Die sings 'On the Road to Mandalay'
There was an enormous relief when I realized I wasn't heading south into Malaysia. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THREE cameras were pointed toward the long, rickety table with a map of Southeast Asia spread out on it for effect.
Cian and his fiancé, Gloy, joined the beautiful Julia at the table in the kitchen of the small guesthouse on Soi Romanee in the heart of Phuket Town. A center of commerce on the island during the tin mining era, Old Town Phuket is in the midst of a Renaissance: a great deal of work is being put into refurbishing the buildings and preserving the Sino-Portuguese architecture. The people living here are now the caretakers of the unique Phuket culture, which garnered the title UNESCO City of Gastronomy last year.
For years, I wanted to stay a night in Old Town, avoiding the temptations of drunk driving, while soaking up an offbeat holiday away from the beaches of Phuket. So with one night left, Julia and I decided to book a room at Phuket 346. Down a narrow, awkward corridor, where brown duct tape covered the large cracks in the heavily worn floorboards, our room was the same one that my parents stayed in when they were on holiday in Phuket.
After 20 minutes of shuffling stuff upstairs into the room – it's unbelievable how much stuff I have – we're ready to run a couple more errands and then enjoy our final night together.
(During the next few weeks, I'm sure there will be an unburdening process as I determine what is unnecessary. Already the watercolors that I've used a dozen times in the last ten years have been properly disposed of.)
However, this morning, sitting at the table, I'm unconcerned about the gear I'm bringing along. Right now, it's all about the “where”. Where will I be going when I get on my bike today?
Taking the tetrahedron, a four-sided die, into my hand, I'm keenly aware of each of the points as they press into my palm and fingers. At the tip of each point is a cluster of numbers: 1-4
I explain the premise of the role to the cameras – unaware that two of them weren't even rolling.
“I'll cast the die, with the number dictating my next country of travel. One will be Myanmar, two will be Laos, three will be Cambodia and four will be Malaysia,” I explain.
Luckily one of the three cameras was on when I made the initial role for Dice Travels. Video: Gloy
I feel pretty good about Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, as travel plans beyond them seem reasonable and don't necessarily require boats.
However, I'm dreading Malaysia as a result. For weeks I've had an off-and-on sinking feeling that the die would end up with a four jabbing skyward. In fact, it had gotten so bad that I considered just nixing it from the possible options. However, there is something too symbolically perfect about the four countries pairing with the four points of the die.
If someone asked where I was going and I wasn't in the mood to explain the premise of Dice Travels, I'd just tell the Myanmar.
Myanmar is in many ways still a new frontier for travelers, and investors. With my deeply seeded colonial perspective, which is common in many western travelers, it represents an “unexplored” Asia after decades of it being off limits. Now with Aung San Suu Kyi's democratic movement taking power in March 2016, after 50 years of military domination, the possibility of diving deep into the country and discovering its rich, complicated history and diverse cultures is now possible in a way that was almost unfathomable just six years ago.
There are still clashes between the Myanmar Army and ethnic Rakhine rebels. In fact, there are large swaths of the country where access to is restricted or impossible. My naivety of the real world when it comes to life in conflict zones draws me to these regions. We'll see what the dice and government officials have to say about that. It was only October last year when the Myanmar government signed a ceasefire with eight guerrilla groups, which ended more than 50 years of conflict.
However, the Arakan Army and six other insurgent forces did not take part in the signing. Even on the holiday island of Phuket, on which I stood holding my die, the impacts of the conflicts in Myanmar are annually witnessed as thousands of stateless Rohingya refugees flee the Rakhine State on rickety boats, washing up along the Andaman coast as they attempt to reach Malaysia. The plight of the Rohingya took center stage, as Human Rights Watch, countless other NGOs, as well as Reuters and other news outlets – including The Nation, The Phuket Gazette and PhuketWan – began publicizing the role Thailand played in the horrendous human trafficking trade between Myanmar and Malaysia.
Though the trees of Myanmar appear to be budding, the deeply conflicted roots of the nation previously known as Burma continue to be entangled and entrenched in soil darkened by blood and despair. To see the reality first hand, to breathe the air, to talk to the people and to explore the complicated beauty by motorbike simply sounded like the most adventurous choice.
But it was the die that needed to decide.
I shake the single die in the cup of my hands and cast it onto the map. It tumbles, turns and spins. Quickly it comes to a rest: 1 – Myanmar.
More than a great sense of joy about the die choosing Myanmar, there was a greater sense of relief about it not choosing Malaysia. I knew there would be countless adventures and unexpected wonders that way, but just the logistics of island hopping with my motorcycle had filled me with dread.
So Myanmar it is!
I'm not remotely prepared to go to Myanmar. With so much to do as I wrapped up my life in Phuket, trying to squeeze every drop of joy out of the island before departing, I wasn't going to research the logistics for each of the countries. At a 25% chance of actually going to any given country, it fell far below the I-need-to-be-prepared-for-this threshold. Now that it's a 100%, there is clearly some work ahead of me.
“Now I just need to sort out my visa,” I say as we all look at the die.