Note: I have removed some details from this entry at the request of some people mentioned in it.
We decided to leave Mandalay for the mountains in the East to do some trekking. Our ticket on the train would take us to [omitted] in Northern Shan State in about 12 hours - we opted for the first-class seats. First-class ended up being the same as third-class on a Thai train: plain, hard wooden seats in a car packed with passengers and random cargo, no fans. I enjoyed the great scenery despite a severely numb ass. The route east includes the crossing of the world’s second-highest railway bridge, the Gokteik Viaduct. I later learned that photographing the bridge is supposed to be prohibited, but I managed a few poor shots of it as we slowly rolled across. [The internet connection here is too restricted to upload my photos now, sorry] Each stop of the train brought us by increasingly small stations for a cup of tea and/or piss break. More local passengers would squeeze themselves and their cargo onto the “ordinary class” cars and we would move on to the next one…
The train pulled into [omitted] just after sundown. Representatives from 2 of the 3 guest houses in town gave us the sales pitch and we opted for the [omitted], spoken for by Mr. [omitted] over Mr. [omitted]’s place. I figured it would all be the same no matter which we chose and settled into a basic but comfortable room (with a hot water shower!). Actually, the hot water is no minor detail. [omitted] is fucking cold! It became priority #1 to purchase a sweater at the market in the morning -I hadn’t anticipated this sort of weather at all.
Over the next three days we spent in [omitted], we accomplished little more than purchasing those sweaters. The information provided by our guidebook (the latest Myanmar Lonely Planet) prepared us little for the shady goings-on of this little town. It was here that I started to learn that life in Myanmar really can be as bad - or worse, even - than is reported to us back home.
First, we walked out to the [omitted], an old British colonial house once home to a Shan prince. The last prince (or sao pha) was arrested during the military takeover in 1962 and is believed to have been killed a year later. After his [omitted] wife left, the home was occupied by Mrs. [omitted] and Mr. [omitted] ([omitted] of the sao pha) until just last year Mr. [omitted] was sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly “giving false information to foreigners” and for receiving guests without a permit. It was Mrs. [omitted] herself who related to us this story while we stood talking through her now permanently locked gate.
This is one among many similar stories about current happenings across the Shan State - the government has been systematically arresting all of the key Shan politicians in an attempt to maintain control of the region. Mrs. [omitted] urged me to share her story publicly on my blog as long as I removed any specifics which could allow the government to identify and arrest her, hence all the black bars and missing flag on the travelogue map.
In [omitted], we also sought out Mr. [omitted] on advice from the guidebook. L.P. suggested that we ask him about catching a local bus to [omitted] for trekking. Upon meeting him, his first question was “Which guest house are you staying at?” When we told him, he said that the local police, in cahoots with the owners of another guest house in town, have prohibited him from giving foreigners such information. He began to describe the current situation in [omitted], but interrupted himself a couple times to duck behind the counter to avoid being seen talking with us when certain people walked by. I became very uncomfortable standing there and told him I’d come back later to talk.
The next day I payed him another visit and he seemed eager to give me more details about his plight. He showed me a list of about a dozen rules handed down to him by the police forbidding him, among other things, to give information to foreigners about trekking, to speak to or about certain people (including Mrs. [omitted] and Mr. [omitted] - he was glad to hear that we were able to visit Mrs. [omitted] in person), and display photos of Aung San Su Kyi in his storefront or even hang them in his private back room. He was able to talk more about the crackdown on the Shan minority and told us that he has plans to close his shop and “disappear” with his daughter for three months as he fears that his time in [omitted] “may soon be up.” He eventually offered to help arrange transport to [omitted] via a local truck to [omitted] for us, but we had already abandoned the trekking in [omitted] plan in favor of visiting the north.
Before leaving, we walked out of town through a couple tiny Shan villages and played with a bunch of adorable little kids at an elementary school. I took lots of photos which the little monsters promptly erased by going crazy all videogame-style on my camera’s buttons. I also got a haircut from a nice lady who (surprisingly) spoke Thai. She and Pui talked about Thai food while she gave me something of a military crew-cut. I miss Bangkok already.