As I sat in the front of the tinny, white minivan, looking out at the chaos taking place before me through the cracked, dirt-coated windshield, next to a fat, sweaty Nepali man who could not shift gears without punching me in the leg no matter how far I moved over, I was still a bit bewildered as to how I got here.
No sooner had Mum departed than it was time for me to make another visa run to Burma. This time, accompanied by Susaengdeun, I decided to venture further than the immigration office and explore the border town of Tachilek. Almost immediately we were swarmed by touts offering tours to nearby temples, dirty-faced kids holding out their equally dirty upturned palms and men selling cartons of Marlboros and then in a whisper, “Viagra?” To whom I replied, “No thanks mate, I don’t smoke and I don’t need the other just yet.”
The stench of desperation was similar to that which I had inhaled in Cambodia, brought about by severe poverty and a subsequent lack of basic necessities.
The swarm did not disperse as we scurried through the markets, a trail of kids in tow who converged on Susaengdeun for some reason. It was not long before we made the joint decision to stamp out of Myanmar, buy a bottle of duty-free West Australian Shiraz and stamp back in to Thailand. Doing so was like a breath of fresh air and as we walked by the border fence and saw the numerous grubby hands sticking through the wire mesh and the pleading faces behind it, one could not help but be thankful for the fortunate circumstances that they were born in to, even if that was in Thailand, which seemed decidedly first world comparatively.
Once back in Chiang Mai, I was on a mission to acquire a Chinese visa with the intention of cycling through Tibet to Nepal and India. The word from the global bicycle touring network however, was that in this Olympic year, such a thing was going to be ‘impossible’ due to heightened restrictions for tourists, particularly in post-riot Tibet. After a visit to the Chinese consulate and a few travel agencies, I had to agree that the prospect looked grim.
In order to acquire a visa, one has to show a plane ticket into and out of China as well as hotel bookings for the duration of their stay. Assuming that I could get around this by booking refundable airplane tickets and hotel reservations, there was speculation that the overland border crossings would be closed to tourists. Even if upon arriving at the border in far northern Laos, this turned out to be false, there is no possibility of getting an extension on the 30-day visa that would have originally been issued, which is no where near enough time to cycle to the ‘roof of the world’ and down again.
I was trapped in SE Asia by the restrictions imposed by the military government of Myanmar and the communist government of China.
I had two options; I could fly over my barriers or I could kill another four months in SE Asia in the hope that once the Olympics were over, the restrictions would be lifted. Having been in the region for the previous 11 months, I was unable to figure out anywhere I would be allowed to or wanted to spend four more, knowing that I had to come back to just about the same point.
After meditating on this for some time, it was with relief that I came to the realisation that I would have to do what I had aspired never to do; travel 50 times faster than usual, 30,000 feet above the heart of the tour; the road and the adventures it reveals.
Before I knew it, I was due to be in Dhaka in 72 hours and Kathmandu in another 12.
I was initially devastated by this forced change of plans, for it meant that I would no longer be venturing to the mystical Tibetan plateau, about which I have heard so many amazing stories. I consoled myself with the fact however, that the world is a politically turbulent place and to cycle through it unhindered is a tall order indeed.
Of course, this decision also meant that I was to be leaving my beloved Thailand much sooner than expected. Some nations that I travel through, I know that I will never visit again. Not because I did not enjoy my time there, but because quite simply, there are places that are better. Other nations, I am sure that I will return to because they have etched themselves into a special place in my heart and mind and a single visit will never suffice.
Thailand definitely falls into the latter.
I will miss her smells and tastes, her smile and glow, her relaxed nature and her sparkling personality, all of which can best be summed up in a quote from a magazine article that I recently read. A journalist was doing research into the ‘Secret of Happiness’ and while in one of the nations where this secret has clearly been revealed, he asked a Thai woman for her thoughts. She replied, “We’re too busy being happy to worry about happiness.”