by Hank Leukart
March 15, 2006
An ice machine in the Burmese-Thai jungle
Western cultural imperalism gone awry.
The Dot Com Internet hut in the Burmese-Thai jungle
M PHANG, Thailand — I’m not sure, but I think I am currently in the most remote place I have ever traveled. The trouble is that I’m not sure how to classify or rank “remoteness.” I am in Um Phang, a tiny border-town in the middle of the Burmese-Thai jungle. With the exception of a church-building Christian missionary that I ran into at the town’s only place to eat (calling it a “restaurant” would be a stretch), I am the only white guy I’ve seen today. In fact, I may be the only person within 100 kilometers who speaks fluent English.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself, “If this Um Phang place is so remote, how did he find an Internet connection to post to his travel blog?” That’s a good point. After all, I’ve been backcountry hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, which contains only hundreds of miles of desert and certainly no computers. I’ve visited the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of Ecuador in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve even kayaked through the jungles of Honduras.
Nevertheless, I have never felt so far from civilization. Driving to Bangkok from here would take 15 hours. The closest small city is still 10 hours by car and requires a trip on “Death Highway,” a road originally named due to guerrilla activity in the area that hindered highway development. The guerrillas gave up in the 1980s, but the road is still aptly named. The road is something like California’s Highway 1 (steep and winding enough to make you sick), except that it goes through a jungle and rain forest. Oh, and when you’re on it, you’re riding in the back of a pickup truck.
I know, I know. There’s still Internet access. That’s true, but keep in mind that I’m typing this in a small hut with a bamboo-covered roof, and I’m transmitting this through at least three satellite dishes. And I’m literally sitting on a tree stump (no, it’s not comfortable, so don’t go running out to buy a tree stump chair for your office).
All this makes me wonder how insane a church-building Christian missionary needs to be to show up here. I know that Western cultural imperialism, forced acculturation, and colonization was all the rage a couple hundred years ago, but this is 2006. Don’t these guys have anything better to do with their lives than worry about which God the local Thai-Burmese villagers have chosen to worship? There are a lot of things Westerners could do to help out the locals here, but building a Jesus-worshipping church is not the first thing that comes to mind. I’m all for aid missions to countries in need (when the host country desires help), but evangelical mission trips are so 1478. How arrogant do you have to be to decide that you want to travel to the most remote location on Earth just to ensure that the local people — whom you’ve never met and of whose culture you almost certainly have no understanding — believe in a religious doctrine identical to yours?
On the other hand, trying to start my own religion in the Burmese-Thai jungle does sound exciting — think of all the power I’d have. Maybe I’ll build an ice machine to impress the villagers and control the machine from a computer in a bamboo hut and sit on a tree stump. To top it off, I’ll wear a Marlon Brando mask all the time to intimidate everyone. Maybe this cultural imperalism isn’t so bad after all.
Somehow, though, I think the locals here are smarter than that. At the very least, they’ve probably gotten the news that Brando died in 2004 by now. WB