Sunday, May 1, 2016

Umphang Thailand's Death Highway

Umphang in Tak Province has long been one of Thailand's most remote provinces.

Well in the 20th Century the only access to the region was by pack horse, ox-cart or on foot.

In the late 60s the Thai government financed construction of road through the perilous mountains only to have rebels kill thirty construction workers. The other workers abandoned their machinery and it wasn't until the mid-70s that Highway 1090 connected Mae Sot to the remote town on the Burma border.

I had always been curious about Umphang and one night in Ban-nok suggested to my wife that we take a drive to see the end of the road.

“It will be a road adventure.”

"Like Lord of the Rings." my ex-wife commented, remembering a long-ago trip in a cheap car through the mountains north of Chiang Mai.

"More like Swordman of Ayuthayya." I couldn't think of another Thai movie.

“Oh.” Angie my eight year-old daughter groaned with dismay. Her idea of excitement was hitting the local shopping mall for a KFC dinner.

The next day we we set off north to Tak in our pick-up.

Before the Umphang turn-off, we asked the owner of a noodle stop at the beginning of Highway 1090, if she had ever been to Umphang.

“Mai. Mao lot.” Car sickness was a plague besetting the Thais, but this highway is renown for its formidable assault of 1219 nail-biting curves on the tender Thai constitution.

“Umphang mii arai?” Angie’s mom questioned the owner’s husband who had family in Umphang. He was part Karen, which was the major ethnic group in the area, who have been at war with Burmese government for decades.

“Umphang has nam-tok Thi Lo Su, a very beautiful waterfall.”

I was enheartened by that information and set off for Umphang.

It was only 160 kilometers away.

A long 160 and we were about to discover how long.

The road was worse than treacherous.

Work crews repaired damage from monsoon rains at various spots in the mountains.

Two hours into the trip a mudslide had washed out the road. There was just enough room for our pick-up to pass the obstacle. I looked across the valley. The road snaked up to the peaks. It took us twenty minutes to reach that spot.

We stopped at a waterfall.

The flowers were exquisite.

White.

Orange.

160 stretched longer and longer, as the day got shorter.

Coming around a corner furred with jungle another pickup was cutting the corner in my lane.

I tapped my brakes and skidded forward without any control. Coming from frozen Maine I didn’t turn the steering wheel to avoid a slide. The other driver was local. He was used to dirt.

My internal proximity alarms rang like the Titanic’s ‘warning’ claxons.

For the first milli-second I was totally convinced that my right bunker was destined to crush his driver side door.

A second milli-second later and downgraded the danger to kissing to a 90% chance of tagging his rear bunker.

A millisecond more and we miraculously passed each other without a scratch.

He braked to see that I didn’t plunge off the road, then continued on his way and me on mine.

“Close.” Angie’s mom was not happy.

I wasn’t either.

We stopped for gas at a Karen refuge camp.

The foreigners had been living in Thailand for decades.

Their houses were rudimentary.

They remained stateless.

A mile on the skies opened up, as we entered the home stretch.

Noahesque monsoon rains lashed the mountains. We descended into a valley.

At the bottom a motorcycle was stopped before a brown deluge. The turbulent stream raced across the road. The water appeared about hub cap deep, but I waited for an oncoming truck to test the waters.

The pick-up emerged from the angry torrent and I followed his route to the other side. The motorcycle driver was stuck in the rain. He was soaked to the bone.

We arrived in Umphang to discover not a jungle Shangril-lah, but a sleepy town accustomed to its remoteness. No restaurants were open and we had to make do with noodles, plus the road to the Thi Lo Su waterfall had been washed out by the monsoon.

Needless to say there were few happy campers in our guesthouse room that evening.

Today it was back to Mae Sot.

The same 160 kilometers.

The same 1219 curves.

The same dangers as before, but this time I had beer.

My daughter is poking me in the back.

Her eyes say one thing.

"Let's go, I want KFC."

"I know somewhere better."

She didn't believe me, but I had been to Mae Sot before.

The Moei river separated the border town from Burma.

And one place had good food.

"When?" asked Angie."

I could only say, "Soon."

And three hours was soon on the Highway Of Death.

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