Hello, and Happy New Year! I’m in Chiang Rai, a town in northern Thailand. Phil and I came overland this morning from Kengtung, which is in Shan state to the east of Myanmar. Thailand is a civilised rest stop; with everything from English language bookshops and internet cafes, to Walls ice cream and first class bus transport. They even drive on the left to make me feel that extra bit at home. It really does feel like a European country, albeit with its own Asian culture, stumbled upon in SE Asia.

So this is just to quickly say that I’m well, Myanmar was interesting, friendly and safe, although after a month I’m glad to leave and move on. I’m staying here for a couple of days, then getting a bus to Bangkok, where I’ll spend a few days while getting a visa for Cambodia, then travel overland through Cambodia (via Angkor) to Vietnam.

Some stuff about Kengtung, which I left this morning: It’s the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, where much of the world’s opium, and now metamphetamine, is grown. However this wasn’t the most evident or interesting thing about the place. What was interesting is that it doesn’t belong to a country. Really this part of Shan state should be (is!) a separate country, not part of the Union of Myanmar. Much of it is under control of local armies (the Wa, or the Shan), and those parts (like Kengtung) which are government controlled are only so because of deals with the armies. It’s a very peaceful town, richer than the rest of Burma, because of excellent trade links with China and Thailand, as well as trickle down from drugs money. I think the use of drugs locally must be prohibited, as there was no sign of social unrest caused by them.

A sign of it pseudo-country status is the language and currencies that people use. They speak Shan, Burmese, Chinese and Thai, as well as various hill tribe languages. The currencies in general use are the Myanmar Kyat, the Thai Baht and the Chinese Yuan, as well as the ubiquitous US dollar. Seeing somewhere that isn’t quite a country gives a good perspective on things.

The countryside was beatiful, and on Saturday we went on a day trek to some hill tribe villages. Yesterday we looked around the local Wats (Buddhist temples), one was a fantastic wodoen building about 300 years old, with an amazing range of Buddha images.

More about Myanmar later. Hope you’re enjoying the new year. Right, now to check my email…

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