Ways to disappear

Three new friends on the Thailand-Burma border teach a traveler about gaining and losing.


Adam Bluestein
April 24, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"You will come with me, my friend." This is an order -- not an invitation. But I feel that Anwar and I have come far enough together for one day, and timidly I protest.

"Please, I pay for the ride," insists Anwar, the hulking, block-headed Iranian who has been my companion for the past few hours.

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Abandoning all hope of leaving a day of hassles behind me, I obligingly climb into the back of the waiting tuk-tuk, to go looking for the floating hotel with Anwar.

He's been talking about this architectural wonder for the last hour, since the change of buses in Chiang Rai. We had both come in on the air-con bus from Chiang Mai, and when all the Thai passengers -- and finally the bus driver -- got off at Chiang Rai, the Iranian and I stayed on, waiting for the ride to continue on to Mae Sai, Thailand's northernmost city on the Burmese border.

"This is the bus to Mae Sai?" he asked me.

"I thought so."

"I bought my ticket in Chiang Mai," he said. "AC bus, all the way to Mae Sai."

"Me too."

"My name's Anwar," he said.

"Well, Anwar, tickets or no tickets, I don't think this bus is going anywhere."

We got off together and walked around the depot until we found a bus going to Mae Sai. A far cry from our former air-con cruiser with soft-drink serving waitresses and video, this little green bus with doors ripped off the hinges coughed into motion as soon as Anwar and I climbed on, the last passengers.

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A woman with a money pouch around her waist started walking down the aisle collecting fares. Anwar and I showed her our stubs from the last bus. The woman shook her head, took a 10- and a 20-baht note from her pouch and held the money close to our faces.

Anwar nodded significantly at his ticket stub. The woman shook her head again, turning my way. I shrugged, acting the befuddled foreigner. She turned back to Anwar, who turned his back on her and stared very deliberately out the window.

"You pay," she said.

"Do not pay her," Anwar growled, still not turning my way.

The woman with the money apron began yelling in Thai, first to the other passengers -- all Thai -- then, walking back to the front of the bus, to the driver. What was he going to do? Drop us off on the side of the highway and tell us to find our own ride? Maybe ... An old man in what looked like a military uniform turned around in his seat to scowl at us. I imagined the many ways this could turn ugly. When the woman came back down our way, pointing adamantly to the money in her hand, I paid. If a dollar and a half would keep the peace, so be it.

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Anwar, across the aisle, grunted. When the woman tried for her fare once more, Anwar hissed and spat, barely missing her.

And that was the end of it. The woman went on muttering, but back in her spot leaning out the side door, and the driver kept driving, deep into the Golden Triangle.

Anwar settled back, and showing there were no hard feelings between us started telling me about the floating hotel in the middle of the Mekong River between Thailand and Burma. There's no mention of this particular landmark in my Lonely Planet, and I reluctantly pointed this out to Anwar.

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"There's a place that's right on the river," I suggested.

"No. This is in the river. It floats in the river," Anwar said. "We shall find it."

When at last we get off the bus in Mae Sai, Anwar and I are surrounded by an eager throng of tuk-tuk drivers. The lady with the money pouch accosts the driver who first approaches us and yells at him, threatening to get the police.

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"Call the police!" Anwar shouts. "Yes, go get them."

Another tuk-tuk driver steps in and, sensing a possible lost fare, the first driver picks up Anwar's bag and carries it to his waiting tuk-tuk. The bus lady shakes her head and climbs aboard her vehicle for the return trip to Chiang Rai, muttering something not nice about foreigners.

"The floating hotel!" Anwar directs the tuk-tuk driver.

The driver has never heard of the floating hotel. He shakes his head and smiles, "Good guest house I take you."

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"Drive me to the river," Anwar says.

Down at the river, flowing a rich bloody brown in the dusk light, Anwar and I get out to have a look around. We find no signs of anything even vaguely resembling a floating hotel. While this irritates Anwar, it does not deter him.

"We'll look farther upriver," he says.

I tell him I'll strike out on my own from here. The guest house I've planned to stay in is just a few hundred yards downriver. Situated on the river, but not in it.

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With a grudging "Yes, yes, go," Anwar emancipates me.

"Thanks for the ride."

"No problem, my friend," he says, climbing back into the tuk-tuk, whose driver gives me a worried look. Anwar growls behind him and they sputter off along the riverfront in a cloud of dark brown smoke.

So, there is no floating hotel in Mae Sai. Perhaps once there was, perhaps there will be again. But for the moment, it has disappeared, the way everything here has a tendency to disappear, slipping quietly back and forth over the border of here and not-here like the men who wade across the Mekong just below me, carrying baskets over their heads, shuttling between the two countries.

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- - - - - - - - - - - -

Hester

The Mae Sai Plaza Guesthouse sprawls across a steep hillside above the Mekong River, a multilevel complex of huts and decks linked by a labyrinth of creaky plank walkways. As night and the accompanying mosquitoes descend, I sit on the big open veranda that serves as dining room, bar and nighttime video parlor. The big screen TV perched up high behind the bar is currently featuring "Freejack," a "cyber-adventure" starring a lost-looking Mick Jagger that's made it rather quickly to third world video distribution.

"Marlboro how much? Levi how much? Harley Davi-son how much? How much America?"

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I'm covered in Thai boys -- six guys who I guess to be in their late teens or early 20s. They're city guys, Thai yuppies up from Chiang Mai on vacation, sporting fresh haircuts with sharp angles and severe clipper work, a bottle of Mekong whiskey and eight packs of Krong Tip cigarettes laid out before them. They slide up onto my legs, trying to squirm into my lap, squeezing my shoulders and biceps, and tittering between drags of their cigarettes. This is commonly acceptable, straight behavior in Thailand, while playful or affectionate touching between men and women is almost never seen in public.

Across the Mekong River, scooters line up in front of the whorehouse, engines puttering, while speakers blast saccharine Asian pop music and strands of yellow, red and green lights probe the surrounding darkness like the tentacles of a monster sex octopus. The Thai boys point excitedly at the laughing girls over in Burma who ride away sidesaddle on the backs of scooters and get dropped off 20 minutes later -- their Burmese customers apparently quick fucks. "Aid," one of the boys says, and they all start laughing. "You know Aid?"

"Aid," the boy on my left knee repeats, pointing to the girls and standing up to make the universal fucky-fucky gesture with his hips. "No good. Die."

They all bust up again. Like they're telling me about some local spirit -- AIDS -- who's feared by the silly farang foreigners, but who locals know is nothing but a crazy ghost story.

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"You eat with us," right-arm-boy announces.

"Tired," I say. "Sleep."

After some tugging and pouting, they detach from me one by one, venturing off into the night making calls on their cell phones and counting off rolls of Thai money.

I order garlic chicken and rice from a silent, expressionless waiter. Across the river in Burma all the lights click off at once, leaving the country in blackness. No electricity after 9 at night. The generator at the whorehouse kicks in, though, providing the only light that side of the border, and the mopeds keep picking up and dropping off giggling passengers.

"Would you share a beer with me?" asks the woman in the black hat sitting alone at a nearby table. A fresh bottle of Singha has just been deposited on her table by an unsmiling waiter. "Don't worry," she says. "It's paid for."

I hesitate, preferring to be alone but afraid of seeming rude.

"Please, if it's not too much trouble for you," she says. She tilts her head back and the light from the bare bulbs overhead reveals a sharply lined face with narrow, bright gray eyes, framed by shoulder-length black hair.

"I am Hester . You are American?" she suggests, gesturing in an overly polite manner to an empty chair at her table.

"How could you tell?" I ask, sitting down.

"It's not so hard."

"Where are you from?"

"Born in Belgium, but now I live in Australia, and I think that is where I'll go from here. But I'm not sure."

"You don't like Belgium?"

"Belgians are miserable people," she says. "Depressing. Not like the Americans or Australians, who are so stupid and happy like dogs."

"Happy?"

"Yes. But still, not as bad as they say."

"Thanks."

"I was in America once," she says, filling my glass with pale yellow beer and refilling her own. "Seattle."

"Really."

"It scared me. All those dark people. In the bus station, I saw this gigantic Indian man. You know, like Apache. And so many Negroes, out in the streets. I could feel them watching me every time I went out."

Pause.

"The Negroes, they lived in this dirty ghetto. And they were so poor." She sighs, then breathes in sharply so that the air whistles through her teeth. "The Negroes really disgusted me."

"We don't call them Negroes anymore," I say. "And I think if they were offered a nicer place to live, they'd take it. It's not easy to make it in a country where your people started off as slaves."

"Are you a Jew?"

Pause.

"Because this, I think, is a typically Jewish view."

Pause.

"You are -- that's OK. I so rarely get to meet a real Jew."

"A real Jew?"

"Yes, I would say that you are a real Jew. You have the look of a true Jew. Your parents, they both are Jews?"

"Look, I'm going to ..."

"No, no. It is good that you talk with me. It is mostly Israel that upsets me -- the Zionists and how they control everything."

Pause.

"I tell you, I think that Hitler was a great man. A little crazy toward the end. But he had the right idea. Still, he failed. And today the Zionists are in control of everything. The banks, governments, secret committees ..."

"Hollywood."

"Everything," she says, "at the very top level is controlled by the Jews."

"You know what you're saying is crazy."

"Oh, you're not really so naive," she says. "It must be your upbringing. So both parents, they are Jews? OK, you nodded. And you think they are good people?"

"My parents? Yes, they are good people."

She laughs, her face folding up on itself like a crushed basketball. "Well, this is good that you are talking with me. Please, we must finish the beer. Are you going into Burma? I was there today." She squints and takes a long sip of her beer. "I am thinking I would like to cross the border. Find a kind Burmese man who will take me through the countryside, far into that country over there. I want to see these people. I am so fascinated by them. They are so open. I have had enough of the Thai people. I will go across the border, into a land that is more pure."

The waiter, who by this time I'd completely forgotten, delivers my food to the Belgian woman's table.

"Thank you for the beer," I say, picking up my plates. "I'm going to have this at my table. I need to write a letter."

"You stay here," she says. "I am going. I hope you are not offended. If you go over to Burma, you must visit the fortuneteller. I cannot tell if he is for real. I would like to know what you think. He is easy to find. Right outside the market on the street to the right. An interesting man. Homosexual, I think."

I agree to report back should I consult the fortuneteller. "Good night."

"Good night, my good Jewish friend."

But it's not a good night, and when -- after hours lying awake -- I finally do pass out, it's a fitful sleep that leaves me exhausted in the morning.

Mr. Lucky

To get to Burma you cross over a short bridge traversed by a steady flow of cars, trucks, scooters, animals and pedestrians. In the middle of the bridge a blue sign stretched across the road announces the "Union of Myanmar" in Burmese and in English. Just beyond that all foreigners are stopped at an immigration checkpoint, where you hand over $5 -- in U.S. currency -- and your passport to a guard who gives you a small square of blue paper that serves as your receipt and temporary visa to Burma. That I make this exchange with only the slightest hesitation makes me feel that I've crossed some kind of line -- a line, nonetheless, over which I hope to cross back.

Coming down off the bridge on the Burmese side into the town of Thachilek, you descend into the market, a third world rag-and-bone shop the like of which I've never seen, a well-trod crossroads where the dead mingle with the living. I wander beneath the canopy of the vendors' colorful cloth umbrellas. Among such common merchandise as brooms, plastic buckets, soup bowls and straw hats, I find pyramids of yellow monkey skulls; jaguar pelts; python skins; ivory tusks; dried coiled penis and testicles of wild cats great and small; internal organs of every description; horns, antlers, skulls, teeth, claws and monkey hands.

The women in the market stalls have cheeks smeared with yellow paste and turn to stare like graceful and possibly dangerous animals, fanning themselves with folded-up newspapers.

The marketplace fills a large square and runs into off into a few surrounding streets. I'm wandering up one of these market arteries when I hear someone shouting in English, "My friend! My friend!"

My new "friend," the Belgian Nazi, pops out from beneath a big tent and waves. She is wearing the same outfit she had on last night -- the black hat, black shirt and pants.

"Would you have a tea?" she shouts. "The food here looks very good, too."

I walk over and join her in the tent, too confused about her intentions to defend against her apparent enthusiasm for me.

We look into the row of simmering pots of soup. "Beef oh poh?" asks a woman with the long metal ladle.

"Pork," I say.

"Oh!" the Belgian gasps.

I figured she'd get a kick out of this.

"So you eat pork?"

I tell her I'll eat just about anything.

"This is impressive," she says. "Free will."

We sit down at a table covered by a plastic cloth with a jar of chopsticks and a lazy Susan holding trays of coarse salt, pepper flakes and fresh chili peppers at its center. I slurp up the thin, chewy noodles and gobble down strips of pork while the Nazi sips a green tea. In spite of the heat, I'm actually quite hungry.

"Have you seen the fortuneteller?" asks Hester.

I shake my head and sip soup from my bowl.

"You must go. He is right up this street. He told me some interesting things."

"Like what?" I ask, loudly slurping up the last of the liquid.

"He told me I had no source of income," she says. "This is true. Now how could he have known that? He said this year would be lucky for me. I think there is something to him."

"You think he's real?"

"I'm not sure. So I hope you will go. Yes? You will find me back at the hotel."

I part with the woman in black and head up the dusty street away from the market. A thin man with a rounded face ambles out from a shady little storefront and ushers me over as if he's been expecting me.

"I am the fortuneteller," he says, with a come-along tilt of his head. "Please, my assistant." He motions to a chubby, smiling young woman who beckons me over to a wooden table. With a small rubber roller, she covers my palms with a thick coat of resinous black ink. The fortuneteller steps over, places a sheet of paper on a table, and presses his hands down on top of mine, hand-printing me.

"Good, good," the fortuneteller says. "See you inside." His assistant fills a bucket of cold water from a cistern and pours it over my hands. She gives me a towel and I rub the last of the ink off. She then directs me inside, where the fortuneteller is kneeling on a pillow on an elevated platform, arranging an imposing-looking array of rubber stamps, engineering stencils, compasses, triangles and colored pencils.

He begins drawing lines across the paper with my handprints on it, stamping it with red and green circles and squares. He works intensely over my handprints for several minutes, sucking on a cigarette and consulting the stack of books by his side. Finally, he looks up, smiling brightly.

"You are administrator," he says.

Not really. I shake my head.

"Something like administrator?" he suggests.

No.

"You have no income now," he says. The Hester line. Still, he's right again.

"You hurt leg," he says, grinning slyly with a fresh flush of confidence. "About three month before."

Searching my memory for recent physical injuries of any sort I come up with nothing, and guiltily shake my head again. I light a cigarette and exhale into the warm, thick air inside the fortunetelling chamber. Noises from the street outside drift in through the bead curtain -- scooter engines, roosters, women shouting in a high-pitched sing-song. Mr. Lucky shifts his kneeling position, and I notice how delicate and well-tended his bare feet are.

Turning wisely from the opaque past to the future's clearer horizons, he continues: "Later this year -- three, four month -- you start new ..." More frantic dictionary scrambling. "New cycle. Money, car, everything come. Big house, too. Look here."

He shows me the print of my left hand, where a green pencil line intersects a stenciled red octagon.

"This very lucky," he says, pausing thoughtfully before adding, "You have no wife."

I nod once more, happy that my fortuneteller seems at last to be hitting his stride.

"You marry small woman," he says, holding his hand up to his chin. "Very happy."

"Now I tell you auspicious numbers," he says, fishing a 25-cent word from his limited English
vocabulary. Eyes darting back and forth between his books and my hand prints, he writes numbers on a piece of paper and reads them off to me.

"And last one No. 17," he concludes, smilingly pleased with himself.

I nod.

"Date today, 17," he says. "This is lucky day."

The fortuneteller points behind him, where a long narrow shelf is decorated with hundreds of empty cigarette boxes bearing the Lucky Strikes target logo.

"Lucky Strikes," I say.

"Right," he smiles. "And I," he says, tapping his chest with a finger, "am Mr. Lucky. Name is Mr. Lucky."

He closes his books and says, "Today you lucky, too. How much you think you pay to me?"

"One hundred baht?" I suggest.

"You pay nothing," Mr. Lucky laughs. "Today, no charge."

He stands up and motions me to follow him outside.

"You remember Mr. Lucky your friend," he says, patting my back. "You go home for rich future. Mr. Lucky stays here in Burma. But this I do for friends-ship. I happy for you. Very happy for you."

I think him, tentatively, waiting for the catch.

"You have lucky day," he says.

I take out some crumpled baht from my pocket, but he brushes off the money with a smile. "For friends-ship."

Not sure if I should feel conned (when all I've been taken for is my time), or disappointed (because I wanted a fortuneteller I could believe in), I feel, more than anything else, thoroughly mystified as I walk through the thick, pungent smells of the marketplace and back across the bridge to Thailand, crossing back into a kind of strangeness that after nearly a month in the country is becoming at least familiar.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

On the edge

The next morning starts out gray and turns to hard steady rain. There is nothing left but to go. More places to see. I carry my backpack up Maen Street all the way to the bus stop, ignoring the pleas of chain-smoking tuk-tuk drivers waiting out the storm in the shelter of their vehicles. I look back at the Mekong, dark brown and bubbling in the rain's onslaught. The tops of palm trees whip themselves into swirling frenzies of battered fronds.

The downpour soaks my clothes, seeps into my skin. I swallow rain as I breathe and lean hard against a monsoon wind. Curtains of rain enfold me, rendering me less and less visible with each step.

On this strange border where people come to disappear, to abandon old lives
and seek out new ones -- new companions, new histories -- I am but the latest departure. Like my new friends Anwar and Hester and even Mr. Lucky, I have been drawn to this place for some
reason. Whether I'm searching, or fleeing, no longer seems to matter, and I
leave Mae Sai without a trace, slipping away into a space between worlds.


Adam Bluestein

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