Back before covid sank its teeth into the world, vagrants like me used to do border runs. You’d get your thirty day entry to Thailand or Laos or Cambodia or Vietnam, and when it ran out you’d bolt for the border, walk across a river, and then get yourself stamped back in. Another thirty days.
My first border run from Chiang Mai was to Mae Sot on the Myanmar border. You can follow the famously twistie Mae Hong Son Loop all the way to Mae Sariang, and then drop further south until you hit Mae Sot. It’s a dreamy run; literally, thousands of curves.
Someone once counted the curves on the Mae Hong Son Loop and started selling tourists certificates and stickers certifying that they had ridden all of its thousand or twelve hundred or however many corners. Long before I ever came to Mae Hong Son, people in other countries would tell me that they’d been there and gotten the certificate, as if it were the only road in northern Thailand and now they’d done it. Even now, when I literally live on the Mae Hong Son loop after a year and half stranded in Thailand, people still kindly write to me and recommend that I should try riding the Mae Hong Son loop.
No, I haven’t gotten the certificate. But do please come over some time, because I can show you some even better roads than that.
But let’s step back into the halcyon days when borders were open and the Friendship Bridge teamed with people and goods skipping between Myanmar and Thailand; back before the pandemic and Myanmar’s latest coup. I’d snuck the 690 into Thailand and so this was another roadtrip with my best mate. We swooped through the corners supermoto style and rounded up a few GSs through the corners; we hit 160 on the straight just for fun, but I don’t like to do that to the big single for too long; as with many things in life, you can but maybe you shouldn’t.
Side note, do not attempt this on big block tyres, the 690 is too light in the front and you’ll start to get headshake over 130.
It was the end of winter, which meant hot sunny days and cool nights and no rain. In Mae Sot I arrived at night and treated myself to a room in a guesthouse, because it was dark already and much too late to find somewhere secluded enough to camp. The guesthouse was brand new, constructed out of polished concrete which gave it a prison cell vibe, but the sheets were delightfully clean and there was hot water. As I always do – over the years this has never changed – I feel like an absolute queen as soon as I shut the door on a hotel room all to myself. It doesn’t matter how basic or dingy the room is; the simple fact of solitude, of being able to strip off all my clothes and dump my gear exactly as I like and lounge as I please – this is the ultimate, regenerative luxury. Every time, I emerge washed and refreshed, queen of my own domain, mistress of my own time, holding a key to a place where I can finally, finally stop being aware of other people.
I love to travel through the unknown, but sometimes you also get tired. And sometimes a dingey, but locked, hotel room is all that you need.
* * *
The next morning it was already blazingly hot when I parked my KTM out the front of a cafe right beside the bridge to Myanmar. I treated myself to a coffee as an opportunity to ingratiate myself with the waiter, because he didn’t know it yet but he was going to be watching my bike for me while I skipped between countries.
Caffeinated, I started the walk across the bridge in full motorcycle gear, carrying my helmet – no, I don’t leave my Shoei just sitting around – and sweating generously. Below the bridge, I could seem small canoe-sized boats which every now and then would surreptitiously dart from one bank to the other, illegally crossing the border in the convenient grey zone that you’d expect in towns like this, abruptly bifurcated by the edges of nation states.
All I wanted was some stamps in my passport; I smiled, I waited patiently, I filled in all the forms, I didn’t complain about the fees. There were a few foreigners who were less patient, and always I was puzzled by this: how could they possibly expect a benefit from behaving rudely to people who have absolutely no obligation to let you into their country? You might think you’re important with your tourist dollars, but I know of a few people who have been sent back to where they came from.
I smile and say thank you.
In and out of Myanmar, another 30 days. I am thirsting to go expore Myanmar – I can see, even from the bridge, that it has more of the vibrant chaos that I enjoyed so much in Indonesia. I want to ride into the thick of it, get myself lost, let it close over my head. But even in the best of times you won’t get a foreign vehicle into Myanmar without an expensive guide and permits. With no idea what was coming, I thought I would have the opportunity to come back. I returned to Thailand.
* * *
Back in those tranquil times, people in Myanmar had 99 problems. They had a kind of democratic government in a teetering detente with the military, the Tatmadaw, who literally wrote the Constitution. Yes, that’s right, the army wrote the constitution: no amount of voting could eliminate their stranglehold on power. If you were Rohingya (a muslim ethnic minority), you had 9,999 problems, because… genocide. Now raging covid is only one of even more problems, because last year the Tatmadaw staged a coup, arrested the political opposition, shot the protestors in the streets, started a civil war with the armed resistance movement, and began shelling Karen villages near the border with Thailand. Who knows what’s happening further inside the country, but the Thai borders are teeming with refugees and every now and then Myanmar artillery lands in Thailand, displacing even Thai villages in the chaos of the conflict.
* * *
That’s right, in the before-times I waltzed across the Friendship Bridge, got my passport stamped and ambled back to Thailand without a care in the world. How radical that seems now.
That day I left Mae Sot late, around midday. I was enjoying the fast twisties in the afternoon sun when I saw my first dead body, lying in the road. His head was in a pool of blood. His flipflops had come off and his bare feet seemed strangely vulnerable, upturned on the smooth tarmac. There was a Hilux stopped close by, presumably the one that hit him. A lot people stood around, looking at the dead body from a few metres away. Nobody seemed upset. Nobody touched him.
I dropped a few gears and rode slowly past the scene. There was nothing to be done here.
* * *
Later, I asked my Thai Buddhist friend how he felt about a death like this. Was it a tragedy, was it shocking? He shook his head. No, he said; sometimes it is sad when a young person dies. But usually when someone dies I am happy for them, because they are not suffering anymore.
* * *
The road continued its winding path along the river which borders Myanmar and Thailand. There are no large towns out there; just a few local villages and one or two larger refugee villages populated for decades by displaced Burmese, guarded and fenced in.
The sun was hot and, on impulse, I took a small track down to the riverside. I was met by clear waters and sandbars shimmering in the mid-afternoon sun.
It was hot. I was alone, but I knew that for sure someone would be watching from a distance. I stripped down to my riding underlayers – quick dry sleeveless top and three quarter leggings – and stepped in the water fresh water.
It felt like a baptism and suddenly I was staggered by the thought: look how far you’ve come. Me, the barefoot child who used to swim for hours in the sandy-bottomed river of my Australian childhood; me, the woman who experienced life as an endless struggle for so many years; me, the woman who got the courage to buy a 690 Enduro and make a crazy plan: here I was.
And there, silhouetted on the river bank, was my Australian registered KTM which I had ridden all the way from Sydney, to park it on the border of Myanmar and Thailand while I went for a swim.
I really did this thing. This is real.
My reality had exceeded my dreams.
* * *
I swam from Thailand, to Myanmar, to Thailand. I dipped my head under the clear water and floated in the current. I let the sun dry my underlayers then kept on riding.
I slept that night in a hammock beside the same river, cocooned in my sleeping bag as the night air cooled. I got colder and colder in my silk hammock, suspended, uninsulated.
I woke in the morning to a curious old man ask why I hadn’t slept at a proper campsite. This is approximately what he saw:
I struggled to wake up and understand his questions. Eventually sign language prevailed and I gestured to my KTM, tucked away in a tiny shed, just to my left, invisible from the road; then he understood. As suboptimal as the accommodation was for human, it was perfect for motorcycles and you know, a girl has to have her priorities straight.
It was a new day. The warm water of the river was shrouded in mist.