Panic Attacks & Mae La Camp
I was checking email at an internet cafe a few days ago — this was in Pai, a tiny little dot of a town in northern Thailand — when I noticed a message from my mother. I clicked on it, and read through. “It’s hard to believe your trip’s already halfway over,” she wrote.
This was a perfectly innocent comment of course, although just after reading it I felt the muscles in the middle of my chest tighten up like a small fist. For those of you lucky enough to not suffer from regular anxiety issues, that’s a fairly accurate description of the sensation one experiences during the onset of a panic attack.
I’ve never actually been diagnosed with any sort of brain chemical imbalance, although I’m fairly certain I have a relatively serious case of a nasty affliction known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. G.A.D. is a curious little fucker — it essentially causes its carrier to feel very awkward and anxious in any sort of social situation, such as chatting up strangers at a house party, or making small-talk on a date, or just generally being pleasant and normal to people you’ve never met and therefore don’t trust.
At any rate, I swallow 150 milligrams of something known as Effexor every single morning for my anxiety issues, and the pill works wonders. Miracles, really. I can actually transform myself into the proverbial social butterfly whenever I feel like doing so now. It can be a very powerful sensation, when it’s harnessed just right. Anyway, it was certainly due to my medicated brain that I was able to take the aforementioned email in stride. Because the truth is that while I also find it hard to believe this trip is halfway over, I find it even harder still to believe that after a straight month on the road, I’ve only managed to post three separate items on this weblog, which was initially created with the intention of documenting each and every move through my two months in the Land of Smiles. But such is life, I suppose. Not to mention work.
This research trip has been rather difficult and very time-consuming to say the least, and I attribute that mostly to the weather. I feel like I’ve been slogging through the streets this past month at a snail’s pace, because the sun is constantly zapping my energy like Kryptonite. I met an older English couple in front of a convenience store on the main drag in Pai the other day — hubby was grinning from ear to ear and taking in the odd sounds of the Poi Sang Long Festival, which was taking place just across the street at Wat Klang. When his wife arrived and we started complaining about the atrocious behavior of the weather in this part of the world, she explained that the thermometer at her guest house was reading 42 degrees Celsius at 4:30 pm, which means it had to have been even hotter during the middle of the day. For my American friends, 42 degrees is HOT. It’s something like 103 degree Fahrenheit — the sort of hot that sends you in search of yet another bottle of cheap, five baht drinking water every hour upon the hour, which is something I do every day here. It’s the sort of hot that makes you want to crawl underneath a frozen air conditioner, close your eyes, and immediately die. It is certainly not the kind of heat that makes you want to wander the streets from morning until night in search of yet another guest house or restaurant that is nearly impossible to find because the tiny little drop of a town you’re in is so lazy and so laid-back that it rarely bothers to erect street signs. Then again, that may be because many of the streets don’t actually have names. I guess that makes good sense when so many of the roads here aren’t even roads at all, but rather muddy dirt paths that just happen to have a string of houses or businesses in their relative proximity.
At any rate, the point of all this is to say that I’ve been trying desperately to spend my days and early evenings researching, and my nights writing witty and well-thought through prose … but somehow it just hasn’t happened that way. My apologies to all of you who’ve been dutifully checking The Labor Party on a daily basis and finding nothing but the same old post at the top of the page, day after day. As a regular blog follower myself, I know how frustrating that can be. There is a slight possibility, however, that I’ll be able to play a bit of catch-up over the next few days, as I’m currently researching in Chiang Mai, a large city of nearly 200,000 people in the north of Thailand. For me, being in a city always lends itself to sensations of ambition and energy. And in Chiang Mai there are coffee houses and internet cafes on almost every block in some corners of the Old City, where I’ll be staying until I move even further north to the Golden Triangle, where Thailand comes together at a point with Laos and Burma.
Speaking of Burma, I crossed the border for a few hours into the town of Myawadi last week, and I now have two lovely Myanmar stamps in my brand-new passport. A few friends have been asking me to describe what Burma was like, and I haven’t bothered to respond yet, but keep your eyes on this space for a brief write-up sometime soon. I will say this: For the extremely brief time I spent on the other side, I found Burma — or at least the small stretch of Myawadi I wandered through — to be a lot like Thailand, but much poorer and significantly more desperate. This makes perfect sense, given the fact that Burma is ruled by a psychotic and oppressive military junta. Burma also holds the distinction of having one of the very worst press freedom records in the entire world.
At any rate, I’ll ramble on about my day there in a future post, and I’ve also got a few interesting things to say about a rather odd day I spent exploring a Karen-Burmese refugee camp with a Korean doctor I met at a guest house in the town of Mae Sot.
I’d been wanting to visit one of the area’s refugee camps after reading an article about CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s experience in one; apparently, Cooper got his start as a broadcast journalist by visiting a Mae Sot refugee camp himself. According to the story, Cooper had an NGO contact in Washington who put him in touch with a local volunteer, and that person snuck him inside. Cooper had a Hi-8 camera and a fake press pass on his person, and managed to shoot some rather grizzly footage, which he then sold to Channel One, the station that broadcasts in thousands of public schools across the U.S. After he’d made the sale and he was reveling in his success and his new-found passion, he decided that he’d found his calling. And of course, everyone knows what he’s been up to since. Not a bad story, huh? I’m afraid my day inside the camp, which is known as Mae La Camp (sometimes Maela Camp) wasn’t quite as exciting or revelatory. But it was eye-opening nonetheless. More to come on that later.