The trilateral highway connects Manipur State in India with Mae Sot in Thailand running across Myanmar. I knew this before I went cycling on that route on Sunday. It just didn’t register in my consciousness that there would be massive trucks sharing the road with me as it was actually being constructed eastwards to Tak. This isn’t the Death Highway south from Mae Sot to Umphang; judging by the number of wrecked vehicles abandoned at the side of the road, it would probably rate as Desperately Unwell Highway.
The day started well. It was overcast, cool and there was a pleasant breeze from the west. This usually means rain coming from Myanmar, but the clouds were high and looked innocent. It was also hazy, as some farmers had started burning off the rice single in their fields. It wasn’t good weather for landscape photography, but I wanted to see a special temple called Wat Po Thi Khun. It was only 12 km from Mae Sot, situated on a hill in the forest. The temple’s architect was a farmer who went to Silpakorn University to study Archeology. It took him 17 years to create the temple and construction is still continuing.
Luckily for me, the old road had been left running parallel to the dual carriageway of the new Asian Highway. It was potholed and became a dirt track, but for the first five kilometres of my journey, I could cycle on it without fear of being mown down by an articulated lorry or what Australians would call a “road train”. The road began to climb, winding through dense forest, and my track joined it. My six geared lady’s bicycle, complete with basket hanging from the handlebars, wasn’t built for mountain biking. I had to get off and push it up the steepest parts of the highway, on the edge of the tarmac. After the road crested the hill, I could career down the other side at breakneck speed to get as much momentum as I could for the next climb.
Lots of passing drivers tooted their horns, more in greeting than warning. I got lots of waves from drivers and shouts from motorcyclists. After ten kilometres, there was a clearing in the forest and some ramshackle buildings, the equivalent of motorway services. This was a “Welcome Break” for me. I asked an immigration police officer about the temple. Encouragingly, he held up three fingers, but then made an undulating gesture to indicate that the journey was up and down. I drank one of my bottles of water and immediately broke out into a sweat; I had been too dehydrated to perspire.
The next section of road was a shocker. It was still under construction. Men were pouring concrete over reinforcing rods to make the barrier between the carriageways. There were new stretches of road being readied for tarmac, road rollers and bulldozers working, all the time vehicles were rushing past. The road makers greeted me with “Sawasdee Kurub”, putting their cementy palms together and smiling at the obviously crazed, red-faced “ferang” riding a lady’s bicycle up the central reservation.
The scenery changed from foothills to karst mountains. These limestone peaks have sheer vertical slopes cloaked in rainforest. I was getting disillusioned and exhausted. Perhaps the policeman meant three mountains away, not three kilometres as I had understood.
I must have gone six kilometres before I saw a roadside sign for a temple. Two problems – it was the wrong temple and the sign pointed to the opposite side of the motorway, now divided by a metre high concrete wall I couldn’t safely climb over with the bike. I rode on for another kilometre or so, until I could cross the road. The was a sign at the start of a track into the forest, written in Thai. It could have said, “Bus Stop” but I guessed it was Wat Than Inthamin.
After I had cycled into the forest for a few hundred metres, I saw a man on a motorbike coming towards me. He didn’t look like a monk; he had a telescopic rifle strapped across his back. He waved vigorously and sprayed me with gravel as he passed.
The next person I met was the spitting image of the Fat Buddha. Bald as a coot, beaming smile from ear to ear, with a large paunch draped over the petrol tank of his motorbike.
Here is a China figurine of Bodhia, who is not related to the Buddha at all. He’s a fat monk who likes children.
I finally reached a clearing in the forest, with a car park and a few buildings. I was not impressed, but a novice took me by the hand to temple built into a cave at the base of a karst mountain. It was screened off, to prevent birds or bats from getting in and depositing droppings on the images. The floor was tiled, there were some teak chairs, fluorescent lights and lots of incense burning.
I tried to take a photograph using flash, but the incense smoke reflected the light, making the scene look very odd. The flowers were plastic, or made from silk, but I am no longer put off by artificial decor in Buddhist temples. It seems de rigeur to have flashing neon rays forming haloes around the most sacred images. I was completely alone in the gloomy tranquility and it felt comforting, somehow. What I couldn’t understand was why there were statues of monks there. Were they former abbots? Or were they depictions of a famous monk at various ages?
Outside, the steps up to the temple had guardian snakes, notable for their crystal fangs and faceted disco balls on their tongues. There were multi headed serpents in the garden around the monks’ living quarters, and walking through the jungle I came across the body of a huge snake, looping out of the undergrowth.
I stopped to chat with some monks doing their laundry and heard a strange pattering sound. Rain was falling on the leaves in the canopy, and it was a minute or so before the drops splattered on the earth. Wonderful, I thought, 17 miles of muddy highway hell away from home. But the rain stopped, so I remounted my bike and cycled down the hill back to the road. As I rode, gigantic leaves the size of serving platters drifted slowly down onto the track, like massive snowflakes. My feet are size 9s.
To be continued: Designer Monastery