About ten years ago I was in Mae Sot, Thailand, on the Burmese border. The bus from Chiang Mai had gotten in around midnight but I was able to get a room at a guesthouse for about five bucks: a small, freestanding bamboo hut by a creek with a table, fan, and a bed covered with mosquito netting. I’d just started falling asleep when the shelling began.
The first explosion wasn’t so much loud as it was profound – something felt as much as heard – and at first I wondered if I’d dreamt it. When the second shell hit a couple of seconds later, I was wide-awake, along with every dog and rooster in the city.
I climbed out from under the netting and walked outside, looking for the visuals that came with the bombardment. Apart from a barely perceptible flicker in the clouds, there was nothing. A girl was standing outside the hut next to mine and I asked her what was happening. She said the Burmese were attacking the Karen stronghold at Manerplaw, about ten kilometers to the north.
We sat on her doorstep and smoked, waiting for each explosion the way one might wait for lightning, thunder or a falling star. We decided that Manerplaw had to be closer than ten kilometers: It was unthinkable that anything could survive bombs that big.
The shelling went on for about an hour: one or two rounds per minute at first, then tapering off to individual bursts and occasional volleys. Her name was Michelle, from Montreal. She’d just spent the last six months as a scuba instructor on Guam and was traveling around Asia for a bit before returning home. I was a freelance journalist who’d sold out to Penthouse, then stopped writing all together when my father died. We’d both come to Mae Sot as a jumping off point to Burma: plans we’d mutually abandoned around the fifth or sixth shellburst.
The next morning at breakfast we met a guy named Peter from Brooklyn, a freelance photographer here to get pictures of the war. He said the Buddhist Karen had cut a deal with the Burmese, betraying the Christian Karen for safe passage out. I said it seemed odd that the Buddhists would turn traitor on their fellow Karen, and Peter said, “Yeah, nobody really expected it. But in another way it makes perfect sense. Manerplaw was doomed – it was only a matter of time. The Buddhists looked at the big picture and thought ‘What’s the best way out of this? What’s the path of least resistance?’” Then he smiled: “Never trust a Buddhist warrior.”
“Besides,” he went on, “if you follow the history of this place, that’s how it’s always been. Most conflicts get resolved through politics: alliances, betrayals, shit like that – not through actual fighting. It’s too fucking hot to fight.” He was right. It was too fucking hot to fight. Too fucking brutal too: steep, overgrown terrain filled with jungles and forests of bamboo. It was impossible to really hold ground here: too many places to hide. And bamboo… there’s some evil shit. If God hadn’t meant for man to invent weapons, he would’ve never given us bamboo.
I walked into town, rented a motor scooter and rode out to the border crossing at the Moei River. A free trade zone had sprung up along the Thai side, with about a hundred market stalls selling rice, fruit, soaps, toys, tools… everything. I was drinking tea outside one of the stalls when a man came up to me and started speaking in not-so-broken English. He’d been a professor in Rangoon until one day when soldiers came into his class and started working him over. “They insulted me…” he said. “They insulted me and humiliated me in front of my students!” He grabbed my sleeve and stared at me wildly, trying to drive home the importance of what he was saying. I thought he was insane. “You’re Alive.” I wanted to tell him. “You’re alive and in one piece in Thailand, not dead or getting tortured to death in some basement in Rangoon. Count your fucking blessings!” “That’s terrible.” was all I could manage to say.
I got back on my bike and followed a dirt road heading north along the river. After a mile or so I stopped on top of a bluff and watched a stream of refugees coming across the Moei from the Burmese side: a silent procession of men, women and children wading across the river with as much as they could carry in heavy black plastic and burlap sacks. They came across in groups of three or four at a time: a slow, orderly procession that gave the impression of being fairly well practiced, almost routine. There was no fighting, crowd scenes or babies crying… no noise at all except the sound of the river.
After dinner, Peter, Michelle and I sat by the stream behind the huts, drinking Coke and Thai whiskey, telling the sorts of stories that travelers do: places we’d been, people we’d met, insights we had along the way. The conversation was animated but quiet, our voices hushed by the stream and the darkening jungle beyond it. Peter had made it into the refugee camps, which were being run by the Thai Army and thought he’d gotten some good pictures. I told him about the river crossing and the road to the north, which ended at a ridge about two or three miles from the official border. My plan was to drink hard and fall asleep early, set my alarm for midnight and ride out to see the shelling. Michelle said to wake her if I was actually going and didn’t mind her tagging along. I didn’t.
At midnight my alarm went off and I climbed out of bed, knocked on Michelle’s door and found her up and ready to go. I started up the bike and she got on behind me and that’s when I found out the headlight didn’t work. We decided to go for it anyway, hoping that the moon and our flashlights would be enough. I never liked motorcycles – even little scooters like the one we were on - the risk to reward ratio always seemed way too high - but I had to admit, speeding through those deserted moonlit streets with a beautiful stranger’s arms around me was starting to change my mind.
Michelle was beautiful too. She was a tall, blonde French Canadienne who’d spent the last six months scuba diving in the tropics, so go figure. But mostly it was her demeanor – a sort of quiet strength and competence about her – the kind it takes for a beautiful woman to travel around Asia alone. Or, for that matter, jump on a bike with no headlight at midnight to go see a war. She was beautiful in all the usual ways too, but in the moonlight she was gorgeous. Of course, in the moonlight, we’re all gorgeous.
We lost our street lighting at the border, but found we could navigate well enough by the moon, which was bright and about three-quarters full. When the road went into the jungle I slowed down and she turned on the flashlight. It was touch-and-go at first, but we got used to it. I’ve found you can make it through anything if you’re willing to go slow enough.
The scene at the river crossing was entirely different than it had been during the day. The flow of refugees had at least tripled, and what had been men, women and children in the daylight were now just shadows – dozens of them – silently moving across the river and disappearing into the jungle. It was, in a word, scary… especially having to pass through them on the road. Michelle kept her flashlight down and out of people’s faces as I nursed the bike through the crowd, ready to gun it at the first hint of a problem. Fortunately we passed through without incident. Michelle held up her light and I sped up to put some distance between us and the refugees. She loosened her grip around my waist and both of us felt each other start breathing again.
From that point on the road became a lot scarier, covered entirely by the darkness of the jungle. Michelle’s flashlight, (presumably meant for use underwater,) was strong, lighting up the both sides of the road as well as the canopy overhead, giving everything a stark, almost cartoonish quality… the kind of cartoon where signs reading “Danger!”, “Go Back!” and “This Means You!” would start popping up at any moment.
When the first shell went off there was no mistaking it: I pulled over, killed the engine and waited for the second round. When it hit we both said “Holy Shit!”… and listened to the sound as it echoed through the mountains.
“Just so you know,” I said, “I’m scared as shit.”
The road got smaller and more rutted as we went on, petering out finally into the footpath at the base of the ridge I remembered from that afternoon. As we climbed up the path and out of the trees we could see the clouds flicker just before each shell hit, and a weird orange glow silhouetting the top of the ridge. I thought I could hear gunfire as well, very far away, but couldn’t be sure.
When we crested the ridge we saw Manerplaw, or at least the skies above it, glowing orange behind a range of jagged, toothy mountains. There were sporadic arcs of tracer fire and the bright twinkling of flares. Every few minutes another shell would go off, lighting up the smoke and the clouds across the sky. It was beautiful. There’s really no other way to describe it: as beautiful and strange from a distance as it must’ve been ugly and predictable up close.
If I were still writing for Penthouse this would be the part where I’d have to fuck the story up, literally, with a sex scene. It’d probably be something dark and faux-poetic – a sort of eros/thanatos/Hiroshima Mon Amour kind of thing - heavy on the foreplay. I’d resist the temptation to use the skyrockets and explosions metaphorically, knowing the editors would probably do it anyway. (“Less poetry, more penetration.” was their usual critique.)
Since I’m not writing for Penthouse though I can tell things as they actually happened, which was simply the two of us sitting on top of a ridge, watching a light show and knowing that a whole lot of people were probably dying. The only bodily fluids involved were the tears that we shed, and even those didn’t come from any sort of deep philosophical understanding so much as simply not knowing what else to do.
I knew that a real journalist would’ve found a way to cross the river, climb the last line of mountains and then headed down to see the killing up close. Good journalists go to the places where people die: great ones get there in time to watch them do it. Once I realized that I knew I didn’t want to be a journalist anymore.
After an hour or so, when the shelling died down, we started back down the ridge. Going down was a lot slower and more treacherous than coming up, and more than once we felt our footholds give way and listened to them tumble down the mountain. When we finally reached the bottom, getting back on the bike seemed almost safe.
Back at the river crossing there were two Thai Army trucks and some soldiers. We stopped and showed them our passports. Since we didn’t speak Thai and they didn’t speak English, that was pretty much all there was to it. A little further down the road I saw a weird flickering in the trees and pulled over, shutting off the engine.
“What is it?”
Somewhere close by there was the weird, tinny sound of amplified music, along with staccato bursts of shouting and the unmistakable “thwack, thwack, thwack” of kicks and punches from a Kung-Fu movie. We got off the bike, found a path into the jungle and followed it, the canned music and dialogue accompanied by very real sounds of laughter. Just about everything about the moment was utterly, utterly bizarre.
The path opened up to a clearing about the size of a football field. Hundreds of people – assumedly the Burmese - were sitting and watching a Kung Fu movie being projected onto some bedsheets on the back of a Thai army truck. One of the characters was a man dressed up as a woman and was, apparently, hilarious. Even though it was after three in the morning everyone seemed to be wide-awake and, weirder still, perfectly happy. Even the occasional rumble of shelling didn’t seem to faze them.
I wondered if these were the Buddhist Karen, the ones who’d supposedly turned on the Christians being killed in the distance. I didn’t know and decided I didn’t want to: another fatal blow to my career as a journalist. As far as I was concerned they were just people: people who’d gotten out while the getting was good and could appreciate a good transvestite kung fu flick, even at three in the morning.
Michelle and I made it back to our huts just before dawn. We sat by the creek and finished the whiskey, watching the jungle around us slowly reappearing through the light and the mist. When the daylight became too bright to ignore we both got up and went to our separate rooms. Although perfect moments had come and gone one after another, sadly, I just didn’t have the guts to kiss her. It's odd to think that if I had, everything in our lives might've turned out differently.
The next afternoon we walked to the bus station, exchanged addresses we knew we’d never use, and kissed goodbye. I got on a bus to Bangkok and she headed off towards Vietnam. When I got to Bangkok I bought an english language newspaper and read about the fall of Manerplaw. The fortress had been overrun and the last of the Karen resistance wiped out. The Burmese Army was alleged to have used chemical shells in their final offensive and somewhere between three and five hundred people had been killed.