Story by Ron Newton
Right then I knew this was going to be a very different motorcycle trip.
“Just when you’re about to hit the pig, make sure you lock your arms and grip the bars hard,” said Reed Resnikoff, the affable American owner of Asian Motorcycle Adventures. “Then?bam?you should just blow right through it. No bacon, no accident.”
Reed grinned and looked at us, the six wide-eyed participants receiving their first orientation on how to ride through villages in Asia?and live.
“I call it pig smacking. The same thing applies for chickens, dogs and goats. But if it’s a cow, you better get ready to go down.”
We were silent, pondering a headfirst slide under a cow’s belly. This was going to be a lot more exotic and dangerous than cruising the mountain highways of North America.
And the 11-day, 2400 kilometre ride through the high hills of northern Thailand?the Golden Triangle region?lived up to its billing as a dream vacation for experienced motorcyclists and adrenaline addicts.
I have ridden motorcycles for more than 20 years, exploring the back roads of western Canada and the Southwestern states on a dozen different bikes. I’ve encountered the usual hail and snowstorms along the way, survived brain-cooking rides through deserts in 35 degree Celsius heat, and behaved badly with many odd and memorable people in remote saloons.
I’ve also chalked up an impressive resume of exotic travel: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Morocco, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras are among the more memorable escapes from Canadian corporate life.
But this Asian kamikaze ride over corkscrew roads into hill tribe villages, opium smuggling camps and ancient monasteries merged my two passions with a skull rattling bang.
The trip began in Chiang Mai, the northern Thai city noted for its moderate climate and eco-friendly tourist treks and elephant rides. The rainy season had ended and temperatures were pleasantly in the mid- 20s.
Over breakfast we had a quick preview of the days ahead: visits to remote temples, caves and army camps, and rugged rides over switchback mountain roads leading into villages where strange giraffe-necked women lived and the only liquor available came bottled with centipedes.
The only guidelines were that we would ride fast and safe, and try to be wherever other tourists weren’t.
Reed’s customers for this ride through the Golden Triangle?the famed opium region of Thailand bordered by Burma and Laos?were a mixed bunch of adventure seekers: three quiet Chicago businessmen, an Internet executive from San Francisco whose dot-com company had just imploded, and two Canadian stockbrokers seeking a refuge from market hailstorms.
Preliminaries over, Resnikoff assigned each of us a 650cc Italian-made Aprilia dual purpose bike. He has used these durable single cylinder bikes for the past four years since starting his tours through the remote and rarely visited areas of Southeast Asia.
The Aprilias were road toughened and each dent or scrape on the bodywork was a visible reminder that more trouble than pigs might lie ahead.
We were to be led on this foray into the back country by David Unkovich, a freelance motorcycle guide who can best be described as the Mad Max of Asian motorcycling.
David is a bug-eyed, bearded 48-year old Australian who has lived in Chiang Mai for 18 years and ridden every passable road in North Thailand while producing an internationally-published roadmap for bikers.
Author of three guidebooks on Asian motorcycling, Unkovich has a Thai family, is fluent in the language and rides a 250cc dirtbike faster than any man alive. He is chasing Evel Knievel’s record for broken bones, hasn’t driven a car in 10 years and believes gin is the best and only malaria preventative.
We started our first day riding southwest out of Chiang Mai toward Khun Yuam, a rugged village 20 kilometres from the Burmese border.
First day jitters were big: strange bikes, riding on the British-style left side of the highway, slicing through a gauntlet of fume-spewing trucks in hot pursuit of “Max Max”, whose parting words were: “Ignore the solid yellow lines, pass whenever you see a clear hole and keep the throttle open!”
Punch drunk on adrenaline, we obeyed his suicidal instructions for most of the morning. Lane splitting, tailgating, passing on the left, passing on the right, we knew no boundaries or rules. Running well over the speed limit, we cut through the jumble of trucks, scooters, bicycles and ox carts in a tight formation, horns blaring and headlights flashing.
Finally about noon, the craziness subsided so we could stop for lunch in a tin-roofed shanty alongside the road. Everyone was shell-shocked but electrified?riding like this in North America would land you in jail or, worse, the morgue.
But, hey, we were now Men of Adventure, loose in Siam.
Lunch was a suspicious looking mess of noodles floating in gray water, followed by rice and fried eggs. As is often the case in Asia, the food tasted far better than it looked and the price was right as well: $11 fed the eight of us.
Bellies full and brains somewhat cleared, we followed the Aussie off a side trail into the trees for our first taste of offroading. He had promised biking thrills on and off pavement and David was determined to honor this pledge on the very first day.
Twenty minutes later one American had somersaulted from his bike, another was seized by stomach cramps and we Canadians had slithered to a crawl, choked and blinded by the billowing clouds of clay dust packing into our open faced Harley helmets.
We eventually limped back to the pavement, sullenly watching David doing wheelies out of the ditch.
The next morning we mounted our bikes meekly, not sure if we were still men of adventure or lambs awaiting slaughter.
The task this day was to ride the tortuous Mae Hong Son loop, a 300 kilometre swath cut through some of the most breathtaking scenery in Thailand. The Loop is officially recognized as one of the top 10 biking roads in Asia, with more than 1800 twists counted along its route through northwestern Thailand.
Years ago, the government built blacktop roads like these throughout the border regions so troops and artillery could quickly arrive at trouble spots. Today, flareups were fewer but authorities still maintain the roads as a precaution and?unintentionally I’m sure?so foreign motorcycle racers had someplace to test their skills.
“Those who want to smell the flowers and take photos can set their pace,” grinned David.
“And those who want a bit of a thrill can just follow me,” he cackled, his Honda spitting gravel as he spun into the first hairpin curve of the Loop.
And off we went, flicking the Aprilias back and forth through the turns like photo pages in a men’s magazine. After an hour, my legs were numb from gripping the tank so hard. Time to stop, time to stop, I thought, trying to beam the suggestion ahead to the Australian, who kept gaining a metre or so on every corner.
Suddenly he slowed, hand signalling a turn into a path that looked more like a sewer ditch. A quick dip through the ditch and the rest of his herd was in pursuit, not sure where we were going.
After five kilometres of swallowing red dust and dodging hip-deep potholes we pulled into Nai Soi, the Village of the Long Necks.
I had heard about this strange Padaung tribe that had migrated across the border from Burma(now officially called Myanmar.) For centuries they had wound golden hoops around the necks of their females, ostensibly to enhance sexual appeal and protect against tiger attacks when the women worked in the fields. The women added more hoops each year–up to 25 or more–until their collarbone and ribcage structure was dramatically compressed and the giraffe neck look was perfected.
Today the controversial practice continues and the small tribe of 30 refugee families living just inside the Thai border attracts a steady flow of academics and curiosity seekers.
Now the Paduang village exists in a fishbowl. All day the women with the longest necks sit in front of their huts, selling weavings and posing for pictures. Some of the teenage girls are aggressive, bragging about the number of hoops they wear and brashly demanding small change before photos can be taken.
Evidence of missionary work is everywhere: children sing their alphabets in a newly-constructed school while their fathers clear brush for a new community water cistern. A discreet bamboo structure , marked with a little wooden sign proclaiming it to be St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, sits atop a hill at the back of the village.
I wasn’t sure if I was witnessing the death of a tribal custom or the birth of a tacky Asian circus. But either way I knew that the Padaung are at a crossroads and their future doesn’t appear bright either way.
We got back onto the Loop and wound higher into the mountains, passing by spectacular gorges and waterfalls before cresting at a Buddhist monastery, glowing orange in the afternoon sun. The vista from the monastery grounds was heartstopping: nomads, warrior tribes, opium armies and truth-seeking monks had all crisscrossed these valleys for centuries. Lazy threads of smoke rippled through the hills, carrying the scents of China, Vietnam and Laos on the breeze blowing south toward the sea.
I stared out across the valley, inhaling memories of another Asian journey taken many years ago. What had happened since I was a long-haired kid in the ’70s, riding the trains around India, vowing never to fall into the corporate crematorium?…
We left the monastery and started the long ride down the mountain into the town of Mae Hong Son.
This prosperous town has long been the portal from Myanmar for opium, guns, timber and a multitude of other commodities, legal and otherwise. Signs of windfall wealth were everywhere–sleek Chinese traders in suits and sunglasses emerged from black Mercedes to patronize high tech karaoke bars built next to open air butcher shops. New pickups, jacked high on Monster Truck tires, sat outside dilapidated shanties still without indoor plumbing.
Later that night, encamped in a Chinese-owned inn miles from town, we heard how opium is still a billion dollar cash crop that is as vital to the regional economy as oil is to the welfare of Alberta. Nobody talks too openly about the trade but almost everyone’s life is affected by the river of cash gushing from the drug factories just across the border.
According to some reports, about 80 per cent of the heroin used in North America is produced within a hundred mile radius of this town.
It’s a business, the locals shrug, that brings jobs, schools and prosperity to poor villages. The drug is far too expensive to be consumed locally and the problems users suffer 10,000 miles away are of little concern, they say.
But this acceptance of heroin exporting has spawned a dangerous domestic sub-trade in amphetamines, which are cheap to manufacture and are hooking Thai teenagers at an epidemic rate.
Alarmed by this mushrooming drug abuse, the Thai government has launched several raids across the border into Myanmar to smash drug factories. Like cockroaches, the drug lords merely re-appear a few dozen kilometres away and start their illegal enterprises once again.
For the next two days we rode north through the forests and high peaks flanking the Myanmar border. We rode steadily and quickly, unsettled by stories of recent firefights between soldiers and drug traffickers hiding on Thai soil. Many of the local people still remembered the generosity of Khun Sa, an ex-Burmese army colonel who often hid in the area while using opium profits to finance an attempted coup in his country.
He was eventually captured in a Thai border village where we stopped to tour his lair, which has been turned into a museum promoting him as a drug-dealing Robin Hood and freedom fighter. (Khun Sa is now free, exchanged for two kidnapped Russian scientists.)
Later on that afternoon we came across a military outpost at Doi Ang Khang, a particularly sensitive part of the border. Initially suspicious and hostile, the young soldiers quickly recognized David and swarmed over the Aprilias, laughing at us as we posed for tough guy pictures at their machine gun stations.
Hamming it up on our motorcycles, these baby-faced soldiers seemed more like a group of giddy high schoolers than hardened military men. (Appearances were evidently deceiving as we discovered that their unit had recently routed a guerrilla group, killing every one of the rebels in the battle.)
That night a few bold locals brought out their homemade whiskey in honor of my birthday.
“Drink, drink, it will make you have many many children,” they chortled, plunking the bottle on our table. The whiskey was pee yellow and showcased a gruesome six inch centipede floating inside.
I looked around the table. Everyone was staring at the insect, wondering if the custom was similar to Mexico where the last tequila drinker got the worm as a treat.
“Men, we are past the point of no return here,” I said, watching the waiter pour the whiskey, insect bits and all, into shot glasses for us all. I held up my glass and bellowed an old Scottish ancestral toast to everyone in the restaurant.
With that we all drained the murky liquid and banged our glasses down hard. A scalding pain seared my throat, met halfway by a backdraft taste of kerosene that brought tears to my eyes.
Everyone in the bar clapped and cheered, applauding the masculinity of the strangers?even if half of them were gasping and mewling like week old puppies.
I grabbed the empty bottle, its centipede inhabitant now shrunken and stuck against the glass, and presented it to a wide-eyed boy standing nearby. He giggled and scurried off with his treasure, not fully realizing how grateful the foreigners were that their insect trophy was gone.
By this time we had been on the road for more than a week and had acclimated to the lazy rhythm of Asian motorcycle touring:
Up early to lubricate chains and check tire pressures before starting the big singles so they could mix their smoky exhaust with the heavy mist still hanging in the air. Then starting out onto the empty roads, running slow for the first few miles to warm the motors and let the crisp air clear your brain and lungs.
We were also growing used to the country, with its intoxicating scenery and brightly-dressed hill people who seemingly appeared from nowhere to ogle the leather-clad foreigners and their noisy machines.
Day after day we had been plunging deeper into the countryside, selfishly delighting in the knowledge that no tour bus could ever get into these hidden places. David’s long friendships with the border tribes granted us instant access and preferred status among the crowds of children and villagers who swarmed us at every stop. His generous gifts to village chiefs also yielded sound advice on the best routes for avoiding confrontations with smugglers or bandits.
Most of the time the roads were ours except for meandering water buffalo or stray dogs. When we did come across other vehicles, they were usually “Thai burros”–Honda scooters so overburdened with passengers and cargo boxes that the gasping motorbikes were barely visible under their stupendous loads.
It had been days since we had seen another Westerner in the “sensitive” border corridor region, its nasty reputation a repellant to the package trekkers and magazine adventurers so prevalent in the central north part of the country.(The reputation was well deserved as a full scale battle between soldiers and drug lords erupted two weeks after we left, prompting Nor Lae, one of the prettiest hill tribe villages we visited, to be evacuated.)
To then arrive in the big Thai border town of Mae Sai was like sliding a CD into your car stereo only to discover someone had left the volume cranked to the max.
Cars! Billboards! Loudspeakers! Beggars! Smoke, dust and diesel!
Noise, loud, screeching and aggressive.
Our bubble of tranquility had burst—hard, landing us in a Wild West border town much like the outlaw space station in the movie Star Wars.
Mae Sai is the northernmost and biggest border crossing with Myanmar. Tens of thousands of migrants squeeze through the small customs house each day, carrying cargo south to Chiang Mai or Bangkok or coming with day visas to work on the more prosperous Thai side of the line.
A small river splits the town and serves as the visible marker dividing the two countries. Thailand’s economic boom hasn’t jumped the river so the town of Tachi Laek on the Burmese side is the Asian equivalent of Tijuana?if you want to buy or do bad things, the townfolk were ready to help you out.
Relations between the two countries have been strained for centuries and petty squabbles often tested the tenuous peace.
After the latest spat the Burmese were closing the border at 6 p.m. and forbidding foreigners to stay overnight in Tachi Laek.
So we decided to park our bikes under the protective eye of a guard outside Mae Sai’s only four star hotel and walk the hundred metres to the border.
“Back by five or you in big trouble!” barked the customs officer, handing us our passes. I nodded obediently?Third World border crossings always make me nervous?and skuttled past the Uzi-packing border guards.
Instantly our own private entourage of pedlars and touts surrounded us. “You buy from me, best price. You like tiger skin, maybe? Maybe carvings?”
And then, in that universal under-the-breath mutter: “You want smoke opium? You want heroin? Maybe some girl?”
We pushed through the swarm into the market, where the whole dark side of the world was for sale.
Big stalls selling bootleg CDs and videos for $2 apiece. Counterfeit computers, stereos, watches and designer jeans. Ivory, jade, rubies, sapphires, maybe real, maybe not. Further down, bales of silk stacked next to ornate teak carvings.
And, carefully set off to the side, the tables laden with traditional herbal cures for flagging libidos: tiger penises, bear gall bladders, monkey brains, deer testicles and snake eyes.
Turning aside from this cornucopia of natural Viagra, I sat down in a caf? to nurse a tea thickened with condensed milk to survey the street scene.
Decades of British colonial rule and the racial brush of India has colored the town. Bicycle rickshaws clattered through traffic, their drivers pumping hard to pull the plump female passengers, eyes peeking out from fine silk saris.
On the sidewalks, old men sat on their haunches, chewing betel nuts and spitting the blood red juice at the feet of policemen. Porters dodged between them, pushing carts of Indian-made whiskey and cigarettes branded with dubious Johnnie Walker and Marlboro trademarks.
Just then a green Nissan taxi truck skidded to a halt in front of the caf?.
“Hey, let’s go do some exploring,” shouted Reed, waving me into the back of the truck. “There might be something to see over on the far side of town.”
I clamored into the back just as the driver dropped the clutch and lunged into traffic, nearly decapitating a cow that had sidled up to lick the vehicle’s front bumper.
By now I was quite used to these slingshot starts?who could blame a bored taxi driver for trying to dump a foreigner on his backside??and had a deathgrip on the aluminum roll cage. “Can’t you go any faster?,” I yelled, giving the grinning driver a thumbs up.
Ten minutes later the taxi did a broadside skid into a dirt parking lot and the excited driver hopped out. “Yes, yes, that was very good. I am very good driver, sir,” chirped the little man.
We had been dropped in a remarkably quiet suburb with a few shops, a school and a dusty soccer field.
Across the street a small group of people gathered around a storefront, waving bits of paper at a young woman out front. They obviously looked excited about something so we walked over to take a look.
By the time we were midway across the road we had already acquired a self-appointed guide and interpreter.
“They want Mr. Saya to give them the lucky lottery numbers,” said our new friend. “He is very important fortuneteller, known everywhere in Burma.”
I could see the pitch coming but decided to play along.
“OK, why don’t I have him read my palm,” I said.
Within seconds we were inside and introduced to Mr. Saya. He was thin and intense, about 50, and sat quietly with his eyes closed while his assistant seated me on a pillow in front of him.
“He is gathering mental strength for you,” said our translator. I looked at Mr. Saya, who was now puffing furiously on a cigarette and rocking back and forth, humming and gargling deep in his throat.
Suddenly his eyelids snapped open. “Your hand. Give me your palm.”
Holding my hand palm up, he scrutinized my fingers at close range, prodding them with a dripping roller he had pulled from a nearby inkpad. A minute or two of vigorous rolling, and my palms were glistening black.
Saya rubbed his beard thoughtfully and grabbed my wrists, twisting my hands downward onto a white sheet of paperboard. Once again his eyes closed and the gargling and chanting started as he pressed my palms into the waiting paper.
By now word had spread that a foreigner had come from America to see the famous Mr. Saya. A knot of curious villagers crowded into the hut, elbowing each other to get a better look at the proceedings.
They let out a collective gasp as Saya lifted the sheet to show them my prints, which looked like giant Sasquatch paws to the small-boned locals.
Then the fortuneteller took a deep breath and started a stream of prophecies:
“You will have three wives. You will have three children. You had a difficult time as a bachelor. You are loved by all people. Jobs in mechanics, construction or engineering are good for you. You should live in two countries and have two houses. You should work with good friends, not alone.”
He kept firing staccato bursts at our translator, who was furiously recording the seer’s predictions about my future earnings, jobs, travels and troubles.
Then he accurately listed my various ailments: wonky knee, bad stomach, sore left shoulder.
“Will I crash my motorcycle?” I asked. “How long will I live?”
“No crash. You will live healthy to 75. After that, doesn’t matter, health no good.”
With this final pronouncement, Saya took a big drag on his cigarette and furiously stamped his personal seal on the papers mapping out the rest of my life.
He then bowed, gratefully accepted my $5 tip, and we were done. When the man tires of this gig, I thought, he could have a future as a Wall Street stock analyst….
Master Saya’s predictions held true for the next few days as we rode down the eastern border with Laos without mishap. The countryside in this area is flatter and more open and loses some of the exotic feel of being in the Himalayan foothills.
Without border wars or drug smugglers to worry about, these hill people?mostly Laotian or Vietnamese refugees– are more relaxed and enjoy a tranquil farming life.
We visited one small village where the same four families had been refining salt from a deep seawater reservoir for over 100 years. The current owner proudly displayed the arduous method of hauling up water with buckets and ropes to be dumped into wood-fired clay boiler vats. The residual salt was then carved into blocks and sold at local markets. The monthly take for this back-breaking toil? About $250, after paying for firewood and labor, he bragged.
Another highlight of this eastern loop was a one day stop in Sukhothai, the original capital of ancient Siam. The ruins, dating back to the 13th century, cover dozens of acres and probably rank as one of the most spectacular remnants of ancient culture left in the world.
I lay in bed that night , trying to catalogue the jumbled images of elephants, rickshaws, soldiers, smiling peasants and chanting monks into a coherent memory that would sustain me now that this whirlwind cycle ride was almost over.
Often the twirling snapshots would mix with faces of family and friends at home, creating the confusing dream collages so familiar to adventure travelers.
Two days later I was gone, flying out of Bangkok for Vancouver. My helmet, leathers and exotic souvenirs were stowed away. I had shaved, donned clean casual clothes and shiny loafers. Once again I was a chameleon, changing and re-shaping into the person everyone at home was expecting.
As I looked out the airplane window at the rapidly fading coastline of Asia, I thought about how I could explain the strange and intense experiences of the past two weeks in the Golden Triangle.
I was stymied. Too much to tell, too much to savor and never share.
Maybe I’d just tell them it was just another motorcycle trip?except for the occasional animal smack.
Ron Newton is an Edmonton investment advisor with Merrill Lynch Canada.