Endangered animal skins and iPods. A day trip to Tachilek, Myanmar
Endangered animals' skins hang next to fashionable mannequins in the unpretentious boutiques of Tachilek, Myanmar. Tourists, who entered this frontier town in northeast Myanmar on a day trip from Thailand, also ogle an assortment of other strange items, including dodgy packages of Viagra pills, fake Marlboro cigarettes and America's anti-Saddam Hussein playing cards.
For loftier forms of culture, some visitors tour a handful of government-controlled Buddhist temples and pagodas, where Tachilek's squalor, corruption and desperation are silently dealt with in prayers. Others slink towards the casino.
Some foreign visitors who stray for a day into Myanmar, a country also known as Burma, ponder their own personal politics before deciding on whether or not to come here. World leaders, Burmese dissidents, "Lonely Planet" guidebook writers and others are currently debating the pros and cons of financing Burma's international tourism, because the country's citizens suffer some of the world's worst human rights violations under a military dictatorship which profits from tourism businesses.
Foreign travelers who do make the journey can simply walk across a short, two-lane bridge from Mae Sai in northwest Thailand, over the narrow polluted Sai River, into the town of Tachilek in Burma's Shan State. A one-day visa is sold by Burmese immigration officials on the border.
From the flat bridge, arriving visitors can peer down into a thriving riverside market packed with cheap counterfeits, plentiful clothes, electronic gadgets, amusing souvenirs and other items mostly brought in from China -- Burma's northern ally.
Most tourists immediately descend into the Sai Lom Joy Market, which occupies several lanes packed with buyers and sellers. No need to change money. Everyone in Tachilek gleefully accepts Thai baht and U.S. dollars.
Saddam playing cards, monkey skulls and fake Christian Dior
Boisterous Burmese men, women and children wander through the market and display shoulder-carried chest-high trays, which are stacked with an array of things they think foreigners would be thrilled to own.
These include newly manufactured playing cards illustrated with photos of Iraq's then-dictator Saddam Hussein and his hapless regime's officials. When America invaded Iraq, U.S. troops handed such decks of playing cards to the Iraqis, amid hopes they would act like miniature wanted posters and ease the capture of Saddam and his top supporters.
The decks on sale in Tachilek, however, appear to be clumsy copies because the label says, in broken English: "Issued by Intelligence Agency of United States of America," next to an American flag and U.S. Eagle seal. But the Ace of Spades is accurately represented by Saddam Hussein, and his face glares from the hustlers' trays for Tachilek's visitors to consider.
Other items in their trays include real cigarette cartons, containing genuine packages of Marlboros, Camels, Kents and other famous brands, but reportedly lacking any American tobacco. According to victimized buyers, the re-packaged boxes have been painstakingly crammed with wretched Burmese tobacco -- and perhaps a sprinkling of wood shavings. The trays also offer pocket knives, Zippo lighters and erotic Chinese videos.
Shopkeepers, meanwhile, are not shy about displaying large pelts from endangered clouded spotted leopards, among other animals, and dangle the skins on hooks next to mannequins featuring clothes for men and women.
Glass showcases reveal monkey skulls, bear paws, animal claws, internal organs and blood-soaked liquids, which are touted as tonics and aphrodisiacs. Some of the animal parts are dumped in a jumble along with Buddhist and animist amulets, talismans and charms. Nearby, clusters of saffron-robed Buddhist monks from Thailand scrutinize stacks of Chinese-made DVDs, including films and music.
Foreigners also like to poke among racks of fake designer sunglasses, including Christian Dior. Shoppers eagerly sort through Chinese-made clothing and faux fashion accessories in small, modern, well-lit boutiques which offer a bit of glistening glamour to the lanes.
Tacky tourist attractions and begging monks
Many of the market's customers appear to be Thai, but plenty of other foreign tourists also rub shoulders amid the noisy chaos.
Elsewhere in Tachilek, the small town is a depressing collection of wooden shanties, bleak tea stalls, a dismal commercial district and a garishly expensive golf course and hotel complex.
An entrepreneur has set up a large, roadside display for tourists who might want to gawk at some minority ethnic Padaung tribal females, known as "long-necked women". The women sit inside a building set among trees.
Burma's Padaung wrap heavy brass coils around the necks of virtually all their young daughters, starting when the girls are five years old. When the girls mature, more shiny coils are added.
As a result, their collar bones, shoulder cartilage, and muscles become weighted down, destroying the body's normal horizontal line and causing the shoulders to droop, with the collar bones at a vertical angle of about 45-degrees, according to x-rays of Padaung women.
Tachilek's pathos also appears in its Buddhist temples and grimy streets, where young monks beg for money -- even though their religion warns them never to beg, but simply accept freely offered donations.
Tachilek rests in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle -- where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma meet -- and is also haunted by illicit drug dealers. Authorities in and around Tachilek, on both sides of the border, occasionally seize huge caches of opium, heroin and methamphetamines. The drugs originate in Burma, to be smuggled into Thailand or abroad.
Tips for getting in and out
Obviously, you will want to steer clear of sleazy characters suggesting you purchase anything not street legal. Endangered animals' skins and other animal parts are also liable to be seized -- and possible punishment levied -- by Thai officials during the customs check on the bridge, upon re-entry into Thailand.
If you do visit Tachilek for the day, you will find several inexpensive hotels in Mae Sai to enjoy before and after your trip. The most practical hotels are close to the bridge, enabling travelers to wake up early and stroll across the border, and afterwards walk back carrying whatever items they may have purchased.
On the Thai side, the area near the bridge offers its own Tha Khi Lek Market, which is a prosperous bazaar overflowing with Thai, Burmese and Chinese items. Frequent buses link Mae Sai with other towns in northern Thailand, including a direct ride to and from Chiang Rai.