The ThaiBurma Border
Philip the Miracle Monk rummaged at length in the mysterious folds of his orange robes and retrieved a trilling mobile phone.
'Excuse me for a second,' he apologized, but I was getting used to it. Philip's robes had been ringing all morning. Hairless, podgy and swaddled in robes, Philip reminded me at times of very large, very bright baby. I had met him in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, soon after dawn, and it was immediately obvious that he was a highly unusual monk. For a start, most monks were not fanatical fans of the heavy-metal group The Scorpions at least not as far as I knew. Monks weren't usually called Philip either. His Buddhist holy name was as long as his arm, and was bit of mouthful for foreigners, so he had chosen an English name inspired by an electrical appliance. 'I liked the sound of it,' he told me. 'It sounded very modern.
Nor are monks supposed to know as much about troop movements as Philip seemed to: the Shan State Army, he whispered, had just dispatched fighters to positions in north-east Burma. Not long ago, it was rumoured, Philip had returned from Thailand 's frontier with Cambodia, where he had negotiated the release of clandestine arms shipment from some overzealous border police. His heavenly powers of persuasion in such dealings had earned him the nickname 'Miracle Monk'. Sometimes he was also called the Combat Buddha. Later on, in the jungle, I spotted him sitting with sculpted calm, his robes wrapped tightly around him, reading Guns & Ammo magazine.
The miracle expected of Philip today was relatively minor one. It was his task to spirit a small group of journalists and aid workers over the Thai border to the jungle stronghold of the Shan State Army, an insurgent group fighting against the Burmese military junta. We were going there to witness the celebrations for Shan New Year, and to meet the reclusive commander of the Shan rebels. The unfathomable depths of Philip's robes would prove invaluable for smuggling film past the Thai border guards, none of whom would dare frisk a monk not even a highly unusual monk called Philip.
I left Chiang Mai in the back of a speeding Toyota pick-up truck crammed with sombre Shan men wearing military fatigues. A warm drizzle pelted my face. The road meandered through fields of dead paddy, then climbed in steep, switchback curves beneath rain-drooped bamboo and watchful pines silhouetted by mist. We rose high enough to glimpse long, deep valley boiling with clouds and, massed along the far horizon, the dark ramparts of the mountains bordering Burma's Shan State - our destination. Then the road corkscrewed down into the gloom again. A few hours later we hit a Thai military checkpoint, and it was time for Philip's miracle. Soothingly, he told the Thai soldiers we were not journalists but 'friends of the Shan people' who had been invited to celebrate New Year with the rebels. The Thai soldiers decided to believe him. They confiscated the cameras we hadn't hidden, then took a group photo of us all for their intelligence files. For a moment the whole process took on the air of a jolly Sunday outing.
Beyond the checkpoint, our truck swept through another curtain of mist and emerged in a landscape of mythic beauty. The road was now a dusty red channel winding between immense towers of craggy limestone, part of an army of stacks that marched down the ThaiBurma border to the oblivious beach resorts of the far south. These stacks were in turn encircled and dwarfed by an arena of cloud-shrouded peaks of deep, aching blue. We were now inside the fortress of mountains I had seen from afar. It felt like an undiscovered place. Thick mist crept through the rolling forest in hot pursuit and swallowed the road behind us.
'Yup,' drawled the Associated Press photographer, an American ex-military type with a talent for mood-wrecking one-liners, 'this is just about as far out into the boondocks as you can get.'
Copyright Andrew Marshall, 2002. All rights reserved.
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