Doi Mae Salong. Prisoner in the eagles nest.

I am cold. From here to the Southern border of Thailand there is no less than 14 degrees in latitude. Probably the same in Celsius. The clouds walk around like it’s nobody’s business and then they run up the mountains and pour violent rains upon the village. It is the fifth time it rains today. It turns out rain is not a natural phenomenon but a state of normality.  Clear sky is a long missed exception. Mister Zhou hands me a cup of warm and soft oolong tea, in the hope it will help me get rid of the shivering.

Through the monotone unstoppable sound of the rain, a choir of shinny voices can suddenly be heard. About fifty women climb down the hill fully dressed in joy with a splash or two of dirty mud. They wear rubber boots and solid overalls and carry on their backs some big bamboo baskets full of tea leaves. They come back home from the fields. It’s five o’clock here and ten in the morning in London.

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– Thai people envy us because we are doing better than them. But do they ever think how much we need to work for the money we make? Do they know what hard work really is? When they work as hard as we do, then they will have as much money like us.

When he says “us” mister Zhou refers to all the Chinese people living in Doi Mae Salong since the autumn of 1949, when Mao Te Dun’s victorious army forced the anticommunist forces of the 5th Regiments, 93rd Division of the Kuomintang Army to flee to Thailand, via Burma. A similar story to that of the wonderful village of Ban Rak Thai.

As smiling as the people here are, as rough the nature is. The landscape close to Burma border seems drawn by an opium addict. The mountains rise as if screaming to the sky, abrupt and sharp, not considering at all that there are also beings which cannot fly. Here it’s difficult to walk straight,you cannot even think about going up these giants. The Chinese partisans managed to tame them and mount them with orchards and tea plantations.

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The peace was long waited for. Once they tried seven times to take control over Southern China and they lost every time, plus some violent encounters with the Burmese army, the KMT soldiers decided to sign their names on the famous Opium War which shook the Golden Triangle at the end of the ‘60s. Khun Sa, the biggest opium dealer in history, had his headquarters a few kilometers away from Mae Salong. According to a CIA report from 1971 this little village used to hide the biggest heroin factory in South-East Asia.

It was 1982 when the Thai Army managed to pacify the area, send Khun Sa back to where he first came from and to start the process of social integration for the Chinese ex-soldiers.

I was never a fan of the horror genre, so I don’t have much to compare to the road which brings one up to Doi Mae Salong. The 1000 curves on the Chiang Mai – Mae Hong Son road are merely a joke. In only 20 miles I went up from 400 to 1800 meters on endless slopes at 25-30 degrees. The engine was struggling so hard, sometimes I thought I will fall over my back, I used every possible trick to convince the motorbike to go up. If I had found an even piece of road, I would have stopped to hug Unirea and to share some tears her and I. There was no even section on the road, though, and so our faces stayed dry until the first heavy rain announced us we reached the village.

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– You good man, you very good man. Mister Chen, the good owner of Ban See See walks around me and Unirea trying to figure out whether the motorbike has wings or reactors. You drove this from Chiang Rai to here? You good man. And good motorbike.
– I got here all right but I am afraid I won’t be able to leave. How is the road to Mae Sai?
– Same same but steeper.
– Got it. Do you think they need an English teacher here in the village? I think I would rather stay.

Even if there were such a job I would have had very few chances to get it. Back in mister Zhou’s tea shop a group of native speakers were loudly hugging the owner and ordering without even checking the menu. Potato curry, same as yesterday, Mr. Zhou.

The group had obviously a leader – a man in his fifties with hands as excavators and voice like rocks falling down the hill. He asks me where I am from. I answer.

– Romania? Ce face, draghe? Bineee? Mijtooo? (Romania? How are you, dear? Everything well? OK?
– Haha. How come you can speak Romanian, Mr. Clive?
– I used to work in Clooje (Cluj), I built a house for the orphans. That is what I do. I build houses and schools wherever they are needed. I worked in Romania, Afganistan, now we are building a school up the hill, in an Akha ethnics village. My friends, the people you see here with me, came to visit as tourists and decided to stay and help. Baetz booni (good fellows) as you call them in your country.

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They were regulars of the place, coming every night for curry, cold beer and some jamming. Mr. Clive’s big hands grabbed the guitar and started playing. “House of the rising sun”, “Country roads, take me home”, “Bridge over troubled water”. The man was building even when he was singing. I brought my guitar as well and laid a few foundation stones.

I couldn’t leave anywhere. The rain turned any try into a Russian roulette. I was a prisoner. In order to get alive to Mae Sai I needed a dry road, a lot of luck and a bit of help. Although I was his only client that week, Mr. Chen offered to help me escape the eagles nest.

– Here is what we can do, Mr. Brad. We put all your luggage in my truck so the motorbike gets lighter. I go down and wait for you on the highway. Ok?

I moved everything in the truck – clothes, photo camera and gear, laptop – and taking advantage of a break in the rains schedule I took off towards Mae Sai. When mister Chen honked and waived a joyful hello while taking over I felt safe and was sure he was going to wait for me where he said he would.

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One hour later I was back on Earth. The Chinese man was having lunch at a restaurant nearby the highway. He helped me move back all my stuff and handed me a bowl of noodles and a cold Coke. He was explaining something to the waitress, pointing at me with the sticks.

– I told them you good man. I told them you drove to Mae Salong on that thing. And they don’t believe me!
– Don’t get me wrong, Mr. Chen, but now that I am here, I can hardly believe it myself. Maybe it didn’t happen, maybe we dreamt about it, you and I.

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