Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Hard decisions – The Banana Pancake Trail – Sheep or Shepherd? – Burma on my mind – Jay and I break up – You have some homework to do

We returned to Chiang Mai for a few days.  Jay decided to go trekking and riding elephants in the hills but I remained in Chiang Mai, bemused in a coffee shop and  pondering my next moves.

Jay and I were going separate ways in a few days, and I needed to decide what I would do next.  I still had about 3 weeks left on my Thai visa but I had already been in Thailand for a month.  My original plan was to head into Laos, then Cambodia and Vietnam but lately I had heard so much about Burma and I was beginning to reevaluate my itinerary.

So far I have spent too much time on the “Banana Pancake Trail”.  The Banana Pancake Trail is a string of cities through SE Asia where you find the lion’s share of 20-something backpackers, all sporting the Lonely Planet Guidebook and visiting the same guesthouses, bars and sights that are mentioned in their guidebooks.  The accommodation, dining and entertainment choices have adapted accordingly to suit the tastes of Western backpackers (i.e. the banana pancake).  Subsequently many places I have been are almost more Western than authentic (case in point: Khao San Road, Bangkok, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Phangan, Thailand).  Though I am journeying the world on my own, I strangely feel like a follower; I have allowed myself to be shepherded from island to island and bus station to guesthouse with other backpackers like a flock of sheep.  This ain’t my style.

So far my personal route has merged with the backpacker super-highway in Thailand.  We have repeatedly stumbled across the same people in different cities.  Everyone seems to be traveling on the same path, and the next stop on this collective journey appears to be Laos.  I have heard only good things about Laos and most people are raving about something called “tubing”, where you sit in an inner tube and float down a river, visiting waterside bars along the way.

But that is not where my mind is right now.  The last month in Thailand was more than enough entertainment and now I need something more substantial, something different.

From Kanchanaburi to Chiang Mai I have heard distant murmurings coming from Burma.  We have traveled northward along the Burmese border, from the now defunct Thai-Burma Railway in Kanchanaburi to the undeniable presence of Burma’s refugees in Chiang Mai.  We are so close to the border with Burma, yet it is impossible to cross there by land.  The country is a pariah, politically and geographically isolated from her neighbors.  Visa applications are heavily scrutinized.  Journalists, political activists, NGO workers, and questionable applicants are prohibited from entering the country.  Burma appears to be one of the last frontiers for backpackers.

Despite all the political strife, travelers return from Burma in awe of the country and her peoples.  From her fabled Buddhist temples, to her tranquil rivers and mountains to her friendly citizens, everyone I meet is enamored with Burma.  I too have become fascinated with this mysterious country.

After a few days of deliberation, I made up my mind.  I must go to Burma.

I said good-bye to Jay.  We have spent a month traveling all over Thailand, having a ball and enjoying each other’s company.  But Jay has a limited time frame, so he is heading to Laos and Cambodia before flying back to California.  I’m solo traveling on the road once again.

We had one last farewell breakfast, and we said our goodbyes.  We may have split up, but we are on good terms and we are still talk occasionally.

Jay flew to Luang Prabang, Laos I hopped on a bus and headed south to Bangkok to beg for a visa into Myanmar (Burma).  As Chiang Mai faded away into the distance, I recalled a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and the recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?  – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.  But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

It was time to lean into my next crazy venture.  The rigmarole of getting a visa for would take up to a week and there was no guarantee that I would gain entry into Burma.

I checked into a quiet guesthouse in Bangkok, put on my sharpest clothes and went to the Myanmar Embassy to request a visa and to convince them I was not a CIA agent, journalist, or political activist.  Now I sit in Bangkok and wait for a response from the Embassy.

I’m on my own again, trying to finagle a visa from one of the world’s most stringent governments.  Wish me luck.
[In the meantime, please read up on the political situation in Myanmar (Burma).  Burma’s political policies are highly controversial and the country’s pro-democracy leader is currently under house arrest.  Upon arrival I will convey to you my own personal observations, but it would behoove you to do some advance background research on the controversial political situation.  Some links are attached below:

FreeBurma.Org: http://www.freeburma.org/

BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1300003.stm

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar

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