Magazine article Newsweek International

No Time like the Present

Magazine article Newsweek International

No Time like the Present

Article excerpt

Time stands still for no man. Time takes its toll. Time is of the essence. During a recent visit to Burma's Shan state, the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, I thought often of those commonplace English expressions--partly because almost none of the clocks told the correct time.

Perhaps there's good reason. Burma is half an hour behind Thailand. But the town of Mongla, on the Chinese border, ticks on Chinese time--an hour ahead of Thailand. Traverse a mere 200 or so kilometers, south to north, and you zigzag between three time zones. Why even bother with precise timekeeping?

In Burma it's hard to know what year it is, let alone what time it is. The country is stuck in 1962, when it invented a brand of socialism that's a bit like the abandoned sandals I saw lying on the main road in Kengtung--as if one day the Burmese simply stopped walking with the rest of the world. Water buffalo have yet to be replaced by modern agricultural equipment. The traditional longyi (sarong) is still largely favored over trousers by men both young and old. In Kengtung, nighttime activity is usually conducted by candlelight, thanks to lack of power.

Time flies, you realize. Strolling around the bustling market in Kengtung, I was startled to find a copy of NEWSWEEK from Aug. 9, 1999. The cover story that week--a piece I had reported on as a London intern--was on the solar eclipse of the century. Quite apt. If anyone has experienced a total eclipse, it's the Burmese.

Yet time is a river, too, moving on. Military checkpoints surround Kengtung, evidence of the old repression, even as a sea of rooftop satellite dishes beams in the BBC. Though most inhabitants still walk around town, Chinese motorcycles are multiplying like cockroaches. Capitalism is everywhere, at least unofficially. In the market, money changers calculate kyat into yuan into dollars into baht with the hustle of Wall Street traders. …

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