport goes there may be songthaews running out there but I never bothered to check out the timings and cost etc. When you arrive at the Border Township you’ll see a road leading directly on to the bridge. Keep to the left and take the road just to the side which runs parallel to the bridge and descends down to the river. Approximately 300 – 400 meters further on the road goes as far as it can and makes a U-Turn beneath the bridge and returns up the other side. There is a river just beyond and this is the physical delineation of the Thai/Burmese Border. Just off to the left of this U-Turn is a large open area where the market is set up. Park your scooter and take a wander through the hustle and bustle of the evening market. At the furthest edge of the market and running parallel to the river is a wide concrete wall, which also doubles as a foot path, with a continuous run of razor wire creating an imposing barrier. I took a walk along the concrete wall and soon noted the disparity between the Thai side and Burmese side; it’s a bit of a tale of the have’s and have nots. Apparently the river, when in the full flow of the rainy season, fills right up to the concrete wall. As the rains abate and the river level drops a patch of sandy ground is exposed which is within Burmese territory but is actually on the Thai side of the river.



Mae Sot

The relative affluence of the border market on the Thai side



For the want of a better name this patch of ground is a no man’s land and as I wandered along the wall and looked down onto the barren, sandy area there was a bunch of Burmese scurrying around hoping for someone (perhaps one of their relatives on the Thai side) to offer them a morsel of luxury. As I walked along a scrawny looking guy, dressed in rags, raced up to me from the edge of the river and offered me some cigarettes. “Swiss cigarette, good quality and good price,” he said in surprisingly good English. Further along a bunch of young Burmese kids stared through the razor wire from no man’s land. They looked happy enough but no doubt they were taking in all the sights and smells of the bustling market on the Thai side. There was a surprising number of Burmese mingling about the market as well. The women all recognisable by the white powder smeared on their cheeks. I started wonder if they were here permanently or just on short term work entries? No doubt most still had family back across the river but judging by the smiles and relative affluence offered in Thailand, I’d be surprised if many were in a hurry to get back. In my recent travels around the LOS it’s become apparent there is increasingly more and more Burmese working in the low paying service jobs in this country's tourist industry. One would expect with Mae Sot being so close to the border the place would have high numbers of Burmese itinerants and expats. And it has. But further afield there are also plenty working in the tourist hot spots of Phuket, Samui and Koh Phangan. The Thais being a fairly canny lot when it comes to making and saving a buck no doubt switched onto the idea, and probably quite some time ago, Burmese wait and domestic staff are better value in terms of work effort and cost, than their own. An hour or so spent wandering around the market is probably long enough to take in all that’s going on at border town. With dusk quickly descending on the bridge area I hopped back on my scooter and headed back to the Baifern for dinner.



Mae Sot

While over in no-man’s land things aren’t so affluent

Mae Sot


A Burmese kid looks through the razor wire from no-man’s land

Mae Sot

A group of Burmese ladies enjoying their good fortune of being in Thailand; perhaps the T-Shirt sums it up well?

Mae Sot

Dusk closes in on the Thai Myanmar Friendship bridge number four


In conclusion I would say Mae Sot is worth a short visit (perhaps 3 days) if you’re looking for something off the beaten track of main stream tourism in Thailand. If you combine it with a trip to Tee Lor Su Waterfall then I would say it’s an excellent short getaway from the grind of the big smoke.

Safe Travels,

Mega



The Lost Diaries Part 3