A DUSTY ROAD by Peter Nolan Smith

Thailand was a different world in 1990. The klongs of Bangkok led to the Chao Phyra River. Barges brought rice from up-country. After a short stay at the Malaysia Hotel I was ready to head north to Chiang Mai.

The train from Hualamphong Station left at 6pm. I booked a 2nd Class AC sleeper. The train pulled out at dusk and slowly snaked through the poor ghettoes of Bangkok into the central plains. I drank Mekong whiskey in the dining car and crashed at 10.

The next morning I woke with the dawn. Breakfast was served by the porter. Sleeping past this hour was discouraged by the staff. They kicked everyone out of the berths. I finished the last of my Mekong in the watery coffee.

I hung around Chiang Mai for a day and rented a 125 cc motorbike to cruise into the mountains. The Australian running treks said it was a good time of year for bike.

“Dry as a bone with dust deep as your knees.” Dave had been living in Chiang Mai since the end of the Vietnam War.

Hearing that info I bought several swathes of cloth against the dust. It was the height of the hot season in Thailand.

“Rom Mak.”

I booked out of the Top North Guest house and got of the bike. 50 K out of Chiang Mai was an elephant camp. Tourists rode them through the forests. I kept on going. It was a long way to Mae Hang Son.

The first stretch of road was paved and I made good time.

Outside of Pai the road turned to dirt and the dust got deep.

The air was hot to breathe and the sun was strong enough to make me think that someone was ironing my skin. I drained my water bottle and looked up the word for water in Thai.

It was ‘nam’.

Bottle was ‘kuat’ and I said both as I sped by the dry rice paddies.

Water buffalo wallowed in muddy rivers.

They were called ‘kwaii’ like in the movie BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAII.

The temperature had to be in the high 90s.

There were no towns.

I kept going.

Ten miles before Mae Hong Son I entered a Lisu village. The young tribesgirls were selling water. I bought three bottles and got them all candy.

Two miles later I ran into a stalled bus.

The driver was not crossing a thick puddle of dust. His passengers sat in the shade.

He pointed to his knees.

“Mai bpen Rai.” It meant ‘no problem’ in Thai.

I revved up the engine and the Thais shouted out, “Farang Bah.”

I waved to them and raced toward the dust puddle. I hit it at full speed. The front wheel glided for several seconds and then buried itself up to the fender. The bike stopped dead andI flew over the handlebars like Superman into the dust.

A second later I burst from the dry puddle and the Thais laughed at my misfortune.

“Farang bah,” shouted the driver.

They laughed harder, but helped me extract the bike from the dust.

I later learned that ‘farang bah’ meant ‘crazy foreigner’ and that I was.

I punched my fist in the air and continued on my way.

Mae Hong Son was only a few miles away and they had cold beer there.

And maybe a little opium.

It went well with beer.

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