Doi Inthanon is a national park in northern Thailand an hour from Chiang Mai. If you are in a car. If you are on the wasp, a small yellow and black scooter, it is two and a half hours including a coffee and shaking-in-fear break.
It is not easy to write humorously about traumatizing experiences. But I didn’t know it was traumatising until afterwards. Until now really.
By the time I got on my scooter to hit highway 108 south of Chiang Mai, I had been travelling alone for five weeks. I was feeling isolated, and was in constant pain from my chronic back condition. In no mood to go out and meet people, I thought a road trip would be a great idea, as I did not need to speak to a soul. And I didn’t. For the entire three day trip, apart from asking in key words and sign language to switch to an AC room, no words passed my lips.
In my imagination as I packed my small bag back in Berlin, my trip would involve meeting up with hip backpackers wearing organic scarves draped across their suntanned shoulders, brown mosquito-bitten knees and a ready laugh, as they shared another Singha beer with other free-n-easy nomads , telling zany stories from the road. What an adventure man! It wasn’t like that. Solitude takes hold, fills in the spaces where other people were. Settles quietly, until one day it has shifted into the grubby territory of lonely. We keep quiet and tell ourselves we like our solitude. So here I was, begrimed in loneliness, in a small pink bungalow at the foot of the highest mountain in Thailand.
I lay on the lumpy mattress watching a centipede on the wall., conscious that I could have been mown down by articulated lorries dozens of times and that I hadn’t been. My back was throbbing with sharp searing pains that clenched my entire lower right side and which were now inching their way up towards my rib cage. I was drenched in sweat and my neck was locked from tension. It was 11 a.m. Now I had to drive up the highest mountain in Thailand. I had set myself up to do it and I had to do it. Secretly I wanted to get off the adventure, or at least have a break. It was shit. It was lonely, no one knew where I was, no one really cared – how quickly we are forgotten once out of sight. If I was comedy strawberry jam on the pristine mountainside in the next hour, so what? There’s the rub alright.
But it was not a school trip, I could not opt out, call home or say I was on my period. I was, in fact, on my period. The first period I got on this trip was on the Indonesian train crossing Java. I was in a distance row with Scott, pathetically listening to Damian Rice wail on my headphones, leaning my head against the train window to hide my tears. I went to the squat toilet on the jolting train to empty out my moon cup and balance over the shewee and then clean it all up with bottled water whilst crying. I got soaked. I wept my way back to my seat next to a farmer. There was no one to giggle about it with. A notable low point on my solo journey. This time I wasn’t on a train. I was on a mountain with a small motorbike, and had hours to go, mostly up.
There was still no one to giggle about it with, or to say ‘Well this is a bit scary isn’t it?’
In burning midday heat, I zoomed off at 35 miles an hour and the road quickly became steep and winding. But it did not slow down – if anything it was faster. Motorbikes and four-wheel drives, trucks and buses all skimmed expertly past me as I clung to the hard shoulder. It wasn’t a real hard shoulder. It was the strip of road the other side of the white painted line showing the edge of the road. It was less than half a metre wide and I could just fit in. But it was better than the road. I leaned into the bends and accelerated out of them, and vehicles doing the same thing, but at about 80 miles an hour, would swoop up behind me, career past me and sweep me up in their tailwind each time. I would have to quickly recover, wobbling and bumping over potholes and trying to stay upright. Each jolt and swerve was like a burning knife being dug into my joint and I winced and screwed my face up and blinked.
The mountain was fresh and towering and all of it was above me. It was a long way to the top. I stopped at waterfalls on the way. The first waterfall I stopped at thundered down and I was momentarily neutralised by mist. Like a pouring water god had emptied his chalice over the top of a cliff and directed it at me, banishing fear. I walked up towards the waterfall with my face lifted to it and followed the path, which quickly got too steep for me to climb alone without my stick. A couple climbed down towards me holding hands, smiling and helping each other, using Manc-skills. They gave me one of those nods people give on walks. I couldn’t smile back. I gave up, my tread was uncertain, I was in pain, I could easily slip and fall and I’d just lie there groaning alone next to the water god. I also had a sneaking suspicion there were large spiders in the trees. I had carefully chosen not to do one second of research on spiders in SE Asia.
Several juddering kilometeres higher up the mountain, I stopped again. This waterfall made the ache in my chest subside. It had jumping rainbows playing around the bottom of the tumbling waves. It fell in a joyous roaring, tumultuous mass of light and bright sparkling drops which settled on all the coach parties and couples and families in a rarified mist. I gasped. I watched as others gasped – like in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris – being able to watch others arrive in the soaring coloured glass, is part of the chapel’s spiritual message.
I cried at this waterfall. I cried because I was overcome by the beauty of nature. I also cried because I had not had a single pain-free moment for over four years and the horror of it and the yawning hopeless future of it, which I knew was my companion who, tight at my shoulder, sometimes whispering and sometimes shouting, would never leave my side until death. I cried, sorry for myself, and somewhere in there were a few tears because I was terrified of getting back on the wasp and nearly dying for another hour. I missed Scott and how it would have been fun with him, but by myself, it was just gritty endurance.
I rode on and up, determined, and at speed, clutching the throttle which was sticky in the heat, sweat dripping down my back, my nose blistering. I started to leave the traffic behind after a while and the road got steeper and quieter and stranger. Mountain air, empty light, green rushing treetops and ever steeper. A cool wind blew from the shade and gave me goosebumps. I was alone but there was also a presence – the tops of mountains are like that.
In a tense semi-trance, the noise of the engine sputtering in my head was swallowed into the quiet. The mountain held me, and warned me at the same time.
‘Go down!’ it said.
I turned the throttle in defiance and my hand was cramping to keep the engine on full as the wind picked up. I was where I should not be. I didn’t care. I wanted to be where I should not.
But frustratingly, more tears came. Self-pitying, angry, indignant tears, that washed down my cheeks and blurred my view of the road. I wobbled as I took the turns. I shouldn’t be here, it was too much for my body and too much of a battle. What was I pushing against? Not a soul on the planet knew I was there, at the top of Doi Inthanon, crying onto the wind, the tears dropping onto the handlebars making them slippy. One wobble in a gust of wind and I would skid off and slide down the mountain into the traffic lower down. What did it matter if I reached the top of the top? Who cared? What was I trying to prove?
I stopped in the road; I could be slammed into from around the corner any minute. I needed to decide what to do. How would I even turn around? There was only up. There were no hard shoulders, no straight vistas, only tight upward turns or sliding down. I sat on my bike, stopped in time, submitting to the mountain’s breath. I could see myself from the outside, from above. A small twisted middle-aged woman on a yellow and black moped, staring ahead, trapped in a quandary of her own making. And in the stillness, sniffling, I gave in. I turned the bike awkwardly, squeezing the brakes, and began a slow descent, shaking. The mountain had beaten me.
Or pushed me back into my own life – with all its hurts, its constraints and loves.