Years ago, the government built blacktop roads like these throughout
the border regions so troops and artillery could quickly arrive at trouble
spots. Today, flare-ups were fewer but authorities still maintain the
roads as a precaution and-unintentionally I'm sure-so foreign motorcycle
racers had someplace to test their skills.
"Those who want to smell the flowers and take photos can set their
pace," grinned David. "And those who want a bit of a thrill
can just follow me," he cackled, his Honda spitting gravel as he
spun into the first hairpin curve of the Loop.
And off we went, flicking the Aprilias back and forth through the turns
like photo pages in a men's magazine. After an hour, my legs were numb
from gripping the tank so hard. Time to stop, time to stop, I thought,
trying to beam the suggestion ahead to the Australian, who kept gaining
a metre or so on every corner.
Suddenly he slowed, hand signaling a turn into a path that looked more
like a sewer ditch. A quick dip through the ditch and the rest of his
herd was in pursuit, not sure where we were going. After five kilometres
of swallowing red dust and dodging hip-deep potholes we pulled into Nai
Soi, the Village of the Long Necks.
I had heard about this strange Padaung tribe that had migrated across
the border from Burma(now officially called Myanmar.) For centuries they
had wound golden hoops around the necks of their females, ostensibly to
enhance sexual appeal and protect against tiger attacks when the women
worked in the fields. The women added more hoops each year - up to 25
or more - until their collarbone and ribcage structure was dramatically
compressed and the giraffe neck look was perfected.
Today the controversial practice continues and the small tribe of 30
refugee families living just inside the Thai border attracts a steady
flow of academics and curiosity seekers. Now the Paduang village exists
in a fishbowl. All day the women with the longest necks sit in front of
their huts, selling weavings and posing for pictures. Some of the teenage
girls are aggressive, bragging about the number of hoops they wear and
brashly demanding small change before photos can be taken.
Evidence of missionary work is everywhere: children sing their alphabets
in a newly constructed school while their fathers clear brush for a new
community water cistern. A discreet bamboo structure, marked with a little
wooden sign proclaiming it to be St. Joseph's Catholic Church, sits atop
a hill at the back of the village. I wasn't sure if I was witnessing the
death of a tribal custom or the birth of a tacky Asian circus. But either
way I knew that the Padaung are at a crossroads and their future doesn't
appear bright either way.
Manas at a mosque
We got back onto the Loop and wound higher into the mountains, passing
by spectacular gorges and waterfalls before cresting at a Buddhist monastery,
glowing orange in the afternoon sun. The vista from the monastery grounds
was heart stopping: nomads, warrior tribes, opium armies and truth-seeking
monks had all crisscrossed these valleys for centuries. Lazy threads of
smoke rippled through the hills, carrying the scents of China, Vietnam
and Laos on the breeze blowing south toward the sea. I stared out across
the valley, inhaling memories of another Asian journey taken many years
ago. What had happened since I was a long-haired kid in the '70s, riding
the trains around India, vowing never to fall into the corporate crematorium?
We left the monastery and started the long ride down the mountain into
the town of Mae Hong Son. This prosperous town has long been the portal
from Myanmar for opium, guns, timber and a multitude of other commodities,
legal and otherwise. Signs of windfall wealth were everywhere--sleek Chinese
traders in suits and sunglasses emerged from black Mercedes to patronize
high tech karaoke bars built next to open air butcher shops. New pickups,
jacked high on Monster Truck tires, sat outside dilapidated shanties still
without indoor plumbing.
Later that night, encamped in a Chinese-owned inn miles from town,
we heard how opium is still a billion dollar cash crop that is as vital
to the regional economy as oil is to the welfare of Alberta. Nobody talks
too openly about the trade, but almost everyone's life is affected by
the river of cash gushing from the drug factories just across the border.
According to some reports, about 80 per cent of the heroin used in North
America is produced within a hundred mile radius of this town.
It's a business, the locals shrug, that brings jobs, schools and prosperity
to poor villages. The drug is far too expensive to be consumed locally
and the problems users suffer 10,000 miles away are of little concern,
they say. But this acceptance of heroin exporting has spawned a dangerous
domestic sub-trade in amphetamines, which are cheap to manufacture and
are hooking Thai teenagers at an epidemic rate. Alarmed by this mushrooming
drug abuse, the Thai government has launched several raids across the
border into Myanmar to smash drug factories. Like cockroaches, the drug
lords merely re-appear a few dozen kilometres away and start their illegal
enterprises once again.
For the next two days we rode north through the forests and high peaks
flanking the Myanmar border. We rode steadily and quickly, unsettled by
stories of recent firefights between soldiers and drug traffickers hiding
on Thai soil. Many of the local people still remembered the generosity
of Khun Sa, an ex-Burmese army colonel who often hid in the area while
using opium profits to finance an attempted coup in his country.
He was eventually captured in a Thai border village where we stopped
to tour his lair, which has been turned into a museum promoting him as
a drug-dealing Robin Hood and freedom fighter. (Khun Sa is now free, exchanged
for two kidnapped Russian scientists.)
Hill tribe kids
Later on that afternoon we came across a military outpost at Doi Ang
Khang, a particularly sensitive part of the border. Initially suspicious
and hostile, the young soldiers quickly recognized David and swarmed over
the Aprilias, laughing at us as we posed for tough guy pictures at their
machine gun stations. Hamming it up on our motorcycles, these baby-faced
soldiers seemed more like a group of giddy high-schoolers than hardened
military men. (Appearances were evidently deceiving as we discovered that
their unit had recently routed a guerrilla group, killing every one of
the rebels in the battle.)
That night a few bold locals brought out their homemade whiskey in honor
of my birthday.
"Drink, drink, it will make you have many many children,"
they chortled, plunking the bottle on our table.
The whiskey was pee yellow and showcased a gruesome six-inch centipede
floating inside. I looked around the table. Everyone was staring at the
insect, wondering if the custom was similar to Mexico where the last tequila
drinker got the worm as a treat.
"Men, we are past the point of no return here," I said, watching
the waiter pour the whiskey, insect bits and all, into shot glasses for
us all. I held up my glass and bellowed an old Scottish ancestral toast
to everyone in the restaurant. With that we all drained the murky liquid
and banged our glasses down hard. A scalding pain seared my throat, met
halfway by a backdraft taste of kerosene that brought tears to my eyes.
Everyone in the bar clapped and cheered, applauding the masculinity of
the strangers-even if half of them were gasping and mewling like week
old puppies. I grabbed the empty bottle, its centipede inhabitant now
shrunken and stuck against the glass, and presented it to a wide-eyed
boy standing nearby. He giggled and scurried off with his treasure, not
fully realizing how grateful the foreigners were that their insect trophy
By this time we had been on the road for more than a week and had acclimated
to the lazy rhythm of Asian motorcycle touring: Up early to lubricate
chains and check tire pressures before starting the big singles so they
could mix their smoky exhaust with the heavy mist still hanging in the
air. Then starting out onto the empty roads, running slow for the first
few miles to warm the motors and let the crisp air clear your brain and
We were also growing used to the country, with its intoxicating scenery
and brightly dressed hill people who seemingly appeared from nowhere to
ogle the leather-clad foreigners and their noisy machines. Day after day
we had been plunging deeper into the countryside, selfishly delighting
in the knowledge that no tour bus could ever get into these hidden places.
David's long friendships with the border tribes granted us instant access
and preferred status among the crowds of children and villagers who swarmed
us at every stop. His generous gifts to village chiefs also yielded sound
advice on the best routes for avoiding confrontations with smugglers or