Thursday, June 30, 2005

no patriots in Laos then...

Phongsali: health capital of the north

What do you do in a town which has nothing? Us, we spent a long time waiting for the bakery to open. Our New Zealander friend Neil, he stopped in at the local medical centre to watch operations. We were passing by when Neil called us in, an excited gleam in his eyes. One man was filling syringes from a mixture in a white plastic beaker. He was the doctor, Neil said. Another man was leaning heavily on the arm of a chair. He bent into the light so we could see the left side of his neck. It was an open sore.
“Thanks,” we said. “Good luck with that.”
A third man was just leaving, a drip attached to his arm. He looked slightly pale.
“That guy has typhoid,” Neil said.
“Sabai dee!” said the man.
“Sabai dee,” we said, making way.
Neil claimed he was helping the doctor with his English. The man with the neck sore, he said, had started off with only a nick, but had refused to take antibiotics. Possibly this was ideological, possibly it was the consequence of a long-running and lately one-sided feud between the man with the neck sore and Alexander Fleming. Neil didn't say.
From a part of his torso which wasn't open and oozing the man with the neck sore was attached to a drip. Into this the doctor had told him he was feeding a rehydration solution. Actually, Neil told us, he was pumping in antibiotics. Man with the neck sore 0, Fleming 1.
The bill for this exercise in deception came to 28,000 kip, slightly less than three American dollars. This seemed a bit much to the man with the neck sore. After all, it was only a quick pint of glucose and a once-over. He looked to Neil for support.
“He thinks I'm a doctor,” Neil said. Neil has a handlebar moustache, wears cut-off denim shorts and talks like Steve Irwin would talk if you took two of his vowels away. In New Zealand he drives a truck.
“He might if the sore has spread to his brain,” I said.

lives, pixels: Luang Prabang, Laos




Wednesday, June 29, 2005

eight out of nine isn't bad, I suppose

“farang (western foreigners) are exceedingly tall, hairy and evil-smelling. They school their children long and devote their lives to the amassing of riches. Their women are large and round but very beautiful. They do not grow rice.” -- old Thai chronicle

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Burma shave

The last three days we've been in Burma, hence no updates. The week before that we have no excuse. We've skirted round Burma a little, visiting border towns in Thailand near Mae Sot and Mae Sariang. The justification for paying a visit went like this:
· any money we give to the government: this is bad
· any money we give to locals: this is probably good
· anything we learn that helps improve our understanding of the situation there: this is good
So not an easy decision, but for us on balance it was the good by a nose.
At the immigration post in Tachilek we gave our first lot of money to the government. There were two army officers on duty. I asked the one who wasn't asleep for change. He handed me an American fifty with colouring that matched his friend's pink deckchair.
I said, “Can I have one that looks real?”
He laughed, then locked our passports in a drawer and handed out two purple entry permits.
Across the way in an office labelled 'tourist information' a woman asked where we planned to stay in Kyaingtong. I asked if she knew Harry's Guest House. She looked at me blankly for a moment. “Harry's dead.” Her face cracked into a grin. “Harry's dead?” I asked. (Two weeks ago a girl I spoke to had stayed with Harry, so I was fairly confident of his wellbeing, but I've learned from experience that with border officials you play it safe). “Harry's dead!” she said again. Her colleagues burst out laughing. I guessed it would take a few days to come to grips with Burmese comedy.
We rented a white Corolla station wagon and drove out through the rice paddies. Mostly we shared the road with motorbikes or songthaews: covered utility trucks fitted with benches and a roof rack. We passed a few small buses crammed to the windows with luggage. Passengers were squeezed up against the ceiling or occasionally onto the roof. The only cars were other white Corolla station wagons, vintage somewhere in the '80s and right-hand drive. Burmese traffic going as it does on the right, the practical reason for this would appear to be population control.
The road wound into the hills. After the morning's rain the air hung like steam over banana trees and groves of bamboo, as though the bamboo and the banana trees were a kettle, and the air was the steam coming out of that kettle, assuming it had just boiled, which I grant you would have been unlikely and possibly dangerous.
After a few kilometres we arrived at a checkpoint. The immigration booth was next to an 'anti-narcotic office'. You could tell they were serious about eliminating drugs because there was a blue billboard which read, 'Let's be serious about eliminating drugs'. I suppose this was better than the alternative, 'Let's make blue signs with a fraction of our income from heroin trafficking'.
The drive fell into a rhythm. Every half hour we pulled off the road. Our papers were taken and scrutinised. A little money changed hands. By the time we passed under the final hand-operated boom gate on the outskirts of Kyaingtong our purple permits were obscured by dozens of stamps.
In Kyaingtong we made for Harry's Guest House. Harry's brother-in-law Asan showed us a room. Harry wasn't around, he said.
We walked into town for dinner. In a sweet cultural quirk the word for 'Western foreigner' in Burmese means 'white monkey'. Alongside this we heard snatches of English from anyone under 25. “Hello”, “good morning”, “oh yes”, “hey you” and once, “I am the children”.
“I am the white monkey,” we said.
The town was an old British colonial capital. Most of the shop signs were hand painted, and not always in a way that helped communicate what you could buy there. The car parts shop had a sign with an Oscar statue. The grocery shop was called Helen. The petrol station was a bench with three types of fuel in old plastic soft drink bottles. Outside a temple a dozen monks played sepak takraw – the bastard cousin of volleyball played with a cane ball and any part of the body but the hands (it was invented by a cane-growing sadist who hated people with nice feet. Or so I imagine).
Dinner was Nepalese bean curry. It was nice.
During our walk home the traffic in front of us suddenly parted. Motorbikes, monks and rice workers in conical hats hustled to the mud at the side of the road. A few seconds later a convoy passed through: a dozen armed soldiers in the back of two open trucks. Closer to home we passed a foot patrol with rifles shouldered.
The next morning was a Sunday. We followed a parade of motorbike riders with umbrellas (it was hot) into a Christian church. The congregation was entirely Shan – an ethnic group concentrated in the east of Burma – mostly from a single village. The pew in front of us was covered with teletubbies stickers.
The service was excellent, including some Polynesian-style acapella harmonising, right up until the terrifying moment after the half-hour sermon in Shan when our English-speaking friend said 'Now he will say it again in Burmese'. Afterwards we were invited back to the minister's house.
His wife served us coffee with thick slices of white bread and custard cream biscuits.
A rice farmer, the minister was the son of a converted Buddhist monk and the only one of his mother's first 10 children to survive past the potty years. Running a church of 300 households kept him busy, but he still worked the rice fields every morning.
We asked if there were any difficulties fronting a Christian church in Kyaingtong. He stirred condensed milk into his coffee.
“Do you know about our government?”
We said we knew a little.
“They sit at the back of our church sometimes, listening. At first they would come in uniform. Now they come in plain clothes. Of course we recognise them, but not always straight away.
“Every week or so I am visited by a government official. They ask me what I will be saying next week, and the week after. They want me to guarantee that we won't speak about politics in church anymore. And I tell them that we won't. In church.”
A few hours later in the village we found a cafe with a generator and a working fridge. While we drank a Myanmar beer (mmm... tastes like dictatorship) we met a woman who knew what had happened to Harry.
Two months before our visit, she said, Harry had been arrested on suspicion of conducting anti-government activities.
He was taken to a military camp in the hills above Kyaingtong and beaten for two days. He received injections into his skull and was told that if he said anything about the experience on his return he would be killed.
When he was delivered home Harry did not recognise his own wife. In the next couple of days his health worsened. His family sent him across the Thai border to a hospital in Chiang Rai.
With treatment, he appeared to have stabilised and after six weeks or so he was released.
He returned to Burma, but after only a few days at home in Kyiangtong his health again deteriorated. Two weeks before our arrival he died, aged 42.
Later that evening we walked back to the guest house in the rain. When we arrived Harry's father – an old man of 70 – was entertaining two military men. Their semi-automatic rifles were propped against his plastic garden chairs.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

our lives in pixels: Kyaingtong, Burma



Saturday, June 04, 2005

Things that shouldn't be eaten together in Burma (in case of illness or death)

star fruit and chocolate
canned fish and Indian trumpet (by the look of it a kind of green bean)
banana and toddy-palm
water melon and duck egg
sour bamboo shoot and tapioca
plum and green peas
pumpkin and pigeon meat
ice cream and ginger salad
land crab and mushroom
honey and custard apple
bean gourd and parrot meat

our lives in pixels: Mae Sot, Thailand

Kathy and her brother David. The motorbike, we've lost touch with.

CSI: Bangkok

Elmore Leonard once said you should never start anything with a description of the weather. I say, Elmore, you fool. How will anybody know what the weather was like?
So. Seems we arrived in Thailand just in time for the rainy season. It's either sticky in the morning and wet in the afternoon or downpours all morning then so muggy in the afternoon you could use the air to open other people's mail. Much of what we have seen of the country has so far been from the inside of giant flapping ponchos. Thailand: nice, but plasticky.
We are spending a few days in Mae Sot, a market town near the Burmese border where Kathy's brother David spends the weekends. On the way north we found ourselves with a spare afternoon in Bangkok. David suggested visiting the forensic science museum. This seemed a like a good idea.
Room one was skulls. Some seemed fairly complete. Most weren't. The ones that weren't tended to be missing jawbones or have caved-in eye sockets or be scorched black. On closer inspection the intact ones tended to feature neat round holes. The skulls were mounted above labels which in English read 'death by shotgun' or 'dragged along the road in automobile accident'. Happily all this was only a teaser.
Around the corner were murder weapons. Knives, handcuffs, bullets, cable, a sawn-off section of fence railing. Before I never knew you could kill a man with an electric buffer. Now I know better.
Room two was vertical glass cases containing preserved corpses. Before being pickled one vinegary chap was a murderer-rapist. Another was a serial killer who admitted to killing several young children and eating their organs. Apparently he set the Thai soft sciences back a few dozen years by passing a psychological test.
I won't say that all this taught me a lot about forensic science, but I do now know that mummified bodies go black.
By the exit there was a visitors' book, which made me wonder what sort of feedback they were hoping for ("full of good ideas!" - Matt, Melbourne). As we left a school group filed in. The Siriraj Medical Museum, I tell you, it's a great day out for the kiddies.
Before heading home for tea we took a quick look next door at the museum of parasitology.
Suspended in yellow were tapeworms, ringworms and whichever parasite it is that causes elephantisis (lawyers?). In a jar of formaldehyde there was a massively distended body part which I will describe only by saying that even after seeing the pictures I couldn't believe it was a scrotum (for the kiddies!).
After a lunch of processed fish soup I had been having stomach troubles. This didn't help me appreciate the 42-foot hookworm.
On the way out there were scorpions*, tarantulas, one scale model that seemed to imply that 14-foot mosquitoes stalked the camping grounds of Thailand, and then a tank full of microscopes. Way to anticlimax, medical museum folk.

Next up it's a tour of northern Thailand in the general direction of Laos. Look out for us. We'll be the ones under the ponchos.

*the rock group The Scorpions? Big in Thailand. Their song that isn't Wind of Change (something about dust maybe?) has apparently been covered by the Burmese democracy movement.