Wednesday, July 20, 2005


We arrived back in Arizona on Sunday night. I am still jet lagged, though not too bad.

Most of us had a good half-day in Jinghong befor we had to depart for the airport. We bought an additional suitcase to better handle all of our purchases. I thought we got a pretty good one, though by the time the LAX airport was done with it the wheels were gone and the lock was broken. (The lock might have been my fault, since you are allowed to lock suitcases in Asia, and I may have forgotten to remove the lock at LAX.) And Mr. Lin had arranged transportation for us to the Jinghong Airport, which worked out OK.

Quite a few people commented on what a great field trip we had, despite a few hiccups. I agree. It was a very memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experience, that required a lot of work on the part of Mr. Lin and the conference organizers at Sun Yat-sen University. We are thankful to their many efforts.

Friday, July 15, 2005

13 Hours on the Mekong River

Our wake up call came a little after 5 am this morning, breakfast was a 5:30, and we left for the boat pier at about 6 am. Our boat is a new, high-speed jet boat that seats up to 66 people (6 across), which made it quite comfortable for our group of 31 plus luggage. We have two stewardesses who served us lunch and sold us snack in the air conditioned compartment. We were also able to go in the back and up on top to take photos when it was not raining.

I think that the biggest surprise has been the large number of rocks in the river. This is the high river season, but we still scratched bottom a couple of times and swayed as we wound our way through rapids in many parts of the river.

We saw a few villages along the way, but not many. The vegetation varied from dense, virgin tropical rainforest to second growth forests and recently cut and burned forests that were now growing dry (non-paddy) rice.

At one point someone yelled out “border” and a bunch of us headed up top to take photos of the first large port-like facility that we encountered on the left side of the boat. We were hoping that this was the Myanmar-China border, which would mean that we were only a couple of hours from our destination, Jinghong. Much later we learned that the port we saw was in Myanmar and was not the border, and that the rapids had slowed our trip down considerable. What can be a 9 to 10 hour trip would probably take us 13 hours.

When we finally did encounter the Laos-China border on the right side of the boat when a crew member came in a yelled “border” in Chinese. All that was there was a very small river and a rock in the water that they said marked the border.

An hour or two later, at about 5:08 pm we arrived at the Chinese port of Guan Lei, which is the official immigration entry port for China on the Mekong River. Fortunately, Mr. Lin was able to convince the immigration officials to come on board the boat to process us, instead of us needing to all get off the boat. They pointed an infrared (?) thermometer to each of our foreheads to check for high temperatures, which is an indicator of SARS.

It took over an hour to clear immigration. The one Hong Kong person on our boat had to get off because they first told her that they did not need her HK Identity Card, just her passport – then they changed her mind. She said that it was interesting watching them as they translated and entered our passport information into their computer.

The boat service that we used started a year ago as the first modern boat for tourism to ply the upper Mekong River. And we were the first large international tour group to take this boat trip and to pass through this port. We were also the first international group to pass through the Shan State in Myanmar on the first fully paved road that from Mengla to Tachilek. When I started organizing this field trip with my Zhongshan University colleagues, they mentioned that the tour company had never done a tour like this. I did not realize that neither had any other tour group done a tour like this.

The photo below shows the back of our boat with the flags of Laos, China, Thailand, and Myanmar (left to right). A hill tribe village lies half-way up the slopes on the right (Myanmar) side of the river.


We never made it to Jinghong by boat. The problem was that it was starting to get dark and boats are not permitted to run on the Mekong after dark because rocks and floating debris cannot be seen. So we stopped before Jinghong and waited for the customs official to come from Jinghong to allow us to disembark. It was a long wait, though once they arrived it went very quickly. We then took a bus to Jinghong – another 40 minutes away.

I was not feeling well during this trip and lay down to nap every time my stomach started hurting – which was quite often. I was exhausted by the time we got to Jinghong and just wanted to get the hotel and to bed. Instead, we were taken to a street lined with very noisy, open air karaoke bars! It was about 10 pm and Dinner was waiting for us behind the karaoke bars. Some complained that they were not hungry and asked if they could just go to the hotel. I asked around and a few others said that they were indeed hungry, so I did not pursue the option of having some people return to the hotel sooner. Actually, after I ate a bit I was feeling a lot better, myself.

Can this tour be packaged and sold to an international market? Yes, i the visa problems can be worked out and if one or two more days are added to the length. It would probably be good to stop overnight, if possible, on the boat ride – or plan on picking people up closer to the China borders, since it is much faster to travel by bus than boat. Those challenges can probably be worked out, so that the next group to do this will not face some of the more frustrating challenges that we experienced.

The problem of the tourism boycott of Myanmar is a different matter. Although the Myanmar government is not moving as fast as many would like, change is taking place. Some 50 political prisoners were released from jail this past week and a trial was begun in Myanmar for former military leader. I do not advocate supporting oppressive (or corrupt or bad in other way) governments anywhere. Unfortunately, I think that they tend to exist everywhere and are difficult to avoid and still live a relatively normally life. As one tour group participant put it, if they were concerned about oppressive governments, they would not have considered traveling to China, let along Myanmar

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Golden Triangle Whirlwind

Because we had four minivans here in Thailand, we were able to divide up the group to pursue different interests. One van with went to the Thai Queen Mother’s Flower Garden up in the hills, while the other vans went into Chaing Rai to access ATM machines, the Internet and shopping. After getting some cash I had about half an hour to quickly check my email and copy and paste my blog updates. We were then off for a full day of sightseeing.

We went to Sop Ruak, which is the tourist-town located on the Thai side of the point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet – the Golden Triangle. This town had the single highest concentration of tourists, especially western tourists, of any place that we had been to on this trip! They mostly came in minivans, though there were also large bus loads, including the colorful double-decker private Thai buses. Our first stop was lunch at the Imperial Golden Triangle Resort, which boasts the best view of the Golden Triangle. The meal was the most western oriented of any that we have had during this trip. Several other foreign tour groups joined us as we ate.

We then had an hour to wander the area while we waited for the other minivan to arrive. At the time, Sop Ruak was not very busy. Quite a few of the shops were closed. There was a large sitting Buddha statue on a large boat-shaped structure that was under construction, and there were many restaurants on platforms overlooking the river, as well as quite a few places offering long boat trips to the casino in Myanmar and over to a village on the Laos side. The boat trips do not really stop in Myanmar – they just approach the casino site. According to our guide, Surapon, you need a passport and a fairly large cash deposit (US$1000 ?) to actually visit the casino.

On the Internet I had seen a couple of gate-type structures declaring the “Golden Triangle”. In reality, I saw maybe eight of these during our visit there – all set up to attract tourists. From some you can actually see the site where the three borders meet – for others the view is only of the Mekong River. The newest one is associated with the large sitting Buddha statue and gives a direct view of the casino in Myanmar (which is owned by a Thai businessman).

One of the Golden Triangle gates that I had seen online is located at the top of a hill above the town. Despite what the Imperial Resort claims, this is by far the best view of the border area. There was also an interesting small temple here, as well as some tourist shops. Based on aerial photographs shown on postcards, the Myanmar side of these border has undergone a fair amount of development, including the clearing of forests and possible land reclamation, in recent years. All of this seems to be in support of the casino.

We also went to a small park on the river, across from Surapon’s sister’s tea house, and to the Opium Museum, which was a small museum attached to a large gift shop and a parking lot crammed with tourist minivans.

Most days we have had rain in the morning, then intense hot and sunny skies shortly after noon time, then rain again in the later afternoon. This was one of those days. The heat was really getting to me in the afternoon and I was not crazy about running off to yet another tourist trap. People kept asking Surapon when we were going to take the boat to the Laos side, as that was the main attraction beyond seeing the tri-country border. He said that we would do that later in the afternoon as tat is the best time to visit there.

Finally, we all boarded an open-sided boat and basically followed the same path as the long boats (which only hold about four passengers). There were no visa requirement at the Lao village, which felt more like an outdoor shopping mall than a village. It was hard to tell just where the people slept, as it was basically one gift/souvenir shop after another. Thai Baht is the accepted currency. Many of the shops sold stamps and postcards, and had mail boxes for sending overseas. Laos stamps are apparently quite rare, so for 50 Baht I bought a postcard and addressed it to myself. I also traded some 10 Bhat for the equivalent in Laos money (whatever that is).

In the distance we could see dark clouds building up and heading our way. We were still wandering around the village shops when the winds started to kick in, blowing maps and post cards from the shelves. The shop owners quickly lowered their coverings to protect their shops. It was suggested that we should hurry up and leave the village. However, it would be difficult to find all of our group members so several of us camped out behind the shutters of one of the shops. Eventually the decision was made to move and with the rain starting to come down we boarded the boat. Those of us on the right side of the boat hid behind umbrellas, but still got wet from the rain. It was the coldest experience of our entire trip (since leaving Flagstaff).

By the time we got to our hotel at about 6pm I was completely exhausted. I think I caught a bit of a flu from staying up so late most nights organizing my photos and writing up my blog. The night before I did not get to sleep until 12:45am. I slept for 1.5 hours until dinner time. I did not eat much for dinner as my stomach felt bloated. I had a feverish and restless night, but felt like I was on the mend by morning.

It would have been nice if we could have checked into our hotel earlier in the day and rested up a bit before going to the Golden Triangle spot. That was the approach when we were in Myanmar. Surapon really kept us on the go since we arrived in Thailand. While we probably got our money’s worth, I think it came also came with the costs of greater physical and mental exhaustion!

The photo below is of the Golden Triangle from the hill above Sop Ruak. The Ruak River to the left separates Thailand and Myanmar, with Laos across the Mekong River on the right. A tiny bit of Myanmar's casino (orange roof) can be seen on the middle right edge of this photo.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Escape from Myanmar

When we were still in China, the Myanmar government was reluctant to give visas to the Americans in our group because we might criticize Myanmar after our trip. So far, we have not personally encountered anything that would cause us to criticize the government of Myanmar – until today. The plan was to leave Myanmar in the morning and have lunch in Thailand. However, there was a problem in leaving Myanmar. I had heard that they wanted us to either return to Jinghong or go to Yangon (Rangoon) o exit the country.

At one point we thought we were going to leave and so we left the hotel and went to the border where we wandered around the town for 45 minutes or so while formalities were being cared for.

Well, 45 minutes stretched into a couple of hours and by 11:30 our guide was rounding everyone up to take us to lunch. After lunch we went back to the hotel so we could rest in our previous night’s rooms while waiting for permission o leave the country! Some in our group were getting quite upset about this situation, in part because there was nothing that we could do about it. Dallen had spoken to a couple of locals and mentioned that the government was not letting us go to Thailand. Both of them commented that the Myanmar government is “so stupid!” Dallen was quite shocked to hear this.

It was not until around 3 pm that I got a real sense of what the problem was. Apparently our group was the first non-Chinese tour group to ever travel the route that we took through Myanmar. Because of that, the local immigration authorities were reluctant to approve our exit visas without authorization from higher officials in Yangon. However, the person who needed to give them verbal approval over the phone was in meetings all day today! That approval finally came around 4 pm. It would take another 45 to 60 minutes for them to fully process our papers after that because they do it all by hand and not on computers.

Eventually we loaded up the bus and drove to the border. Mr. Linf from our travel agency told us that because of our experience, hopefully future non-Chinese groups will not have the same problem.

It rained hard on the way to the border crossing, but cleared shortly after our bus had parked. We unloaded all of our stuff and walked down and across the bustling street and up and over the bridge between Myanmar and Thailand. The light from the passing showers gave a soft glow and shine to the buildings and streets, which I tried to capture in my photos. And since photography was permitted along this entire crossing, I took a lot of photos! We simply walked out of Myanmar. On the Thai side, we were given our passports (which, interestingly, had a Keng Tung visa stamp, in addition to the Mengla entry visa stamp), which were briefly checked by the Thai authorities – just matching our passport photos to our faces. And we were finally in Thailand!

What a difference a border makes! Although still clearly a developing country, Thailand is much more modern than Myanmar. The roads are as good as the best in the US. Electricity and cars are everywhere – as is congestion and pollution – the price of modernity.

In Thailand, we were divided up into four minivans – which are easier to take up the winding mountain roads leading to the KMT (Guomindang, or Chinese Nationalist Party) villages in the mountains. These villages are comprised of descendants of Chian Kai Shek’s nationalist Chinese army who settled first in Burma, and later in Thailand, after the Chinese Communist Party of Mao Zedong came to power in 1949. They married hill tribe Thai women and developed distinct communities in the mountains of this part of Thailand.

The road up was winding, but smooth, and the scenery was lush green, with some great views of cloud and fog filled mountains valleys below us. It rained much of the time that were at the 3000+ foot (1000+ meter) mountains ridgelines. We had a late dinner and then walked through the village in the rain, visiting a couple of Chinese tea houses and a small tea factory. We were served tea Chinese style and a number of people bought the oolong tea that this place is bet known for. On the way back we saw a well-lit 7-11 convenience store – a most prominent sign that we had returned to “civilization” and global culture!

We finally got to our rooms in Chiang Rai at 10:45pm Thailand Time, which is 30 minutes (plus a couple of decades) ahead of Myanmar Time. Stepping back in time, to a place like the Shan State of Myanmar, was a special experience that I think none of the non-Chinese in our group will ever forget. We saw almost no westerners and no fast food or international chain restaurants or store. We saw people who worked hard on the land and many of whom were very poor. But they were almost always willing to give us a smile and a wave.

(For the some of the Chinese in our group, Myanmar was interesting, but they are expecting Thailand to be more so. For the Westerners it is mostly the other way around. This probably reflects the fact that China itself is still a developing country, unlike th western countries where the rest of us come from.)

In the photo below the river forms the border between Myanmar to the left and Thailand to the right. A line on the road pavement with slight different tones on each side is the actual border line.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Shopping in Myanmar

Two markets in one day, equal to about three hours of shopping. I think that for most people that was pretty good. We started the morning by going to Keng Tiong’s morning market. Fortunately, they had left the generator running all night, so we were able to shower with the lights on in the morning! Breakfast at the hotel involved the most elaborate and symmetrically laid out drinks and food that I have ever seen. Everyone who arrived early took a photo of it before we messed it up by taking our juice classes (guava or passion fruit).

The market was already abuzz when we arrived. We saw the first non-Asian’s there since our arrival in Jinghong (China). They were a group of about four with a guide. We changed Chinese currencies to Myanmar Kyats (pronounced “Chiats”), at K1100 to Y100 (which is about US$12.50). It was a large and interesting market, with just enough ethnic clothing, bags and other items to keep our tour group happily shopping away. By the end I had decided to just hang out near one of the entrances and take photos of the locals in their colorfully dressed ethnic clothing. We stayed there for about 1.5 hours, but most of us could have easily stayed longer – shopping there turned out to be a lot of fun! Other than photos and Kyats, I got a map of Burma for myself.

From the market we made the three hour drive to the border town of Tachilek, passing rice paddies, mountains, toll booths, and road checks along the way. The largest road checks were going out of Keng Tung and entering Tachilek. We also passed through Special Region 2, which is another autonomous region – with the strongest military and a very strong economy (according to our guide). It was a long drive Tachilek and the mountains through which we drive slowly got smaller and smaller as we approached the river plains of northern Thailand.

After lunch and checking in to our Tachilek hotel, we were taken to the Tachilek Market, which is located adjacent to the bridge that connects Myanmar to Thailand. We were let out just next to that bridge and were able to take many photos of the river and border area. Tomorrow we will walk across the bridge to get a new bus, bus driver and guide. I did not like the Tachilek Market nearly as much as the Keng Tung Market. I was constantly swatting away people trying to cell me cigarettes (mostly local brands repackaged in western brand boxes), porn VCD/DVDs, and a variety of trinkets that I did not want.

The selection of ethnic clothing was about the same as in Keng Tung and the preces were about the same, except that everything here was in Thai Bhat – the preferred currency over Kyats. Apparently the Thai Bhat is seen as a stronger currency here than the Kyats, just as the Chinese RMB Yuan is considered the stronger and preferred currency in the north. On the bus I read about crossing into Myanmar from Thailand in Thor’s lonely planet guidebook, which was published in 2002 and described a highly regulated currency situation in Myanmar in which foreigners were required to buy and use “foreign exchange certificates” instead of local money (a scheme that China used until the sometime in the 1990s). That is not seem the case today (except that Dallen says that the official online exchange rate is 6 Kyats to US$). At least in the border areas, Myanmar appears to have opened up to its neighbors in a big way.

After circling the market twice and not seeing much (though we did get my daughter a Golden Triangle t-shirt, and a dragon and phoenix collared shirt for my son, plus a DVD and music CD for them), we wandered away from the market and on to the streets. There we found a place that sold Myanmar license plates, which w thought would be a good gift for a friend of my kids who collects license plates. We learned that not only does this fellow sell the plates, but he makes them, too – and he can place any number on them that we might want. We ended up getting two motorcycle plates that say, in Burmese, “Tachilek” and the month and day of the friend and my daughter’s birthdays. This was a truly unique souvenir, as we watched (and photographed) the young man as he pounded the Burmese numbers and painted them with great precision!

After the market we boarded the bus and our driver decided to turn the bus around on an incredibly narrow and slightly slanted road. Personally, I thought he would never make it! A pick up truck full of soldiers was stopped as he jerked the bus forward inching his way around. I thought for sure we were going to get busted when one of them came over – though it ended up that he was just trying to help along with another person. We did make it, however, resulting in a big round of applause from all of us.

Because we did not eat lunch until about 1:30pm (due to extra shopping time in Keng Tung), we decided to delay our dinner at the hotel until 7:30pm (Myanmar time, which is 1.5 hours ahead of China, and .5 hours ahead of Thailand). After the market we went to see a performance by Akka and Paduang (long-necked) women. The site was on a hill leading up to the Regina Golf Resort, and was owned by the resort. The performers lived in thatched houses, similar to what they would occupy in the home villages. The wome were colorfully dressed (theAkka, or Aini, in black with colorful beads, and the Paduang in white with the gold neck rings. One Paduang woman did not have the rings, but still had a long neck from wearing them in the past.

The willingly posed for us, allowing us all to get pictures of them, and pictures of each other taking pictures of them (for tourism teaching purposes -- as the tourists also became an attraction). The dances were performed on a very simple outdoor stage, with each group doing two songs/dances. The small children then posed for photos (for a small fee) with some of our group. We bought a shoulder back here that had a made in Myanmar label, written in Burmese. There were a few men in the “village”, but they were not in traditional dress, and there were some other women who were also not in traditional dress.

After the dances, we went to the nearby Tachilek Shwedegung (SP?) Pagoda – a smaller replica of the famous Shwedegung (SP?) Pagoda in Yangong (Rangoon). There, I paid 50 Bhat for a basket containing small birds which we would release as an offering. China had the honors of undoing the basket while I video taped it using my digital camera. Later, Tina cam over asking how to release her two birds. Her basket was different, with only a round opening at the top. As I was holding it trying to figure it out, one of the birds popped out of the opening and flew away – much to our surprise. The other soon follow.

The view from the pagoda was quite spectacular, as it overlooked the city below. In addition, the stamp and postcard collectors in our group were finally able to purchase stamps and postcard – neither of which were we able to find anywhere else in Burma! Perhaps some little birds help bring their wishes to fruition!

In the photo below a youne Bhuddist nun receive an ear of steamed corn in her begging bowl. After this photo I gave her some Kyats and she said a short prayer for me.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Deep into the Shan State

Today we traveled from Mengla to Kengtung (also known as Kiang Tong, and Chiang Tong). I have found that the Burmese here pronounce K and ‘Ch”. Thus the currency of Khiat is pronounced Chiat. I also learned a few more things about the Shan Special District No. 4. It is an autonomous region that has its own laws and military. The laws include legalized gaming and prostitution, which are illegal in the rest of Myanmar. People from Myanmar (including the rest of the Shan State, may freely enter Special District No. 4, but resident of the Special District need a pass to enter the rest of Myanmar.

We passed several checkpoints today, but only stopped at one – the checkpoint to enter the Rangoon-controlled section of Myanmar (after leaving the Special District). All cars stop here and we were told several times not to take photos of soldiers or checkpoints. Still, some people apparently forgot and took a few shots. They were not caught and they still have their cameras.

We passed a couple more checkpoints after that, but were not stopped at any of them. At one the two soldiers manning the post were taking an outside bath in their underwear while their clothes hang on a line drying in the sun. Two of our photo stops involved hiking up hills to temples overlooking villages and rice paddy filled valleys below. Bamboo waterwheels that moved water from the rivers to the fields and the tethered water buffalo were two favorite photos opps.

Eventually we rose up from the valleys and into a high mountainous region with very few villages, people and other traffic on the road. A few small rice paddies could be seen here and there, but limited other signs of cultivation. Some hills seemed to have been cleared for grazing. The only sign of civilization along the road were cow pies that were scattered everywhere. It seemed that this road saw many more cows in a day than vehicles. We passed a bus, a few motorcycles, and a couple of trucks over the course of a over an hour as we made our way up and over the mountains.

We stopped at one Akka hill tribe village near the mountain pass, which afforded us spectacular views of the distant peaks. The people seemed quite poor, though there were friendly and willing to pose for photos. None asked for money in return. In fact, I have yet to see any beggars at all in Myanmar. If they do get more tourists (especially photo-crazy tourists like those of us on this trip), I bet that they will some day start asking for payment in return for posing – as has happened in most other ethnic tourism places in the world!

Finally we descended from the mountains and into a large alluvial valley in which Kengtung lay. Kengtung is a very nice city – very walkable and not at all crowded nor noisy for being the main city of the Shan State. It maintains a British colonial (it was a regional administrative center) character in it houses, many of which are clearly newer than 1948 (?) when Burma gained its independence from Britain.

Our hotel is on the site of the former Shan King’s residence, adjacent to a large pagoda complex that forms the cultural center of the city. It is supposed to be the nicest hotel in town, but only has electricity in the morning and evening (7:30-10:30), which it gets from gas-powered generators. All of the buildings in this part of town seem to use on-site generators for their electricity. (This may be true for the entire city!) It has a very laid-back and mellow pace to it – much unlike Mengla and much of China to the north.

After lunch and a short rest at the hotel we were taken to the city lake (just behind the hotel) and to the Standing Buddha (on a site where a Christian church once stood, but when it was demolished for another building some Bhuddist scriptures were found and so this Buddha complex was built there). We also went to see a giant 600 foot tree that stands on the top of a hill and stands out prominently in the Kengtung landscape and skyline. While walking up the hill we passed through a military compound and were told not take any photos of the soldiers and compound.


I have been a bit troubled by the zeal with which our group (including myself) impose themselves into our various stops to take photos of the local people. The local people who we have encountered have mostly been very obliging and willing to have their photos take. The kids, in particular, have been adorable and make for some great photos. However, I can’t help but wonder if this willingness comes more from a lack of sophistication in their experience of the tourism phenomenon, and a lack of understanding of tourist motives. Perhaps each photo take will lead them toward greater sophistication and understanding – and toward the more jaded attitude that many ethnic people feel towards tourists.

Ultimately, though, one could argue that it should be their choice to be photographed or not, and our prerogative to at least ask them – something that I am less confident in doing than some others. Still, 30 camera crazy tourists descending on a relatively impoverished village make for interesting dynamics that really makes me wonder.

Speaking of photos – I took and kept some 330 photos and video clips yesterday, and took some 400 photos today, though I have not fully reviewed them to delete the ones that are duplicates or did not turn out well. Once I get to a computer that has a good Internet connections, I upload a few of the best of these to this blog.

Photo: Bathtime for a water buffalo in Myanmar (below)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Entering Myanmar?

Given the current political climate in Myanmar, I think that I should say a word or two about traveling to a country that most human-rights groups feels should be boycotted. This issue was a consideration in the early planning of the conference and the post-conference field trip. I asked sought the views of several people who I knew would be attending the conference about whether or not we should include Myanmar on a field trip itinerary because of the tourism boycott. None of them seemed to think it was a major issue.

The Chinese organizers were aware of the Myanmar issue, but in their opinion Myanmar was the most interesting of all the Golden Triangle countries. They sent me a few potential itineraries to look at that included Myanmar. Because I had never been heard of any of these places, I had to research them online to see what they had to offer. Well, the more I looked at Myanmar, the more fascinated I was by it – and it did not take long for me to decide that we had to go there! I guess I sold out to whatever motivating force that man people seem to have in experiencing places that are the most exotic and least touched by modernity.

On the first day of our field trip we drove a couple hours from Jinghong to the Myanmar border. Along the way we passed by beautiful terraced rice fields and hills covered with tea bushes and rubber trees. Everything was an incredible range of shades of deep and luxuriant green. We stopped at one point, at Dallen’s request, at a sight overlooking a terraced valley with a small river/creek at the bottom. Water flowed in hundreds of small, human-carved, waterfalls from one rice terrace to the next. The sound of the flowing water made the scene totally breath-taking! Dallen commented that it was one of the most beautiful drives he had ever been on.

The border was very interesting. We had to leave China on foot, each with our own passport in hand. There was a delay in one person’s passport, but once that was straightened out the process went very quickly. We then go on the bus to drive to the Myanmar border. We were told that it was OK to take photos and once we got to the border everyone got out and went wild with their cameras – posing next to the border monument and next to the stoic Myanmar border guards and the interestingly old-looking border office that was adjacent to a fanciful arched gateway. We gave our passports to the tour guide who had them processed out of sight from the rest of us. We then got back on the bus, along with two Myanmar guides, and we were on our way!

The border town of Mengla (across from the Chinese town of Daluo) does not feel like Myanmar. It feels like China. Chinese characters and Chinese currency are used everywhere – we have yet to see prices in Myanmar currency. There are several large and new-looking hotels, along with the now closed casinos and a closed gay/transvestite domed theater. And the food we had for lunch and dinner was all Chinese. The marketplace has its red-light district, which is virtually identical to the ones I have seen in China – open shop houses, some glowing with pink or red lights, with girls sitting around watching TV.

The hotel we are staying in, the Powerlong Hotel, is actually much newer and nicer than the one we had in Jinghong. This is not the Myanmar that we were all expecting. Some are speculating that this is an special border economic zone, and that we will pass another border check point after we leave Mengla. While I think that this is at least an ad hoc special economic zone, I am guessing that there is no other border checkpoint beyond what we have already gone through – which sure wasn’t much!

After lunch we checked into our hotel and a half hour later we did some sightseeing. The two female Myanmar guides took us to a very large Pagoda complex that sits at the border and oversees the entire town of Mengla. The massive pagoda, built in 1997 and dedicated to peace with China, houses models of about 16 of the most famous pagodas in Myanmar, plus four large Buddha statues. From here we could look down on the border crossing area below. At the bottom of the Pagoda hill, we visited an Opium Museum, which was dedicated to the elimination of opium production in the 4th Special Region of the Eastern Shan State. A catholic church was on another small hill nearby, though we did not visit it.

We also went to see a reclining Buddha statue, which was also built in the late 1990s, and which our guide told us would be much more representative of Myanmar life than the rest of Mengla – which was Chinese loking because of all the Chinese businessmen there. Personally, I did not see this.

From there we went to the Gem Museum, which is really more of a jade store than a museum, though they did have some rocks on display and a jade cutting area. We bought quite a lot of jade here for gifts back home – all from the bargain bin are (Yuan 10-40 RMB, US$1.20-$5.00) – they can go up to several thousand RMB. After dinner in the evening the guides took us the marketplace, which was very dark, though with my camera set a 1/10 sec, ASA 400, and held very still, I was able to get quite a few good photos.

Guiding through Myanmar

I guess I am a tour guide now. I had not thought about that when I was organizing this trip. I am the person who the local guides seek out to disseminate information. I am keeping room lists, at their request, and some interpersonal issues have been brought to my attention. I organized and guided a tour to China once before in 1993. While it was a great experience, it was not something that I have sought to do again. I will have to be careful how this aspect of our trip develops. I would rather not take on more responsibility than necessary. As I see it, this is an academic field trip/study – not a leisure and recreation tourist “tour”. Hah! – I am probably just fooling myself on that one!

The photo below is actually from the day after the text was written for above. It shows water flowing from through many small breaks from one rice paddy field to the next. The sound was fantastic.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Conference Day 5 – Final Day & Prepping for Myanmar

Keynote speaches were given in the early morning and paper sessions the later morning and afternoon today. A fairly long day, but with some interesting papers (including my own on “Tourism in the border lands of American Indian Country”). We did not have a closing banquet because we had done that on the first day when the president of Sun Yat-sen University was in town. He wants our next conference in two years to be in Guangzhou, to help give more international recognition to Zhongshan University, which is considered one of China's top universities. I am rooting for Xinjiang (Urumqi), though that would be expensive to get to. There are also a couple of other possible places.

The conference was very much a success. Everyone seemed to have had a good time, despite the lower quality hotel (which I later learned was the only one in town who had the meeting rooms needed for our conference), the unusually hot weather on the first few days, and the detours from our originally planned field trips. Some Chinese participants complained about the inadequacy of translation of the main keynote talks from English into Chinese – which we will try and work on next time. I had wished that there was more interaction between the Chinese and American academics – language is the main problem in that the older Chinese professors seldom speak any English. I chaired a session on research by Chinese graduate students, presenting in English, which was very interesting. They are doing some great work, and some are very good English speakers.

The Chinese conference organizers have often mentioned that this is one of the best international conferences in China. The other day a participant from Hong Kong told me the same thing. She said that she has been to many conferences in China, and they are all poorly organized with very long and boring speeches by government officials. I learned today that the local official had told my colleagues at Zhongshan University that they were all prepared to host our meeting. But when they arrived in Jinghong, they found that they were totally unprepared to host international participants. The Zhongshan people worked desparately to bring some basic amenities to the conference for the international guests -- such as buying milk and cereal for their breakfasts (to accompany the traditional Chinese breakfast buffet). I think this effort really did pay off -- even though it may not have been noticed by the participants!

In the evening, the Post-Conference Field Trip participants met with the travel agency owner and guide to review our trip to Myanmar, Thailand and Laos that starts tomorrow. (We almost ended up going to Laos instead because the Myanmar government felt that American academics were trouble makers. I don’t think the American in our group are troublemakers, though some of the other nationalities in the group might be!! ;)

The meeting was very interesting. We are to expect numerous road checks (military and other government bodies) and we may encounter delays at the border crossings. We will be out of cell phone access for several days in Myanmar, and even the hotel phones have poor connections. The toilet facilities outside of the hotels were described by Mr. Lin as “interesting”. The guide told us that we should ask him if it is appropriate before taking pictures. Our group of 31 from around the world (only one of whom has been to Myanmar before) are all looking forward to the trip, though with some apprehension, as well. That, of course, should make for a great adventure.

The photo below shows a couple of the many Burmese jade shops in Jinghong. The proprietors are almost all from Myanmar and have a special visa that allows them to live work in China.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Conference Day 4 – Field Trip into Domestic Chinese Tourism Land

One of the highlights of the conference that I help to organize here in China is the field trip. We generally do this in the middle of the conference, and it is often an all-day affair. This year, the original plan was to do two half-day trips to a Dai Village and to a border town. The border town, however, was closed to day trips by the Chinese government to stop Chinese nationals from going to Myanmar to gamble. So the new plan was to go to a tea plantation in the morning and to the Dai village in the afternoon. But when we woke up it was raining, making the road to the tea plantation unpassable. We would have been the first international tour group to visit this plantation. So, instead we went to the botanical gardens, which is a mass domestic tourist destination and has a very well done visitors interpretive center on the rainforest and local ethnic groups. It is one of the best that I have seen in China – where many interpretive centers only show oddly shaped rocks that look like birds and other objects, and discuss local folk mysteries as scientific facts.

Getting to the botanical gardens involved a bumpy two-hour bus ride in 15-passenger mini-vans with a police escort to move everyone off the road and out of our way. After the gardens we went to the Dai village, which included a walk through a village along with throngs of Chinese tourists and past house after house selling souvenirs and other items from their ground floor. (Dai houses are built on stilts with the living quarters well above the ground and covered by a massive roof.) It was an example of culture-commodification in the extreme! We were then brought to a massive arena-type stage where 100 “beautiful Dai girls” and a few Dai men danced for us and a hundred or more other tourists. Following the dance they held a beauty contest in which audience members could pay to select which of a smaller number of Dai “girls” was the most beautiful.

We did not stay to see the results, but made our way, instead, to the large water fountain. It was bout 50+ meters (150 feet) in diameter and had a large elephant fountain in the middle. This was where the daily water festival occurs. Originally a Dai New Year’s event, it is now performed daily with the “100 beautiful Dai girls” and about the same number of visitors who put on Dai costumes to keep their own clothes from getting wet. About a dozen of the Chinese members of our group joined in. We were placed in a special viewing area set aside for our group.

Each person had a large plastic bowl and at an appointed time, everyone started scooping water with their bowls and splashing each other. There were several rounds of this, mostly with the women on the inside and men on the outside in what I considered an unfair battle of the sexes. It looked like a lot of work!

After the water festival we wandered the Dai village for about an hour before having dinner at a Dai guesthouse and restaurant. There are a lot of home stays in this village, which was also the cleanest and tidiest traditional hill village that I have ever been in. There was not trash anywhere. The people here were clearly raking in the money from the tourists. At the same time, there seemed to have been maintaining many key aspects of their traditional lifestyle. I was later told that this has been the most successful and longest lasting ethnic village tourism enterprise in China (where many such efforts fold after a couple of years). These people seemed to really have their act together – and could probably teach a lot of other traditional people a few things about “mass tourism” development.

Photo: The Daily Dai Village Water Festival (below)

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Conference Day 3 – Opening Sessions and a Chinese-style Banquet

One thing I did the day before was to accompany several conference organizers to purchase shirts for the keynote speakers and myself. We went to a traditional Dai nationality dress shop and I got topic out my own preference in color design, which would then be made into a XXL size shirt (I wear a large in the US) in time for the opening sessions the next day. I had brought a coat and some ties for this event, but was happy to leave those in my suitcase!

I officiated over the opening event, which included welcome speeches and an introduction to Xishuangbanna – the gateway to the upper Mekong tourism region. I also oversaw the first keynote session, introducing the two keynote speakers and making a few comments after each. After lunch I attended paper session – one in a room with no effective air conditioning (they brought in a bucket of ice and two table fans), and the other that had two good air conditioners.

The highlight of the day was the evening banquet. This was actually the closing banquet, which was move up to accommodate the schedule of the President of Zhongshan (Sun Yatsen) University. It was an elaborate affair with live entertainment (some dances, but mostly the singing of different ethnic group songs), and the ritual toasting and wine drinking that accompanies Chinese banquets. I was at the head table, which meant a lot of meal interruptions as people came up to toast us. My son was concerned that I was drinking too much and might not know my limits. In fact, I drank, at most, a quarter of a glass of red wine that evening (I normally do not drink alcohol at all).

After the entertainment, he audience was invited to come up and sing. I was asked if any of the foreign guests could sing, so I asked around without success. The most prominent Chinese singer (who I later learned was Dean of tourism at Kunming University), suggest that Dallen come up and join him in the “Red River Valley” – which he sang in Chinese. Dallen finally obliged, dancing around with him and faking the Chinese version of the song. I told him that he had earned his keynote (he was a keynote speaker earlier that morning) honorarium that evening.

After the dinner a couple of groups walked dwn the the Mei Mei Café, which is a Western-style coffee shop owned by a couple of Chinese ladies who speak very good English. Dallen and I did not stay there, instead opting to walk around the downtown area which was bustling with life in the cooler evening hours. We had been speculating about the jade shops that we were passing, as the owners who were sitting out in front of them were clearly not Chinese. At one point one of them asked where we were from, hoping to entice us into his store. I asked him where he was from and he said Burma. We then chatted with several of them about how they have a visa to work in China and return to Burma to buy their jade. Most of their sales are to Chinese, though also to occasional westerners. And they claim that their prices are as good as in Burma. This is a good example of cross-border entrepreneurism – something that Dallen touched upon in his keynote talk that morning!

Photo: Entertainment at the banquet (below)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Conference Day 2 – The Mighty Mekong and an Evening Betrothal

On the second day of our stay (July 6th – a day before the conference really started) several of us took a couple of taxis to the Mekong River. We walked over the bridge and made our way through town, invading and photographing a small morning market and a tea shop, among other interesting sights. The afternoon was hot and many just stayed in their rooms to get caught up on email (through a dialup connection offered by the hotel). In the evening we attended a cultural performance, which lasted from 8 pm to almost 11 pm! – It was very long, and consisted of a lot more comedy and audience-on-stage types of entertainment (an early form of reality entertainment!).

The first of these audience skits followed the compulsory boy-meets-girl dance that is a part of all of there performances. They were looking for four male participants and I was asked a couple of times to do it and finally relented. (Little did I realize that all of the people behind me from our group had been pointing at me as someone they should select!) I did it because (1) I thought I should represent our group, since they had acknowledge our attendance and had an English interpreter on stage just for us, and (2) I had done this before in another part of China when I was the only non-Chinese person in the audience. That was probably a far more embarrassing performance as I participated in a four-way tug-of-war to win the hand of a maiden (and I lost). Anyway, I was used to this so I figured I could handle it!

It was rather easy. They gave me a Dai bandana hat, a courting cape and a flashlight. We were to replicate the previous dance by going from girl to girl in the dark and using to flashlight to select the one we most liked. As it turned out all of the other three men selected the first girl they came up to. I looked (quickly) at two and selected first one I came up to because she was still available. We were then to put the cloak around ourselves and the girl and help her spin her spinning wheel (making thread). After that the lights came on and we were to find the girl who we had originally selected and stand next to her. I thought I had found her, but someone else was already standing next to her so I took the last one available. It turned out that I was correct to begin with, the other guy was wrong.

Anyway, it was a painless experience and I received a wedding token for my efforts – which is small embroidered pillow-like object that is worn on a string around the neck. It is supposed to symbolize betrothal. (We all received one at the airport upon our arrival, as well.) We were all asked, in Chinese, if we loved our new brides and one guy yelled out some kind of positive response. I did not understand the question and was asked again in English. I answered, “Well, OK” – in a non-commital way that got a laugh – and at least I did not have to sing or dance (as Dallen did the following night).

Most people had arrived by the time the bus left for the evening performance. A few people, however, had not, though they should have – which caused me some concern. Earlier in the day, Liujun (a Ph.D. student who was a key organizer of the conference), had collected passports from those of us who would be going on the post-conference Field Trip, along with the12 photos that had been requested. The final passport was to arrive after 10pm that evening and was going to be hand flown to Kunming for delivery to the travel agency to get the visas for the trip.

The photo below is a panoramic shot (3 photos combined) of the Mekong River and Jonghong taken from a bridge crossing the river.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

China Conference and a Breath of Fresh Air

Conferencing is hard work! I have not had a chance since we arrived to really sit down and enter anything into this blog – there are just too many interesting and necessary thins to attend to.

We left at the Bangkok Airport about 3 hours before our flight departure, only to find that we went to the wrong terminal (domestic) and needed to take a shuttle bus to the International Terminal. I was unclear on this since our flight had a stop in Chaingmai,. Standing in line to check in we soon found ourselves surrounded by several other conference participants. Dallen fom Arizona State University and Brent from the University of Otago walked up behind us and as we were chatting, Ed and Linda from California State University Northridge introduced themselves (I had not met them before) in front of us. Soon others started appearing, and by the time we had made our way to the boarding gate most of the 16 participants had touched bases with me. About half were people I was meeting for the first time, while the other half were what I consider old friends. By the time we boarded a bus to go to the plane, all had arrived.

I got some pretty good shots of the central Thailand landscape and the Chao Phraya River from the airplane. Dallen and Brent sat behind my son and I on the plane. We had a hard time visualizing where we were and when we were crossing the Myanmar-Thai border with the lack of a detailed map. Dallen guessed that a river we were flying over was the border and asked a stewardess, who confirmed that he was correct by asking the captain. North of the river we finally entered some serious mountain country, which proved to be quite spectacular with clouds and rainbows floating above dense green vegetation below. Occasionally we passed through a cloud, which typically resulted in some heavy turbulence.

At the Jinghong airport we walked across the tarmac to the small airport terminal. The air was crisp, clean and clear, with great visibility. I felt invigorated. In the terminal, I disposed of some Lychee fruit from Bangkok and some pork jerky from Singapore before going through customs. It probably was not necessary to do so, though they did mention on the plane that these were not allowed. As we left the building we were greeted by music and dancing girls in traditional dress who were here specifically for our group. It turned out that we actually had 17 participants on our plane, as an American Student (Mary) who was studying Thai in Thailand, joined the flight in Chiangmai. She was a late addition and the organizers did not get my email hat she would be on the flight (which I had completely forgotten myself),

I was a bit taken aback by the conference hotel. It was a three-star hotel, which I knew from the hotel’s website. And it lived up to its star rating! I was hoping for something a little bit better. The ai conditioner just barely is able to handle the afternoon heat of Jinghong. They are having a drought and the summer rains, which cool things down, have not arrived. Instead, the afternoons are very hot – like an over. The bathrooms are in serious need of an upgrade, and some participants have told me that the beds were the most firm that they have ever slept on – which is the norm for a Chinese-oriented hotel. Few of the staff speak English, but they are most willing to be helpful. I asked a Chinese student if this was the best hotel in Jinghong and he said he did not think so. However, every time he has been here (through work with Sun Yatsen University) he has stayed at this hotel, so they must have good connections with the local governments – who is a major sponsor of this event.

More than half of the international participants arrived on the 15th, either on our flight or on later flights. It was good to catch up with old friends and meet new ones – man of which I had gotten to know by email in preparing for the conference. To my surprise, the conference provided us early arrivals with breakfast, lunch and dinner – all of which were very good. Chinese style meals.

The photo below is from our airplane approaching Jinghong. The hills are covered with rubber trees and everything is incredibly green!