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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Myanmar: Two Hours in Another Country


The bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai took about five hours. At the bus station I took a song-theouw to the border. As I was asking how to get there, I saw the man who had been sitting next to me on the bus, totally absorbed in a Thai book. On the chance he spoke English, and remembering that when IDs were checked he pulled out a passport, not ID papers, I asked if he were going to the border. Yes, he was. "Where are you from?" I was curious. He was from New York City, and as unfriendly as I remember New Yorkers being.

Anyway, took the song-theouw, filled out my exit card, and got stamped out of Thailand. I walked across a short bridge, filled out my entry card, paid $10, and got stamped into Myanmar, and left my passport in the care of the immigration authorities, as required. My entry stamp was good for 14 days, but only allowed me to go to three towns. This was Shan state, home of the rebels. To visit any of Myanmar other than the border towns, I would have to buy a 30-day visa and fly to Yangon (Rangoon).

I followed the crowd down into the shopping area. I was surprised at the number of Thais coming over the border. Then I learned that the border area is a duty-free zone. The products most in demand were liquor and cigarettes. Lots of people were buying things like the kinds of snacks you put out in a bar. Since they don't have to pay the $10 fee, I think a lot of Thai business owners come over to buy supplies for their shops.

The currency used was the baht. The language used was the baht. There were very few tourist-type shops. While I thought the border was there to make money off the visa fees, it seems it is really there to make money off of the duty free. The Thais are the main marketing target. Us Westerners don't really count. We're just an extra.

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