Mae Sai, Thailand, is normally just a day trip for most people, the border town that you pass through to renew your visa. But we spent a week in this great little city with some friends. Mae Sai has so much to offer it’s sad that it gets skipped over for the sake of a visa. With it’s unique blend of Thai, Burmese, Chinese and hill tribe culture, it feels different than other parts of Thailand. And the scorpion statute temple overlooking Myanmar is NOT be missed!
We did cross the border into Tachileik, Myanmar, for the day and that’s definitely where our adventures began! Tachileik is a border town like Mae Sai, and used to be the primary route for the opium trade. Tourists entering Tachileik are unable to travel any other parts of Myanmar, but hopefully one day that will change.
Right across the border is a huge marketplace, with vendors offering cigarettes, Viagra, and so so many other things. We quickly walked through all the chaos, until we reached a little cafe and recharged with fruit smoothies. We made the right choice. We then decided to walk to Tachileik’s landmark stupa, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s atop a hill, overlooking the city with some beautiful views. As I walk around the pagoda, snapping photos in my borrowed sari [my knee length skirt was too immodest…], I noticed my husband was no longer with me. He was deep in conversation in a Burmese monk.
The monk, whom I’ll call Dan, had cornered my husband speaking English and serving him sugar cane water. It seemed I should intervene. Dan, however, would not be slowed, and continued talking to the both of us in halting English. As a 30something monk from Shan State, the region of Myanmar we were in, he was learning English from a tutor but was always anxious to practice his English with native speakers. I’m beginning to think he approached every white guy that happened near him. Dan was nice enough, sharing about life as a monk in Myanmar, and his desire to help younger monk children [novices??] to learn to speak English. We told him about our home in America, and traveling through Asia. Dan then proceeded to ask us if we would buy him an English/Burmese dictionary so he could learn to speak better English. I was shocked by his boldness & directness. We met him 10 minutes ago. Why on earth would we buy him something? Did he see us as a foreign ATM machine? Then I remembered he is a monk, a profession that survives on the generosity of the people around him…whether they want to be generous or not. He told us about how every morning he waits for people to bring him food & money to eat for the day. And how he got us drinks without even offering to pay the vendor. What an interesting system of survival. My equally generous husband offered to buy him the dictionary, if he would take us to the bookstore. Dan agreed, so we set off for the bookstore.
For a man in a robe, Dan sure makes good time weaving through the streets and alleyways of Tachileik towards what we hope is the bookstore. He still talks non stop to my husband, who is clearly more patient than myself. I was sure this monk was going to take us to some Buddhist ceremony or con us out of even more money. So much for my faith in humanity. But to my surprise, we end up at a bookstore. And one with a Burmese/English dictionary. Dan and my husband discuss the books and decide on one that will meet his needs. We pay, and exit the store, Dan holding his treasured dictionary proudly. My cynicism dropped. This monk really did want to learn English. He wasn’t scamming us. He wanted practice his speaking and his vocabulary. And we got to help with that. To repay us for our generosity, Dan offered us some fruit from a nearby street vendor who clearly was not excited for us to take their fruit. We declined, and in doing so, managed to offend Dan. He didn’t understand why we didn’t want repayment of our generosity. Because in Thai [and apparently Burmese] culture, generosity only happens when there is recognition. But we didn’t want repayment or recognition. Dan seemed quite confused. My husband tried to explain. We told Dan that if he used the dictionary to help teach the novice monks, then he should email us. That would be our repayment. Knowing that we helped young students learn. And we equipped this man to teach. Dan seemed satisfied. Or at least pretended to. He proceeded to walk us all the way back to the border of Thailand, where we left him waving and smiling. Sometimes, when you start a day you have no idea how it’s going to end.