Day 102: Immoral mounting of big bird
The dice dictated it, so I followed through. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
IT'S the most immoral thing the dice have forced me to do – at least so far. Driving away from Mercy Hostel in Chiang Rai to the Wana Horse and Ostrich Farm my only real concern is how my animal right's activist friends are going to feel when they see a video of me racing around on a big, feathery ostrich. There are plenty of people out there, some of whom are friends, that are made nauseous at the sight of people riding elephants, as even those great beasts of burden are damaged from lumping around humans day in an day out.
Can you imagine the impact on a bird? Okay, ostriches are big birds, but still.
However, as I told my mother last night, everyone has threshold, a cutoff point where their compassion reaches no further.
“Mine is birds,” I defiantly say. If I can eat a chicken, given how they processed, then I can hardly be feeling guilty for trotting around on an ostrich.
I was wrong. I was very wrong.
Though the dice dictated that ostrich riding was the day's adventure, the Wana farm is only twenty minutes out of town. Full suited up in my riding gear, I pull into the empty parking lot of the dirty tourist attraction on the side of the highway.
“Rice and bird?” the woman asks, pointing to one of two ostriches in a circular pin a few dozen meters from the restaurant.
I'm no stranger to eating a bird before mounting her – seems like the right order of things to be honest. With my boots and knee pads kicked off and my socks rolled down to get some fresh air to my itchy legs – they broke out in hives last night – I scout out the birds and see what else is living on the property.
A small herd of rabbits, in a large enclosure that looked more suitable for turtles or reptiles of some sort, were anything but fluffy. Coming from a people, Hoosiers, that know a healthy bunny when they see one, I am not impressed.
But I'm not here for bunnies. I'm here for the birds.
Ostriches are impressive creatures. Standing a head above me the animals' necks stretched up, their eyes looking down on me. There's intelligence and curiosity in the depths of its eyes as one follows me around the perimeter of the chest high pin – on advantage to keep flightless birds.
I change directions. It changes directions, probably waiting for me to feed it.
They're dinosaurs really. Puffy dinosaurs, but dinosaurs nonetheless. They move like predators, velociraptors. The bird's head tilt like the velociraptor in Jurassic Park, its enormous toe stretches forward, capped with a long black nail reminiscent of a claw. Its other toe – they only have two toes – goes nearly unnoticed, lacking even a toe nail.
Further down, past a stall selling tickets for cart, horse and, of course, ostrich rides, I see two of the enormous birds running laps in a large round pin. These are the ones for ridding.
An illness rises up from my stomach into my heart as I approach the wretched ridding birds. Their little bird brains seem to be merrily clicking along, but their bodies are tattered. Half-plucked from the wear and tear of people straddling them, their gray pimpled skin shivers in the sun. In places the skin is worn pink and raw, nearly bloodied. The rachis of their wing feathers are bare, stripped of the soft vane that give a feather body. Their wings, like a tangle if twigs caught at the edge of a flooded river, cling to their sides.
The condition of the bird was sickening. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The beasts seem like extraordinarily tall cousins of A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.
“His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes.
I do not want to mount this bird.
I make my way back up at the tree-house restaurant, where a teddy bear clings to the back of an upside down bicycle hanging from the ceiling.
A dark brown, oily soup thick with ostrich fat is put down with a smile and a bowl of rice in front of me. The surface glimmers as chunks of ostrich float to the surface among a tangle of bean sprouts and green onion stems. The flavor isn't bad, but the fatty feeling lingers in my mouth. The distaste of knowing that I have to ride the bird turns the soup rancid.
I pick at the soup for a long time, searching for chunks of meat, which taste more like brazed beef than what I would think of as ostrich.
Not nearly as appealing as most birds I've eaten. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A young Thai family arrives with their little girl. Her face bursts with pure joy as an ostrich plucks food from her hand. The bird pulls away the leaves; the little girl looks around, beaming, as if to see if anyone else witnessed the miracle.
Later, as I continue to stall. There is the sound of her and her mother swinging. The swing needs oiled, as it creaks, a slightly different sound on the forward swing than the back swing. I listen to it in the relative silence of the domestic tourist attraction. I'm reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick, aware that the inevitable is, well, inevitable.
If had had truly been worried about the ethics of riding the bird, I should have done a bit more research before putting it on the face of the die. As it is, there is no turning back, no matter how unsettled I am.
At the stand to buy tickets is a variety of food to be bought and fed to the animals, as well as drained ostriches eggs. The woman says it costs 200 baht as she points to the part of the admission sign that explains that a horse carriage ride is 200 baht. Somewhere on the sign it also says that the ostrich ride is 200 baht.
Wearing fully riding gear, I arm myself with with a selfie stick. I'll snap a couple quick photos and call it a day, I figure.
When approach the pin, the bird knows what's up and runs for it. Eventually the man in charge is able to get a green stocking loosely pulled over its head, which calms the big beast down.
“No, no, can not,” the woman says, indicating the selfie stick. Apparently, I'll need both my hands.
For laughs I pull on my motorcycle helmet and turn on the action camera – like it or not, I'm determined to document the dice dictated experience.
I thick cloth is laid over the raw skin of the bird before I make my way up two steps and throw a leg around the giant animal.
I reach for it's narrow, giraffe-long neck.
“No,” I'm told. “Grab its wings.”
Though I managed to get my right leg beneath its wing, the left one has pinned the wing to the side of the bird. I adjust it as the man roughly grabs the birds wing and bends it up and away until it falls back down on top of my leg.
I wiggle to the back of the single lump that is an ostrich's body and grasp its wings, which are giant turkey wings right before they are to be oiled and thrown in the oven for Thanksgiving. My feet hook beneath the bird, where its legs meet its body.
My hands and feet can feel the animals raw, twitching power.
Suddenly, I'm glad I'm wearing my crash helmet.
The stocking is pulled from the ostrich and it trots off, its strong body seeming oblivious to the extra weight, though it's little bird mind distraught about the situation. I'm too far forward which sends it running. Then, I'm too far back which pulls it to a complete stop.
Holding on for dear life my fingers dig into its wings, my feet dig in deep and sweat starts to bubble up on my face. There is no room in my head for the sad condition of the bird and what people will think of the pictures. We, the bird and I, are in the moment.
At least I am.
As if it knows that we just need to get some pictures, the bird runs over to where the woman with my phone is, then trots off then spins around and then goes back. It stops and looks at her , as if to say, “Okay, take your fucking picture and get this lump of human off of me.”
“Okay,” I say, calling the ride.
Once on the bird, I was too focused to worry about anything other than falling off. Photos: Woman who sold me the ticket
I slide off the back of the bird. My hands are blackened with fine remnants of feathers, as if I'd been handling cheap felt.
My heart is thumping as I prepare to mount my regular stead, the CB500X. Ridding the ostrich was a rush, but the kind of rush that can be had in so many other, more appropriate ways.
Skirting around Chiang Ria on Highway 1, I make for Doi Tung and the Golden Triangle area, once infamous for mountainous routes used in the opium trade.
The dice had been given the option of sending me straight to Doi Tung and skipping the entire ostrich fiasco. However, if they had, I know I would have been disappointed, having not sees the condition of the birds.
After three weeks in Chiang Mai, I'm craving the wilderness.
The freedom of being on a motorcycle has warmed me the last two days as I woke up an prepared to leave my bed. There is something extraordinary in packing your bags and driving away from a place, to nowhere in particular, knowing that you've passed through without leaving a trace and will never be coming back.
This morning, the feeling resonated deeply as I pulled away from Mercy Hostel in Chiang Rai. Now on the road, I eagerly await Highway 1149, the turnoff from the four-lane split highway I'm driving.
Running perpendicular to Highway 1, is 1149. Not far down the road, before it starts to climb the mountains, a group of adventure riders, motorcycles heavy with panniers, is having a pit stop.
We wave to each other.
1149 is a mountain road, but a well used one leading to the well-manicured, English-style garden at the top of Doi Tung and even a palace. Scouting for a camping spot along the roadside, I spot plant nursery after nursery taking advantage of a what little flat ground can be found on the steep slopes.
Skipping the major tourist attractions, I've had enough of tourists attractions for the day, I follow 1149 deep into the mountains.
Perhaps I'll stay in Mae Sai tonight, I think, following a sign in that direction. I have the road to myself until it spills out into an empty parking lot.
The forest has changed with the altitude, teetering on the cusp of being a cloud forest, but falling short. Instead, it's dominated by large rough barked pine trees, tall and straight, reaching high into the sky.
On the drive up, the clouds had been grazing on the mountain tops, consuming their peaks. Now at a peak, I am surprised to find they'd given up their snacking.
“For Buddha,” a squat hill tribes woman who looked more Hmong than Thai says before I have even turned off the motorcycle.
Three of them swarm me, holding out a bunch of bananas, colored tassels, joss sticks and candles, all to be presented at a shrine a few hundred meters up a paved trail that starts at the parking lot.
Completely indifferent to each other, though there were only the three of them standing among the ramshackle shacks with offerings and fruit wine on sale, as well as my personal space, the women crowd in around me. Their faces are each dramatically different yet all glowing the same warm bronze color, deep lines etched into their skin.
“How much?” I ask.
There is hardly room for me to get off the bike as they crowd in. It's only me and them in the empty parking lot and it seems like a lot of fuss to sell a few bahts worth of goods, but there is something in the nature of the way they are pushing for a sell that doesn't bother me the way that it normally does.
Nonetheless, I skirt around them to the other side of the bike to get a little breathing room and to get into my tank bag to search for some money.
Saying no simply doesn't seem like an option.
I should roll to see who a I buy things from, but I don't. At the end of it, I spend about 50 baht on offerings from two of the three women.
A pack of Chiang Rai college students roles into the parking lot on their scooters, maybe a dozen of them in total. They're all laughs and smiles, buying their own offerings from the hill tribe women.
Telling the hilll tribe vendors "no" wasn't an option. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
One young man, with a little fuzz on his chin, says hello to me and asks where I'm from.
“Selfie?” they ask.
It's not a selfie. One of the group takes a few pictures of all of us together. A young woman with a little bit of a porky face and lovely smile fawns over me, posing as I take pictures of her buying flowers to give to Buddha.
The kids run off to the shrine. I follow behind.
Hanging from the mossy pine trees are lacy banners with prayers inscribed on them. The way they hang motionless in the cloudy pine forest is like the first haunting notes from a violin rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
In a small, bricked clearing with a large Banyana tree fighting off Strangler Figs as it battles the climate for which the pines are so much better adapted there is a modest, misshapen boulder green with moss. Jutting from the top of the boulder is a four-meter golden chedi.
A gong, a couple heads above me bellows into the forest as one of the boys thwacks it with a padded mallet. Others in the group are still on their knees, joss sticks and flowers in hand. After paying their respects to Lord Buddha, most of the kids in the group take their turn knocking the gong, saying a small prayer between strikes, as prescribed on a nearby sign.
The college students paid their respects at the shrine. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I kneel and attempt to lit my joss sticks from a beeswax colored candled placed into a pot of sand by the university students. It's not lighting very well, but threatening to put out the candle, which seems like it might bring bad luck to whoever placed it there. I find my own candle tied to the bottom of my joss sticks and light it, then attempt to light my joss sticks, feeling like I'm making a mess of the whole thing.
Giving up, I go to stab the sticks and candle into the sand, but it's harder than I anticipate, I fumble with the sticks, burning my ring finger on the hot embers of another incense stick in the pot.
So flustered by the whole ordeal, I nearly forget to make an offering of the bananas I bought. I place them next to another bunch of bananas on a small stone table with dozens of tiny elephant statues crowding around its legs.
“Do you have Facebook?” one of the boys asks after I stand.
I give them the Dice Travels page to like, so they can see the picture I've been taking of them.
The students wave goodbye and head back down to the parking lot, but are still there when I arrive a few minutes behind them. They are looking at buying a bottle of local fruit wine.
“I love you,” one of the girls calls out to me as they all pile onto their bikes and drive off.
The hill tribe's woman, heads wrapped in brightly colored scarfs are still keen to make another sell. The plump, bullfrog one tries to get me to buy some of the wine.
She opens a cooler and pours a shot of the lychee one for me. It's not a refined, or would I even say pleasant tasting, beverage but on a summer's night, mixed with soda water, it could get a boy into all kinds of trouble.
The woman starts to pour another shot of the grape flavored one for me, I stop her at a quarter shot, as I really don't want to be drinking and I know I'm not going to buy anything.
Back at my bike, another one the woman of them joins the bullfrog lady, chatting me up about something or other. They've got some sort of pressing question, but I don't have the slightest idea what it is. My vague nods and smiles are getting me nowhere.
The only part I understand is “how much”? Here fingers are coming closer and further together, as if measuring a penis. I tell them my age, which doesn't seem to do the trick. The woman continues to gibber on about something, repeating words that I don't recognize.
They let out a bawdy laugh. Maybe they really are asking how big my dick is.
I keep smiling and shaking my head. She's pointing toward herself then something else and then there are more words.
I keep repeating, “Mai cow jai” – I don't understand.
Though I'm mounted up and ready to go, the woman makes one last pitch, holding up a segment of sugar cane with two marvelous Hercules Beetles tied to it with pink ribbons.
Beetle fighting was once a favored form of entertainment in Northern Thailand. However, due it its links to gambling was mostly squashed out in the 80s before being resurrected by a man by the name of Pairath in the 90s, according to the website Thai Bugs.
“Unbelievably, villagers found to be in possession of the insects would be handed over to the police! The situation shocked me so much. Local entertainment treated as an offence! The authorities have never understood the people’s way of living. They judge everything from their own viewpoints,” lamented Pairath.
Though Pairath rightfully argues that the bug fighting isn't illegal in itself, who is going to watch two bugs try to tumble each other over if there isn't something to be gained at the end of it? Thais, like the Chinese, like myself, seem to find a way to gamble on nearly anything – legal or not. In fact, Dice Travels is just one big gamble were the stakes haven't even been properly established.
The two beetles are only 100 baht, though I have no idea what she expects me to do with them. I'm not sure I could get them through to the end of the day alive.
“No, no, no,” I say waving her off.
The road past the parking lot becomes a single lane with the forest hanging over it as it snakes along the high mountain ridge.
The steep slopes fall away on either side of the road, cascading down into a tumble of forever-green hills and mountains. Some sections are wild, others cultivated with coffee and tea plants.
The clouds that I had expected to eat me up are nowhere in sight.
A Royal Thai Army checkpoint with a handful of armed men and a green hummer are up ahead, a white and red metal bar crosses the road.
I give them a nod as they lift the bar.
Just past the military checkpoint is a miniature football pitch with a extraordinary view of Myanmar, though at the time I think it's Laos.
“If this is what Laos has in store for me, I can't wait to get there,” I think.
After a single bend in the road ahead there flies a rasta-colored flag with a communist star – Laos fag, I think, twisting what I'm seeing to fit the reality I've concocted.
A double row of long, wobbly bamboo poles with tin cans shinning in the setting sun mark the border protected by the Myanmar military. Behind the sticks and tin cans is a fort of such, rather a small, fortified hut and a fox hole. The base, if you can call it that, seems to have been constructed by 18-year-old boys with 12-year-olds' mentality. However, a man with a real gun paces near the fortified hut. Farther along the fence are another layer of bamboo poles, these have been sharpen and are lying at an angle, as if to fend off a medieval cavalry attack.
As the road dips into high grass, the mood changes dramatically; the dinky road is swept away in a cloud. The darkness within the cloud presses down as a mystic beauty wraps itself around me and the bike. There is no rain, yet, but when there is thunder, it's not from above, but from in front of us, echoing down into the valleys below. The road wiggles like a worm, the curves on it too small, too tight to consider it snaking.
A stretch of 100 meters of straight level road appears. At the middle, both ends of it are swept away in clouds.
I stop the bike.
It's a beautiful moment up in the clouds. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Somewhere in the sparely treed, grassy slope to the west of me there is the sound of a large mammal tearing down branches.
A hill tribes woman, wearing a t-shirt, her head wrapped in a bright red scarf appears on the road, slowly walking toward me. She smiles and asks for twenty baht.
I tell her I don't have it.
Without much of a fuss she wanders a little farther down the road before cutting into the thick, waxy green leaves of a coffee plantation to the east.
It's a man hacking branches from the trees to the west that's making the sound. I can see him now.
He's scrambled further down the hill now, a huge batch of branches tied together on his back. I follow behind, my big black ridding boots digging into the steep slope.
I stop. He's struggling with a modern suitcase on a tiny goat-path of a road. There is a little scooter, probably a Honda Dream, with its headlights humming in the fog as he heaves the suitcase.
Unsure of what's going on, I return to the road, conscious of having left my tank bag and a great deal of valuables exposed on the empty road.
It starts to rain. In the middle of the cloud, the rain is heavy, the sky dark. Back on the bike, my body is buzzing. The vast, unmistakable beauty of nature has filled me to the brim.
The cloud thickened and darkened around me. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The rain lightens as I start the long descent into Mai Sae.
The back brake on the bike gives out completely.
I can feel it the same way you feel the empty space next to you in bed when your life partner, the one who has slept next to you for decades, no longer sleeps next to you. There is the emptiness in the brake until I press so hard that there is a firmness, a resistance, but no feeling, no action, just lungs compressed to the point that they can't breath.
I should have known the back brakes were going to go on me again, though I didn't smell them burning up this time. However, more than an hour of a fairly steady, steep descent left my ridding the brakes hard, instead of using my gears to keep my speed down on the wet, debris ridden road.
I immediately shift down to first. The bike lets out a deep, unhappy whine. As long as I have my front brake, there isn't a problem, but I need to make sure I don't burn through that one as well.
Slowly, slowly, the bike and I take the sharp turns in the road as we descend toward Mae Sai. Even without a back brake, I'm on a rider's high – the road behind me, the road beneath me and the world around me is too extraordinary to worry about brakes.
A sign for Joe's Guesthouse and other hotels start to emerge from the forest of walls as the road final lets out onto a side street in Mae Sai. I shake the die on my necklace: evens, I drive around and just select a place to stay; odds, I check the internet for some suggestions.
It's a five. Not a bad choice.
Mae Sai Guesthouse, established more than thirty years ago when the town still completely in the backwaters, is the clear winner among the options in my budget.
Google Maps wants me to cross the Ruak River, which feeds the might Mekong not too far down the road, and enter Myanmar to reach the guesthouse. The traffic at the border is backed up deep, an entire lane of the road is packed with street food vendors. As I guessed, the road I need to be on slightly diverges from the road that crosses the river. It dips below the bridge and then turns up stream, running beneath a roofed section lined with shops selling cheap Chinese imports.
Farther along, past the police station, the road reaches a cul-de-sac. A large sign next to the river reads: The Northern Most Point of Thailand.
Well can't go any further north in Thailand... time to start thinking about Laos. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Hats off to the dice on that one. I had no idea I was that far north.
A small, dank alley runs out of the cul-de-sac behind a guesthouse. A sign for Mae Sai guesthouse points me the right direction, down the alley.
The owner of the little cluster of bamboo bungalows, like a hobbit town, along the river's bank, pops out of his chair and starts turning on lights when he sees me approaching on the bike.
The wicker woven bungalow, that feels like I'm wrapped up in a giant picnic basket, is clean and cheap: 300 baht.
I book for two nights, as he doesn't have change for 1,000 baht if I only book for one. It's an easy solution that gives me all tomorrow to go back up into the coffee plantations and check out the Pha Hi Village, which pricked my curiosity on the way down the mountain today.