Having just told a member staff at the hotel I’m staying at that I’ve been in Thailand since September, his immediate question was, ‘so, can you speak Thai then?’ I laughed out loud, which luckily he interpreted as because it’s a hard language for me to learn. Clearly I can’t start telling Thais that, although I’ve now been in Thailand for over three months, I may as well have just arrived in Bangkok from a different country. My Thai is limited to hello and thank you, and, although it would have made my visits to Mae Sot a little easier, I never had any intention of learning Thai.
So, Bangkok is a bit of a culture shock. Even the first time I went back to Mae Sot from the refugee camp was a culture shock – I’d forgotten how to deal with money for one thing! I came through Bangkok in September and hated it and, coming from the mountains in northern Thailand, I hate it even more! After all, I was happy living in the mountains; I’m not a city person at all. It also brought delayed flights, beg bugs, sore throats (I blame the pollution) and just a general feeling of claustrophobia.
Anyway, I don’t feel like I’m here as a tourist. I want to continue to do more work at the border, either in camp or in Mae Sot, and if I can’t, I want to go home for Christmas. Tourism just doesn’t relate to what I’ve been doing at all and it’s not why I came out here. It’s also hard to adjust to ‘real’ life and I feel bad being a tourist when my students can’t even go as far as Mae Sot.
Do I want to go to Burma? No, not really. In fact, not at all. I’ve spent three months teaching students who have fled from their country for numerous reasons and many of them can’t return. Who am I to go to their country? Even though the NLD’s boycott on tourism has been lifted, there’s still a debate over whether tourism’s good for the country. In the controversial 2009 Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar (controversial because of the boycott), one of the first chapters was titled ‘Should you go?’ and the next ‘If you go’. Almost every other sentence in the 2012 book tells you how to avoid giving money to the government. Don’t use the trains, for example. They’re unreliable, slow, owned by the government and some of the railways were built by forced labour in the 1990s.
Before I came, I read as much as I could find on EcoTourism and responsible tourism in Burma. There are some good websites out there that are worth reading. Unfortunately, as Burma’s opening up, tourists are flocking there and it’s not possible to be picky and choosy about where to stay and how to move about the country. Four weeks before I was due to fly to Burma, I tried to book some hotels – not something I’d usually do in somewhere like Burma – and I couldn’t believe the response. In two and a half hours on Skype, I heard ‘Fully booked’, ‘fully booked’, ‘sorry’, and ‘no rooms’ more times than I care to count. Actually, Skype counted for me. I called 46 hotels and managed to book three. But the three that I’d booked didn’t work out. I was still without anywhere to stay for a couple of nights. With a lot of re-arranging, I sorted it, but we’ve got to move hotels in Yangon (Rangoon). We can’t even stay in one place for three nights. The second hotel’s costing $40 a night and the rooms don’t have windows!
In Bagan, though, things were looking worse. I’d called every hotel I could find everywhere and still had nothing. I was getting to the point where I was wondering whether to pay $250 a night for a room or fly back to Thailand. Luckily I did find somewhere in the end. The next problem was transport. Burma’s a big country and I didn’t want to travel by train knowing that the railways are government owned and were partly built by forced labour. I hate buses at the best of times and the thought of spending 15 hours on one doesn’t appeal to me. But yet again, all of the flights are booked. Well, we didn’t check Myanmar Airways – it’s state owned and it’s safety record is appalling. Whether we can actually get on a bus or a train we are waiting to find out once we get to Myanmar. We’ll see what happens!
On a different note, I feel that I should have updated my blog more whilst I was still in camp. I should have explained more about the everyday life in camp and I should have answered peoples’ questions a bit more thoroughly. But it’s hard to explain the reality of something that’s so, so different and so, so hard for people to relate to, so I apologise for giving up.
Tomorrow I head to Chiang Mai and then to Yangon. Right now, I’d rather be back in Mae Sot, somewhere I never thought I’d miss…