The Mountaintop Experience: Day 1

i woke in sweat after two hours of sleep from nightmare. it was another sleepless night. for four hours straight, i have tried to go back to sleep. i listened to soft, relaxing music. i stalked people on my mobile’s facebook. i watched tv series. i even tried to pray. all of these were to no avail. resigning to the fact that i would no longer get any sleep tonight, i splashed cool tap water on my face, brushed my teeth, put on a black tank top and a skirt and grabbed my computer and car key.

now i am sitting alone in tom n toms coffee shop, where it opens 24 hours. the bossa music is playing in the background, and i am inhaling the soothing smell of freshly baked bakery and somewhat similar scent of home. no, coffee shop is not my home. but there is a homey fragrance to it. perhaps it is the fresh floor and furniture. or maybe it is because being out here with two groggy shop staff is better than wondering and fighting battle alone in my own dim room.

here’s the part i am afraid to write – i don’t even know what i’m fighting. or maybe i do but i just don’t want to admit it. so i’m not going to talk about it here. instead, i think it is a high time for me to begin the mah o jo series, something i have yet to start and finish. at least, it will give me some purpose to focus on.


The sky was dark, and the whole neighborhood was silent. The only sound one could hear was the soft breeze blowing outside the window. As I snug deeper into the blanket, my blackberry chirped a soundtrack from the movie “Brave”. When I eventually found the phone, the time told “4:30AM”…and I picked it up.

“Mink, I am here. Where are you?” my friend, Max, who was kind and willing enough to take mom and I to the bus station that early, said.

When the realization hit that I was already late, I told him in panic, “Hold on for 5 minutes. We’ll be right down!” But the truth was we were still in our PJs, hair all frizzy and teeth un-brushed. But like those people running from danger with adrenaline rush, mom and I quickly threw anything else we thought necessary in our packs, got dressed and made it downstairs to meet Max in less than 15 minutes.

We got to the bus station at 5:00AM sharp. By “station” here, I am not referring to the busy and crowded station you normally see in big cities. It was just two vans parked by the side of the road with a crowd of passengers mingling nearby.

Our first stop was to make it to “Htee Wah Tah”, or the white water village, before continuing on to Mah O Jo. There are three vans that run directly to this village, once a day, from Chiang Mai. So it was necessary for us to catch one on that Sunday morning. Following my friend’s advice, I called one of the van drivers to reserve two seats five days in advance (Man, I never booked anything this far in advance when I rode to Bangkok!).

Max helped us unload our stuff. We thanked him and waved him goodbye. Then mom and I ran to the only van present at the moment. The air was stuffy with humidity. And I had to catch my breath before saying another word. There were about 20 people waiting around the van, which was more than one van could hold. But so confident that I had already got us tickets, I shouted to the van driver who was packing luggage on the van’s roof, “Sir, where could I put my bags?”

He turned to me and asked, “Did you reserve the seats?”

“YES!” I could never be more confident.

He looked at me for a second, and asked the second question, “Who did you book with?”

I fumbled into my purse, grabbed my cell phone and showed him the number. He looked at me again, for almost 10 seconds this time, and said, “Honey, dear, this guy you booked with is not back yet. I’m sorry.”

His words were like lightning at dawn. My head started reeling about different possibilities. Thankfully, this driver kindly handed me a new number of another driver who would be going to the village. So I called, checked and confirmed with the driver that he would have seats for mom and I. We were able to breathe more easily when I hung up the phone. Now we were sure that we would be on our way today no matter what.

While we were waiting for the second van, a middle-age Karen lady, approached me with a smile, “Thra Mu, where are you headed today?”

Thra Mu means female teacher in Karen language. Because teacher is a highly honorable position in this culture, calling someone “Thra” or “Thra Mu” is a way to show them respect.

“We are going to Mah O Jo village, Thra Mu,” I replied in my broken Karen…calling her the same way she called me.
Though I didn’t know her personally, she mentioned that she worked in the office of Karen Baptist Convention, a Karen Christian organization that works with Karen churches all over Thailand. Their ministries include working with children, youth and elderlies as well as providing education and boarding to students who need help. As I walked in and out of that office once in a while, I was certain I had seen her before.

When other Karen sisters saw that I could speak their language, they flocked around me asking different questions in enthusiasm. There were the KBC Thra Mu, Pee Pee (a grandmother) from the mountains and a northern Thai lady who came to see her friend off.

The no-nose-in-the-air, laid-back and humble characters of the northern people are something that keeps me here. It is one of the reasons why I don’t want to go home yet. Though we met each other for the first time, everyone helped everyone out as much as they could so that each individual’s purpose would be accomplished as planned.

When the first van driver called out that he was ready to leave, I reluctantly shook hands with Pee Pee and waved goodbye to the northern lady.

At 5:30, our van arrived. Our driver was a 40-year-old-ish man who was as calm as the iceberg. We were already a half an hour late. But the driver was not in a rush. To be more precise, he was NEVER in a rush. Knowing that this was the last van out of Chiang Mai, and that the seats were not enough for everyone waiting, some passengers sacrificially gave up the seats. But even with some giving up the seats, there were still more people than the seats…

Still, our driver said in calmness, “Yes, yes. Everyone can fit in. With all of their belongings.”

As if granted permission, mom and I quickly jumped into the car and got the seats in the middle row. There were four rows in the back for 12 people and two in the front. So there were supposed to be 14 passengers in the van. But either with the spell of wizard of Oz or the driver’s own stubborn will-power, the last headcount I did was 19 people…

The more interesting part was here – in addition to the overloaded passengers, our cool and calm driver carried “stuff”. I didn’t know what they were because it was so dark when we got on. I just knew I couldn’t stretch my legs or move. We were all locked into our seats. But when noon came, and he started to unload the “stuff” at each destination, I saw 10 dozen of eggs, boxes of car engines, pots, pans, pillows, a fan and even iron rods for construction! All these, plus 19 passengers…all packed in a tiny van. Uncle, you were not just calm but you had a mad man’s faith in impossibilities!

Eventually, our van left Chiang Mai city at 6:30am heading towards our first stop of the trip – the white water village. Both mom and I were so exhausted. Mom was also sick on that day. So when the van started moving, we leaned our heads back against our seats and dozed off right away, letting our driver do his job. It was as if God was saying, “Child, be still and rest. Let me do my job and lead you to the destination.”

I was thankful for:

– My friend, Max, who was willing to sacrifice his sleeping hours to take mom and I to the bus station in the morning.
– Thorough packing. We got all the necessities.
– Mom’s thoughtfulness – she packed sugar. And that bottle of sugar saved our lives because it was so hard to find sugar in the hills.
– The second van with empty seats.
– The six-hour drive that gave mom and I time to sleep.


About Mink Gough

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him." 1 Corinthians 2:9 View all posts by Mink Gough

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