I mounted a mule-horse cross, bred for the difficult job of traversing the mountainous terrain north of Mae Hong Son, Thailand. The mule's caretaker led us along a mountain stream for a couple hours, crossing many times. Along the first few miles of the rough terrain were water-works, earth construed runnels that carry water from the creek to some fields lower down. It was nice and easy, breezy and beautiful for a while, then for a second I thought the horse was going out from under me, down a cliffside. We quickly descended 8 or 10 feet while progressing on perhaps not one yard. The creek fell to 60 feet below sometimes, and the trail was seldom level. It became so steep that long holes a foot or more deep had been dug as horse steps, sometimes 35 or 40 in a close row, and the horse had to do a kind of high-step.
We frequently went up, way up high slopes, the porter-guide-muleteer after a while pulling in front, and my spine going almost parallel with that of the horse. When the slopes became too extreme we began using switchbacks, often 10 or 15 yards long, other times reversing quite quickly. The horse sweated profusely, horseflies buzzing about its eyes. I tried with little success to swat them away with my quart (crop). We saw no-one for over five hours, until after resting on a level area we reached after topping three previous ridges. They were gorgeous to look back upon, but we were soon again engulfed in trees. We then encountered two men who bore ancient long-barrel rifles, who acted as if they were hunting. An hour later we met another man, at a very refreshing small waterfall.
The large parties of international journalists we saw evidence of in their trash leavings (Tablerone chocolate boxes given free on international flights, pop cans) were reported to have done the route in eight hours. I had hoped to do it in less, and did, but to little advantage. My guide hobbled the horse outside a small dusty village, then left me in a room that resembled a small barracks, outside of which were tunnels into a hillside. I was exhausted and not unhappy to rest while waiting for a vehicle. I fell asleep, and someone woke me, offering to smoke with me some #4. I wanted to see it, but declined, politely. He took out a small vial of white powder and a cigarette, unrolled the cigarette and mixed in powder, rolled it back up, smoked, and nodded off. Shortly after, I was directed to a pickup, which took me to the headquarters of Khun Sa's administration, where I was given a room at the VIP quarters.
A treaty had just been negotiated with elders of the Lahu tribe, and I was invited to the celebratory dance at Khun Sa's residence. I was fed first, and had time to pour ladles of cold water over myself in my room's private bath (equipped with an electric light), and to put on decent clothes. I was soon holding hands between two beautifully bedecked Lahu maidens, with green-uniformed but unarmed soldiers to either side, dancing in a circle that soon included Khun Sa, who sang out enjoyable verses of voluble song. I forgot my tired feet and legs, and tried my best to follow along with my fellows. An European crew went about with TV cameras and bright lights, recording the event. My host was Khernsai Jaiyen, the aid to Khun Sa most quoted in English-language newspapers. His English is fluent (although self-taught) and I found his manner friendly and intelligent. He introduced me to several other English speakers, including two gentlemen of Shan descent who were based with the UN in America. We were served candy and "whiskey" (which I have reason to believe should really be called rum), after the dancing stopped. My new friends and I considered visiting Ho Mong's karaokee lounge, but chose instead to visit the drinking stall of a woman who had a good bit of English. There we had both Carlsberg and Singha beer, tasty Shan/T'ai food, and a pretty good time. The electricity in Ho Mong, however, goes off at ten, so I had to prepare for bed by candlelight.
Next day I was shown around a bit after breakfasting with the UN guys, by the charming morning outdoor market. I saw the lake, schools, a church, garment factory, printing department, stores, hotels, pharmacies, and new neighborhood and road construction. Unfortunately I had little time and chose to walk on back, which took the same amount of time but tired me immensely and left sores on my feet still visible two months later. Arriving in Mae Hong Son just before dark, I was informed at the airline office that I should report for standby very early in the morning. I was very lucky I did so, as no subsequent flights were able to leave for two days, due to fog.
I had gone to offer some ideas and possibly support in crop-substitution programs, and remain hopeful of helping in providing a viable substitute for dependency upon narcotic drug production for Shan people, and also in using their situation as a case example helpful in elucidating many problems in present political and economic frameworks and realities. Too much is ignored or wishfully swept temporarily out of sight, only to fester until erupting into danger to society at large. The absence of much available information on this situation is but one symptom of this problem; organized crime and drug-use epidemics are others. As important, of course, are general human rights, respect for nature and tradition, and awareness of history and resultant responsibilities.
Joel loves to hear your thoughts.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Click to the Burma index.
South-East Asia, A Social, Economic and Political Geography by Charles A. Fisher, Methuen & Co., 1964
Historical Facts about the Shan State (Condensed and Revised Edition), Shan State National Congress, 1994
Burma's Golden Triangle, On the Trail of the Opium Warlords, by Andre' and Louis Boucaud, Asia Books, 1992
The Lands of Charm and Cruelty, Travels in Southeast Asia, by Stan Stresser, Vintage Books, Random House, 1994
Land of Jade, A Journey Through Insurgent Burma by Bertil Lintner, published by Kiscadale in Scotland and White Lotus in Bangkok, 1990
Burma in Revolt, Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, by Bertil Lintner, Westview Press and White Lotus, 1994
Burmese Looking Glass, A Human Rights Adventure and a Jungle Revolution, by Edith Mirante, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993
The Politics of Heroin, CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Alfred W. McCoy, Lawrence Hill Books 1991
True Love and Bartholomew, Rebels on the Burmese Border by Jonathan Falla, Cambridge University Press 1991
The Shan of Burma, Memoirs of a Shan Exile by Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1987
A History of Modern Burma, by John F. Cady, Cornell University Press, 1958
Burman in the Back Row, Autobiography of a Burmese Rebel, by Aye Saung, Asia 2000 Ltd., 1989
Constructive Engagement in the Burmese Contest, by Kanbawza Win,
CPDSK (Institute of), Federal Republic of the Union of Burma (Liberated area), March 1995.