It was Songkran in Thailand and I was going to be celebrating it in a minivan.
My Thai visa was about to expire and the easiest way to extend it was via visa run to Myanmar and back. There’s dozens of companies in Chiang Mai offering this service, picking you up from your guesthouse, driving you to the border to get stamped out and back in, and then dropping you off before nightfall.
I was waiting in the lobby at 7 a.m., far too early for most backpackers to be awake but today, for Songkran, they were out in full force.
When the minivan pulled up beside the lobby, I made a run for it, shielding my face with my hands and bellowing, “No water! No water!” at the chuckling twenty-somethings who were gripping buckets of ice cold water.
I couldn’t believe a temporary ceasefire was held until I was safely inside.
As always, I took a seat at the front of the van to try and minimise my chances of motion sickness. Driving around the moat offered a different perspective to Thailand’s biggest water fight and yet, somehow felt more dangerous. I’d read that Songkran is the cause of the highest number of road-related deaths in Thailand and it wasn’t hard to see why. Slippery roads, intoxicated drivers, and nobody being able to see where they were going didn’t make for high safety levels.
If I’d have thought about it a little harder, I wouldn’t have chosen today to do my visa run.
I waved to fellow travellers as they joined me in my van, all in various degrees of drenched. There were the jaded old expats who’d spent far too long in Thailand and couldn’t stop complaining, the long-term traveller who put my ten months of travel to shame with his five years on the road, the English teacher who’d been living there for three years, and a dozen or so travellers who wanted longer to explore. Once everyone was inside, our driver turned up the volume of the awful Thai love songs, signalling for everyone to fumble for their earphones and drift off to sleep. I was too transfixed by the views to allow myself to drift off.
I’d expected the water-based chaos to calm down once we escaped Chiang Mai, but the madness continued all the way up to the Burmese border. I was astounded to see that Songkran really did encompass the entire country. As we drove through big cities and tiny villages that few tourists would ever have reason to visit, I spotted tens of thousands of people joining in with the celebrations.
Four hours later, we arrived at the border.
“One hour,” the driver announced to us as we piled out of the van.
I stepped down on to the dusty road and scanned my surroundings. The street was lined with fifty silver minivans, all identical to ours; all here for the same purpose. Visa runs were big business in Thailand and hundreds of companies offered trips to the nearest border and back every day. I watched as dozens of backpackers marched past a row of Thai flags and towards a blue building in the shape of an arch.
I stood for a moment, trying to figure out how this process worked. As I caught a glimpse of Myanmar beyond the fast-flowing Mekong River, I was hit by the realisation that I’d been in Thailand for too long. I’d been travelling for ten months and spent six of them in this country. It wasn’t that I resented it – living in Chiang Mai had allowed me to build a travel blogging income that could enable me to travel indefinitely – but there were so many other places I wanted to see.
I joined the queue for immigration, smiling at the blonde girl who’d hurried up a few seconds after me.
“Do you know how this process works?” she asked in a New York accent. I watched as she brushed her wavy hair out of her face with a perfectly manicured hand.
“Not really,” I said. “But I can’t imagine it’s complicated. Just hand over your passport when you’re asked for it, hop into Myanmar and then back into Thailand.”
She didn’t look convinced.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. “These things always are.”
My words, apparently, were not reassuring because she now looked even more terrified.
“Oh, hey, good luck,” she whispered, pointing ahead of me. I looked around and saw I’d reached the front of the queue. A jolly immigration officer was beckoning me.
He greeted me with a wide smile and I eyed him with wariness. This was the friendliest guy I’d ever seen working at immigration. It had to be a trick of some sort, designed to lure me into confessing to a crime I hadn’t committed. I captured my tongue between my teeth and said nothing. He flicked through the pages of my passport for a few moments, held it up to my face, then stamped me through without incident. Phew. One down, four to go.
Getting stamped into Myanmar was just as simple and just like that, I was in a country I’d always dreamed of visiting. I estimated I had around half an hour before I had to be back at the minivan and I wanted to soak up as much of the country for as long as I could.
I spent some time turning semi circles in the dirt, rubbing my flip-flops against the ground for no other reason than because I wanted to take a small part of Myanmar back with me.
Not that I had anywhere to keep chunks of Burmese earth in our apartment.
With a sad smile, I twirled around one final time and re-entered Thailand with a promise to return some day soon.
Back on the Thai side, I wandered past a row of shops selling colourful trinkets for tourists with more money than sense. I didn’t need a Burmese flag, a handful of coins, an emerald, or a samurai sword, but I considered throwing out my one pair of pants to make room for them anyway. Living out of a backpack could be frustrating at times. If I wanted to carry around a paperweight of the Shwedagon Pagoda, I’d have to throw out a pagoda-sized pile of clothes in order to do so.
I lingered for a while, meandering my way back towards our minivan. I’d had a rollercoaster of a week, thanks to getting caught up in a tsunami scare a few days earlier, but one thing was certain: I didn’t want to stop travelling. I knew it was strange that a border crossing and spending five minutes in a new country could give me so much joy but after that terrifying evacuation, my emotions were all over the place.
I found my minivan and yanked back the door. My mind was overflowing with ideas for where I could go next. Dave would be heading to Australia in a few days to see his family and I had a month to go anywhere in the world. I slid onto the front seat. Maybe Laos could be a good option? My arm brushed against something warm and hairy, and I discovered I was trying to squeeze onto the same seat as an old man.
“Whoops, sorry,” I mumbled, standing up to find another seat further back. Staring back at me were a dozen puzzled faces I had never seen before.
“Oh no!” I cried out, my face flushing red. I stood in silence as if waiting for them to tell me I could leave. Someone coughed. “I guess I’ll just…um… go?” I asked them, before crawling back outside.
“That was embarrassing,” I mumbled to myself.
I looped back to the border and worked my way back down past the minivans. Not mine… not mine… not mine… not mine… And then back up the other side of the road. Not mine… not mine… not mine… not mine… And I was back the border again.
Had they left without me?
The thought hit me like a bucket of iced water to the face.
I sat down on the kerb and rested my head in my hands. I had to come up with a plan. Something sensible. What would Dave do?
I didn’t have a phone to call for help.
I didn’t have a watch to tell me what the time was, but I was certain my allocated hour was now up.
I didn’t have any money beyond what I’d needed to get into Myanmar.
As I racked my brain, I remembered my conversation with Dave from that morning.
“Remember to talk to people in the van,” he’d told me. “That’s what I always do, because I want to make sure I’m remembered. Then there’s no chance of the van driving off without me.”
I’d planned on it but the second I’d climbed inside, my shyness had got the better of me and I’d kept my lips firmly sealed. I hadn’t said a word.
I felt a sharp tapping on my shoulder and turned to see the girl from the queue standing behind me.
“Hi!” I said, standing up to face her. “How’s it going?”
“Yeah, pretty good. What are you up to?”
“Not much. I think my minivan drove off and abandoned me. So, uh, there’s that.”
“Oh, shit, no way,” she gasped, reaching for my arm to steady herself. She stared at me with misty eyes; as if I’d told her I’d been caught smuggling drugs across the border and was scheduled for a beheading at sunset. “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll figure something out,” I said with a breeziness I didn’t feel. “It’s no big deal.”
“Rebecca!” A tall muscular guy grabbed her arm and began to pull her backwards. “We’ve got to leave now.”
“Okay, well, good luck!” she called, as she was whisked into the safety of a minivan full of people who hadn’t forgotten about her.
I watched her leave, shaking my head in frustration. Two days earlier, when I had been convinced a tsunami was about to take my life, I’d told myself that if I happened to make it out of there alive, I’d never be afraid again. The tsunami had put my life and misadventures into perspective and given me a sense of fearlessness I’d never felt before.
Why couldn’t I recapture that now?
I looked over in the direction of the voice. A tall, skinny girl with short black hair was looking down at me through a pair of fluorescent pink sunglasses.
“Were you on my minivan?” she asked in a New Zealand accent. It reminded me of Dave.
“I’m not sure.”
“I thought I recognised you. I’ve just discovered my van has driven off without me but if you were on my van then that means it’s probably still here.”
“Ah,” I said, and made a mental note to memorise the features of my fellow passengers in the future. “I think I was maybe on your minivan because mine is missing too.”
Her hands flew to her mouth. “Oh, thank goodness I found you. Do you think he’s left without us? He told us to meet him in an hour but it’s been ninety minutes.”
Ninety minutes? Whoops. I’d definitely mistimed my border crossing.
I shrugged. “Have you seen anyone else from the van?”
I shook my head.
As I watched her run her fingers through her hair in distress, I was hit by a sudden burst of confidence. Leaving her stood in the middle of the pavement, I strode up to the nearest minivan driver. He had a half-smoked cigarette dangling between yellowed teeth.
“Hello,” I said.
“Our minivan left without us and we need to get back to Chiang Mai. Can you help? Do you have any room in your van for us?”
He nodded then wandered into a convenience store.
I turned to the girl and frowned. That was it? That was all I needed to do? That was… easy.
“Sorted, I guess,” I said with a shrug, trying to fake confidence. Who would have ever thought I’d be the person to take control of a situation?
A sharp whistle pierced the air.
“Our minivan,” the girl cried out and we exchanged confused looks.
“How do you know?” I asked, squinting at the silver vehicle that looked like every single other one on this street.
“The driver. Don’t you recognise him?”
I looked over at him. He was hanging out the window and waving his arms in our direction. The door slid open and a couple of familiar-ish faces sat laughing at us. With a spring in my step, I followed the girl across the road and scrambled inside.
“What happened?” I asked the vanful of meek faces.
“Never mind that,” muttered a cranky-sounding expat. “Can we please just get back to Chiang Mai?”