Myanmar: War, Animism, Alchemy
'I want to ask him about the war, about what
it's like to be the leader of a god's army, to be revered, to be feared,
to be able to walk through and around bullets. To be a god himself.'
I stepped off the plane and threw up. Overcome,
shocked, disturbed. Dead bodies everywhere. Maggots feeding off of them.
Funeral pyres two metres high. Black, acidic stench worse than the most
terrible sulfur, worse even than the opposite of a rose. The pains of
war. The pains of disease that will follow the war. There just couldn't
be a future. When the present was so bad, there could be no tomorrow.
Why ask about it? The sun may rise, but there was little to celebrate
in this pit. How could we have been so unlucky to have landed right here,
right now, where there wasn't supposed to be any fighting, where there
was supposed to be life?
The pilot of my bushplane had disappeared. I walked around to see him
behind the wing, lurching. "I can't take it." He gasped
for air. "I can't."
"Stop. You're hyperventilating," I said. "Just take it
easy." I implored him to focus on his hands, his feet, anything to
get him to calm down. It was calming me down not thinking about the death
"How can you just stand there?" he asked.
"I can." I spoke confidently. "Don't you just want
to vomit?" I replied,
"I just did." It seemed to calm him.
Just back from that trip, away from the undrawn lines of war, I circle
the spot on my map. The Andaman coast. The ugly terror in the beautiful
jungle. How could these two young oracular demons cause so much pain?
I can't imagine how it could be that five hours away as the crow flies,
there are red-devil tourists going from pasty-white to lobster on Patong
Beach in Phuket? While up in the jungle, in a land supposedly part of
Thailand, a Burmese guerilla groups stronghold is attacked, looted,
and self-destructs in a massive kamikaze ritual. Where does the calling
come from? Why the need to poison the land rather than let the conqueror
tread in? I suppose it's obvious. But the maggots. I'm haunted by the
In the end, I read
that there were only eight dead. The fires weren't actually human flesh
burning in a mound of horror but an organic mixture of food including
banana and one very unfortunate lemur. All started by the two eleven
year-old siblings wreaking havoc on the modern Thai army, keeping the
forces at bay, guarding the temple that means nothing to them. This
is not war. It is not religion. It is not about fronts and armies and
trenches and honour.
I am back in Phang Nga province, over by the seaside looking out towards
the sea and some uninhabited island in the distance. I'm not far from
the hectic, frantic Bangkok. I can almost smell the tourists on their
way to Krabbi, Phuket, or Koh Samui. There's the whisper of Leo diCaprio,
of Sean Connery a.k.a. James Bond. If you sit quietly, you can hear
the last breaths of some starlet doped out on heroine gasping her last
breath in a dark room. The mysteries of Southern Thailand, I think to
myself as I slip into sleep.
My bushpilot and I are having a quiet coffee in the small town centre.
There's a Nescafe sign hanging on the fridge. Because I don't look local,
the waitress asks me if I want Thai coffee. I say yes, thinking why on
earth would anyone ever order Nescafe when they could have this incredible
authentic stuff probably brought in from Sumatra? One always wants the
drugs one can't have, I suppose. The bushpilot is no worse for wear. I
did pay him handsomely for the last journey. He's normally a madman and
a freak his friends say, which is probably the only reason why he helped
me on my quest. "What are you going to do tomorrow?" he
"I don't think about tomorrow."
"You're not thinking about Friday?"
He's particularly playful today, "Not about going to the mosques
and seeing the Friday prayers? Catching a glimpse of a Thai woman or the
local boxing behind the supermarket? Or even fishing out in the lake?"
"No, no, you don't understand." I explain, "I don't think
about tomorrow. Ever."
He's quiet and breaks open a sesame seed with his teeth. From where he
has managed to secure a sesame seed here I'll never guess. But of course,
he's a bushpilot. He has access to almost anything.
"I'm going fishing."
We sit. He's already on the lake, hat on, line in the dank water. I take
off my shoes and let my feet get dirty on the ground. There's something
crawling between my toes. It's an ant. I let it climb. It sneaks in between
the toes crossing over only for brief moments until it can get itself
protected back in the crevices. I think about this ant and think that
it is connected to everything else in the world. It has a fear of death.
It too is alive and seeking its destiny, however elusive that may seem
to a human. But then it becomes clear, it is speaking the language of
the universe. It is an omen. I must go back.
"When can we go?" I ask my pilot friend.
"Go back," I say.
"Technically, it's not Burma; it's still Thailand." I don't
want to appear pedantic. "You know where I mean."
"Just to get ourselves killed again, by the Karens or the Myanmar
army, or even the Thais?"
"We're still alive."
"Yes," he says, "but can you really enjoy life any more
after what you saw?"
"The Bangkok Post said it wasn't that bad."
"Hmm," the pilot sighs.
I prod, "Don't you want to go? The adventure of it all?"
We get back in the plane, me with my helmet on, he with his helmet off.
It's been four days since our coffee. I can feel my heart palpitating
despite my attempts at meditation. Trying to drive the memory of the past
out of reality, out of relevance. I find myself floating and apart from
it all. I see myself, on the back of my eyelids, macheteing through the
jungle, past a war of unknown origin, and into a small dark cave. I use
my flashlight and see what it is that I came for.
Turbulence hits and my flying companion throws out a "Sorry, mate."
He's not Australian but they apologize better than anyone so he emulates.
We're connected in this plane, not just because we're in it together,
at eight hundred metres, searching for a landing spot. The unsaid words
between us stand outside of time, like the thousands if not millions of
unelocuted exchanges between pairs of warriors, adventurers, scientists,
and astronauts. While I know I'm not actually flying the plane, somehow
I feel that we all conspire, the pilot, me, the plane, the wind, the parting
trees, we all manage to get us down safely.
I step off the plane and throw up. There's no disease or horror but its
memory is too hard to shake. The pyres are indelibly part of my being.
I collect myself amidst the chastising chagrin of my friend. We search
around the site to make sure there's no ambush. As fought over as this
land is, it's rather sparsely populated. No Thai soldiers on patrol either.
It makes me wonder which side of the line we're on. And then it gets clear,
it doesn't matter.
He asks me if I have any sense which way we should walk. Instinctively,
I reach for my map, but then I see a red ant the size of a pear and follow
it into the jungle. Machetes come out and we keep trudging through, getting
deeper and deeper into the old nightmare. We take rest after four hours
under a strange red coconut tree. Another omen. The daub as it is sometimes
called is refreshing and we aim to keep moving but something stirs. We're
being watched. The moment has an immense weight, like the moments an open
heart surgery patient must feel when his heart is taken out of his body.
The stir moves out of the brush and with the situation's new clarity,
the danger and fear is erased. Maktub, I say to myself, resigning myself
to my own fate.
The man is only a boy. He sits on a fallen tree and sighs. I just stare.
He makes a motion as if he asking for a cigarette. He tries speaking in
a dialect I can't make out, clearly not Thai. My pilot, who feels compassion
for the boy, strides right over and grants him his wish. The smile is
unmistakable, revealing half-broken teeth, slightly sinister, but overall,
showing gratitude. We notice that he is armed but the gun is put away
neatly in his pants, not threatening, just put away. As he turns to try
and converse with my pilot friend, I see he has a ponytail, a mane that
bobs as he laughs. We sit for some time while he trades charade-like stories
with the bushpilot. I don't say a thing.
Inevitably over time, the two of them manage to communicate verbally,
albeit with very few common words. The pony-tailed boy asks me something.
The pilot translates, "He wants to know why you're here. I think
he thinks you're a photographer or a reporter trying to get a story. He
thinks you're rich, I think." I want to ask him about the war,
about what it's like to be the leader of a god's army, to be revered,
to be feared, to be able to walk through and around bullets. To be a god
himself. But I don't want to be seen as a reporter, a stealer of stories.
"I'm on a quest." I say.
"Tough word to translate," the pilot says.
The boy turns to listen. His eyes shows that he understands. I make a
motion with my hands and get my point across. The boy laughs throwing
his head, his hair, his smile back, carefree. We walk, three abreast at
times, in single file at others. When we finally get there, it is as though
I have been there all my life. I never imagine it could be exactly as
I expected. Someone once said that when you want something enough, the
entire universe conspires to help you get it. This is what I feel as I
walk into the cave. The boy leads me into a nook that seems to magically
open in the rock just for him. All the war and the fighting and the religion
drops away and I am left staring at what I came so far for. There in the
light, is the unmistakable, undiluted, pigeon's blood red fire of a legendary
I get back to London via Antwerp, I realize that the treasure has
less value than the find. The engagement ring I had made to celebrate
my love for my fiancée, with the brightest and most brilliant
ruby on Earth, was just a testament to my old materialism. It lost
its meaning. But the ruby itself, to it I was connected. With it,
with my pilot, with my friend in the jungle, I was at one.
She said no, anyway. Not that it really matters.
© Zia Zaman
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available
LOSING ONESELF IN REMOTE ASIA
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