Monday, October 9, 2006


In the past four hours, Jotman had been urged to buy cheap Viagra a dozen times, and London brand cigarettes as many more. No, Jotman has not been reading his email. He has been walking the streets of Tachileik, a border-town in Myanmar.

There is not a Westerner in sight. Scarcely a word of English spoken. Neither restaurant nor coffee shop to be seen -- despite a second circuit of the city by way of tuk-tuk. Same China-made stuff for sale here as across the border in Thailand, but these stores ramshackle, their interiors dark from lack of lighting.

A few hours earlier I had reserved a room in a guest-house. Now back at the border bridge, I looked at my watch and I saw that I might still escape this forbidding place: the border would remain open another ten minutes. While I contemplated the relative comfort of the opposite riverbank, a fellow in his twenties approached speaking almost fluent English. Khin (not his real name) had terrible-looking black teeth from eating too much betel-nut. I led down my guard a little as I came to the realization that Khin was not your typical tout or scam artist; for one thing, he struck me as both highly intelligent and sincerely hungry for something to eat. Perhaps here was someone who could tell me something about this place. I told Khin that dinner was on me if he could find us a place that served vegetarian.

We walked through backstreets crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, and the occasional motorcycle. A group of little monks scurried along in maroon robes; “many of them are orphans” Khin said. “Except for such children, if you ever see a monk outside a temple after 12 noon, you can be sure he is not a real monk.” I pondered the implication of what Khin had said: Burma has fake monks?

We passed a classroom by the side of the street where students were learning by light of candle. “They are studying Thai -- knowing Thai helps Burmese get good jobs.” Enchanted by this roadside classroom, I took this photo.

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