This story begins, like all good stories, in Chiang Mai Thailand. One day Michael turned up, and we discussed the Burmese border at Mai Sai, which was reputed to be sometimes open. Michael's father was killed in Burma in World War II, so he had always wanted to go there. So we rented a minibus, and headed off to Mai Sai to find out...
Patcharin turned up, and I invited our friend Om. Like many Thais, Om divides her day between eating and planning the best places to get good things to eat! No roadside stall can be missed, particularly if they sell shrimp or sausage wrapped in green leaves.
Mai Sai is the most northern part of Thailand, close to the Golden Triangle (a notorious drug-producing area) and rickshaws (samlars) are the popular form of local transport. The Masai river forms the border between 'free' Thailand, and 'non-free' Burma. You could walk across it.
There are many guest houses for back-packers and treckers on the banks of the Masai river, right on the Thai/Burmese border. Guest houses cost between $1 and $3 per night! For years, I have carried a Chinese fortune in my wallet: 'Hidden in a valley, beside an open stream, this will be the kind of place where you will find your dream'. I'm not sure if the Northern Guest House is it!
At the border we paid for our Burmese visas (photos required, and only US dollars accepted), and were told that we must be back in Thailand by 6pm that day! There is a bridge on the border. Thailand drives on the left and Burma on the right, so on the bridge all the traffic was switching over mid-way - mostly bicycles and a few trucks.
We crossed into Burma and took a rickshaw into the nearest market town. I tried my cellphone to call California from the back of the rickshaw - I once saw James Bond do that in a movie! In the market they had tiger skins, peacock feathers (both illegal in the US) and British-era coins with the king's head on them.
We returned to Thailand before the 6pm deadline. The customs post was empty, so we were not able to check back in. They may still be looking for us!
In 2005, Sidney and I were in two minds whether to go back to Burma. It has now been renamed Myanmar but we (like the BBC) prefer the old name. On the one hand, we don't want to support the Myanmar junta, but on the other hand every visitor also benefits the regular Burmese people, with jobs and dollars. So we went with our friends Sophie and Larry Cripe to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and the 'Road To Mandalay' boat, which travels the Irawaddy from Yangon to Bagan and Mandalay.
In Rangoon we stayed at the Strand hotel, a colonial-era hotel with spacious rooms and wooden floors. We visited a huge reclining Buddha, and a temple covered in gold leaf.
We joined the 'Road To Mandalay' at Yangon. We were on board for Chinese New Year 2005. After dinner, they set 2005 lighted candles adrift, and they floated past the boat in the darkness. A beautiful sight! We visited a marble Buddha workshop, and next door they beat the gold leaf by hand to cover the temples - with big wooden mallets. Another day we took horse-drawn carriages. Many Burmese men are monks for part of their life.
On the boat with us were several British members of the Burma Star Association - ex servicemen who served in Burma during World War II. As the boat traveled along, they would point out where they had taken up defensive positions beside the river, and where the Japanese troops had been turned back.
Aung San Suu Kyi is the true leader of Burma, having won 85% of the vote in a popular election. But then she was placed under house arrest in Yangon by the military dictators. Her book 'Letters From Burma' is a graphic look at the difficulties of opposing the government in a one-party state. She has since won a Nobel Peace Prize. She remains under house arrest, and many of her supporters have been imprisoned or killed.