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.