One Cliff, Two Rivers, Three Countries: A Story Of Freedom

 

I stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking a windy, muddy river coming into view from my left. It meandered its way across my line of sight until meeting another, larger river perpendicularly. This truer river, clearer in direction and color, came into view from the distant horizon straight ahead and continued toward me until veering out of view past my right shoulder. Between the rivers, of course, was land.

Beyond the windy river from my left was a bank of tall grass. Further back were a few trees, and in the distance were green hills as a backdrop for this empty, low-laying plot. On the right hand side of the larger river coming toward me was a similarly gradual bank with trees beyond and hills in the distance. This bank, however, featured some buildings and development that stayed consistent all along its edge.

On the edge of my bank, I saw only the drop and plants clinging to the top of this boundary before the descent to the rivers below.

And it was a boundary. In fact there were three made by the two rivers: the windy Ruak River straight below and the mighty Mekong River coming toward me.

I was standing in Thailand. The bank of low-laying tall grass to my left was Burma. The built-upon bank along the larger river was Laos.

One point. Three countries.

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Angled piece of land = Burma (Myanmar); Upper right = Laos; Foreground = Thailand.

***

With our group of 8th grade students, one of our activities in Thailand was a visit to the north to a region known as The Golden Triangle.

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This region is so-named and famous for reasons that you may not suspect would be popular with a school trip: it was once the most productive (and still a significant) region for growing opium in the world. Opium is the plant whose sap is derived to create heroin, morphine, and other related drugs.

Yet here at the meeting point of these three countries is growing tourist infrastructure, development, an impressive museum that we’d get to, and the park at which we were presently.

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Golden Triangle Park overlooks the Ruak River separating Burma from Thailand, and the Mekong dividing Burma and Thailand from Laos.

Laos.

Burma.

To me, these were simply two foreign countries shrouded in a bit of mystery.

For many of our students, though, their soil represented homelands.

Our student group consisted of ethnic Hmong and ethnic Karenni. The Hmong were forced to flee Laos for safety in Thailand in the 70s. The Karenni are a people from Burma, who, like the Hmong, fled their homeland and its oppressive regime for the relative safety of Thailand. So while Thailand was once where many of our students or their parents called home, Burma and Laos is where many of their grandparents and ancestors going back indefinitely called home.

Not all the Karenni left Burma. Not all of the Hmong left Laos. One of our Hmong chaperon’s in-laws remain there. One of our Hmong students was born there. Sara, 14, sat on a bench atop that cliff edge overlooking the rivers and countries. The young woman was red-faced with moisture streaming down her cheeks while leaning her head on the shoulder of a friend.

Sara left Laos only five years ago and came to the US knowing no English. She came with some siblings but not her half-siblings. Somewhere far beyond that bluff into Laos, they were going about their lives. Seeing the soil brought back her memories of childhood and the relationships she left behind.

Many Hmong had to leave their lives in Laos behind. When the Vietnam war ended, the communist Laotian (and Vietnamese) governments didn’t appreciate the Hmong having had a hand in the US efforts. The Hmong were targeted. So they fled to Thailand across this very river, the Mekong–perhaps not far from this very spot. Whether due to injury, boats capsizing, inability to swim, being caught trying to flee, many didn’t make it over the river.

To me, the Mekong was a blue line on the map and featured on shows like River Monsters where the host catches great fish from the world’s great rivers. To the Hmong, the Mekong is a regular feature in their traditional story quilts; a representation of life, death, freedom, and other thoughts related to my home country’s this time of year.

Americans celebrate the 4th of July to recognize the land they fought to secure. The Hmong recognize the Mekong as the finish line and starting point of a new land in which they could live free.

***

We walked around this park. The first noteworthy sight had been behind me the whole time, also overlooking this international view:

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Up a nearby hill were temples and sculpture.

Both school's students posing at the base of the ornate steps leading up the hill.
Students posing at the base of the ornate steps leading up the hill

Up the hill, we enjoyed these sights:

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New temple
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Old temple ruins

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Down the stairwell on the other side of the hill
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Gateway featuring the King and Queen of Thailand

After the park, we went to the Hall of Opium, a museum that I found interesting for its devotion to a drug. But I discovered that opium wasn’t just a drug. It was the impetus for war, the heart of an economy, and the center of a culture of addiction in Asia. I’m going to share about it next week.

For now, let’s get back to the river…

***

The final activity of the day was a boat ride on the Mekong.

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On the Thailand bank

A few decades back, relatives of some of these students crossed at night using row boats–or jerricans, or trees, or nothing.

Today in 2015, however, we all loaded up in motorized longboats and dressed up in life vests. Need to be safe on this swift ride for these American passport-holding Hmong and Karenni.

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Students readying to board

A lot can change in a few years.

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Much easier to cross by boat.

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And the country from which many of their parents/grandparents fled now welcomed these students back. This specific region of Laos is known as the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ).

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SEZ is a designation given to parts of a country with the hopes that they can develop with more liberal economic policy. China has a few of these. For instance, we didn’t need to pay a visa fee–or even have our passports stamped–to enter this zone in Laos.

On the other side, a market.

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From fleeing Laos, to finding new homes in Thailand and then the US, our American Hmong students returned to find a freer, more peaceful land.

 

What say you?