Cultural Windows & A Hell of a Lot of Fun

“Welcome to Myanmar.
That’ll be 500 baht.
Thank you for visiting Myanmar.”

Part of a massive refugee camp on the Thai / Burmese border

Part of a massive refugee camp on the Thai / Burmese border

And with that, I strolled back across the bridge to Thailand where I received a fresh 30-day stamp in my passport, readying me to hit the road once again.

With yet more of the ‘tail end of the Himalaya’ before me, I was on a mission to cycle the 450kms to the town of Mae Hong Son in time for the Thai New Year celebration. This was to be taking place in just under a week and it was strongly advised that I be off the road during the event.

My hopes that a rise in altitude would bring about a lowering in temperature went unfulfilled and if anything, it was hotter than ever. However, such an adversity was to prove to be secondary, for my biggest challenge was to come from those man-made structures that I have developed such a strong affinity with; the road.

My sweat angel

My sweat angel

The Thais have strongly embraced the concept of the shortest distance between two points being a straight line, making for what were undoubtedly the steepest roads I have ever cycled, easily surpassing those of northern Vietnam and Laos. Unlike moderately graded slopes, they forced me to really push for every pedal stroke and had me panting like a dog as I crawled along at 5km/hr, leaving a trail of sweat behind me that dripped on to the hot, black tar. There were times when, such was the degree of exhaustion in my muscles, I was forced to stop every hundred metres to catch my breath, have a drink, swear at as well as congratulate the road on being such a formidable opponent and will my body to push me and my 50kg load another hundred metres.

Some welcome shade by the road

Some welcome shade by the road

When required, I would reflect on yet another great moment in Australian cricket for inspiration and strength; Chennai, 1987: with temperatures soaring to 50+ degrees Celsius, legendary batsman Dean Jones, while suffering from severe heat exhaustion that forced him to walk to square leg in between overs to vomit and under the strong encouragement of his captain, carried on to hit a magnificent double century in what is still regarded as perhaps the greatest ever innings by an Australian batsman.

During my most desperate and tiresome times, when I truly questioned my ability to carry on, the great Allan Border’s voice would be ringing in my ears, “Well go home then and I’ll find an Australian that wants to cycle the world!” That, combined with a couple of Lleyton Hewitt, “C’mons” and a bit more swearing was usually enough to get me going again.

However, also in the back of my mind somewhere sat the fact that upon being dismissed, Jones had collapsed and been rushed to hospital where he was placed on an intravenous drip having lost 7kgs in a single day.

Songkran madness

Songkran madness

The Thai New Year is celebrated in style with the famous Songkran or Water Festival, during which ensues the most joyful warfare I have ever witnessed. For three days straight, streets across the country are lined with groups of kids, teens and adults alike, with hoses, buckets, water pistols and whatever else can be used to propel water, at their disposal. They relentlessly drench anyone who passes, whether on foot or motorbike, whether an old lady on her way to the market or a man foolishly driving with his windows down.

One of many Songkran battles

One of many Songkran battles

To ensure that this does not take place without retribution, cruising the streets are gangs in the back of utes, sitting around a huge drum-full of water, ready to return fire on the roadside armies. Then there are the stealthy motorbikes carrying a driver and 1 or 2 shooters, armed with water pistols that are very ineffective against a hose, but when the entire town and everyone in it are soaked to the core, it hardly matters.

After a thorough soaking during Songkran

After a thorough soaking during Songkran

I soon realised that the best way to ‘do Songkran’ was to be mobile, so out came the King Brown, armed and ready for war. Unfortunately, we were hopelessly outgunned, as my water bottle proved to be no match for a four-litre bucket, which hits with a force that nearly brought me down for the count several times.

My increased mobility enabled me to get around to all of the backstreets of Mae Hong Son and witness the diversity of New Year’s parties taking place. Along the main drag were the metal head water-chuckers, dressed in black and spurred on by the likes of Megadeth and Pantera pumping from some tinny speakers. Right beside them and competing for sound space, were the hip-hoppers and a bit further on, the wife beater-wearing, tattoo-junkie water-chuckers. One of my best discoveries, down a small street that one would only travel along to catch the one plane that leaves every two days, were the raver water-chuckers who danced like champions for three days. And by the lake, with a speaker stack to rival an Acca Dacca concert and an impressive water-chucking arsenal, were the lady-boy army.

Wherever I cycled, the locals loved seeing a falang getting so into the spirit of Songkran and I was greeted with huge grins, shouts of ”Sawadee bee mai! Sanook mai?” (“Happy New Year! Are you happy?”) and a thorough soaking. The younger ones in particular relished the opportunity to drench a falang with this great purifier, the significance of which lies in its ability to purify the soul of wrongdoings committed in the year past and cleanse it in preparation for the year ahead.

Ceasar and his colourful homemade panniers

Ceasar and his colourful homemade panniers

A day prior to arriving in Mae Hong Son, I met a fellow bicycle tourist, the first ever travelling in the same direction as me. We soon joined forces and it was great to have someone to cycle with again. On the road, we would begin a conversation, get split up for a while and then carry on right where we left off 10km later. It made pushing the pedals over that much easier, as it provided a distraction from thinking about pushing the pedals over.

A Spaniard named Caesar, he too had quit his job to travel alone and meeting him would set a trend for what was to come in Mae Hong Son. At our peak, we had a group of eight friendly, unemployed, solo travelers coming together for a sunset shake atop Doi Kong Mu, which offered glorious views over the jungles of Burma, before heading to the pub for a few cold beers.

Sunset over Burma

Sunset over Burma

One of these was a Thai girl named Susaengdeun, whose name, as so many Asian names do, carries meaning of a serene vision. In her case, ‘Beautiful Moonlight.’ At age 29, being single and travelling solo, she is well and truly bucking the Thai trend and we went on to become close friends, beginning on day two of Songkran when I sat her petite frame on my rear bicycle rack, armed her with a water bottle and took her to the frontline.

One of the 'lucky' parade girls

One of the ‘lucky’ parade girls

The final day of the festival was capped off by a wild and colourful street parade that culminated in a glorious town-gathering by the lake. The parade contained a long line of ‘floats’, upon half of which sat heavily made-up girls in strikingly beautiful traditional dress who, despite their brave smiles, could not hide how much they were hating it, as they sat soaking wet, shivering in the chill of the late afternoon, while having ever more water thrown at them from the crowds that lined the streets. On the other half of the floats sat Buddha statues over which men poured water that was handed to them from the crowd, all of whom were eager to have their water used to cleanse the Lord Buddha. In amongst these traveled groups of worshippers who danced frantically to the beat offered up by the array of gongs and drums present. The procession and three days of madness finally came to an end at the majestic Wat Jong Kham beside the lake with music, games, longboat races and more dancing.

This was in stark contrast to the following three days, during which Mae Hong Son was an absolute ghost town as everyone recovered.

The longest neck in the village....and very proud of it

The longest neck in the village….and very proud of it

One of the main attractions of Mae Hong Son, apart from the amazing scenery, are the nearby villages of the Burmese Karen, or ‘long-neck’ people, the women and girls of whom are easily distinguished by the striking brass rings they wear coiled around their necks. I had decided against visiting the villages after hearing several reports that they resembled human zoos, but when it became known to me that just days after Songkran had finished, it was Karen New Year, I could not resist. I hired a moto, threw Susaengdeun on the back and managing to stack it just the once on our way there, rode out to Ban Nai Soi for one of the most memorable days on tour.

Overlooking Ban Nai Soi

Overlooking Ban Nai Soi

Sitting on the slope of a small hill, Ban Nai Soi is made up of several very basic, single or double-roomed timber or bamboo-thatched huts, placed in a semi-ordered fashion and linked by dirt paths. The largest of these is lined with handicrafts that provide one of the few sources of income for these unfortunate people. After visiting the tiny catholic church on top of the hill, a rare sight in Thailand, I was beckoned into a steaming, sauna-like hut where I gained a deep insight in to the plight of the Karen people and Burmese refugees in general.

Several of the young men seated within spoke excellent English thanks to schooling provided by aid agencies and exposure to tourists and they told me their story. It is not a happy one.

Serious talk over lunch and whiskey with the Karen

Serious talk over lunch and whisky with the Karen

Most I spoke to were forced to flee their homeland 10-12 years ago, usually on foot. One 20-year old told me that at age seven, he had walked for two months with his family through the mountainous Burmese jungle before reaching the Thai border. If that was not bad enough; despite having lived here for most of their lives, they are still unable to procure a much-revered Thai ID Card, meaning they can neither work nor travel, save for the occasional day pass to Mae Hong Son, 20kms away. This makes them seem like prisoners in their village, though they assure me that life is better in their current situation, for they are certain that were they to return home, they would be executed. Hope remains though that one day, when democracy has been realised in Myanmar, they will be able to do just that in safety and with freedom.

The guitar was going off!

The guitar was going off!

As the ‘Karen whisky’ and ‘Myanmar Rum’ began to flow, talk moved away from such depressing topics as persecution, poverty and lack of health services to those more uplifting, such as girls. Once the lightweight Burmese were sufficiently hammered, we all hit the road together, walking from house to house and enjoying the New Year’s custom of having food, whisky and rum provided for us by the women of the household. As we sat on the floor in a circle, eating and drinking, a guitar was passed around and everyone had the opportunity to strum out a tune, Burmese, Thai or Western, while all of the others passionately belted out the lyrics. It was a tremendously warm atmosphere.

Karen girl in Ban Nai Soi

Karen girl in Ban Nai Soi

Later on in the afternoon, I was to witness some traditional Karen song and dance, as the men moved through the neighbourhood, wishing each home a happy new year with a little jig and chant.

When it all started to wind up, what was supposed to be a couple-hour visit had turned into an all day party and although I was not stumbling or falling asleep in chairs like many of the Karen, I agreed with Susaengdeun that it was probably best if she rode us home.

As I sat on the back of the moto, able to relax and stare drunkenly into the surrounding forest, I reflected on how lucky I had been to experience two such festivals in under a week, which truly do act, as an Austrian ‘festival photographer’ said to me, “as a window into the culture of the people.”

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