Expect the unexpected…

(Emily) I woke early in Mae Sot and crept downstairs to the comfy chairs on the veranda, taking advantage of the solitude to do some diary while the boys slept their beers off. It started raining in earnest around half past seven and it was still pouring (jungle stylee) when Darren emerged a few hours later, and when James woke up even later still. General reaction to the rain: oh, bugger! We were in two minds about what to do – no-one particularly wanted to go out in the wet, and we were especially wary on Darren’s behalf about having to ride on slick roads so early in his riding career, plus the idea of cosying up at the lovely guesthouse for one more day wasn’t without appeal. However, we only had a few riding days left and the online weather forecast suggested an unsettled outlook for the next 48 hours at least; who knew when decent weather would come again. Deliberating further over a hearty breakfast, we finally opted to stay put (hangovers might well have played their part in the decision making process…) but just as check out time had come and gone, it started to clear up – naturally! It made sense to take advantage of the dry spell – true, we didn’t know how long it would last but tomorrow could be even worse. It had actually grown really quite warm while we packed the bikes up so by the time we were on our way, the puddles were already evaporating and, for now at least, conditions weren’t too dangerous.

Riding north on the road that flanked the Thai border with Burma (separated by the Mae Nam Moi river), we’d only gone 40km or so when we started to pass some amazing traditional homes by the side of the road; basic huts made of wood but beautifully crafted, with the huge leaves common to a particular type of tree in the this part of the world used as thatching on the roofs. It was a great photo so we all stopped and Darren and I took it in turns being subjects in the foreground while James played around with his camera settings – why take one photo when you can take twenty?! (James: er, so you have lots of lovely photos of yourself?!!!…)  Their curiosity piqued, there were soon fifteen or so villagers gathered to watch us, smiling their shy hellos. I was having my turn in front of the camera when suddenly there was a cry of dismay and we turned to see that Darren, midway through some antics to amuse the children (he’s great with kids and turns into a big kid himself whenever they’re around), had lost his footing and both he and the bike were on the ground! I have to admit, I wasn’t too worried (and my apologies again, Darren, for not jumping to your aid straight away) – after all, how many times have we dropped the bikes now?! However, a certain concern did start to develop once we had the bike upright again and found it wouldn’t start… this was not good. Darren was busying kicking himself and saying goodbye to his rental deposit while James had a play around but it was no good – the gear lever wasn’t responding and the clutch seemed very loose, too loose. Crap. All the while, the villagers had been watching and one guy in particular, Nu-Nu, who spoke fantastic English asked if we might need a mechanic – apparently there might be someone available from the village further down the road. ‘Yes, please!’ It’s amazing that, no matter how remote your location from modern facilities, there always seems to be someone able, and more importantly, willing to help.

My bike was quicker to unload so we got the bags off and James disappeared off down the road with Nu-Nu riding pillion to find the mechanic. There wasn’t a lot for me and Darren to do – none of the other villagers spoke English and they were all staying behind the fence that separated their village from the road – so we tinkered about with the bike a bit more and, once we finally managed to get it into neutral, were actually able to start the engine. Result! Except it wasn’t really a significant achievement as the gears were still screwed – the worry being that the lever had in some way damaged the gear box when the bike had fallen.  Luckily the boys were back with the mechanic in no time at all and he set about having a fiddle with his rudimentary toolset. While James and the mechanic were doing their thing (largely involving whacking the gear lever with a spanner but, hey, whatever works…), we got chatting to Nu-Nu and were shocked to discover that the fence behind which the villagers were living was in fact a perimeter they were not permitted to cross; he and his family and friends were Burmese refugees who, having escaped the oppression of their country several years ago, found they were denied entry to Thailand and were, as a result, forced to live in what was essentially a no-man’s land, people without a state. We were horrified! And Nu-Nu, in addition to the fact that he was helping three strangers he didn’t know from Adam, was risking his life by simply being on Thai soil. It all started to fall into place: the cause for which the event had been held the previous evening, the barbed wire running along the top of the fence, the heavily armed police check-points we’d crossed every couple of kilometres on the road so far. The three of us felt completed humbled; not only by these people’s incredibly challenging situation while we lived with such freedom, but by the fact that they were going out of their way and risking so much to help us. The bike was soon running again but needless to say, neither Nu-Nu nor the mechanic would accept any money for their trouble – asking only that James return the mechanic to his part of the camp as soon as possible before his absence was discovered. I think it’s fair to say that Darren’s relief at having the bike road-worthy again was nothing compared with the emotion he felt at being treated so kindly by these strangers. And once again, the old adage had been proved correct: it’s not a disaster, it’s an opportunity. Who cared that there were some scratches to the bike and the clutch lever had snapped – Darren had had a touching and humbling experience that had really affected him, and that he would, no doubt, cherish for the rest of his life.

Still shaking our heads in wonder at the generosity of strangers, we cracked on. We only had about 200km ahead of us to the target night stop of Mae Sariang but we’d obviously lost some time with the mechanical problem and were keen not to ride in the dark if at all possible. The road was fantastic – mainly dry, with the heavy mist hanging along the top of the mountains only serving to enhance the whole environment. We turned off down a side track at one point, hoping to visit some caves that were marked on the map but, after negotiating our way down an extremely steep hill in the now drizzling rain, we discovered that going into the caves themselves would involve wading through knee deep water… er, no thanks! We satisfied ourselves with a few photos and went on our way again. The road continued to be great for most of the afternoon, dishing up bend after sweeping bend, but as we began to climb in altitude, the moisture in the air thickened and we were soon riding in the cloud. Now, this can be an awesome experience as long as visibility remains ok but seeing as we were in the middle of rain clouds rather than the usual misty kind, we were soon getting pretty damp and chilly and looking forward to making the decent. Hmmm, it would seem fate had a few more things to throw at us before that though! Towards the peak of the particular summit we were climbing, the road turned from super-smooth perfect tarmac to little more than an overgrown footpath. Not ideal when it’s wet and twisty… but certainly better than mud which is what we got next!! No sooner had we passed the tell-tale orange road work sign (always in Thai but essentially saying, ‘You’re screwed!’) than what little road surface we’d had disappeared entirely to be replaced with red mud where the road had been churned up for widening. Not great at the best of times but in the wet – pretty much my worst nightmare! Bringing up the rear, I could see Darren’s back wheel swinging out all over the place (he was on a road bike so had even less traction from his tyres than us, not to mention less experience) and I have to admit, I was thinking it was a case of when rather than if he would come off (likewise for myself!) However, he coped extremely well and managed to follow James through the quagmire without incident. Bravo!

It was all rather surreal to have gone from such a brilliant surface to all this crap, and we even passed a working elephant at one point right by the roadside (normally something that would have us grabbing for our cameras but to use the brakes on this stuff would have been a big mistake!) After an anxiety-filled few kilometres, we finally hit proper tarmac again, albeit narrow, and Darren and I tried our best to keep up with James who was taking no prisoners at the front (James: my overall concern now being to ensure that, having lost time in the road works, we would be in Mae Sariang by nightfall. Rain, muddy roads AND dark was not something I intended on putting Darren through!) By the time we had descended to lower altitude and hit the lovely wide sweeping roads again, it was getting dark, we were cold, our fingers were numb and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast but now it was just a case of eating up the last few miles as quickly as possible. I can’t express how relieved we were to reach the outskirts of Mae Sariang and I shouted through the wind to James (riding with visor up as it was impossible to see through the rain splatter) that we were stopping at the first accommodation we saw!! He knew better than to mess with a cold, dishevelled wife so pulled into the first guesthouse as directed and we parked our bikes up together out front – a rather sorry looking bunch, particularly Darren’s once shiny black bike, now covered in splattered mud. It turned out to be a bit of a hole but never mind that, it was clean, dry and had hot water! It’s amazing what standing under a hot shower can do to revive the spirits and over a fantastic meal at a local restaurant, we reflected on the day’s events and laughed at how a slightly shell-shocked but elated Darren had certainly not bargained for a day like this when he signed up for the trip! Still, we were safe in the knowledge that tomorrow was a short, easy day of just 150km to Mae Hong Son, before heading back to Chiang Mai and returning his bike. What could possibly go wrong?…..

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5 Responses to “Expect the unexpected…”

  1. Mary says:

    Always the cliff hanger…………….!!!!! My nerves are in shreds at times

  2. Darren says:

    Come on we want the next installment and I know what happens!

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    Mine too, Mary, mine too! Actually, I do have the advantage of having spent the week before Christmas with them on a boat so I am re-assured…

  4. M&M says:

    We just caught up on the last few entries last night. Wow, how awesome that Nu-Nu and the mechanic helped you out there – sounds like they would have been in real trouble if caught. I would have had a nervous breakdown by now…

    BTW, Darren seems to have done remarkably well for a novice rider – don’t know what all the fuss was about when you started out Em (only KIDDING!!! You are awesome – can’t wait to see you biking it on over to Kew Riverside!)

    love Martha xxx

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I loved the story about the help you got with the bike, it surely does help restore one’s faith in mankind. What lovely people!
    I hope you have easier riding conditions now though…
    Love you xxx

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