My drinking partner had been an American, a lost soul who had arrived here in the service of Uncle Sam and somehow found himself left behind, trapped in a downward spiral of drugs, drink and self inflicted debauchery. I have rarely met a man so paranoid. He spoke in conspiratorial whispers of the CIA and drug running, loudly berated his three ex wives (all prostitutes) and tried to elicit my help in aiding his escape out of Thailand – at the time I met him he had outstayed his visa to the tune of $10,000 and seemed very reluctant to approach the American Embassy to arrange repatriation back to the States!
To say the man was a mess would have been an understatement.
However, during one of his rare lucid moments he told me a tale that piqued my interest, of a man he had heard of who lived up by the Burmese border. This character had a reputation as something of a dealer in rare WWII motorcycles. I say dealer, but less enlightened souls might be more inclined to use the term, smuggler. However you looked at it though, he sounded interesting and, to be honest, I had grown tired of hanging around Chiang Mai getting drunk with paranoid ex special forces rejects.
So, the next morning, armed with little more than the name of a town on the Thai/Burmese border, I headed out of Chiang Mai on an old Yamaha dirt bike, towards the forested highlands and fertile river valleys of the infamous Golden Triangle. Negotiating my way through an incongruous collection of mopeds, handcarts and ruminating cattle I headed west, towards the steep mountain trail that wound its way up to Doi Tung. Until a few years ago you could still see the vast fields of poppies over the border in neighbouring Burma from here, before a shift in government policy saw them moved out of sight. You may not be able to see them anymore, but the opium is still there and it is still jealously guarded. It pays not to pay too much interest in proceedings across the border and, with that thought in mind I hurried on, towards the town of Mai Sai on the Thai/Burmese border.
Following the course of the Sai River I happened upon a sprawling collection of wood and bamboo that clung precariously to the side of a hill. A sign announced it as the rather lavishly titled Mai Sai Plaza Guesthouse, a somewhat grandiose name for little more than a bed, a few cobwebs and a tatty poster of a Harley Davidson. It did however have somewhere to park the bike and a balcony that looked over the river into Burma. So, dumping my bike and my bag, I headed out to explore. This was where my paranoid drinking buddy had told me that the ‘dealer’ lived and, whilst I had little real expectations of finding him, it looked an interesting place to while away a few hours before dinner.
On the outskirts of town I came across a temple, not exactly a rare occurrence in Thailand and the large reclining Buddha did tend to be a bit of a giveaway. The strange collection of grotesque animals next to it though, now they weren’t exactly something you see everyday. I mean, how often do you expect to come face to face with a six-foot rabbit, a huge hooded cobra and a vicious looking monkey with enormous genitalia? This is the sort of thing you would have got if Brueghel had gone in for designing theme parks…This was deeply disturbing! I moved on, but only as far as a haphazard array of rickety bamboo scaffolding that was covering the front of the temple. Scurrying across it, like a collection of saffron robed ants, were an industrious bunch of monks and nuns, robes flowing and heads shining as they laboured away in the late afternoon sun. I was captivated. It was a Buddhist building site, with chanting and singing instead of cat calls and expletives. I wanted to go home immediately and start a construction company called ‘Saffron Scaffolding’, or ‘Mantra Masonry’!
By this point I was seriously beginning to wonder if the close proximity to mind-bending drugs was having an untoward affect on me. I needed food, so heading back into town I found my way to a likely looking spot overlooking the river. That’s where I got talking to Ben. I don’t think his name was really Ben, but who was I to argue. We sat and shared a bowl of rice soup, during which I asked him, just on the off-chance, if he knew of this mysterious dealer in dodgy motorbikes. Seems that he did! In fact, he was the dodgy dealer! It transpired that he had a contact in Burma who smuggled old British bikes across the river, which he then sold on for a profit. My search was over before it had even started and Mai Sai had suddenly turned into the Twilight Zone!
Two days later I found myself sat beside the waters of the Mekong, watching the foreboding and squat form of a patrol boat churning the brown, viscous waters into a foamy scum. In the distance, shimmering in the late afternoon heat, an almost impenetrable wall of jungle rose up from the water’s edge. I was heading back to Chiang Mai; back towards civilisation and the paranoid ramblings of Lieutenant Dan.
The sun was beginning its relentless dip towards the distant horizon as I climbed back on the bike and took a last look at the river. It was time to go…