“Always do what you are afraid to do.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
For most of my childhood, I was afraid to dive. Oh, I could swim just fine. But throwing myself head-first into a pool was absolutely beyond me. For years, I avoided diving, not so much because I was afraid to belly-flop, but more because I was afraid of the shame of failing.
Fast forward to 1987. I’m hanging out in Bangkok, reading my guidebook, when I hit upon a really interesting, really dangerous place to visit: The Three Pagoda Pass, on the border between Thailand and Myanmar (then Burma). At the time, the Pass was controlled by the “Mon National Liberation Army.” In other words, this was the real Wild West: a lawless pocket of territory controlled not by an established nation but by a non-sanctioned rebel entity. And yet, the guidebook claimed you could visit this area, without a visa, as long as you behaved yourself.
Now remember, I didn’t grow up in the inner city, honing my toughness and my street smarts. I grew up in Millbrae, California, a toney, middle-class, Bay Area suburb 20 miles south of San Francisco. We didn’t have bandits or rebels. We had Burger King and McDonalds. Visiting a place like the Three Pagoda Pass is as far out of my comfort zone as anything I can imagine. What if there are land mines? What if the Burmese government decides to stage a raid while I’m there? What if my American passport is worth more than my life? This is a crazy idea! And yet…shouldn’t you always do what you afraid to do? Isn’t that what constitutes a worthwhile life?
Thailand is a pretty small country. From Kanchanaburi, site of the River Kwai, up to the Three Pagoda Pass, only takes me 3-4 hours by bus. I arrive, nervous and twitchy, around noon on a warm, sunny, cloudless Thai day. Well, here goes. I step up to the border, expecting a big gate and stern sentries, and find…nothing. No barrier wall, no pat downs. It’s just – open! I walk in and pass by an abandoned guard station, eventually finding a kindly gentleman in a pith helmet who waves me along as if this is the most normal thing in the world. He also poses for a photo with his rebel flags! Slowly, my pulse begins to return to something close to normal. The town looks like most other Thai towns – maybe a bit more run down, a tad more ramshackle. Ox carts line the streets. Merchants sell their goods at bargain prices. The only indication at all that I’m at the Pass, itself, are these three, pint-sized, white-washed pagodas sitting alone on a lawn. It’s a surreal experience, walking along in a quiet, “normal” Southeast Asian village, knowing that at any time, the Burmese government could come storming in for one of their periodic crack downs.
I stay for an hour or two. I smile a lot. I buy some trinkets. I behave myself. Like diving, which I finally mastered my senior year in high school, the Three Pagoda Pass isn’t so scary after all. All you have to do is muster up some courage and throw yourself in, head first.
What’s your Three Pagoda Pass?