Saturday, February 26, 2011


Here it is nearly the end of February, and nearly the end of my time in Southeast Asia. I catch a plane Tuesday morning in Chiang Mai, change in Bangkok, then Hong Kong, and from there it’s over the pole to Toronto. Amazing.

This week was originally going to be a time to consolidate and reflect on what I learned in Burma on my last trip, to see friends, and generally to enjoy Chiang Mai. But a Toronto friend turned up, a friend with a long connection to Burma and pro-democracy-in-Burma advocacy, who had been refused a visa by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. No fun. So I proposed that we try taking a little trip north to Kengtung, also known as Chiang Tung. It’s one of the old Tai city states, the capital of the Eastern Shan State, and lies directly north of Mae Sai and the so-called Golden Triangle area.

The thing is, even though it’s in Burma, the Burmese government treats it separately for the purposes of tourism. You can go in to that area by leaving your passport at the border and agreeing to take a “guide” with you. It feels restrictive, yes, but better than not going. There’s no cross-checking of information, so we made it in, no problem.

Kengtung the town is about four hours by car from the border. At the moment foreigners aren’t allowed to go any farther north; the next major town after Kengtung is Mengla, near the Yunnanese border, a town known for its wild-west casinos and drug smuggling, etc.

Kengtung is charming, set up in the mountians, surrounded by mountains and built on rolling hills around a manmade lake. The streets bend and undulate with the landscape, and everything is low-rise and human scale.

The people are mostly not Burman but predominantly either Shan (Tai Yai) or Tai Koen, speaking a language like the northern Tai spoken in Chiang Mai. There are also hill people, Akha and Lahu, living in town and in villages nearby. We had all kinds of encounters, in tea shops and at markets, as well as in temples and out on the street; we learned a lot and wallked a lot!

It felt like time travel to be there, as if we were in Thailand about forty years ago. There were motorcycles but few cars, and no electric lighting except by generators in individual houses, so the place was pretty dark and quiet by 9.30 every night. A small market by the guest house we stayed at came to life every morning at dawn and was finished before 9 am. Women there sold prepared foods as well as vegetables, including dishes I had never seen before. I was thrilled. And even better was that the women were very helpful, ready to explain how a partcular dish was made, or what a vegetable or herb was used for.

I loved the fresh rice noodles, called kao swe there (what in Thailand would be called guay tio). They’re eaten in a broth with blanched pea tendrils and a meat sauce, and lots of condiments, just as they are in northern Laos and in southern Yunnan. The regional cross-connections are thrilling. But in Kengtung there was also a kind of steamed rice crepe that was made using a noodle batter and flavourings. I can’t wait to try it at home, for it’s a delicious and inventive dish, a great addition to my Burma v=book, I’m thinking!

At the market the women gave me samples of everything to taste, from head cheese (wonderful) to silken tofu with ginger-sugar syrup to pickled greens to fermented bean paste (an essential and delicious flavouring, great for vegetarians). They were so generous.

These are people who live on very little, who make and grow their own food and their own luck, dare I say it. And they do it with warmth and grace. Once again, there’s that lesson of travel: travel teaches me a lot, and it’s not about the food as much as it is about the way people live day to day.

After a six hour bus ride back to the border and after paying off our guide, it was great to get our passports back and cross into Thailand. Getting back a full sense of autonomy, after being constrained by rules and checkpoints and a slight anxiety about transgressing unknown rules was a reminder that people living in Burma live with constraints much more binding and onerous than the ones we’d wilfully accepted when we’d chosen to travel to Kengtung.


There was a stack of letters in my inbox when I finally checked my mail once back in Chiang Mai (internet is slow to non-existant in Kengtung). Among them was a note from my cousin Psyche, a wonderful woman, telling me that our aunt, Wendy, my mother’s identical twin sister, who lives in British Columbia, had fallen and broken her pelvis. She has a ninetieth birthday coming up in August, but there’s a strong feeling in the family that she won’t live that long.

Last spring she broke her hip when the horse she was grooming moved over and she lost her balance and fell. In other words, she’s been very much a going concern until recently. The hip healed fine and she moved back into her house in the summer.

When I spoke to her in January, before leaving to come here, she sounded clear, a little frailer, but with energy and decisiveness still, and of course an uncanny echo of my mother, who died over thirty years ago. I’ve had a slightly difficult time with that since my mother died, getting reminded of my loss, of who is gone and who survived.

But now the last trace of that reminder, that echo, may vanish before I have a chance to see her again. I don’t want her to suffer endlessly, so it’s selfish for me to want her to recover from this. She’s been in her own house until now, thanks to support from her son who lives nearby, and from friends. But even if she recovers it seems as if she won’t be able to live on her own...

And what will that be like for her, living in a facility of some kind? Not what she wants. Not what any of us wants.

None of these questions are easy, none of these situations lend themselves to comfortable solutions. And the descent into less-than-autonomous living conditions lies ahead for most of us. What to do?

Perhaps my aunt will be able to let herself go. On the other hand there’s a toughness in her, a toughness inherited from both her parents, my grandparents, so I wouldn’t put money on her just lying back and letting go. Maybe instead she’ll manage to will herself to be gone...

I’ll keep you posted.

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