Beauty on the far side of Hell 


My next destination was Umphang, the end of the road into the mountains. It was a long, circuitous route to get there; Ayutthaya to Sukhothai to Mae Sot, and then a songthaew to the small mountain village. A songthaew is a pick-up truck with a metal roof, metal seats built into the sides of the bed, and no tailgate – just a metal step up with an extended seat. People and crates of food are snugged in close together, both inside and on the roof.  

I got on the bus in the early evening from Aytthaya, intending to layover in Sukhothai, but when I arrived there at 2 am it seemed easier to just take the 4 am bus to Mae Sot. I arrived in Mae Sot at 8 am. I hadn’t slept and I don’t know what possessed me to carry on. I guess I was eager and I took the next songthaew for Umphang. l was looking forward to seeing the spectacular scenery, as well as a camp housing 10,000 Burmese refuges en route. It was a six-hour plus trip but I would sleep when I arrived, and then continue on the next day to the trailhead of a renowned waterfall where I wanted to camp for a few more days and hike. It was a good plan!  

It started to go sideways about an hour in. I was on the back seat, with a wide open view for picture taking, but I was white-knuckling the metal pole and chose life over photo ops. I began to feel nauseous and closed my eyes. When we finally arrived, after hours of lurching around hairpin turn after hairpin turn, I was beyond grateful. Except we hadn’t arrived. We were picking up more people and supplies from a Karen tribe mountain village. When all 23 of us were loaded (many with painted faces), I was sandwiched in the centre of the seat, balancing two pre-toddlers on my lap. We started again – and then it got rough. Eyes still closed, it took all of my willpower not to throw up. There was simply no way I could allow that to happen. And then that awful moment came when you know it’s coming – and there is nothing you can do about it. As unobtrusively as possible, I turned my head out the side and started to heave. I was aware that one of the babies was lifted from my lap; I cradled the others’ sleeping head in my hand so it didn’t bump against the metal side as my stomach emptied into the wind. With my free arm I tried, in vain, to shield the man beside me, and the orange robe of the monk beside him, as the vomit was whipped back onto my t-shirt and down my arm. The truck continued back and forth, pitching from side to side. I heard a young girl whisper to me in broken English, “only 2 hour more”. I nodded my head in thanks, my body still twisted, face hanging out the window, eyes closed. I accepted the misery and went to a place deep inside, where I was aware of nothing except the wind on my face, and my arm wrapped around the baby, his small head cupped in my hand.  I stayed there, far away, until we arrived in Umphang. Stained with dried, foul puke, I crawled off the truck, into a guesthouse shower, and then to bed, where I slept a dreamless sleep.  The journey may have been hair raising; it may have been stunning, but I saw none of it.  

The camping and waterfalls were out of the question. I found out that it was another 50 km songthaew ride through the mountains to the trailhead. I opted to stay at the lovely Umphang guesthouse and go hiking from where I was. There were a two Thai tourists heading to the falls but otherwise, I was alone. And guess what? –  on a deserted mountain trail, I found a large bamboo forest and heard the groaning and clicking of the bamboo soundscape that I had read about, but didn’t get to hear, in Japan. It was beautiful.

Appendix – Two days later on the ride back to Mae Sot, I was well-rested and well-hydrated. I had only managed to eat some plain rice, and fruit, but I was feeling able. The drive was less jerky; I saw a bit of scenery, and the refugee camp,  but for the most part, I played it safe and kept my eyes closed. 

7 responses »

  1. You are one brave and courageous woman. Good on ‘ya! The good news is you won’t need to do that again! And you got to see things you wanted to see. In spite of it all, you were so caring of the baby : ) xox

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