Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Long and Winding Road ...

We arrived home in Udonthani last night at 11:30 PM after sixteen and one-half hours of driving all the way back from Maehongson. Rather than taking two days to get home we made a push to be home in one day. Whereas on the way to Maehongson, we stayed in Pai after 12 hours of driving, there is no comparable city or facilities 12 hours from Maehongson back towards Udonthani.

The trip was more than we expected and could have hoped for. It could have been even more but we decided to keep with our original plan of 5 nights in Maehongson. The Paduang people of the Karen Hill Tribe were having a festival on Saturday 04 April and invited us to attend. They even offered for us to stay in the refugee camp for the night since we were checking out Saturday morning. It was tempting but we were tired from all our adventures in the Maehongson area. Duang was missing her two month old grandson and I have over 2,200 digital photos to review and edit.

The shortest distance from Chiang Mai to Maehongson is by Highway 1095 - 122 kilometers (about 65 miles) AND 1,884 CURVES. The road is brutal. Many of the curves can only be navigated in first or second gear. On three of the curves I misjudged the truck speed and the steepness of the curve consequently the truck lost energy and ended up stalling on the rising curve. I had to restart the engine, use the emergency brake to prevent sliding backwards prior to engaging the clutch to slowly advance in first gear. There were very few times that the truck was higher than third gear. On several occasions the back tires squealed as we navigated a tight rising curve. I was not the first to do this for there were several blackened areas of burnt rubber on those curves. Many times the back end fish tailed a little bit - hard to believe but it happened in first or second gear and not due to conventional high speed.

Steep hillsides and cliffs embrace both sides of the road. This road is shared by regularly scheduled buses (32 passenger rather than full sized buses), construction equipment, motorcycles, motorbikes, cows, water buffalo, tourist vans, cars, pickup trucks, fuel delivery trucks, and cargo trucks. One great consolation is that there is not that much traffic on the road. This is the low season for tourism in the area - the world economic situation not with standing.

In Thailand the cargo trucks are a big problem. I am convinced that there is not a single 6, 10, 12, or 18 wheeler that can go the posted speed limit anywhere in Thailand. Many of the drivers are on amphetamines so it is not a matter of them not wanting to speed - it is physically impossible for the trucks to maintain reasonable speeds with any sort of load. Highway 1095 is no exception. While you might be zipping along at 60 kph (35 mph), the road in front of you may be blocked by a lorry travelling at 10 or 15 mph - in some cases - stalled on the road (I am not the only one with that problem on the road).

I have driven on many long and winding roads in my life and this one is right up there in terms of the length and severity of the curves. There are several locations where you are entering into a fairly tight left turning downward curve so it is necessary to slow down (bleed off energy) to stay on the road. However immediately coming out of that curve is a very steep 25 to 30 degree ( I just confirmed this on my protractor) rising hairpin curve going to the right where you need to increase energy to make the maneuver. This is where I failed a couple times and entered into the hairpin in too high a gear (2nd) and too low a speed to make it through the curve. I feel like that I am writing an episode of "Dogfight" where reenactments are made of Aeriel combat. If I had a little wooden model of the truck on a stick I know I could show accurately the steering and downshifting required to navigate Highway 1095.

At this time of the year, the end of the dry season, the skies of Northern Thailand are very hazy. The air is filled with smoke and soot from the slash and burn agricultural practises of the region. The Hill Tribe peoples prepare their fields and new lands for planting by burning off the weeds and debris. In addition there is a custom of burning off the forests. I suspect that this is to improve or maintain the productivity and health of the forests. People work the forests. They gather plants, nuts, firewood, mushrooms from the forest. In many places we drove through the sound of crickets or locusts was overwhelming - even over the sound of our Isaan music CDs playing. At times I thought we might be in some bad science fiction movie where the insects take over the planet. I am sure that burning off the forest debris helps hold these insects in check. If the people are like the Lao Loum in Isaan, the burnt or rather BBQ'd bugs would supplement the people's protein intake. Like the Lao Loum, from conversations with some of the local people I know that they eat red ants and red ant eggs.

The forests in the area are very dense. Now at the end of the dry season the trees are denuded of their leaves. Most of the trees have many very large leaves as part of their growing cycle - teak is an example. The forests now look similar to the forests of southern New England in early November but without any threat of snow. The floor of the forest quickly builds a carpet of dead and dry leafy debris. This is routinely burned off. We drove by areas where there has no and will not be any agricultural cultivation done yet the area had been burned. As we drove along Highway 1095, there were many fires still burning along side of the road without a sign of a person in sight. During our boat ride out to one of the refugee camps, we saw fires burning down the hillsides towards the river.

These "fires" while creating a great deal of smoke and thus are unhealthy for people are nothing like the raging mega fires that we are accustomed to seeing on television related to calamities in Australia, Greece, or the United Sates. These forest fires are more like the forest fires that the American naturalist, John Muir, wrote about regarding his travels in the Sierra mountains. He had encountered fires that he had to step over. Due to the natural cycles of growth, death, decay, and fire, the fires in the Sierra mountains of the early days were not very large or hot due to the absence of fuel. I was tempted to replicate Jon Muir's experience by stepping over one of these 4 inch high fires but out of concerns that I might return to the hotel embarrassed with burnt pants or something worse, I refrained.

Yes Highway 1095 is the long and winding road that goes to Maehongson. Like I have found in so many places that I have been to, it is the journey along the long, winding, and difficult roads that have brought me to unique and beautiful locations as well as experiences. The roads in the Sierra Mountains of California to Lake Tahoe, Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the switchback road up to Machu Pichuu, and Estarda Serra da Graciosas from Curitiba to Morretes in the state of Parana, Brasil are just a few examples of long and arduous paths to exemplary locations as well as experiences.

Upon leaving the hotel in Maehongson we learned that because we had driven or perhaps survived driving Highway 1095 we would be awarded a certificate from the local authorities. The clerk offered to pick it up and mail it to our home - it should arrive in three days. So although we didn't buy the tee shirts (many styles, designs, colors and sizes available at the night market by the lake), we will be accepting the commemorative certificate.

During our stay in Maehongson, we realized that many things had changed from our last visit exactly two years ago. I don't know why we were shocked, surprised, and somewhat disappointed to find the changes. Changes occur everyday - everywhere in the world. However, it almost seems a part of the human condition to resist change and strive to maintain the status quo. Talk of change while at first blush may be inspiring, soon when it comes to its actual implementation becomes very frightening and is often abandoned.

Here are some of the changes that we discovered on this trip:

Mr Ping's souvenir shop in the hotel is closed.

Mr Ping's Travel Desk, the source of car, driver and guide on my past three trips, is still there but no one manned it during our entire stay.

My guide for the past 3 trips, the Shan village headman, is now living in Switzerland.

The Lakeside Restaurant on the shores of Jong Kum Lake in Maehongson is gone - gone along with his "all you can eat Thai BBQ for 99 Baht"

The large portrait and shrine to King Rama IX in the middle of Jong Kum Lake was removed two weeks ago.

There are far fewer tourists in Maehongson this time than two years ago - no doubt reflections of the world's economic states as well as the political situation here. A few months ago the airports were closed by political dissidents resulting in thousands of stranded foreign tourists as well as non-reimbursed additional expenses for the stranded people.

The Monk who lives in a cave near Fish Cave now has a chain link enclosure with a metal framed chain link door with lock across the front of his cave. I don't know if this is a sign of progress or a reflection upon a decline in the neighborhood (rocks, highway, rain forest, rice paddies, and two very small villages)

The Paduang people camp of Baan Noi Soi is 50% abandoned. Familiar faces such as "Freida", her mother, her sister, the sad old widow woman, and the capricious school girl no longer live there. They have moved to other camps.

The camp at Baan Nam Piang Din was to be the only location for the Paduang (long neck women) people appears to be the same but with more two years of weathering. Any improvements in either infrastructure or housing to accommodate the additional Paduang was not apparent during our visit.

Khun Mudan (The Madonna of the Refugee Camp) whom I photographed breastfeeding her infant son three years ago now has a five month old daughter named "Peelada".

"Freida" is no longer readily available to common tourists. She is now living in the regular refugee camp on the Myanmar and Thai border. She is seeking to be relocated to an outside country therefore she has to stay in the closed camp. The ready availability of her beauty as well as her insights into the plight of the Karen, Kariang, or Kayan people is a loss.

Like we all do, Freida has apparently made a choice in seeking her happiness and exploring the opportunities that can be available to her. There is no issue or problem with that. Like all quests and goals, there are prices to pay. Freida and her people are paying some of the price. Hopefully her choice is fully informed and she is prepared to accept the consequences of her choices.

We chose to drive across Thailand to visit Maehongson. Round trip airfare from Udonthani was approximately 31, 185 baht ($890 USD). The total cost of our trip including fuel, hotels, food, camp admissions, and boat rental along with two new tires for the truck was 28,670 baht ($819 USD) for the 7 day and 6 night trip. WE decided and chose to do this trip on our own. We took responsibility for taking care of the arrangements independently. We were able to visit all the places on this trip that we had on the previous when in addition to airfare, hotels, and food, we paid 10,000 baht for three days of a car, driver, and guide.

Just as the long and winding road lead us to Maehongson for the beauty and experiences of this trip, it seems to me that the life better lived is often that which is along a long, winding, as well as challenging path. It is after the struggles to arrive at a certain place, state, or situation that the beauty and richness can be appreciated.

Not all the changes that we experienced on this trip were bad. Some were very good - little Peelada, Mudan's infant daughter, were a very pleasant surprise and a cause for wonder of the moment as well as hope for the future. The upcoming festival in Baan Huay Sua Tao reflected the spirit and vitality of its inhabitants.

Some of the changes had no impact. In exerting our independence and taking direct responsibility for this trip, the current status of the hotel travel agency was merely an interesting observation. The same with the closing of the Lakeside Bar - we found other food at other places.

Life moves on. People move on. Change can not be prevented.

However once change has occurred the secret to happiness is to be able to accept and take advantage of the opportunities that all changes present.

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