“Faraway places with their strange-sounding names” have been calling to me since I was a young child, mesmerized by magic carpet stories that flew me regularly in and out of exciting experiences. How fortunate to be able to play out some of these adventures in real life, and with an equally dedicated Travel Companion (TC), my husband who shares the journeying.”– DFK
This continues the account of travel from “FarAway Places,” July 30, 2017, about the avoidance of visiting Burma when Burma’s unsteady political climate led to our detour to neighboring Thailand and Cambodia, and a day trip — only — to “Myanmar,” a name imposed on the ancient kingdom of Burma by the military government then in power.
Back in Thailand from Cambodia on our overseas adventure travels, our guide Peter showed us the wonders of the Bangkok morning flower market and the floating fruit and vegetable markets. As we traveled north, we experienced salt makers toiling beside pans similar to our own Hawaiian salt ponds, artisans at work on ornate wood carvings, and people extracting jaggery sugar from the juice of toddy palms. The particular flavor of jaggery sugar through my taste buds stirred sweet memories of Burma.
We visited temples that looked like wedding cakes, temples glazed with gold with seemingly endless stairways to heaven, but still no match to Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda, which I had seen and wondered at as a child. No match either for pre-war Mandalay Hill — pictures of which I had seen — nor King Thibaw’s palace with its waterlily moat, fortress walls, and remnants of palace grandeur within. Besides ancient places of wisdom, power and wonder, we visited cottage industries making paper and dying with indigo, fabricating bamboo umbrellas and fans and hand painting crockery, which we found interesting.
On the River Kwai, we stayed near Kanchanaburi, the site of the infamous Hell Fire Pass. Thousands of Allied prisoners died here, including one of my mother’s paternal cousins while forced into labor by the Japanese during World War II. These wretched prisoners were supplied with tin forks to dig railroad beds for the enemy trains. The Japanese forces were pushing north to reach Burma and hoped, eventually, to reach northern China through Burma by rail.
As we made our way northward through the country toward the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos come together at the L of the great Mekong River, my thoughts continually turned toward Burma.
When we visited two tribal villages and a working elephant camp, and floated down a lazy river on a poled raft I couldn’t stop thinking about Burma and my father, who had gone missing in 1948.
When we rode an elephant much bigger than Padmini, it stirred my memories of my childhood magical ride through Dehra Dun on that young elephant’s back. (Readers of my first memoir, “Jackals Wedding,” will have read of that grand excursion.)
Along the route in Thailand, I realized that all the while Peter was being such an excellent guide and I was reveling in new sights, sounds, tastes and all the delights of his country, my eyes were seeking old familiar scenes. My heart was straining toward Burma, wondering, and entertaining a spark of hope that I would find some clue leading to information about Dad.
As it was, by the time we reached Chiang Rai, we had talked with many people, showed his photo and given out an information sheet I had prepared. The Mon tribesman I spoke with in the River Kwai area, the woman who had owned a café in a border town, and all others shook their heads dubiously.
The general opinion was that, with the fierce fighting and pushing back and forth of borders between Burma, Thailand and Northern China after the official end of World War II, if my father had returned to Burma after abandoning us in Australia, he might have been caught between these guerrilla currents and killed.
My husband solicitously warned me not to get my hopes up about uncovering a clue to put my search to rest. I listened, and tried to convince myself it would be best if Dad had been killed outright, maybe by accident, rather than captured and possibly tortured and killed.
Meanwhile, I wondered how things would differ, what kinds of memories would surface when I stepped back into the land of Burma. In 1946 I had been a little girl myself, and now, here I was a member of the kupuna, or grandparent age in Hawaii.
From our hotel in Chiang Rai, the view was out and up the Mekong River. It shone, a wide mirage. To our left rose the hazy, blue hills of Burma, bank upon bank, like our Kauai mauka lands.
The morning of our day trip I rose early, feeling energized and expectant. Peter had warned the group not to bring our passports, but instead, the Xeroxed copies we’d been asked to make before leaving home.
He explained that the border guards regularly “lost” passports, detaining people several days or longer until they realized that some higher denomination bills casually passed during inquiries could hasten the process referred to politely as “finding.”
As we bused through the countryside heading toward Tachileik, he told us of an upscale house of gambling situated on the river bank over the Burma border. Some people who came into Burma to gamble, he said, never showed up again if they won large amounts — or lost and couldn’t ante up.
What had happened to the sweet and gentle people my mother and father — and my sister and I — had known, what overlay of power and greed had occurred in the ensuing years since our Burma experiences? It used to be that the trust level was so high with the general populace, as we had found in Thailand, where the idea of action and reaction in life and in the afterlife are the guiding force.
Poet and author Dawn Fraser Kawahara, a rooted Kauai transplant has, since her birth in British India, called many places “home” during her life. Kawahara for many years led and instructed travel groups to Hawaii and Pacific nations. This column is excerpted from her upcoming book, “Burma Banyan” (Memoir II). She pens “The Green Flash” column published every other week in The Garden Island. More information about the writer and her work may be found through www.kauaiweddingsandbooks.com