In a misplaced attempt to be adventurous, I agreed to go caving with my roommates. Chiang Dao Cave is about 70 km north of Chiang Mai in a quaint provincial town. Sounds like a nice day trip, right? We thought so. Our first stop was The Nest 2, a deceptively swanky hotel/restaurant at the base of the Chiang Dao mountain. I think northern Thailand may actually be the Twilight Zone, because the afternoon could not have been weirder. Two of our French Presses exploded simultaneously in a geyser of boiling water and coffee grinds, the restaurant ran out of fruit and white rice (this one really baffles me), decorations fell off the walls as we ate, and our waitress spoke Thai but only responded to English. We bolted for the cave before the roof came down over our heads.
I’ve never seen anything quite like the cave. Every few meters, there was some kind of Buddha shrine or statue; the cave itself was a temple. Though there are hundreds of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai and orange-robed monks on every corner, it’s harder to see Buddhism in everyday life in a city context. It was fascinating to see how the cave had been appropriated and made into a place of worship and meditation. Though it was admittedly a little creepy when I realized what I thought was a shiny vein of stone was actually a gold-encrusted prostrate Buddha. And that the clicking, swooping shadows above were actually hundreds of bats.
I was sitting inside Starbucks (don’t worry, I’ve thoroughly contributed to the independent Thai coffee scene too! Viva la local business!) and the monsoon rain began. At first, I was unconcerned; I had a hot latte, a long research paper to write, and nowhere to be. And then I glanced out the window between articles and – HOLY SMOKES MY MOTORBIKE WAS DROWNING. The soi (small side road) where I parked had turned into a river in a matter of minutes. Water was rushing down the road in waves, murky with debris. I’m pretty sure I could have surfed on the wake from passing cars, but I only had eyes for my poor, battered, half-submerged motorbike.
I convinced the lovely Thai gentlemen behind the counter to watch my purse and computer while I moved the bike to higher grounds. The one barista who spoke English thrust the most unwieldy umbrella in Southeast Asia at me with a pleasant smile; he thought I was clinically insane for going outside. And perhaps I was. Before I could even clear the Starbucks patio, the umbrella got stuck in a decorative gingko tree and I broke one of the metal arms wrenching it free. I stood on the curb for a few seconds, contemplating the safety of stepping into two feet of brown, rushing water, then hopped in. At that precise moment, I was treated to a blinding flash of lightning. While I held the world’s largest umbrella. Standing in two feet of water. It was high time to find a new parking spot.
I fumbled with the umbrella and ended up driving Mary Poppins style, clutching the umbrella with one hand and steering with the other. Even got a parking spot on a hill. I now feel sufficiently Thai.
(Sorry, no picture for this one – the rain would have fried my camera)
I spent a lot of time on the road in the past few days, first heading south for the weekend to spend some time with refugee kids. Mae Sot is a fascinating city. It’s situated on the border opposite the Burmese town of Myawaddy, so it’s populated by just about every ethnic minority in Burma. Walking through the streets of Mae Sot, you can hear Burmese, Karen, Thai, English, and Shan in the span of a block. For breakfast one morning, my friends and I went to the Lucky Tea Garden, a curry house owned by a Muslim family that’s nestled across the street from the lively Thai/Burmese Sunday market. For 22 baht ($.70), we each got several pieces of brick oven naan bread, chickpea cilantro curry, and Burmese tea.
After breakfast, we hung out with refugee kids from Mae La Refugee Camp, getting a sense of the educational and resource needs on the ground. It always amazes me how much you can communicate without words (the only Karen phrases I know are gwala gay (good morning) and tee klah (hot water), really useful in the jungle. Not.) We walked until we reached a dam; the kids were ecstatic. I thought about how far they had come to reach this place, far above the city of Mae Sot with Burma and the mountains in the distance. Some of them had fled from the forests of Burma when they were young; some had grown up inside the refugee camp, knowing nothing beyond its barbed-wire walls. It was so powerful to stand on that hill over the city with them, confident that these dynamic, intelligent kids had a chance at the future they deserved, not one dictated by the Burma Army, statelessness, or apathy.
I finished my opus of the summer. For the past few weeks, I have been watching, organizing, recording, and cataloguing my NGO’s human rights video collection. My organization has amassed over a thousand hours of on-the-ground footage in Burma, capturing military clashes, limb amputations, births, deaths, the destruction of villages, and the rebuilding of lives. A lot of the footage was difficult to watch; it wasn’t uncommon for teams to come across the corpses of ethnic villagers in the jungle, unburied, mangled bodies.
Yet ultimately, the project gave me an incredible sense of hope. There’s peace in Burma – for now – but whether or not the peace process comes to fruition, Burma’s ethnic people will continue to be an amazing example of resilience, humor, and hope. For every clip of hardship, there were hours of joy. Children laughing and playing, young men gathered around a fire with a guitar, beautiful meals prepared for strangers by villagers with nothing, teachers bringing up the next generation in a jungle classroom, medical care and recovery. The ethnic people of Burma deserve peace.
One year ago, I knew next to nothing about the struggle for freedom in Burma. Now, after a summer spent researching, listening, and learning, I can’t think of a worthier cause.