Since travel is one of my favorite things, much of the writing I do is related to trips I have taken. Come with me and experience a leisurely, peaceful ride into the depths of tribal Thailand.
The Road To Mae Hong Son
I boarded the bus at the north Bangkok station overjoyed that I was about to go on a small adventure. For years I had read about the Longneck Karen people of northwestern Thailand. Since I was working in Asia it was a perfect time, so with backpack and a willing spirit, I was finally on my way.
The buses in Thailand come in several varieties. There is the comfort style, complete with a stewardess, snack, a too loud Thai video, and a/c that could keep ice cream frozen, and then there are the clackers with no a/c, the ones that hardly look as if they will get around the next corner. Just my luck, on this trip I got the clacker.
I staked out my seat early. I wanted the back of the bus where I would sit unnoticed. I wanted an incognito spot where I could enjoy the scenery in solitude. After years of travel I knew it was important to arrive early since queuing systems often left a lot to be desired in non European countries. Being the second person to arrive, I figured things were going according to plan, so I sat on a bench to absorb myself in the novel I brought along for just such occasions.
Somewhere between chapters 2 and 4, the group of travelers that would accompany me on this journey had grown thick, and the door to the bus was no longer in sight. I realized the need to be more vigilant, and I made my way through the crowd and stood as close to the bus as I could. But when the announcement (in Thai of course) signaled it was time to board, I was at a distinct disadvantage, and in the mad rush for seats I was left behind.
No matter, for as I soon found out, a seat on this particular bus wasn’t necessary. As long as there was space, even a teeny tiny space, say six inches, someone could fit in. Now, I am not Thai sized by any stretch of the imagination. So fitting my western curves into that six inch space was a quite a challenge indeed. I tried to maneuver my backpack around to the front, which required bumping several people in the sides and practically knocking the glasses off of an old man. But I was determined to get my backpack where I could see it, not so much to avoid a pickpocket, but to create a buffer between me and the arms and other unwanted body parts that were attacking my personal space.
When we took off down the highway and I was secretly elated by the fact that I was jammed like a sardine in that rickety old can of a bus. Bravado and all, I was a seasoned traveler, living life the way real people did. No spas or beach resorts for me. I was an adventurer.
My spirit of adventure lasted about 40 kilometers. By that time, my legs hurt from not being able to move them, my arms had been contorted into a most unnatural position from which I couldn’t break free, and I was sure I had been bruised horribly by the woman whose umbrella jabbed me in the back each time we made a left turn. Not to mention the fact that I couldn’t bear to breathe in, lest the stench of last night’s garlic laden dinner on the breath of the man facing me fill my nose and lungs.
I wanted off. I wanted the nice cold bus with the sweetly smiling stewardess. I even wanted the subtitled movie that blared so loudly I couldn’t think. That I could deal with. This was too much.
I made a few grunting noises, mumbled a few curse words, and twisted my aching body into an angle that allowed me to put my backpack on the floor. Slowly I pushed my way down and sat on top of it. The view here was not ideal either. More buttocks and crotches than I had ever seen at the same time, but, at least I had a seat. After spending an almost pleasant half hour in this position, the bus pulled into a roadside stop. Brilliantly I decided that I would grab a seat this time, so I waited. When everyone exited the bus I staked my claim. Left side last seat, right by an open window for fresh air. Life was sweet again.
Soon my fellow travelers started boarding and I began to wonder if there was some unwritten code that said you were supposed to take the seat you had before the stop…after watching carefully, I noticed this wasn’t the case so I settled in and congratulated myself on my use of strategy. I was joined in my seat by a young girl and her mother, a baby that she held on her lap and then a man who took up what seemed like less than the requisite six inches on the edge.
Part two of our journey took us up a road that twisted and turned every 100 yards. On the flat parts the driver pressed as hard as he could on the gas to gain momentum, then off we went flying around corners and rolling over potholes. Then the chug uphill would begin once more and the whole thing would start all over. I was feeling a bit green, so I opened my window as wide as I could to get some air. Unfortunately, the girl three rows in front of me was having the same experience. But hers took a turn south when she stuck her head out and upchucked.
Well with the wind blowing and the bus flying I don’t have to describe what happened next. My fellow passengers were covered, and a great clean up began. While all of this was happening the bus driver never blinked. I became quite irritated that he wouldn’t pull over. He just kept rounding those turns, which did nothing but aggravate the condition of the girl in front of me. A couple of people passed plastic bags to her so that she could have a more appropriate place to expel her lunch, and teenager handed her a Vicks nasal stick to sniff.
Meanwhile even though I had been spared the shower, the smell managed to find its way back to me. Hour after hour we trudged along. One onslaught after another including the fact that my lovely seat had no stuffing, so a spring was hitting me in a not very nice place, which made me feel as if I was being beaten up from the inside out. Was there no end to this awful trip?
Karma is supposed to be payment for previous actions, so I began to wonder what I had done to deserve this. Frustrated by the whole situation, I started looking to my other traveling companions for acknowledgment. Just a nod here or there to confirm that they were as miserable as I was. But that is when I noticed something very strange. Something I had missed before. There was an odd calmness in the bus. A peaceful expression on each face. People looked unflustered by all of the inconveniences. There was no cursing or yelling. No demanding that we stop, no pushing for space, or fighting for air. There was instead something I would call acceptance.
Surveying the countenance that surrounded me, it occurred that there might be something to the Buddhist philosophy that states “be centered in all situations.” I saw that I was the only one thrashing about willy-nilly, cursing under my breath, making myself uncomfortable.
Even the people two rows up who had the unluckiest of all seats were not phased. This was the condition of a moment in time, nothing to do about it but accept it. And so could do nothing but take the hint. I did breathing exercises, a bit of meditation, a small prayer for guidance, and I calmed myself. I attempted to stay in the moment and tried to understand that like everything else in life, I was having this experience for a reason, and it too would pass. I noticed that when I stopped fighting it, the journey didn’t seem so bad. I even started looking at the scenery and appreciating the velvet greenery that is northern Thailand. Did I come to a place where I loved the ride, and would do it all over again? No way.
I can tell you one thing about that trip though. I learned more about the nature of the spirit than I did about the hill tribes. I had never before had it spelled out so blatantly. I had taken that ride to learn a huge lesson in patience, acceptance, and staying in the moment. And just in case you’re wondering about the trip back, I took the luxury air-conditioned bus