The plane shook like death as we descended through a thick veil of grey clouds that enveloped Bangkok. The shuttering ceased as we dropped into the sky below. The suburban and industrial sprawl of the city’s periphery lay blanketed in a heavy tropical air that defied the comfort of the air conditioning within the plane’s cabin. My short one hour and twenty minute flight from Yangon woke me prematurely from an uncommonly heavy dream I tried to shake off and forget rather than grapple with its meaning. My ten day vacation – my first break in nearly three months in Myanmar and Rakhine State – seemed ominously unexciting despite my plans to go scuba diving in a set of islands I’ve wanted to visit since I lived in Thailand in 2002.
R&R – rest and relaxation – is what they call this. It’s something I haven’t really experienced since I landed in Yangon on January 4th. I started to wonder if I’d forgotten how to do it. I decided to take my chances and book a small hotel on arrival in Bangkok. Back in the early 2000’s I lived in the northwest cow town of Mae Sot, working with Karen refugees who fled civil unrest and persecution in a country then named Burma. The military junta renamed it Myanmar some years later. It’s a more fitting name for a country that boasts 14 ethnic groups depending on what source you read. The Burmese population, by far the largest, is just one of those groups.
“Soi Kasem San Nung (1) krup,” I said to the taxi cab driver as I climbed into the back of the yellow and green Toyota Corolla that is nearly as iconic in Bangkok as the yellow taxi is in New York City. Well, maybe not as iconic as the three-wheeled tuk-tuk.
I’ve retained a few key Thai phrases from a vocabulary that used to allow me to explore city, village and temple and haggle with any street vendor with ease. I used to fool myself that my Thai language ability knocked a few baht (Thailand’s currency) off the expectedly higher prices charged to foreigners (farangs). Most of my Thai language forgotten, I guess I should now expect to pay what any other tourist pays when haggling and bartering…
Soi Kasem San is where I always stayed when I came to Bangkok during those two years on the Thai-Burma border. After I checked into my room at the Reno Hotel, now renovated and more upscale than I had remembered over ten years ago, I was shocked by the flood of memories that poured over my heart as I stood on the balcony outside my room. It’s not like I haven’t been to Bangkok many times since I left here in 2002. I traveled through here frequently over the years, sometimes working in Bangkok for a day or two, sometimes for a week. I’d stay in some fancy four or five star hotel on Thanon Sukhumvit that my business per diem paid for. Obviously, staying at those digs didn’t evoke the memories now washing through me. How unexpected. How disconcerting and troublesome. I wanted to shake the memories from me like I shook the vapid dream on the plane. The memories didn’t shake the same way. They clung to me like Velcro.
I came to Thailand for rest and relaxation, not to revisit old memories I had obviously buried and thought I had put to rest years ago. Odd how humans can deceive themselves so easily. I suddenly realized that old pains and sorrow don’t wash away so easily when they’re buried without a full reckoning. I felt a sudden urge to leave the Reno. I considered packing my bag and going elsewhere. Yet here I am typing in my room and considering a swim in the pool on the floor above. Maybe some laps – an exercise long forgotten that I used to practice daily – would help me do that reckoning and receive some absolution. There was a reason the universe brought me to the Reno. Now I had to face these memories and do service to the haunting despair that found a second life like Lazarus.
Perhaps through a full reconciliation I’ll find some clarity to understand these last three months in Rakhine State, Myanmar. They haven’t been easy months; they’ve mostly been difficult. But I’m old enough now to understand that some of the most challenging periods of my life sowed the seeds of great joy without the aggrandizement.
I’ve been a prisoner to a decrepit information infrastructure these past two and a half months. It’s prevented me from attending to my blog as I would have liked. I have a week of vacation in Thailand and a few days in Yangon before I return to Sittwe. Internet’s a million times better in both locations than it is in Sittwe. I hope to share some stories from these months during this short time I have to rest my weary soul.
Rakhine State is the second poorest in Myanmar only to Chin State, its neighbor to the north. Sittwe, its capitol and where I live, is polluted, congested, rife with mangy street dogs and repulsive crows that perch on fences overlooking piles of garbage, and awash with a glowering populace unlike any I’ve seen anywhere in the world, Afghanistan included. Corruption pervades every aspect of society and government, rule of law is a term not a practice, and alms-carrying monks once held holy in my estimation are now viewed paradoxically with swastikas ablaze on their robes and hate written between the lines of the scriptures they recite daily. Worst of all, I’ve begun to uncover corruption and greed among the IDP (internally displaced people) communities themselves – those torn from their homes by ethnic violence fueled by intolerance, mistrust and decades (centuries?) long hatreds between Buddhists and Muslims. My despair has reached new depths. Is anything I’m doing here making a positive difference? I ask myself, how can it when indifference, voracious hatred and intractable prejudice and bigotry are given such force.
Maybe I will be able to share a greater part of the few sweet and cherished moments that the perplexing Rakhine culture has offered during nearly three months of what at times has seemed like an endless parade of days and weeks melding one into another. They’re there. I can even summon a laugh or two at some things I’ve observed and heard. I’m chuckling right now. More stories are coming. For now I need to lighten the load a little bit with a trip around the corner to the Thai massage parlor. After that, a walk through Siam Square to a sushi restaurant I remember from years past. Surely it’s still there? Maybe a movie on the big screen at the high tech theater where I can stretch back on a cushioned lounge chair and order a beer and noodles while I watch the latest Hollywood release. Late night will likely find me at the night market in Sala Daeng where knock-off Rolex watches and North Face gear sell for a few bucks. If you see me wearing a Rolex watch the next time we meet surely I’ll tell you a story of how I flew through Switzerland and spent my Myanmar lottery winnings on the thousand dollars of Swiss wizardry strapped around my wrist. 😉
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