Day 49: Dice abandon motorcycle at Myanmar border
The dice force me to ditch my motorcycle at the border. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Though it appears that the river's water effortlessly flows around the boulder that has fallen in its path, there is in fact the a gurgling and sometimes even a roar as it is forced to change its path. Despite the protest, it does continue forward.”
At the Borderline Tea House I am stalling – delaying the inevitable by another hour. I put down my phone, refusing to look up pointers for crossing the border into Myanmar. What could I prepare at this point, if I don't already have what I need? I think I have everything, but doubt has been festering inside me for weeks now. What if I don't?
“Do you want to try a Burmese Tea Cake,” I ask the black woman sitting on the ground next to me, one table over. A pretty, young woman with dark brown skin, she had earlier let me taste some of her vegetable tempura before returning to neatly writing in a large notebook.
The tea cake is, of course, a ploy to kick start a conversation. Precisely, articulately she explains that she's her with her university, which was pared up with Social Action for Women (SAW) by GlobalMed. It's enchanting to talk to someone who practices such clarity with how they phrase their roll in the system.
After three years of correspondence with SAW, she and her fellow students are not here to dictate or even guide the work being done. They are here to listen to the local leaders they have been teamed up with and assist them as requested. And that is the key, as the local leaders of SAW are the ones directing and explaining how and what they need help with.
As with any nudge, empowerment is essential, as is the language we use to describe it.
Unable to further stall, in addition to being unable to get the piles of crisp ten dollar bills I want for travel in Myanmar, I return to my bike – and head for the border.
It's a gray, dreary day, with the slightest of drizzles come and going as I approach the bridge.
I park the bike and hop over a low fence to get my passport stamped out. There is the resounding, heartwarming double thud of a stamp landing on my passport and departure slip.
A Thai official in fake Oakley sunglasses makes me nervous, as he asks about how much the bike costs.
“100,000 baht,” I say, fudging the truth.
In front of the Customs window, on the other side of the road from Immigration, I assume the demeanor of confident bunny. I slide my passport, motorbike registration and registration translation through the window.
Two friendly Thai officials, get to work, looking something up on the computer in front of them. They make a copy of the registration, which is a good sign. Minutes later, a copy of my passport is put on the desk also, next to two hands, which is all I can see of the woman processing the paperwork.
My right leg is locked, but I don't move, fearful that too much shuffling about will be misinterpreted as impatience. The waiting continues. I'm aware of a dull pain in my lower back from not shifting my weight. It's the kind of waiting where you suddenly can't remember exactly where your tongue is supposed to go in your mouth.
Through the tinted window, I can barely make out a woman at a high-rise desk in the back. In the reflection of the window, there are two officials sitting and laughing over my left shoulder, the man with the sunglasses over my right.
He comes up and says something to the people behind the window. He looks at my passport, says something else and wanders off.
I smile pleasantly. Bending down, I peak into the office.
A tall toad of a man strides into the room.
“How long do you want to go?” he asks. I had told one of the junior officials already, including a little lie about returning to Thailand through the Mae Sot border, which I guess might not end up being a lie if I can't get through to India.
“28 days,” I promptly reply.
“I'll give you a month,” he says with the sweeping voice of a ruler in his tiny kingdom. A woman somewhere in the room, out of sight, spontaneously gasps with joy and gives a couple short claps.
With my export document neatly folded into a plastic bag with the rest of my formal documents, I return to my little beast and start up the bridge, crossing the Moei River. At the center of a bridge is a sign, showing that traffic must crisscross, henceforth switching what side of the road we drive on.
At the base of the two-lane bridge is an elaborate arch: Welcome to Myanmar.
An unofficial looking man, the kind who tend to make things happen at border crossings, waves me onto the sidewalk to park my bike.
“Follow me,” he says. He pops into one of the official little cement offices, chatting with officials. We are then re-directed to another squat cement building. I sit down in front of two young officials, confidently presenting all of my paperwork. There is short discussion between all of them.
I longingly eye the small clipboards and pens with registration forms.
The wall behind the men, or what I presumed to a wall, slides partially open. Behind the one-way black mirror are a pair of bare, propped up feet.
A commanding voice controls the room. My man, lets call him Roger, ducks toward the door, not going in, but clearly humbling himself as he listens. It sounds as if the paperwork the officials thought I needed doesn't matter any more. The man, speaking a muffled English, says something about foreigners riding motorcycles across the bridge.
I can't get the context to understand what he means.
“You need special permission from the Tourism Ministry,” Roger says.
“Okay. Can I get that here?” I ask.
“There must be something we can do here. Some way to make this work,” I say.
Roger outs me on the phone to mate of his who speaks very good English. The phone line cuts in and out, as we talk in circles. He very politely explains the situation.
“Do you agree?” He asks.
I don't want to agree. However, I've exhausted my options – they aren't going to budge on this one. In fact, and you can't bribe a person over the phone, not that I think it would help in this specific case.
“That's the only option, right?”
“Okay, our department will do everything they can to help you. But you will be under review by Thai officials, as you don't have a Myanmar entrance stamp. It's up to them, but we will help,” he says.
Yes, there is that – me and Roxiante could be trapped in no-man's land, which is rather unappealing.
I'm waved to booth number 12 to enter Thailand.
A fat woman, large by even western standards, scrutinizes my arrival form. She seems unconvinced by the address I put down as my Thai address. I've never seen any official so perturbed by this section of the nearly archaic entrance/departure forms.
I decided against explaining the situation in full, hoping to just pass through without any issues. I show her the name of the hotel on Google. She makes some corrections to the address.
Then comes the double-thump.
Back on the bike, I'm ready to tear back into Thailand and re-plan this part of the adventure. The woman, suddenly appears outside of the booth, waving me down – not a good sign.
Back off the bike, I follow her across the road to another room. After quick a conversation between her and a younger woman, I'm given the greenlight.
Making my way back to Borderline Tea House, I know there are only two options: 1) leave the bike in Mae Sot and continue into Myanmar as a normal backpacker 2) Irace up to Chiang Mai and see if I can get the special permission forms.
Eating my Mandalya Noodles and Soma Salad, I stall – again.
I know what a Dice Man would do, but it makes me nervous. It makes me very nervous. However, I know I need to roll.
I don't like either option. But, before the die is even cast, I know what it will be and it makes me uncomfortable. I don't want to leave my bike.
However, the bike isn't fundamental to the trip. The only thing that is essential is the Will of the Dice. Here, in this cafe, I feel a defining moment, a moment where I am truly forced to let go, despite my free will grappling for control.
The die is cast.
“Fuck me,” I say. The camera knows my fate before I do. I keep it between me and the die, holding out hope that I won't have to leave the bike.
It's a two. My heart sinks.
With deep gratitude I wai the middle aged woman at Phannu Guest House; I can leave the motorcycle in their gated parking area for the next 28 days.
I dump everything out of my backpack, staring at the mess without a clue of what to do with it all. I divide it into two rough piles: items that go and items that stay.
“I hate this fucking town,” I gripe as I trudge down the dirty main road of Mae Sot, my flip flops kicking grit up my backside No matter how much it rains, like Othello's hands, these roads never seem clean. My hands sweep my ass, constantly brushing off the wet, granular dirt.
Poorly backed, I slogged my way into Myanmar, without my bike. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though perhaps it's more poetic this way, as if the die tumbled from hand to prove a point, to prove that this is Dice Travels: to prove to an audience that I am willing to take risks on rolls and deal with the consequences.
“And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East,” writes Orwell in his essay Shooting an Elephant.
With the bag re-packed, a small day bag stuffed with laptop and camera, as well as a large plastic bag with a zipper housing my drone – fuck if I'm leaving the drone behind – I trudge across the Myanmar-Thailand Friendship Bridge.
The Roger, with his leather fanny pack and fedora, doesn't recognize me as he opens the door and walks into the passport control room with me following him.
“Where are you from?” He asks – again.
“Ah, good!” He gives me a thumbs up and has me take a plastic chair in the dingy, poorly lit room. There is a mess of official – six by my count – looking anywhere but at me or each other, there eyes focused on nothing, not even the flat-screen television showing an MMA fight.
Roger starts asking me about where I'm going and how I'm going and where I'm going.
“Motorcycle, remember?” I ask, taking off my baseball cap.
He looks at me intently.
“Oh! Yes, so sorry,” he says, breaking into a huge smile.
Tears well up a little bit in my eyes, not to the point that they are even wet, more just an awakening, an awareness of the ducts. Roger starts to explain to the big boss, who has walked through the doorway, that I was the guy on the motorbike. He then excitedly tells the other officers.
I finish filling out the entrance form that I was so desperate to get my hands on several hours ago.
Roger is a short man, thin with blue rims to his foggy eyes. He grabs the drone bag and I follow him past a line of taxis. He'll organize something for me.
“I'll give you discount. I'll take care of you,” he says. I don't expect that, but I'm in no mood to cause a fuss so I follow along.
Sitting on a plastic stool, I wait for him to find a shared minivan. At first, it's looking like nobody is headed my way.
Then Roger finds a taxi with one other person – though we need two more to make a full car.
A good looking American man with strawberry blond hair and a finely trimmed fire-red beard is sat down next to me.
Carlton is headed to Hpa-An, about 90 minutes from Mawlamyine.
“Why don't you both go to Hpa-An,” Roger asks, based on the fact that we're both American and need the extra person to fill a taxi.
There isn't a reason to go to Mawlamyine instead of Hpa-An.
I get out the die.
Like Ringo Star, Roger doesn't miss a beat. He gets it immediately.
“No, you don't roll,” he says, taking the die. “I roll.”
We review what each number will be.
The red die bounces in his leathery hands, he tosses it up in the air then ceremoniously catches it, carrying it down to the cobbled sidewalk and drops it, letting it tumble in the black grit.
Evens, I'm sticking to Mawlamyine.
“I guess there is no reason I have to go to Hpa-An first,” Carlton admits. He changes course.
It's a long drizzly car ride to Mawlamyine. The beautiful “for show” road carved into the lush jungles on the Myanmar side of the border lasts several kilometers, until – as with most third-world countries – it starts to peter out into the reality of the situation, just out of eyesight of its neighbors.
As the rain comes and goes, my window goes up and down accordingly. Even through there are heavily potholed sections of road, I miss my bike. However, it's more of a “wouldn't-it-be-interesting” sort of missing than something more visceral – I'm beginning to accept the die's decision.
Carlton, well traveled and with a balanced perspective that seems to mostly align with mine, chats with me off and on as we drive.
There are numerous benefits to being in the car: not getting wet, being able to write, being able to read. Turning my eyes away from the countryside, where the mountains have been worn down into rice paddies, dotted by impermanent villages made up of short lines of bamboo and leaf huts along red dirt roads.
The driver's horn continues to blast as he shares space with the other vehicles on the narrow main road. The honking is a shock after coming from Thailand, where blasting ones horn is rarely done. However, he's not raging and laying on the horn, he's just giving short honks to inform the car in front of him he's passing. When it's safe to pass, the car ahead signals with its left-turn signal and he works his way down the uneven road past the vehicle.
The constant bouncing of the taxi on the road fools my Garmin watch, with me hitting both my stair climbing goal and step goal for the day without even standing.
It's dark when the car arrives at the muddy waters of the Thanlyin River, abreast of Mawlamyine.
The Breeze Guest House is a light blue colonial building with cars parked on the ground floor. An old man behind a small wooden desk to one side of the cars takes our seven dollars each and makes a note of the payment in his ledger. A young Burmese teen with tha nat khar, made from the bark of tamarind trees, on his cheeks leads us to our room as the old man joins his wife in the chairs by the small, square television not far from the cars.
It's a large rundown colonial building. The room, with three narrow beds, is a fitting setting for a WWII barracks: walls painted a light, army green, a small curved window with bars across it flush with the floor.
It's a hard room not to love. The hard beds, hard pillows and ambiance of the place is too full of character for it to be judged on any other basis.
“Up for food?” I ask.
We are shooed off the brick sidewalk opposite the guesthouse into the wide riverfront road by a couple of men, who point out that the walkway is very slippery.
The sidewalk widens into a small public space dotted by food vendors and pop up restaurants with plastic chairs under tarp roofs. A man behind several woks calls to us, waving us down to eat.
We oblige. He, and who I presume is his wife, both have the sharper features of a Myanmar national with Indian heritage.
In my yes-man style, I agree to a Regius Seven beer and a plate of wok fried noodles with veggies and chicken. The large bottle of cold beer is split between Carlton's mug and mine.
The mess of noodles are heaped onto a plastic plate with a serving of delicious coleslaw.
I pay our tab – Carlton still needs to find an ATM and get some local currency.
After dinner, we agree to wander further, perhaps find another beer somewhere down the road. It's only 8:30pm, but the city seems to be shutting down. Most buildings are dark, though a few no-frills restaurants are still glowing with florescence lights.
Up one of the side roads, far from the water a pagoda glows gold against the night sky. It's a beacon of warmth in the chill of the wet night.
Surprisingly, it's a straight shot to the enormous temple. The road ends in a set of wide steps leading up to the place of worship.
The dingy, dirty steps, whose corners have recently been re-done with cement, are lined with benches. A monk wearing a burgundy robe and carrying an umbrellas walks ahead of us. Though there is a decorated wooden roof over the broad stairway, the monk leaves his umbrella open as he walks up, eventually turning off to his residence down a dirt path on the left.
Before turning off, he passes a group of Burmese teenagers who smell strongly of weed. Carlton confirms that indeed we are walking through a thin cloud of pot smoke.
Further up, a young man is nuzzled down into the shoulder of a girl sitting one step below, wrapped up in his arms.
The stairs split into two sweeping staircases leading to the main platform of the pagoda with statues of mythical creatures on each side. We take separate staircases up and start to circle the golden complex.
In the near silence at the marble platform at the base of the pagoda it's possible to hear the wind playing softly against the thin bells dangling from the umbrella crown high above: the sound of wind chimes rather than church bells. Although the Vegas-style lighting of the aurora behind the Buddha images in the rooms at the base of the pagoda were probably not here when Kipling wrote Mandalay, the whispers of the bells are without a doubt the same that echoed in his mind as he thought about the Burmese girl waiting for him on the steps to the pagoda.
The marble floor is wet, however, one of the keepers, an old man with hair cropped short, who I mistook for an old woman, informs me that I need to take my shoes off.
A couple lights highlight one of the many little shrines surrounding the golden tower the climbs high into the night sky. Further around, a man makes offerings as his wife sits at a distance on the wet marble, her legs folded up beside her, hands pressed together in prayer.
Searching for an alternative path back to the guest house, we leave the temple by another road.
Not far from the pagoda, across from a large reclining Buddha and a mucky pond with a dead turtle floating in it, we find a blackened staircase.
“Too dark to take this,” Carlton says.
He's right, which makes it even more worthwhile, especially as the road seems only be going up, away from the water and our guesthouse.
With only a little hesitation, we start making our way down the steps.
Thump, thump, thump, my ass bangs hard on step after step as I tumble down a few of the hard rock steps.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
I'm fine, I say as I find my footing and stand up on the slick stairs.
Carefully, we make our way down the rest of the steps, walking through what feels like a jungle, the sound of rushing water somewhere nearby.
The stairs open up onto a dark road, leading us back to our room.
At the end of the day's trail, Kipling's pagoda shimmers against the night sky. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli