DUST THEN MUD by Peter Nolan Smith

Bangkok was a different city in 1990. Shady trees lined the sois. The klongs led to the Chao Phyra River. Barges transported rice from up-country. After a short stay at the Malaysia Hotel I was ready to head north to Chiang Mai.

I booked a 2nd Class AC sleeper at Hualamphong Station. The train pulled out at dusk and slowly snaked through the trackside ghettoes into the central plains. I drank Mekong whiskey with off-duty cops in the dining car and crashed in my berth at 10.

The next morning I woke with the dawn. Sleeping past that hour was discouraged by the staff. They kicked everyone out of the beds. Breakfast was served by a porter. I finished the last of the Mekong in a cup of watery instant coffee.

A tuk-tuk took me to the Top North Guesthouse. The hotel had a swimming pool. I spent most of day wallowing in the shallow end, but once the sun dropped behind Doi Suthep I wandered along narrow roads to ancient temples and beer bars.

Close to the old walls of the northern city a farang bookshop at the Eastern Gate rented dirt bikes.

125 cc MTXs and 250cc ATXs.

$10 OR $12 a day.

None of them were new.

The owner was a Brit yellowed by malaria. His wife glowered in the kitchen. She clearly didn’t trust westerners.

“He’s an American. Not an Israeli.” Jerry wagged his nicotine-stained finger at his diminutive wife. He wasn’t planning on leaving a good-looking corpse.

“All farangs, all men, kee.” She wrapped herself in a wraith of wrath.

“Kee?” My Thai consisted of ‘sawadee kap’ and ‘ek nung kyat beer’ plus ‘u-nai hong nam’. Hello and more beer were almost as important as ‘where’s the bathroom’, since my stomach was having a hard time adjusting to Thai food.

“Kee means shit. The Thais are the French of the Orient. They think they are better than anyone else and in some ways they aren?t wrong. This country was never conquered by the west. He smiled at his wife.

“The only country in Indochina to escape that fate.” I knew my Far East history. “I was thinking about taking a motorcycle trip.”

“Lanna Thai has great trails.” He whipped out a map of the tribal hills on the Burma border.

“Mai Hong Son was one of the last market towns on the Silk Route.” The broken nail of Jerry’s index finger tapped a location to the west of Chiang Mai. “You could fly there for $15, but driving on a bike can take up to ten hours. Every corner is a turn into the 15th century. The Thais are trying to pave it, but the steep hills devour the road like land sharks and this time of year the road has dust deep as your knees.”

“Better than mud.”

“Yes and no. What do you want rent?”

“I’ll take the 250.”

“Good choice.” I gave him my passport as a guarantee and motored around town like Marlon Brando in THE WILD ONES. The bike’s short pipes glowed red from the exhaust. The backfires spat a blue flames. I returned to the hotel and slept early. Ten hours on a bad road could become fifteen easy.

The next morning I ate a quick breakfast and the barman at the Top North Guest House said, “Lom Mak.”

And he was right.

It was already 91F and I drank a ‘bon voyage’ Singha.

It was as cold as the air was hot.

After checking my bag with the hotel, I strapped a small daypack to the bike and pointed the front wheel north. The Trans-Asia Highway was unpocked by potholes.

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50 K out of Chiang Mai was an elephant camp. Tourists rode them through the forests. I snapped a few photos and kept on going. It was a long way to Mae Hang Son.

Heavy construction trucks labored up the two-laner and I weaved through the swatches of destructed pavement in 2nd gear, climbing into the mountains scarred by the slash-and burn-agriculture of the hill tribes.

The centuries disappeared with every mile.

I made good time on the paved road to the turn-off for Mai Hong Song.

Outside of Pai the ankle-deep dust replaced the pavement.

I wrapped a scarf over my mouth and nose. Sunglasses protected my eyes, but a powdery dirt coated my denim jacket and jeans.

Opium trucks rolled past police barriers without inspection and I promised myself a taste in Mae Hong Song. Chasing the dragon would go good with beer.

The air was too 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 repeated both, as I sped by dry rice paddies.

Water buffalo wallowed in muddy rivers.

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

The temperature had to be in the high 90s.

There were no towns.

Only the road and dust.

I twisted the accelerator to the max.

The wind offered no relief.

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

They thanked me with a bowed ‘wai’.

Two miles laters I topped the crest of a pass. The sun was scorching the slopes dry and the temperature was a touch under 100F. Three buses were parked at the bottom of the valley and I slowed down to a stop. Their passengers sheltered under the shade of withered trees. The drivers stood at the edge of a 25-meter stretch of dried mud in the middle of which was a 10 meter bog.

The Thais looked at me and I looked at them.

We all studied the road.

A flowing stream had transformed a red dirt into a thick goo.

One of the driver smoked a cigarette.

He pointed to his knees to indicate the depth of the mud.

“Mai bpen Rai,” I said, which was all-purpose Thai phrase meaning ‘no problem’.

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

I thought it was encouragement.

I revved the engine.

A beautiful Lisu girl caught my eye.

I had something to prove and roared 200 meters up the road.

One of the drivers waved his hands, as if to say crossing this mire was impossible.

He hadn’t seen Evel Knevel leap over Caesar’s fountains in Las Vegas and I u-turned the bike spraying a rat tail of damp earth.

The Thai men at the side of the road rose to their feet. The women stopped eating and their children ran closer to the edge of the soggy road. They knew that there was going to be a show. In their minds all farangs were crazy.

I throttled the gas to the max.

The front tire stayed up and the rear wheel spun at top speed, then I hydroplaned across the fetid mud and torgued out the bike at 7000 rpms, tearing down the pitted road, hitting the sloppy goop at 90 kph.

I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

My only protection was my courage.

“Farang bah!” I shouted and raced toward the muck at full speed. The front wheel glided over the mud and then buried itself up to the fender, catapulting me into the air with outstretched arms like Superman.

I was no George Reeves and bellyflopped into the puddle.

I rose from the mud covered from head to foot like a troglodyte and Thais laughed insanely as the men helped hauled the stalled bike to the other side of the bog and I promised to buy them beer in Mai Hong Sing.

“Farang bah,” shouted the driver.

“You got that right.” I waved to the Lisu girl.

I shook off the slop like a wet dog.

The stranded Thai passengers laughed harder.

“Farang bah. Farang bah.”

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

A farang bah.

Seconds later I remounted the bike and punched my fist in the air before speeding away dripping goo.

The sun baked the mud hard to every inch of my body. I loved riding in the mountains. I was free. Just outside of Mae Hong Song I stopped at a grocery store to buy cold beer and insects.

I pulled into a restaurant by the bus station and waited.

The bus rolled into town at sunset. I was eating insects and drinking beer. The passengers sat down and joined me. They told the store owners the tale of my failed feat. Everyone laughed and the driver raised his beer and said, “Chok dii.”

Good luck.

“Chaii.” I was happy not to have been hurt by my failed feat.

The Lisu girl came to my table.

She peeled off the shells of the insects.

I ordered ice for the beer, because cold Singha beer went well with fried grasshoppers and even better with mud.

The Thais retold my feat to each and every new Thai.

“Farang bah.”

I gave the punchline and earned a big laugh.

Even in a remote backwater like Mai Hong Song they were used to ‘farang bah’.

Fotos by Peter Nolan Smith

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