Edit: Update on Thai flag comment (07/31/2011).
This morning Austin (my fellow teacher) and I took an enjoyable four hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to the border town of Mae Sai. It was an enjoyable trip—even though it was gray and rainy when we left Chaing Mai, most of the drive on the bus was very pleasant, and the VIP seats we were sitting in were very comfortable (more comfortable than all of the economy class seats on planes I have flown in for the last decade or so). The bus company provided us with bottled water, fruit juice, and a tasty pecan pastry. That, plus some of the snacks I had bought near the bus station, kept me reasonably full (even if I have been a bit nauseous all day). The bus company also provided some entertainment with the Thai film “Saturday Killer,” which was an amusing film about hitmen that focused on the funny and depressed life of hitmen, even if the twist about the hitwoman was a bit predictable.
The trip was a beautiful one. The road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai to Mae Sai is a beautiful one, full of green but jagged hills, rice paddies, and the occasional palace. One oddity was that most of the Thai flags I saw today were being flown at half mast. I don’t know why—did someone die that I didn’t know about ? It is very difficult to tell Thai provincial towns apart—most of them have the same color (white) pedestrian bridges over the main road, the same construction, the same development along the main road with very shallow development inside, and the same stores (like 7-Eleven). There must be a book in Thailand with the title: How To Build An Amphoe Capital In Ten Easy Steps.
Mae Sai is a town about half the size of Plant City Florida, twenty thousand souls. Mae Sai and Tachileik, its neighbor across the narrow and muddy river that divides the two countries of Burma and Thailand, are really a double-city (like Budapest, or El Paso and Ciudad Juarez). Both cities specialize in consumer goods (I was looking for some good uncut gems for someone I know, but I was disappointed by the fact that all of the gems were already cut, and most of them already set, in the marketplace), and both sides are primarily market towns. The people I traveled with, most foreigners looking to get their visas renewed, were an amusing lot—a couple of American middle aged women, some entertaining Brits (one of whom was from Glasgow), and some moderately frightened locals. All of us who were crossing the border did so quickly—it did not take much time either way, and none of us were interested in trips to temples offered by the optimistic locals inside of Burma.
One thing I noticed and thought puzzling was that Burma’s government calls itself the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. In principle, I refuse to call Burma by the name chosen by its military leaders because I deny the legitimacy of that military dictatorship. I call it Burma knowingly. However, seeing it called a “Union” made me pause a little bit. After all, I have typically seen “union” used in the name (whether in a related form for a church, like the United Church of God), or on my particular side of the civil war (i.e. the “Union”) as a statement of aspiration. Those nations or institutions that are united need not call themselves United or a Union, because they already are. However, those entities that are fractious and require force to hold them together are called unions as a sign of their aspirations for unity (or at least the aspirations of their rulers for keeping their territory “whole”).
As far as a town goes, Tachileik does not have much to commend itself for. It’s a seedy market town (like the Mexican border towns south of the United States) with pushy and aggressive street sellers. The people who actually own or rent space in the town’s fairly large market are friendly, and their movies and clothing are pretty good, especially for the price. They have a nice restaurant section as well (even if they often appear to lack basic supplies like meat and milk, which is lamentable). That said, my enthusiasm about spending much time on the Burmese side was not helped at all by the large quantity of street vendors who constantly harassed me trying to sell me cigarettes, Viagra, and pornography. Needless to say, those are probably among the three consumer goods I am least interested in buying, and by the time I left the market I felt rather sour about being harassed by middle aged men peddling such unwanted items.
It was also good that I got back from Burma when I did, because a fierce rainstorm started as I approached my hotel, and my curry for lunch did not agree with me so well. At least I was able to get back to my hotel room safe and dry before all of that. One thing I did notice about the people on the Burmese side, aside from the fact that most of them were very short, was that many of the people (especially the women) had face paint on in the same way that many of the Lahu students do at Legacy. The face paint, even when it is sunscreen, looks like the warpaint of American Indians, and it is something I find striking to see on other people. Suffice it to say that Burma satisfied by curiosity for one trip, even if there is not much to hold my interest for long that I saw.
 As a matter of fact, someone did die that I did not know about until later. Starting July 28, 2011, for fifteen days, Thai flags will fly at half-staff for Thai Princess Bejaratana, who died. Our condolences go out to the royal family in this time of mourning.