Death by sangthaew, motorcycle, or bus?

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Friday, November 24, 2006

The lovely projection I've woven of Thailand as a nation of devout Buddhists who have magically protected themselves from the seductive influences of Western culture has, of course, grown a bit threadbare at this point. This is probably a good thing, as I can now get on with my travels hopefully seeing things a bit more as they are rather than through the rose-tinted filter of how I want them to be.

A young Thai woman who sat next to me on the mini-bus from Sukhothai to Mae Sot did a nice hack job on my golden bubble of ignorance. We struggled through a bit of English together until we arrived at the subject of American sports, when she suddenly became entirely fluent. "You like Shaquille O'Neil?", she asked. "I play basketball," she continued, and though she could only reply with a blank stare of incomprehension when I asked, "Do you meditate?", her instantaneous reply to "What position do you play?" was "Forward!". A bit later, I asked her what food she recommended in Mae Sot. She shot back with, "You like hamburger? I eat too many hamburger. That's why I fat!", and then laughed.

An American expat traveling by Harley with his wife shredded whatever other tatters remained of my cultural fantasy. She converted to Christianity some time ago, and their biggest disappointment about their hometown in central Thailand was that they didn't much like the one church in their town! When asked about Buddhism in Thailand, the wife replied, "The boys go to monasteries for 6 weeks, but they hate it." The crowds of devoted Buddhists at some of the temples seem to contradict this, but I accepted it as another perspective to add to the list. The salt-and-pepper long-haired expat, a longtime Democrat, also said he would never vote for a woman as president, so it was a good reminder not to rely on one individual as the voice of an entire culture!

Mae Sot, which serves as a major trading center between Thailand and the neighboring Burmese opium drug lords, has a rough-around-the-edges feel, grittier, less tourist-centric. We enter the Muslim section of town through a Middle-Eastern-styled gateway, pass a large mosque with its blue onion-shaped dome, and spot rows of bearded men kneeling down for evening prayers. Skinny boys with finely patterned cylindrical hats ride by on their bikes. The sights and sounds are completely different here, and my first entry as a Westerner into the Muslim world puts me on edge, fueled by my own ignorance and the fires of paranoia fed constantly by the drum-beating war-mongering administration back home. We tiptoe our way into the "Tea Shop" across the street from the mosque and dine on scrumptiously well-seasoned rotee - onion, potato, and ground chicken rolled in a flat crepe - then follow it up with another, this one filled with nummy fried banana and sweet condensed milk.

For another culinary adventure, we invite David, a new friend from Holland, t join us for Burmese food. Yellow curry with potatoes and chicken, but without the traditional Thai coconut milk, is delicious, as is a fun, crunchy, chopped salad, spicy and tangy with peppers and cilantro.

Planes, trains, and automobiles are the minority modes of transport in Thailand. For a trip to Mae Sariang, we hop aboard a Sangthaew, a covered open-air truck lined with two padded benches. Though a big load of boxes and bags is piled up in back with us, it's pretty comfy when we depart with only three passengers - the two of us and a shoeless old guy with widely-spaced teeth stained ruddy-brown by years of chewing beetle-nut. Several hours later in the mid-day heat, we're dripping with sweat as we're packed shoulder to shoulder with new passengers, all 18 of us are busy waving away diesel fumes and using our shirts to cover our noses to keep from choking on the dust and leaves flying around the cabin. Six hours after leaving Mae Sot, we tumble out of the back, battered, dusty, and ready for a shower and an ice cold Singha.

Mae Sariang ("saw lee awng") is a sleepy town nestled along the banks of the winding Nam Mae Yuam River in the middle of a broad mountain valley. We take in the views from comfy reclining cushions at the Sawadee Restaurant, perched a hundred feet above the river. The hip, playful, slightly coy female staff puts on a soothing blend of reggae and R&B tunes. Casually strung Christmas lights shine like little candles against the fading silhouette of mountains on the horizon.

One of the women looks happy when I agree to rent a motorcycle to view the sites the following day, then looks just as nervous when I tell her I'll need a bit of a lesson. Fortunately (for all of us!) it's easier than I remember and soon Ranger Todd and I are zooming off to explore the windy roads around town. We check out the golden pagoda, perched atop a hill on one side of the valley, then careen our way to a huge, gleaming white Buddha sitting at the top of the opposite side. Then we're racing down the highway to view fields of blooming sunflowers. We spontaneously follow signs to a "Hot Springs", which turns into a bone-jarring deeply rutted road marathon. Todd keeps a death grip to keep from flying off the bike and I keep my legs splayed to prevent a major spill, but it's great fun and we don't really care when the "Hot Springs" turns out to be a boiling hot 2-inch-deep trickle in the side of a farmer's hillside. Somehow we make it back to Sawadee safely and plop down to enjoy more Singha.

The next bus trip, to Mae Hong Son, was more like a ride at Disney - one nobody in their right minds would let their kids go on. Our driver, either a madman a drunkard or both, swerved between lanes, dodged oncoming traffic, and had the bus swaying side to side at what felt like 45 degree angles. The high school kid from Liverpool sitting behind me chuckled every time I grabbed the seat in front of me, and my knuckles were white from clenching so hard. It was pretty scenery along the way, though, and we were both happy not to be in a sangthaew again!

When we stepped off the bus, the encircling mountains around Mae Hong Son greeted us, and it's clear why they call this city the "Swiss Alps of Thailand". Bustling Wat Doi Kong Mu overlooks the city and offers excellent views of the mountainous terrain, the city layout, and the airport runway, the end of which is precariously positioned directly over houses and businesses below.

A mix of Thai and Chinese Shan culture, together with influences from the many nearby Karen, Lisu, and Lahu hill-tribe cultures, makes for a great mix of foods, textiles, and art at the outdoor market. Due to cross-cultural interaction, the people throughout Thailand have an impressive grasp on at least two languages, and often speak as many as three, four, or even five!

Tomorrow we leave for Pai where I've read we'll be tempted to overstay our visas!
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