Monday, December 22, 2014

the time I slept in a drug den

I ended up hopping from accommodation to accommodation (literally); my maimed foot forcing me to remain in one of the most touristed areas of Cambodia for the Christmas and New Year's holiday.

Sihanoukville is essentially divided into four separate beaches. Victory, a beach only Russians frequent. The resort area, with the nicest beaches although, consequently, 2 kilometers away from civilization... it is also where the outdoor stairs and I collided.  Serendipity, in the heart of all the action, wildly crowded and the least enticing of the beaches I visited. And Otres, a tiny hippy village on the water, 5 kilometers away from Serendipity with nice beaches and a relaxing atmosphere.

I left the resort area on Christmas day. With the inability to walk properly, I needed to be closer to amenities. I then moved accommodations three times in five days. Out of necessity rather than choice. Availability was limited in that area. So I made due. Until I had enough of Serendipity and its sub-par beach front.

Fortunately Sammy had enough of it too. We met our last night in Serendipity at the hostel we booked into at the same time.

I saw her in the lobby the following morning with all her belongings.

"You're checking out too?" I asked.

"Yeah, I've decided to try out Otres," she replied.

It was exactly where I was headed too. Since neither of us had a room lined up, we decided to grab a tuk-tuk together and see what our options were.

Going from one hotel to another along the beach, we were greeted with nothing but "no vacancies". Until we met an older man who was checking into a hotel we were told had no available rooms.

"I actually just checked out of a place further down the road," he said. "From what I gather, the room is available, but only for tonight. I'll have my boy give you the name of the hotel if you're interested."

We were. We walked over to the car where the man said his boy was, to find a young Cambodian man in the passenger's seat.

Sammy and I looked at each other. He wasn't a type of boy we were expecting. The filthiness of the older man had us second guessing if we even wanted to check out the hotel he suggested.

We went anyway. We were running out of options.

Thankfully, it was quite nice. But we only had it for a night.

Sammy decided to leave for Vietnam the following day.  Whereas, I had to stay.

But she joined me that evening in my quest for a place to rest my head for at least a few more days until my limp was less pronounced.

Again, it was proving difficult.

"You girls looking for a place to stay?"

We turned to see two Western guys mounting their motorbikes.

"I am. Not having much luck though."

"There's a hostel near where we're staying," one of the guys stated. "It's about a mile inland though. But I'm pretty sure they have availability."

"What's it called? I may as well check it out."

"I think it's called the Hacienda or something, but it's on our way, so we can give you girls a ride if you'd like," the other guy offered.

"Sure, okay," came my response before consulting with Sammy.

She gave me an incredulous look.

The grime of the hostel was less pronounced in the darkness. But they did have one bed available.

"It's $3 a night," the attendant said. "And it's available for as many nights as you'd like."

"Just $3 a night?," my eyes widened. Shrugging my shoulders I added, "well, may as well."

Funny thing about sunlight. It gives you a better view of your surroundings than what darkness offers.  I set my luggage down next to the bed I was directed to the following day with a strong hope that the sheets actually were clean. From the looks of the room, nothing else had been in years.

"This is actually the nicer dorm," a girl greeted me as she walked in and sat on her bed. "There's another dorm here that's free. Well, you pay $3 the first night, but all other nights are free as long as you keep a tab at the bar. It's crowded. Something like 18 beds. The snoring there is ridiculous. But, I mean, it is free. I was staying there for a while until this one guy was making it impossible for me to sleep."

From what I gathered, the Hacienda is home to the long term traveler. Ones down on their luck. With no more money for housing or food, not to mention enough money to return home. Somehow, though, they always had pocket change for drugs. Weed being the softest of the drugs floating around the compound.

I stepped out of the room and was greeted by an 40-something year old Polish man on the porch who looked at me, smiled and exclaimed, "I'm flying!" before passing out.

I gathered up my laptop, e-reader, ipod and any other necessity I thought I'd need, crammed it in my little backpack and decided from that moment onward I'd spend my every waking moment at the beach.

Upon checking out of the hostel a few days later, a guy who slept in a neighboring bed started up a conversation with me as I packed away all my belongings.

"I need to get rid of these," he said midway through the conversation, throwing a package of pills on top of his bag.

"What is it? Why do you need to get rid of it?" I played along in his little conversation. If the tenants weren't taking drugs, they were talking about it.

"Vicodin. I've been taking too many."

"How many?"

"30 a day... plus 10 Xanex."

My eyes widened. "How is your stomach not bleeding?"

"I... I... I don't know. I'm just really depressed."

"Why don't you just throw them away then."

"Because they're drugs!" he stated as though my question was obviously a stupid one.

"How much did you pay for it?"

"$4 for 40 pills."

"And how many do you have left?"

"About 25."

"Look. I'll pay you $2.50 for the rest of those then."

"What are you going to do with them?"

"Throw them down the toilet."

He paused for a second. Looking down at the pills and then back at me. "Nah, that's okay. I'll just take the rest of them tomorrow." 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Memories of Christmas Past

It was mid December of last year when I entered Cambodia. Yet, it doesn't feel as though a year has passed. Certain memories seem as though they occurred just yesterday.  Like one revolving my foot, for example.

This poor foot is no amateur in the field of travel-related disasters. Rewind the clock to March of 2009.  Barcelona.  I sat on the back of a motorbike with a silly boy. The end result was less-than-pleasant. My foot being the one to face the brunt of it all, trapped under a pile of machinery as we lay sideways on the ground. The poor thing grew three sizes that day, and remained so for weeks. A long time passed before it finally forgave me.

Returning to present day (present day, last year, that is), I had been walking on a numb leg and foot since a week into touring Myanmar because of a lower back issue, which consequently, still isn't resolved today (the real present day).

Feeling melancholy after having visited the Killing Fields, and having no desire to stick around the streets of Phnom Penh, I traveled south to the coast the very next day. December 24th, to be exact.

The price of the hotel I booked was astronomical for the locale. Granted, the powdery white sandy beach was worth it.  And it was the the busy holiday season, after all, so I took what I got.

Although dark out when I returned in the evening after a day out, it was still relatively early. Instead of heading to my room, I decided to walk down to the outdoor lounge area and listen to the sounds of the waves lapping against the sand.

With the light of the moon as my only guide, I made my way down the outdoor stairs. But with no feeling in my foot and minimal visibility, I missed-stepped. My foot twisted and I followed it to the ground.

My gift to myself last Christmas season was a torn ligament, and a self-mandated 10 day stay at the beach.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the killing fields

At the time of the war, there were 15 million people in Cambodia. 85% were farmers, 10% office workers and 5% other.  The Khmer Rouge, the governmental leaders, were well educated teachers, most receiving their degree in Paris. When they took charge they condemned education, and then annihilated the educated. Poetically, they used a school to house their prisoners. 

They wanted to start the country afresh. Year zero. The educated, the prominent community figures, those who disobeyed rules were nothing but a hinderance to thwart their new ideals. So they got rid  of them. 

1 in 4 individuals ended up being killed. By their own people.  

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake,” said Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge. 

Many were brought to the killing fields. 

Large speakers tied to trees blared propaganda music to cover the noise of death. But it could still be heard. 

Various methods were used to kill. Stems of sugar plan trees were used to slice necks, due to their teeth like jagged edges. 

Adults were hit in the back of the head, whether dead or knocked unconscious, it didn’t really matter. They’d be thrown into the pit in the ground anyway. Chemicals that were thrown on top of them would finish the job… and stop the stench. 

A giant tree stands tall in the middle of one of the fields, rope bracelets are tacked all over it. A sign of respect and remembrance. Infants were killed there. Soldiers would grab them by the legs, dangling the little one upside down.  They smashed their head against the tree and then threw them the opposite direction into the mass grave that lays beside it. 

When one member of a family was killed, the rest would be killed too - no matter their age - so on one would be left to seek revenge. 

“You feel so isolated - among your own people, even though you speak the same language. It’s the most frightening feeling of your life,” a survivor states. 

9000 remains were collected in 1980 alone. There are still fragments remaining in the ground. Bones continue to resurface even today. Every few months caretakers collect them and place them in a glass box - “it’s as if the spirits of those who died here do not lie still”. 

A woman survivor stated, “I’m almost 70 years old, and I understand many things. I understand about love. Love between a husband and a wife. Love between a mother and her child. Love of your neighbors. But I don't understand this. That is why I cannot talk about it." 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Promotor of Peace

At 12 years of age, Suon's parents were killed in front of his eyes. The soldiers who had done so recruited him as one of their own. He cried for three weeks until he was thoroughly brainwashed and numbed from the memory. He was then ready to fight.

A few years later he escaped the Cambodian army by serving with the Vietnamese. It was only when he discovered he was killing his own people that he cry again. The first time since his parent's death.

"And when I got out of the Vietnamese army I started working here," he explained.

"How did you get out of that?" I asked.

He rolled up his pant leg. A prosthetic leg leads all the way to his hip. "I stepped on a land mine."

His leg is the most important part of him.

"One day I woke up and my prosthetic leg was gone. I couldn't find it. I was in a panic. I cried and cried. My friends walked in and laughed, saying they hid it in the closet as a joke. I told them to never do that again. My leg is my life. Every night since then I've held onto it as I sleep."

He now tells his story at the Land Mine Museum in Siem Reap.

2.5 million mines are still hidden in Cambodia. About 12 people (primarily farmers) die every month from hidden bombs that have not yet been found.

Suon led us to a display of land mines, varying in shapes, complexity and material.

"And this one is the most dangerous of all," he said as he held up bomb in the shape of a wooden rectangular shaped box.

The wooden bombs killed thousands of children, in the early 2000's, who thought they were pencil boxes laying in the fields where they play.

"But I am not here to talk about war.  I spent my entire life growing up in the war.  I am very tired. We need peace in the world. That's what we must try to have. Peace." 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

History, in brief

I may have once mentioned I paid less than no attention in history class.  My eyes glazed over when trying to read textbooks filled with ancient dates of boring facts that happened in far away lands.  History was not my thing. I had no interest in learning about events that were not at all relatable. And I had the grades to prove it, much to my parents' dismay.

It's amazing what age and travel can do to broaden the mind and create a yearning desire to see, smell, touch and learn more about the places and events that are mentioned in those dry history books of my youth.

Angkor being a prime example.

So let's let the dry words of Wikipedia (my now go-to history book, regardless of its potential inaccuracies... because, let's face it, not being in grade school anymore means using whatever resource you'd like) lay out the brief history:
Angkor (Khmerអង្គរ or នគរ, "Capital City")[1][2] is a region of Cambodia that served as the seat of the Khmer Empire, which flourished from approximately the 9th to 15th centuries. Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate infrastructure system connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core. 
In Angkorian times, all non-religious buildings, including the residence of the king himself, were constructed of perishable materials, such as wood, "because only the gods had a right to residences made of stone." 
The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Angkor Wat [being] first a Hindu, then subsequently a Buddhist, temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world.

Monday, October 27, 2014

first impressions

Cambodia opened to tourism in 2003.  In 2004 over one million tourists flooded its lands. Ten years later, the number has jumped to over four million per year. Despite the deluge of holiday-goers being so great in such a short period of time, the country has coped with it amazingly well. However, whether it be the landscape - which has suffered drastic changes ecologically and visually due to deforestation, the people who are funny and jovial yet at times overbearing, the history - from its ancient temple roots to more recent genocides, visitors either love it or hate it.

All of it intrigued me, and as I crossed the boarder into Cambodia, I entered wondering which category I'd fall into by the time I left.

Although, the light banter offered by the first locals I came across, welcoming me with greetings like "whazzup homeslice?" sure gave it a good start.

Monday, October 13, 2014

the perks of long term travel

Short term holidays require planning. Hotels, attractions, transport. Details worked out well before your first vacation day to ensure the least amount of stress and the maximum amount of enjoyment.
Half the travel excitement comes with the anticipation of it all.

A life of travel is different. Planning is confining. It shuts the doors to spontaneous experiences that could end up providing you with some of your favorite memories. A life of travel involves the exhaustive efforts of lugging your belongings around the city, town, or village you've just arrived in for as long as it takes for you to find decent, available accommodation. Planning is done on a bus, a train, or a plane en route to your destination. Whatever it is you find on Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, or word of mouth, that is.

There is something exhilarating about traveling without an agenda.  The freedom of it all.  Like the ability to decide late into the evening hours, on your way back to your room in Bangkok, despite your prior plans to head south, "Screw it. I'm tired of Thailand."

And just like that, at 6:30 the following morning, you're lugging your belongings to the nearest bus station.  Destination: Cambodia.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Red or Yellow

Before the recent coup d'etat, the tension in Thailand was rather palpable - in certain, specifically designated, areas. Protests, primarily peaceful (the number of fatalities can be counted on one hand), filled the business district of Bangkok. Tents began popping up, and soon lined street medians, sheltered by suspension walkways and Bangkok's Sky Train. Individuals were in it for the long haul. The entrepreneurs of the group began vending food and civil unrest souvenirs, largely equating to lighthearted political jabs written on T-shirts.

And the rest of the city's (nay, country's) tenants - both permanent and otherwise - took more thought into their wardrobe each day, mostly steering clear of anything red or yellow.

Thailand's most prominent political division is represented in color. The poorer class, consisting mostly of farmers, and a few wealthier left-wing activists -- each of whom are against dictatorship, don red.  Everyone else, yellow.

For years, individuals who now consider themselves Yellow Shirts controlled the country. The lower class community was left struggling and were without resources if an unforeseen incident occurred.

My hairstylist in Chiang Mai explained it in the following way.

"My father was a farmer. He was our family's sole breadwinner. We never had much money. And we always worried about illnesses. If he had gotten sick, we wouldn't have been able to pay the hospital fees. Instead we would have had to plead with a wealthy family for money. They would respond with one of two answers. One, that they would help us, but we would have to leverage our farm. The other answer would be no, that they wouldn't help. Either way, we'd lose our farm."

Then a man by the name of Thaksin Shinawatra was elected Prime Minister.  Initially, he was supported by the majority of the population. Soon after, tides began to shift. He appealed to the farmers, the Red Shirts, offering them an education and affordable health-care. No longer did families face the fear of losing their livelihood when health concerns came in to play.

The Yellow Shirts found a certain number of his policies to be corrupt, and in events which lead to a military coup, had Thaksin exiled from the country in 2006 - five years into his office. The title was eventually transferred to his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, whom many call "Thanksin's puppet".  Yet, it took a number of protests by Red Shirts, and a few lives lost, before the title was passed.

The most recent turn of events had the Yellow Shirts crying for a change. They wanted "Thanksin's puppet" out. Yingluck offered elections. Soon after, she retracted her offer. Enraged, the Yellow Shirts fled to the streets, filling it with the sound of voices seeking a change.

A change which came, with a coup d'etat.  And so the cycle continues....

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

rose of the north

Chiang Mai, located in the rolling foothills of the Himalayan mountains, is the fifth largest city in Thailand. Centuries old, it was only until recently - 1920 to be exact - that journeys into the city no longer required difficult river travel or elephant treks.

Rumor has it, the city is quite beautiful, with the largest number of temples per square mile, and remnants of its walled past. But I spent too much time receiving daily massages (which in my humble opinion are the best in all of Thailand), learning how to cook Thai food and spending the evening hours wandering down the massive night markets to even take notice of the city itself. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"long last the nation's pride and victory..."

A few years ago, a French expat living in Chiang Rai, Thailand got upset because he was unable to purchase alcohol that evening. Elections were the next day, precipitating the ban on drinking, and he hadn't stocked up. Angry, he went home, grabbed a paint can and proceeded to black out the king's face on five different nearby pictures. Images of the king are seen all over the country on billboards, giant pictures that drape off large buildings, easels placed in front of shops, and the list goes on.

The expat was caught on tape. The license plate on his motorbike was traced and police showed up at his door a few days later. For defacing property containing the king's image is punishable by 3-15 years imprisonment. He was sentenced to the maximum charge, times five for each picture he destroyed.

Each prisoner is allowed one chance for amnesty during their sentence. The French expat sought it on his first day in jail.  It was his only chance in survival. The other prisoners would have surely killed him, as his actions are viewed as badly as a child molesters. The king, in turn, granted his freedom. He was sent to an immigration prison and shortly thereafter back to France.

The king, unlike what I had previously thought before hearing this story by another long-term expat in Chiang Rai, wasn't pompous or arrogant at all. Whether or not he promotes the splashing of his face around the country, he respects those who don't like him as much as he does those who do.

It poses the question, who initiates the public display of affection?  Who encourages the national anthems played in movie theaters just before the show starts, with images of the king's life splashed across the screen? What about the requirement to stand in silence every time the anthem is played, whether in the train station, at night markets, or any other random occurrence? Have ancient kings created the requirement, which have consequently trickled down generations and created a patriotism wherein citizens themselves insure its continuation? Or is it for tradition's sake?

Wherever the root behind Thailand's patriotism lies, being a witness of it, and a participant in its celebrations - including the highly anticipated King's birthday involving a festival of lights, will remain the most memorable aspect of the country.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

it's easy as...

"You can't go to northern Thailand without going to Pai!"

"You totally have to go to Pai."

"You're going to Pai, right?"

The amount of times I heard similar statements in my preparations to head north got so excessive that I feared Pai was being over-hyped. That is, until I arrived in the tiny, three stop light boasting, hipster town and began contributing my voice to the chorus of Pai-lovers.

What once was a tiny market town tucked away in the hills of the Mae Hong Song provence has turned into a tourist's mecca filled with free live music (which plays nightly), a wide range of unbeatable eats from cafe's and restaurants to evening markets, accommodations to fit any budget (read: $2 a night dorm bed), mountains to trek through or ride around on a rented motorbike, waterfalls to cool off in and a "chill vibe" long-term travelers come in search of. Many such-a-traveler ends up staying for indefinite periods of time.

It's as easy to get lost exploring the seemingly endless surrounding landscape as it is being sucked in to do nothing more than sit in a little cafe for hours chatting with the people seated at the table next to you.

My three-day planned trip turned into a six day stay, before I held an intervention with myself. It would have been all too likely I'd become a Pai statistic otherwise, unable to find my way out.

Friday, July 25, 2014

what a difference a border makes...

During our 28 day stay, the Burmese way of life - what little we were exposed to - didn't feel taxing. Amid the limited resources (it was sheer elation when we stumbled across a pack of Saltine Crackers)  we were never left wanting. And life didn't feel Third World.

Until we returned to Bangkok.

The modern Sky Trains, the reflective windowed high-rises, towering billboards, expansive freeways,  and 21st Century metropolitan feel was a contrast that hit us with such force, our bodies were drained by what we left behind. Then again, the exhaustion could have come from the 12 hour bus ride up to the Yangon airport where we spent more countless hours waiting for our flight to neighboring Thailand to depart. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

road to Mandalay

He was a monk the most of his life, before becoming a teacher and later starting a family.  Today Thura is a mushroom farmer who supplements his family's income as a tour guide - something he started in his teaching years, when all proceeds were donated to the school.

Having grown up in and around Mandalay, he can see past the concrete buildings that would have stopped Esther and I short, aside from the few major "must see" tourist hot-spots.

So we followed him on a journey outside of the city center to see a few insider sights.

Local transport, oddly filled to the brim with females. Thura, standing in the background, being the only exception

ceramic water jugs

Most efficient number of containers to carry is 4, although they are able to carry up to 7 at once (in a stable stance)

monks depositing their shoes at the entrance of the temple for lunch

The line of monks goes from oldest to youngest

Lunch, which is served at 10:30 (breakfast is at 4:30), is the final meal of the day, and eaten in silence

Tin and silversmith

View of the Taungthaman Lake

The U Bein Bridge, a 1.2km (.75mi) teakwood bridge, built in 1850 is still used as a main thoroughfare for locals

And, is quite possibly the most photographed site in and around Mandalay

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"It's not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power..."

It takes strong and courageous people to speak out against a corrupt government. People who are willing to accept the consequences, whatever they may be, in hopes of providing a better life for not only themselves, but for all those around them.

Aung San Suu Kyi is one such person. She rallied for a Democratic Burma. The military government wasn't pleased. They placed her in house arrest, offering her freedom under the condition that she left the country permanently. She refused. Yet, amidst the confines of her own home in Rangoon (Yangon), her influence carried on. The political party she chaired, the National League for Democracy, won the majority vote in the first general elections in over 40 years. She won the Nobel and other Peace Prizes. Her fellow countrymen were inspired.

Four hundred miles (630 kilometers) north of Suu Kyi's confines, three men known as the Moustache Brothers - two of whom are actual brothers and the third being their cousin- rallied behind her. They too were in search of a democratic country.  Comedians at heart, they travelled around the country putting on shows which poked fun at the lack of resources afforded by the government: insufficient hospital care, poor schooling, water shortages, and the list goes on. In 1990, the oldest brother, Par Par Lay, was jailed for 6 months after poking fun at the military government with a satire to brandish their refusal in acknowledging the landslide votes Suu Kyi's party received.

Possible jail time is what all Burmese political comedians agree to sign up for. And there are many who have seen that sad side of activism. It is the risk they take by speaking their mind. Six years later, in 1996, following one of their largest shows which happened to be hosted inside Suu Kyi's home, Par Par Lay and his cousin U Lu Zaw were sentenced to 7 years hard labor at a camp on the Chinese border. Par Par Lay's brother, Lu Maw, was spared the sentence. Prior to the show, the three pulled straws to see who would blatantly crack jokes on the insufficiencies of the government. They knew consequences were highly inevitable. Their voices were heard though.

Upon their release, they were allowed to perform again, but only in the confines of their own home and under strict rules. The comedy show can only be given in English, only to tourists. It must follow the patterns of a typical Burmese show, with song and dance included with the sketches. They've agreed to the terms, yet still find the time to squeeze out little bits of political activism throughout the show which is held in single room offering plastic chairs for their guests to sit on.  Their nephew sits outside keeping watch for cops.

Lu Maw (left) and his cousin U Lu Zaw performing in front of an audience of tourists in their home
In 2007 Par Par Lay was again temporarily arrested for supporting a monk-led rally against the government. Monks are the only individuals able to speak out against the country without consequence.

In 2010 the government shed its military skin and is now touted as a civil one. Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Since then, hope is in the air. But as the Moustache Brothers put it, the government hasn't changed, only the uniform has. They await the day for the next general election in 2015 when Suu Kyi has a clear shot at becoming President.

Sadly, Par Par Lay will never know if that dream will be realized. In 2013 he died of kidney failure. Lead poisoning, from the bad water at the labor camp, is what Lu Maw says is the cause of his brother's shortened life.

And until that hopeful day in 2015, the two remaining Moustache Brothers continue their nightly show to handfuls of tourists inside their home. It's not the ideal situation for them, but the duo believe that the foreign presence will only help in their fight for freedom.

Lu Mau showing the audience a proud moment for him, in which Obama greeted Aung San Suu Kyi with a kiss

Monday, June 30, 2014

Twilight Over Burma

Inge Sargent was six years old when the Nazi's first invaded her village. But even post-war Austria, years later, was hard to deal with. So when afforded the opportunity, Sargent moved to the United States to study in Colorado on a Fulbright scholarship.  It was there she met Sao Kya Seng, a Burmese mining engineer student. The two fell in love and married in 1953 at the home of a mutual friend.

Seven months later, they sailed to Burma. When nearing Yangon (formerly Rangoon) a parade of people lined the river awaiting the boat.

Sargent asked what was going on, but Sao didn't reply.

As they drew closer to the shore, a band began to play and a Welcome Home banner came into view.

She asked again with no reply given in return.

Once a welcome group entered little boats, throwing flowers into the water as they neared the ship, Sao finally said, "I have to tell you something."

"No, not now," she responded, "I don't want to miss the welcome."

"Please," he requested.

"No, no, no, later. Tell me later. I want to see what's happening."

"They're welcoming us," Sao blurted out.

Sargent looked at him and asked, "They welcome every mining engineer like that?"

"No, I'm their Prince," came his response.

"You're their what?"

"I'm the Prince of Hsipaw and you are my Princess."

"Oh, why didn't you tell me earlier," she remarked, "I would have worn a different dress!"

Sargent fell in love with her new homeland. She adopted the local dress and customs and learned to speak Burmese and Shan, the local language from the minority group with the same name. The Shan state, roughly the size of Connecticut, comprises the North Eastern portion of Myanmar.  Hsipaw residing in the heart of it.

the Shan palace in Hsipaw

The royal couple worked tirelessly to create equality amongst their people.  Sao, who's family reigned since 40AD, drew wealth from rice patties. After returning home, he gave the fields to the farmers carrying for them.  They were going to buy rice just like everybody else. Their fortune would come through mining - which was his reason for getting an education in the US.

Their time in democratic Burma was a happy one. The country was wealthy and literacy was high. And through their efforts, people were gaining an equal standing with one another.

Nine years and two children later, in 1962, the Burmese military overthrew the government in a coup d'etat. Sao was arrested and imprisoned - he never really was liked by the military, being a Prince of a minority people with a foreign wife, and democratic to boot. Sargent and her daughters were placed under house arrest, which lasted for two years. She spent them exhausting her resources in search of her husband and to know of his welfare.

Still unsure of his fate, she fled to Austria with her daughters and three suitcases. Sao, if he was alive, would find her there like they had discussed early on, should something happen to him.

But he never came. She knew he was dead. Documents, eyewitnesses, and everything else she had gathered told her so. The government just wouldn't admit it. To this day, 52 years later, they still won't. Sargent's daughters, who moved with her to the US not long after leaving Burma, still write letters to the Burmese government each year asking what happened to their father. They have never received a reply. Until they do, they won't step foot into the country. Sargent isn't allowed in, even if she wanted to.

Today, in Hsipaw, to tell their story is the wife of Sao's nephew, Mrs Fern (her Anglicized name).  They lived in the palace - a small colonial styled house - together, telling the history of their family until the military government grew unhappy. Sao's nephew, Mr. Donald, was arrested, held for four years and told upon his release that he could no longer speak to foreigners. Donald and Fern moved to Taunggyi to live until Fern couldn't stand it any longer and made her way back to Hsipaw. People had to know. So she is there, on and off, welcoming a revolving door of guests to tell the story of the Prince of Hsipaw and his Princess.

Mrs. Fern, with a picture of Sao and Sargent behind.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Hsipaw, in pictures

From old fashioned post offices to $2 USD haircuts.