Down with the Mahdi Army

Mae Hong Son, Thailand -- 21 June 2005 | Permalink

The clouds that perch on the peaks around Mae Hong Son appear to have rolled down into town, and it is raining, not heavily but unremittingly. Mae Hong Son has a sleepy, out-of-season air and feels barely one step up from the proverbial one-water-buffalo-town. I speculate that the major local amusement may be going down to the center of town and watching the traffic light change.

Over by the lake, Wat Chong Klang, with its assortment of variegated spires has a fairground feel to it. Inside, the floor of the main wihaan appears to have been given over to cats — two tiny gray-and-white kittens that have yet to grow into their ears, and a selection of slender Burmese cats that stalk stiff-tailed across the polished boards as if they owned the place which, apparently, they do.

There are also human worshippers: a collection of middle-aged women in white robes, who may be nuns or former nuns, sit on the floor holding lotus flowers and listening to the chanting of a young monk. To me, it sounds as if he is singing “We're down with the Mahdi Army.” M., with one eye on the weather, suggests that it is actually “We're down in the muddy Irrawaddy”, which is a little more geographically plausible, but only just.

Tomorrow we go trekking in the jungle. I'm tempted to go back to the local wooden goods store and buy myself a “collapsible Burmese army trekking stick”, complete with a brass plate confirming that it was made according to the original design by Sir Jeffrey Hillpig-Smyth (I did not invent this name, but it's hard not to suspect that someone else may have done). Apparently, our route plan calls for us to spend the larger part of the first day wading upstream in a jungle river. Our affable guide assures us that his patented tobacco juice recipe will keep the worst of the leeches away and ensure that we arrive undigested and in good spirits at our first sleepover point in a Karen village in the hills.

M., usually a person of great common sense, has agreed to this foolhardy venture. I am appalled.