A unique thing about life is the various shades that seem to color different periods of life. Some seasons in life are gray and blue, misty and melancholy. Others, for instance the last month I spent in Saohin, are characterized by browns and reds. This past season has been a rich mix of golds and greens, framed with wild blue skies and crimson sunsets.
October 7 was officially my last day of work before school break, although I took on some tutoring over our time off. On the evening of the 12th, on one a day when the air held a crisp hint of autumn, I set off for Chiang Mai where I met up with Amy and the rest of our INVEST team for our annual retreat as a team. Amy’s parents, Paul and Dorcas, served as speakers for our retreat. I felt like our activities and input at retreat were like a well-rounded meal, with a good amount of personal growth mixed with relaxation. It was an easily digestible meal: some meat, a lot of vegetables and light food, with a little bit of sweetness added.
Monday after retreat Amy and I headed off for Doi Chang with three other friends, Abby, Nancy and Glenda. We drove our motorbikes up the soaring heights of Doi Chang and among Akha villages, sipped coffee at coffee shops way up in the mountains, ate pizza while watching the sun set over a pond, woke up early to see the glory of the sunrise and feel the wind blow in our hair, and then made our way down again.
I left the others and headed to Chiang Dao to stay the night at my friend Louie’s house, taking the road through Doi Ang Khang National Park. I had been to this park years ago with Louie, but I had never come in from the east side. The heights were stunning. While Doi Chang had roads that were built high above patchworked fields, Doi Ang Khang was full of hairpin curves on roads that hugged cliffs and required me to drive in first gear. Every now and then, I stopped to savor the view and listen to the absolute silence of the mountain.
I spent the night with Louie and her hilarious sister in Baan Mai Samakkhi (which I wrote about visiting here 4 years ago), laughing over old jokes from bygone school days and making new ones. We talked about the time our instructor forgot to close the zipper on his pants and how I once accidentally hit a stranger over the head with a sweatshirt. Louie and her sister needed to leave early in the morning for a youth camp, so I spent the next morning with her mom and her younger brother. Louie’s younger brother, who reminded me of my high school students, took me to buy coffee, and to get the chain on my bike fixed. Her mom then loaded me up with avocados and a vegetable I don’t know the name for, then off I headed for Pai and Pang Mapha. I had already reserved a room in Pang Mapha since I knew if I took that way back to Mae Sariang, I wouldn’t be able to make it back to in one day without exhausting myself.
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai and from then on to Mae Hong Son is renowned for curves, steep slopes, and the foreign, accident-prone tourists that drive them. I drove behind a motorbike with the typical long-legged, white foreigner look for a while, and thought to myself that it looked like one I might later see in the ditch. I stopped for lunch and about 45 minutes later I rounded a curve and encountered this very bike in a ditch with two bewildered foreigners standing beside it. I stopped, and we examined the situation, and I poured water over the young, excited man’s cuts. Whereupon, he sat down on a mile marker and then promptly pitched backwards into the ditch in a dead faint while I frantically tried to call 191. He then awoke and lifted one of the aforementioned long white legs and gravely stared at it as if trying to figure out how it was attached to him.
“Pound sign,” he blustered. “Exclamation mark, percent sign, pound sign, asterisk, pound sign!” I ignored the language and upon examining him further, we decided we didn’t need an ambulance after all.
He then asked for something sugary to eat and I was grateful to be able to pull from my backpack mentos that had been gifted to us on retreat. He gulped them down like a starving man.
I ended up going with them and a helpful Thai guy to the next police checkpoint to look at the wounds a bit more, and then went with them to the hospital and stayed until they were looked at by a doctor and feeling less emotionally traumatized. Then I headed on to Pang Maphaa, racing the sun in order to get to my guesthouse before dark.
The last time I had made this trip, I drove through chilling rain and mist. The wet road had made me very nervous then, but I remembered the thrill of cresting a hill and the gorgeous views below. This time the road was half as treacherous, and I made good time, even stopping now and then to snap a picture. The sun was dying, shafting gleams of golden light over the mountains, nectar for the soul.
My guesthouse was adorable, and its price just as adorable at less than 8 dollars USD. There was one window and I kept it closed since it didn’t have a screen, so when I woke up to a dark room the next morning, I figured it was about 6:30. It wasn’t until I looked at my phone that I realized it was close to 9 instead.
As I sipped my coffee, I Googled Pang Maphaa and started looking at my maps in anticipation of the route home. As I studied the maps, I realized there was a road leading to the border, and that the border was only about 30 kilometers from my location. It didn’t take long to make my decision, and about half an hour later, I was at Baan JaBo on my way to the border. JaBo is a small tribal village, known for its restaurant where people can eat noodles while dangling their feet over the side of the mountain. (I thought it was a Lisu village, but I am seeing other sources saying Lahu)
Several times past Ja Bow, as I drove on towards the border, I was tempted to turn back. With the roads I have traveled on in the past, you would think I would have no fear of driving, but somehow the unknown road ahead struck a deep fear in me. They might be incredibly steep and stony, for all I knew. I kept on telling myself that I had driven worse than this, and that this was my only chance in a long time to do this. I knew if I turned back, I would always live with a feeling of regret.
About 3 kilometers away from the border, I came onto a lookout. I stopped to take a picture and ended up talking a while with the old man there. His gray hair was wild and unkempt, and he chewed on red betelnut as we talked, but he told me a lot about the village and surrounding areas. He pointed out a mountain in the distance. That’s Myanmar, he said.
I started off for the border checkpoint. The road ahead looked steep again, and I stopped again and almost turned back. No, I told myself. I won’t. Surprisingly, it wasn’t nearly as steep as I thought at first.
I still feel disappointment when I think about what happened next. When I came to the checkpoint, the soldiers came out. I stopped my bike to talk to them and see if I could cross. I was a bit flustered, not having rehearsed what I should say, so I asked, “This road goes to Myanmar, right?” The soldier, looking equally flustered at having to talk with this strange foreigner who came chugging along, said, “Umm you can’t go.”
It was one of those moments where I looked back later and wished I had asked for more clarification. Did he mean the road didn’t lead to Myanmar? Did he mean, I as a foreigner couldn’t get across? Did he realize that I wasn’t going over to stay, but only to hop across to say I was in Myanmar? I still don’t know, and I should have asked, but I am someone who hates to cause a fuss or make a scene, so instead, I swallowed my bitter disappointment and meekly turned around with an odd, heavy feeling in my stomach, even shedding a tear as I left.
The heavy feeling had lifted by the time I got to JaBo. I ate some noodles like a good tourist, and then faced the long drive to Mae Sariang.
About 6 hours later, by the time I crested the bridge over the Yuam River in Mae Sariang, the last of the pink sky behind the mountains was rapidly disappearing into pitch darkness.
I was home. And I had this odd feeling that God had given me a tour package designed especially for me.
*A note of clarification in case you are thinking I am crazy in even attempting to cross the border: in many parts of western and northern Thailand, it is possible to cross over into Myanmar by simply leaving your identification card at the border checkpoint as proof that you will come back. I did this in Saohin with Thai friends the first time I visited. However, I think it is easier for Thai people to do than foreigners.
**Secondly, as I looked at the map later, I noticed that the road doesn’t really seem to connect to other roads within Myanmar, but instead runs along the border, twisting in and out of the border line. It does lead to another village in Thailand, though, eventually. I am still unsure of the exact meaning of the soldier’s words and if I could have crossed if I would have argued my case.