Written by Roger Allen
The Freedom Bridge spanning the Salween River loomed up in front of us. Random checkpoints had started some way back and now the line of cars and lorries slowed to a halt. This was the way into Myanmar from the Thailand side, the official way – route not supposed to be open to us: reporter Stephen Moyes and I along with a Christian Aid worker. We were about to be smuggled across the border into one of the most dangerous and secretive countries in the world.
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Before our mission could begin we had been told to meet with one of the Burmese activists in the border town of Mi-Sot. We parked our car near the river and walked along a towpath leading away from the bridge. It seemed very pleasant with birds swooping down to the water, small boats chugging along in the current and men paddling huge lorry tyre inner tubes from one side of the river to the other, from Thailand into Burma.
Sat round the edge of the rubber tubes were on average six people, mostly loaded with bags of food and the odd electrical appliance. On one of the crossings was a man with a flat screen TV in its cardboard package, holding it aloft as the ferryman steered the inner tube to the wooden landing stage on the forbidden banks of Myanmar. We stood watching the flotilla go to and fro without speeding patrol boats shooting them out of the water.
“What’s all this?” we asked our guide.
“Oh, the men paddling pay the police on both sides and all are happy,” he answered with a smile. Welcome to one of the most closely watched borders in the world.
After a night in a hot noisy guest house we ate breakfast in a wooden café back at the water’s edge. A man with a wok flipped bean shoots over and over as the flames licked up the sides. Various pots and pans boiled away on the other three burners in his tiny area of kitchen.
“You want Joke?” he asked Stephen and I.
“What joke? Is it funny?” I asked.
“No Joke, you want joke?”
Bemused we turned to our guide. Joke is a staple breakfast in Thailand, boiled rice till it dissolves and forms a thick porridge with an egg cracked on the top. To me it didn’t sound great so I opted for a Khao tom, Thai rice soup. Which was hot and zesty with flaked fish mixed in and it also had slices of green chilli which caught me unawares causing a flush of sweat. After a night of barely no sleep it was a great wake-up.
Breakfast done, water brought and a map unfurled we headed up a road that ran alongside the river. The further we went the jungle closed around us and the river disappeared.
Our whole purpose for being on the banks of a river dividing us from safety and being caught illegally in one of the most unforgiving countries in the world was the new Rambo film. Rambo was back in action this time guiding aid workers into Burma to deliver medical supplies to the Karen refugees holed up in camps up and down the Salween river. We were to be taken across the water to see the REAL displaced Karen people in a refugee camp a mile inside what was once Burma.
Parking the car in a clearing we could see the sunlight playing on the water 100 meters before us. All seemed still and quiet. We walked in a line towards the small landing stage in the shallows. As we got closer wood smoke drifted from fires in the woods. In the the shadows of the forest hundreds of people had set up home, Karen refugees escaping from the junta across the water.
A long narrow boat swung in towards the landing stage. Our guide told us to get in quickly “no noise”. As we sat down the boatman flipped the throttles and we sped up stream and, after 15 minutes, we approached the far bank where an identical wooden pier awaited us.
“This most danger,” our guide whispered.
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I gripped my camera as we bumped into what used to be Burma. At speed we all got off and ran keeping low into the jungle. After half an hour I was sweating pure Singa beer from the night before. It was blisteringly hot even under the cover of the trees. Up ahead a village came into view, a large wooden thatched structure sat in the middle of a clearing, around it were small buildings, beyond those small round huts. This was the refugee camp.
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After an hour we’d done the school, shop, and people telling stories of horror and destruction our job was pretty much done.
“Who protects these villagers?” I asked.
“Oh, there is a small garrison of the Karen rebel army in the wood up the hill”
“Are we need to go and see them please” I said.
“Okay, but first the village head he make us lunch.”
We sat down in the big building cross legged on the floor.
The food that followed was divine, fragrant rice, a meat curry sweet and spicy with sliced red onion and bowls of thin noodles, bread had been made and cooked over the open fires below the town hall. Afterwards we trudged up a steep track in to the woods to meet the rebel army feeling sleepy after a great jungle meal.
The meat curry in the refugee camp I’ve replicated as Massaman meat curry as I didn’t find out what the meat was at the time.
The garrison of the army was a cleared patch of land with a small parade ground a flag pole, with huts around the edge. It was in one of the huts that we found Lt Col Gringo. He was asleep with his black dog snoozing at the end of his camp bed. The dog barked as we knocked on the pole at the front of his hut. The Colonel came to looking bemused as two large white men peered into his home. He looked like Marlon Brando playing renegade Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. He had a pair of shorts and a sting vest on and clambered off his bed and greeted us politely.
After explaining who we were and what we needed, he and his troops going about the business of protecting the refugee village, he said to give him half an hour.
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Thirty minutes later he and his men were on parade, weapons at the ready.
I’d spied a boat on the river as we’d arrived.
“Could we get you patrolling on the river?” I asked. This would fit in with the Rambo film nicely.
“Yes he said, we have no money we need fuel – give me 10 dollar we go on river.”
We gave him 50 dollars to cover future sorties.
An hour later we flashed up and down the river where the film had been set with his men looking very professional. It was the picture of the trip.
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Back in Mi Sot having, braved the horrors of Burma, we settled down at a car repair workshop. A wood screen split the place in two, one side the banging and crashing on cars, the other chopping and cooking of one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The garage was known for its food and it didn’t disappoint.
With the dangerous mission complete it was time for karaoke. At 1am Stephen had just launched into I Will Survive. It became so bad that the bar owner flicked the switch on the machine. Silence was golden, the locals in the bar clapped madly as we tumbled out the door.