The following story, although on a much smaller temporal and physical scale, is a good reflection of the quality of experience one gets from the speed-traveling, which I personally prefer to call collectionarism. For those willing to sacrifice their free days and hard-worked saving just to cover their fridge in magnets, this article will probably be useful. For all the rest a mere joke as it was for me living it and writing about it. I saw three countries in one afternoon.
By the time Mr. Chen’s image was fading in my bike’s mirrors I had already checked the first country: Thailand. Easy as I had been traveling for a while here. I started towards Mae Sai, the border city by the Mekong. One-hour drive and I would pin-point my second destination – Burma (Myanmar). I was feeling fast.
But I wasn’t. One moment of weakness, one glance to the pineapple fields on the right and I drifted. A few kilometers away, the butterfly silhouette of the temple reflected on the green forest behind it made me pull the bike and take the dirty country road. By the time, I realized what was going on I was already walking up the hill, hypnotized by a group of white butterflies who pulled me up to the top and left me only to go back down beside three Buddhist novices.
From up the hill I could observe the mighty Mekong mildly running on that fine verge between reality and imaginary. I was trying to figure out where Thailand ends, and Burma starts or if maybe behind those hills I noticed the smiley Lao. Impossible to tell. The Earth looked coherent and continuous, unwilling to submit to humans’ obsession to tear it apart into imaginary small pieces called countries.
I would have made it earlier but at the end of a little dirty road there was another small road leading to Phum Cave where there was another temple which I needed to see. If you continue like this, Brad, everyone is going to get there before you! All right, all right, I am leaving now, and I won’t stop until I get to the border.
As with any other border city between two economically uneven countries, the only purpose of Mae Sai is to level the contrast. In Mae Sai everything moves, everything is filtered and converted. Myanmar pumps raw materials, workers (illegal), merchandise (usually fake), timber and jade (more or less legal) which Thailand has to manufacture or get rid of fast. Considering they are Thais, the policemen at the border are rather grumpy. But, wait, what’s that thing coming over here?
Three men in uniforms wave their hands in from of my bike asking me to stop.
– Sir cannot pass with rented motorbike. Have to leave in Thailand.
– It is not rented, it is mine. Here are the papers.
It wasn’t much of an effort to pass by foot into Burma, but I had been told so many times you are not allowed to enter the country with your personal vehicle and I wanted to check what the truth was.
The officer looks at the papers, looks at me and back at the papers. He is obviously confused. His younger companions look at the scene like medicine students watch their professor performing a complicated surgery. The traffic is blocked for five minutes and none honks or yells “move it!”. The man wipes his sweat off his forehead gives me back the papers and conspiratorially leans towards me>
– Ok, you can pass but not overnight stay. You go, you come back, ok?
– No worries, officer, I won’t spend the night in Myanmar as I have to get to Laos today as well.
The traffic was split on three channels: pedestrians, motorbikes and cars. Legally I was driving a motorbike, so I was redirected to the particular lane. Only Unirea having the sidecar was too wide to pass through. I put on an entire show as I accosted the officers’ table and dragged it with me for about two meters together with one of the policemen who was trying to protect the papers and the cell phones on it. The transit point turned into an exclamation point.
Everything in Myanmar goes the opposite as in Thailand. Economy, human rights and cars. Half way on the bridge connecting the two countries everyone passes on the other lane. In Thailand, you drive on the left, in Myanmar on the right.
I spent one hour in Burma and even if I wanted I had no reason to make it more. The foreigners are forbidden to go further than ten kilometers from Tachilek and Tachilek itself is just a big noisy bazaar where everyone is trying to sell you everything. iPhones for 25 euros, Chivas Regal, Viagra and Marlboro for almost nothing, Breitling and Rolex for a bit more as they are plated in gold and diamonds.
I didn’t buy anything, not even cigarettes as I still remembered the pack bought a year ago which left me with a terrible and long lasting soreness in my throat.
When they saw me coming back, the Thai officers smiled to avoid showing their panic. And they wouldn’t let me go back to the Land of Smiles until they enlarged a little bit the motorbike lane, pulled back the tables and made sure laptops, cameras and phones were safe from the metal monster I was driving.
The road connecting Mae Sai to the Golden Triangle is like a mustang hunting. With every curve I was trying to get a sneak preview of the Mekong. The river was sparkling for a mere second and then disappeared behind the hills. Only later, after an hour of chasing I finally managed to catch him and get on it by embarking a small boat.
Being in the middle of the Mekong offered me the chance literally to see 3 countries in 3 seconds. Myanmar in front, Thailand to the left, Lao to the right. The boatman took me up the river and back, dropped me on the Don Sao island which belongs to Lao. In fact Don Sao is a free port, a bazaar where locals make a bit of money selling all sorts to the tourist and children do the same only by simply begging. The first Lao person I met was a 6 years old wild beauty who smiled to welcome me and then asked me to pay for the smile.
I saw loads of crazy things sold in the bazaar, but one thing seemed special – the snake whisky which, apparently, cures all the diseases in the world and as any other Chinese traditional medicine invention, increases the sexual potency. I didn’t buy it, but I am sure that by just looking at the photo you will feel much better.
Same as in Tachilek, the place is full of original copies and antique art which just arrived yesterday on a boat from prosperous China. Not having much to do I decided to send my mother a postcard and then rushed back into Thailand.