NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT

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. There's a clear yearning for learning, too. Every Shan, it would seem, craves knowledge right now, asking questions and eagerly awaiting any answer other than one doled out by the government. And finally, there's the new road from Tachilek to Mongla, funded largely by Wa drug money. It now provides an easy transportation route for Chinese goods to Thailand, and tourists the other way.

Time takes its toll, clearly. The town of Mongla, capital of Special Region No. 4, is under the control of Chinese narcotics boss Lin Mingxian, a.k.a. Sai Leun. Here there once were beautiful poppy fields. Today it is a sleazy mini-Las Vegas for day-trippers from China's Yunnan province. "Democracy!" my Shan companion exclaimed. For better or for worse, that it is. Thousands of visitors cross the border to flit their yuan away at baccarat and in brothels, watch transsexuals from Thailand prance around and enjoy the surreal spectacle of elephants playing football. Mongla is an example of what can be achieved when opium is eradicated--at least it was until a few months ago, when Beijing imposed a cash limit for exiting Chinese and banned most overnight stays. Already Mongla is starting to look like a Nevada ghost town. Some tourists are still coming, but how long will it be before the poppies--and the yuan they earn--start looking attractive to Sai Leun again?

But that's a future Burma's residents will have to grapple with in due time. Let them deal with the present for now. On my last night in Kengtung, I heard a rooster belt out a loud "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" I looked at my watch. It was 1 in the morning. Amazing, I thought, as I nodded off to sleep. In Burma, not even the roosters know what time it is.

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