FACE TO FACE WITH A ROCKET SCIENTIST IN MAE HONG SON
NASA OFFICIAL REMINDS A HACK JUST HOW GOOD THAILAND CAN BE.
Flying Sporran’s Weekend Diary.
|Mae Hong Son|
This week the diary is taking another direction. I have been running around in northern Thailand for a week to find I have been gagged.
There is no story at the request of Scotland Yard but the good thing is that I am still being paid.
Readers here will eventually be told anyway.
What, however, I can admit to is meeting a young rocket scientist working for NASA.
We (photographer AC and myself) had done a lot of the Chiangs. Chiang Rai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong, the latter apparently being the new spiritual home of Burmese narcotics king pin Wei Su Kang.
We had been across to Burma and also done a lot of the Maes, Mae Sai, Mae Ai, Mae Taeng, Mae Sariang, Mae Salong and Mae Hong Song and we needed a beer.
|Thai Burma Border at Mae Sai|
So it was in the Crossroads Bar in Mae Hong Son that photographer and and I met Leo. ( I have deliberately changed his name for reasons which will become obvious)
You see Leo taught me a lot about America; the America that it has become since I worked there in the 80s.
And boy oh boy am I glad I am in Thailand. Here despite my continual attention to its other darker side, it dawns on me periodically that what a privilege it has been to have been based here for the last 22 years as a correspondent.
|Temple in Tachilek, Myanmar (Burma)|
Leo is just 26 and is an engineer working on heat shields – those things that stop space vehicles burning up on re-entry. He should have everything to look forward to.
He’s smart, good looking, has a good salary, travels frequently coast to coast for NASA, and, as he is employed by the US Government, is almost unsackable.
But Leo is in a rut. He has to pay US$3,500 a month for an apartment outside San Francisco and is stuck in the American way, which actually means people rarely take holidays – they only have two weeks a year anyway – and works a 12 hour day 60 hour week purely because it is expected.
|Between Pai and Mae Hong Son|
For that he enjoys status – and when flying in the United States status is king. On American airlines nowadays you pay extra for privileges or earn them in air miles.
Leo is in the top bracket and has points that give him priority boarding, priority seating, priority luggage allowance, free drinks, and even a quicker security check and softer anal probe!
The guy with the most points is top dog. The guy with the least points, does not get priority seating, has to pay US$20 to have his hand luggage stored in the hold, is strip searched and is the last to board, when he then gets the sneers as he takes his cheap seat.
It sounds like hell. Social networking has taken over people’s lives. Nobody seems to go to shops any more. They buy everything online (its cheaper) and whole communities are bunkered down!’
|Looking into Laos from Chiang Khong. Wei Su Kang – the DEA’s most wanted man in the region it said to be building a hotel on the island mid-river. If so – times don’t change|
The legal system, as we know, favours the guy with money – as does the medical system. And it seems many people do not want Obamacare. They would rather contribute to highly profitable health care policy companies.
Whats more they were inches away from having a Mormon as President. What a nightmare. But nobody gets it.
|Khun Sa – Chan Shee Fu – with Andrew Drummond, Homong, Burma, 1988|
But Leo has a spirit of adventure, and, while he is not about to tell anyone in the U.S. that life there is far from perfect, he did tell his his bosses he was not going to answer his email for two weeks, something seemingly unheard of.
So he has travelled around Thailand going to all the right places.
His research had been meticulous and also tied in with all those points he has earned along the way. As I write he is enjoying his last two days in a five star Bangkok hotel for free.
His only mistake was to go to Phi Phi – but he discovered that within a day (How could people be allowed to destroy such a beautiful place) and moved to Koh Yai Noi.
The thing is Leo is wonderfully different. Like other American friends he is a free thinker in a society which, well does not sound particularly like the ‘land of the free’ at least not outside New York, San Francisco and Boston and even then there are a lot of ifs. Liberals in the United States are, well ,it seems, weirdos.
I’m impressed. Rocket scientist – that’s got to be the ultimate job. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that.
But I could not help thinking Leo was a bit envious of my lot. And sometimes I really think I have been blessed.
Of course there’s no money in what I do and if I followed the instructions of some newsdesks I would no doubt go loopy. I’m time-rich cash-poor (but not time rich in age) Leo is cash-rich time-poor.
He would like to sacrifice cash for time, but can’t. The system does not allow it. Keep earning the bucks.
Americans it seems don’t get to lead real lives until they retire. Then they realise there are other countries in the world other than the ones on the TV news where they are killing people and by then the penny drops too late. That’s Leo – a US Govt official talking by the way – not me.
|With rescued Padaung long necked children, now mothers themselves and living near Mae Hong Son|
But Thailand – what a lovely country to be poor in ( I mean western poor) and what a great place to bring up kids providing you can get them educated outside the system.
A country with a lot of humanity but limited human rights.
It was a great trip. I returned to the village and path where I used to cross the border illegally to see drugs warlord Khun Sa.
I once again visited the Padaung long-necked families whom I helped rescue from a human zoo in Thaton.
And I ended up in Mae Sariang, where I used to get a boat down to the Salween and Moei Rivers to visit the Karen Army in Mannerplaw, either that or arrive via Mae Sot.
I had no time to go to ‘Sleeping Dog Hill’ – a name I invented for the Daily Telegraph as the literal translation from Burmese was a rather clumsy hill looks like a dog sitting in the prone position.
But I remember the battle there which resulted in the fall of Manerplaw to the Burmese from a Karen howitzer position, while colleague Philip Blenkinsop was taking ‘incoming’ in a Karen trench. I still have hearing problems.
|Drummond – left – with BBC crew Karen Front line 1987 – the reason everyone is ducking is that the Burmese are firing.|
And I remember my producer for BBCs ‘The Forgotten War’ soiling himself as we ourselves came under mortar attack in another Karen base – something which had been prompted by the rather cavalier comment: ‘Doesn’t anybody shoot at anybody around here?’
So I have been down some very bendy memory lanes this week. Its been fun. They are experiences you cannot pay for, er, well at least I cannot.
Coming shortly the Flying Sporran wakes up and gets back to normal.
And finally its always good to get home to these guys.
– Annie – left -who requires a lost of plasters if she ever gets soap in her eyes and
Right – Matthew the home-wrecker