An irritating, itchy, painful bump on my cheek momentarily draws my attention away from the offensively hot breeze blowing across my perch on a bamboo floor in Mae Sariang, Thailand. A day earlier, a bee spiraled to its demise and my discomfort, leaving a stinger in my face as a souvenir. We are on the road in Mae Hong Son province in northwestern Thailand. Several days before, a man with a thick German accent taught us how to ride scooters and off we went.
The roads are smooth, the days are hot, the smiles are friendly, and the beer is cold. I can’t think of a better place to learn. Fresh black pavement winds for hundreds of kilometers through beautiful tropical mountains and forests. I’ve felt at numerous points like I’m in a movie, or watching a highlight reel of the best moments of my life. I feel incredibly free, and it’s like I’m looking at the world through a sepia filter – well, maybe that’s just my sunglasses.
The rumbling of the engine below me and the smooth transitions around the curves induces a calm of a flavor I just discovered. My thoughts float away, free to wander without being reeled in by the harsh practicalities of the “real world.” Speaking of “reeled in,” it’s a good thing we’re still on the road. Yesterday morning we stopped to adjust our belongings and I looked back at Cassie, who expressionlessly told me “I just dropped my key in the grate.”
Her lack of panic meant it took a few moments for it to sink in, and when she saw the look of comprehension on my face, she followed up with “I’m not kidding.” We stared dumbly at the key sitting motionlessly behind its metal barrier, waiting for our brains to come up with a jailbreak plan. We both lit up: “the fishing line!”
The tiny REI survival kit I packed into my belongings before the start of the trip once again proved it’s been worth toting around. It has a small coil of fishing line and a couple of hooks, so we took a few minutes to thread the line through a hook and start our fishing expedition. A curious Thai man wandered across the street to see what we were doing hunched over so intently on the side of the road. When he saw the key, his sun-hardened face creased into an amused grin and he wandered off, returning a few moments later with a piece of rusty wire to help us get it out. Before his contribution could prove itself useful, I got a bite on the line and reeled in our prize: a way to get back on the road.
The freedom and happiness of independent travel finds itself intertwined with sorrow, reflection, and perspective. We pass by a beautiful, but different looking village. Smoke billows from behind wooden shacks, closely packed together. A woman carries a bundle of giant bamboo, one of many people in a train of laborers working to maintain, build and grow their village. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of the drive. It’s not the difference in architecture that catches our attention, but the sudden density of people where before there was nothing but wide open spaces and jungle. Police checkpoints dot the road every few kilometers, and it suddenly dawns on us that we’re in the thick of a political drama that has been unfolding for decades.
It’s Mae La refugee camp, the site where thousands of Karen people, fleeing from violence on the Burmese side of the river have gathered. It’s the one place in Thailand the government has officially provided for those looking to escape the dark, offbeat rhythm of persecution. The theme of British colonialism, empire, and abandonment has been a subtle but powerful undertone on this trip. Coming from the deep, festering wounds the British departure and partition left on India, the tragedy here comes as no surprise even as its visceral effect remains intact. India was the crown jewel in the British Empire. Burma, at best, played second fiddle, and the promises the British made prior to their withdrawal there were left as promises and nothing more.
To be fair to the British, their shattered homeland after World War II left little enthusiasm or resources for maintaining a vast overseas empire, and it was all they could do to patch together makeshift solutions, pack up, and head home to heal their own wounds. Still, numerous blunders were made, and one of them was promising the Karen their own state prior to leaving the country without giving that plan any substance. The military junta that eventually took power in Burma felt little incentive to give the Karen their state, and a bloody civil war has been raging ever since.
So far we’re surprised by Thailand in a very good way. The infrastructure is good. They make an effort to protect the environment. The people don’t seem desperate, and everyone has a smile or joke ready. As we roll into Mae Sot, we’re a bit surprised by a grittier element. People on the road honk, which they haven’t done the whole time we’ve been on the road. An occasional “blinged out” truck rolls by, and after talking to a few locals over some Burmese curry and khao soi, we discover that a significant portion of Mae Sot’s economy is powered by smuggling from nearby Myawaddy, Burma. Drugs, people, weapons, and more mundane goods offer an easier path to money than more honest trades.
We’re interested. The trip has been pretty safe, and despite reports of sporadic violence across the Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge, the overall consensus is that taking advantage of the single day visa to cross the border is a reasonably safe endeavor. We find a place to park our bikes and start walking across the bridge. The difference between the countries is apparent even as we make our way over. On one side of the river, garbage shares space with people urinating or doing laundry. The other side is spotless and empty. A few enterprising individuals have piled up sandbags to set up shops on one side of the barbed wire, hoping the officials will continue turning a blind eye and allowing them to sell cigarettes, Viagra, and soft drinks to richer people on the other side of the political boundary.
Our first steps into Burma bring back a flood of memories from India. We’re surrounded by people hoping we’ll let them take us on a tour, buy their useless trinkets, or just give them some of the money our white skin indicates we must have. Cassie’s blonde hair and blue eyes again hypnotizes the men’s eyeballs, an unwanted and unexpected burst of notoriety after a refreshing lack of attention in Thailand. But Burma’s different from India. Distinctly oriental music blares from a loudspeaker near the perpetually under-repair Buddhist temple that dominates Myawaddy. Nearly half of the people have white or yellow paste smeared on their faces. Some say it’s a decoration, others insist it’s practical and is used as sunblock. Trucks without engine compartments blast black smoke into the air, and people are driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time since we left the USA.
We settle back into our rhythm of ignoring the onslaught of attention and stop to get a cool drink to counteract the sweltering, dusty climate around us. We realize how little we know about life on this side of the world, on this side of the border. We don’t even know which language to attempt to butcher, so we use a word we hope is universal: Coca Cola. A flash of understanding appears on the woman’s face, and she delivers us a bright red can of sickly sweet soda pop. We make exaggerated hand gestures to indicate we like the monkey-carved-from-a-coconut she has dangling from the ceiling. We observe an old man proudly marching up and down the street, with a mischievous grin somehow made from a toothless mouth, the upper lip snugly tucked into the bottom lip.
We stop, take our photos, give our smiles to those who would receive them, and continue onward. So it goes.