Saturday, June 11, 2016

DUST THEN MUD by Peter Nolan Smith

Thailand was a different world in 1990. Shady trees lined the sois. The klongs of Bangkok led to the Chao Phyra River. Barges transported rice from up-country. After a short stay at the Malaysia Hotel I was ready to head north to Chiang Mai.

The train from Hualamphong Station left at 6pm. I booked a 2nd Class AC sleeper. The train pulled out at dusk and slowly snaked through the trackside ghettoes into the central plains. I drank Mekong whiskey in the dining car and crashed in my berth at 10.

The next morning I woke with the dawn. Sleeping past this hour was discouraged by the staff. They kicked everyone out of the beds. Breakfast was served by a porter. I finished the last of the Mekong in the watery coffee.

A tuk-tuk took me to the Top North Guesthouse. The hotel had a swimming pool shaded by trees. I spent most of day wallowing in the shallow end, but once the sun dropped behind Doi Suthep I wandered along narrow sois to ancient temples and beer bars.

Close to the old walls a farang bookshop at the Eastern Gate rented dirt bikes.

125 cc MTXs and 250cc ATXs.

$10 OR $12 a day.

None of them were new.

The owner was a Brit yellowed by malaria. His wife glowered in the kitchen. She clearly didn’t trust westerners.

“He’s an American. Not an Israeli.” Jerry wagged his finger at his diminutive wife. It was tinted by nicotine. He wasn’t planning on leaving a good-looking corpse.

“All farangs, all men, kee.” She wrapped herself in a wraith of wrath.

“Kee?” My Thai consisted of ‘sawadee kap’ and ‘eek nung kyat beer’ plus ‘u-nai hong nam’. Hello and more beer were almost as important as ‘where’s the bathroom’, since my stomach was having a hard time adjusting to Thai food.

“Kee means shit. The Thais are the French of the Orient. They think they are better than anyone else and in some ways they aren’t wrong. This country was never conquered by the west.” He smiled at his wife.

"The only country in Indochina to escape that fate." I knew my Far East history. "I was thinking about taking a motorcycle trip."

"Lanna Thai has great trails." He whipped out a map of the tribal hills on the Burma border.

“Mai Hong Son was one of the last market towns on the Silk Route.” The broken nail of Jerry's index finger tapped a location to the west of Chiang Mai. “You could fly there for $15, but the road there can take up to ten hours. Every corner is a turn into the 15th century. The Thais are trying to pave it, but the steep hills eat up the road like land sharks.”

“This time of year the road has dust deep as your knees."

"Better than mud."

"Yes and no. What do you want rent?"

“I’ll take the 250.”

"Good choice." I gave him my passport as a guarantee and motored around town like Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONES. The bike had short pipes. They glowed red from the exhaust. The backfires spat a blue flames. I returned to the hotel and went to sleep early. Ten hours on a bad road could become fifteen easy.

The next morning I woke at dawn and ate a quick breakfast and the barman at the Top North Guest House said, “Rom Mak.”

And he was right and I drank a 'bon voyage' Singha.

It was as cold as the air was hot.

After checking my bag with the hotel, I strapped a small daypack to the bike and pointed the front wheel north. The Trans-Asia Highway was unpocked by potholes and I turned off the smooth road at the turn-off for Mai Hong Song.

Heavy construction crews trucks grinded up the two-laner and I weaved through the swatches of destructed pavement in 2nd gear, climbing into the mountains scarred by the slash and burn agriculture of the hill tribes. I felt the centuries disappearing with every mile.

50 K out of Chiang Mai was an elephant camp. Tourists rode them through the forests. I took a few photos and kept on going. It was a long way to Mae Hang Son.

I made good time on the paved road to Fang.

Outside of Pai the road turned to dirt and the dust was ankle-deep.

I wore a scarf over my mouth and nose. Sunglasses protected my eyes, but my denim jacket and jeans were caked with powdery dirt. Opium trucks rolled past police barriers without inspection and I promised myself a taste in Mae Hong Song. Chasing th dragon would go good with beer.

The air was too hot to breathe and the sun was strong enough to make me think that someone was ironing my skin. I drained my water bottle and looked up the word for water in Thai.

It was 'nam'.

Bottle was 'kuat' and I repeated both, as I sped by dry rice paddies.

Water buffalo wallowed in muddy rivers.

They were called 'kwaii' like the movie BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAII.

The temperature had to be in the high 90s.

There were no towns.

I twisted the accelerator to the max.

The wind was no relief.

Ten miles before Mae Hong Son I entered a Lisu village. The young tribesgirls were selling water. I bought three bottles and gave them all candy.

They thanked me with a bowed 'wai'.

Two miles laters I topped the crest of a pass. The sun was scorching the slopes dry and the temperature was a touch under 100F. Three buses were parked at the bottom of the valley and I slowed down to a stop. Their passengers sheltered under the shade of withered trees. The drivers stood at the edge of a 25-meter stretch of dried mud in the middle of which was a 10 meter bog.

The Thais looked at me and I looked at them.

We all looked at the road.

A trickle of a stream had transformed a red dirt into a thick goo.

One of the driver smoked a cigarette.

He pointed to his knees to indicate the depth of the mud.

"Mai bpen Rai," I said, which was all-purpose Thai phrase meaning 'no problem'.

I revved up the engine and the Thais shouted out, "Farang Bah."

I thought it was encouragement.

I revved my engine.

A beautiful Lisu girl caught my eye.

I had something to prove and roared 200 meters up the road.

One of the drivers waved his hands, as if to say getting across this mire was impossible.

He hadn’t seen Evel Knevel leap Caesar’s fountains in Las Vegas and I u-turned the bike spraying a rat tail of damp earth.

The Thai men at the side of the road rose to their feet. The women stopped eating and their children ran closer to the edge of the soggy road. They knew that there was going to be a show. In their minds all farangs were crazy.

I revved the motor planning my route.

As long as front tire stayed up and the rear wheel spun at top speed, then I could hydroplane across the fetid mud. I torgued out the bike at 7000 rpms and tore down the pitted road, hitting the sloppy goop at 90 kph.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

My only protection was my courage.

"Farang bah!" I shouted and raced toward the muck at full speed. The front wheel glided over the mud and then buried itself up to the fender, catapulting me into the air with outstretched arms like Superman.

The is not good.

"I was no George Reeves and bellyflopped into the puddle.

I rose from the mud and Thais laughed insanely, because I was covered from head to foot like a troglodyte. The men helped hauled the stalled bike to the other side of the bog and I promised to buy them beer in Mai Hong Sing.

"Farang bah," shouted the driver.

"You got that right." I waved to the Lisu girl.

I shook off the slop like a wet dog.

The stranded Thai passengers laughed harder.

"Farang bah. Farang bah."

Later I learned that 'farang bah' meant 'crazy foreigner' and that I was.

A farang bah.

Seconds later I remounted the bike and punched my fist in the air before speeding away dripping goo.

Mae Hong Son was about two hours distant. The sun baked the mud hard and dust coated every inch of my body. I loved riding in the mountains. I was free. Just outside of Mae Hong Song I stopped at a grocery store to buy cold beer and insects.

I pulled into a restaurant by the bus station and waited.

The bus rolled into town at sunset.

"Chok dii."

Good luck.

"Chaii." I was happy not to have been hurt by my failed feat.

The Lisu girl came to my table.

She peeled off the shells of the insects.

I ordered ice for the beer, because cold Singha went well with fried grasshoppers and even better with mud.

The Thais retold my feat to each and every new Thai.

I gave the punchline and earned a big laugh.

Even in a remote backwater like Mai Hong Song they were used to 'farang bah'.

Fotos by Peter Nolan Smith

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