Chapter 3: THE BIKER(S)
If Eugene Long helped take the Mlabri out of the Stone age, the man who put the Mlabri into the internet age of global hammock business, has a life story that is no less fascinating. What has a young, night security guard from far away Switzerland got to do with the Mlabri and more interestingly, how did he contribute to the Mlabri miracle? Here is the story of Peter, the biker.
Just as the Mlabri were dashing through evolution (remember how they leapt from the stone age to present day Thailand in only 3 decades?), Peter Schmid was making life-changing decisions thousands of miles away in Zurich, Switzerland. Having stopped his education before university, Peter landed up doing a series of small jobs before settling to be a night security guard at a factory. The money was good and he had plenty of time for his hobby which was off-road biking. He loved racing but since he started late, couldn’t complete with the younger stallions; Peter joked that he was the slowest guy in the slowest team. But his passion for biking has taken him very far, as we now know. In fact, in real life which is a constant race, Peter has proven to be a real champion.
Bored with life as a security guard, he went back to school and graduated as a paper and textile engineer. He soon found a job with a big textile company specializing in industrial weaving. He loved that job but after a while, decided it wasn’t enough. That’s when he decided to see the world. At 31, he quit his job and hopped on a round-the-world adventure, armed with a guitar and a backpack. From the Philippines, he went on to Thailand where a Thai girl stole his heart and put a stop to his travel plans… for 6 months. Then he was back on the road, this time he visited Malaysia and Indonesia. After awhile he realized that all this moving was not getting him anywhere so he returned to Thailand, a place he found to be most unique and accessible.
1984 - 85 saw Peter living in a rented room in a lonely fishing village in Phuket, a pristine island paradise back then. There he bought an old Honda XR 360 which he dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. With this “new” bike, he was finally a happy man in a happy land. He stayed in Phuket until his money ran out. He returned to Zurich and in no time found a good job as a technical expert in a paper company in Milan. But back home, he realised that he was homesick for his new home. So he returned to Thailand. This time he lived in Phuket, Bangkok and Kanchanaburi but his money couldn’t even last a year. Back in Switzerland he worked hard and saved his money, with the sole aim of returning to Thailand. Several manual jobs and 5 months later, he was back in the Kingdom and this time he was determined to stay. But the money he saved was not enough to start a business.
A few weeks later, the postman, like a genie from a bottle, made his wish come true. A telegraph from his first employer requested his services as an Asian resident engineer. Peter flew to Switzerland, signed his contract and was back in Asia, to embark on the next chapter of his life. He still kept Thailand as a base, for besides his fondness for the Kingdom, he was now in love with a beautiful girl. They met in Bangkok at his friend’s house where she worked as a housekeeper. Eventually they settled down in the small town of Phrae. When not away on his job, Peter was slowly setting up the business of his first love: Motocross. He bought and fixed bikes and started organizing tours in cross-country biking. In 1996, he decided that his assignment to China would be his last project. His nine years as an Asian representative came to an end, which marked the start of his life as an entrepreneur. His bike tours were a success and finally he could realize his dream of biking full time. Peter organized tours for experts and guided specialized biking treks across the picturesque landscapes of northern Thai provinces. He also introduced the sport to beginners and taught riding to many eager adventurers. Meanwhile, not to abandon his profession, he ventured into the business of hammock making, with his wife.
Meeting the Mlabri
One particular biking trek goes through the area where Eugene Long had set up the Mlabri village but Peter always kept a distance. Once he was ahead of schedule with a group and to burn a few hours, he decided to drive trough the village. That detour was to be the beginning of a new chapter for the Mlabri and Peter. Instead of the “dictator priest” he expected to meet, he found a charming missionary, friendly and with a great sense of humor. And the Mlabri was a unique, friendly tribe with an unbelievable story behind them.
To say that the very first meeting was a shocking one to the Mlabri would be a gross understatement. The Mlabri had never seen anything like it - people dressed up in bulky biking gears with fancy helmets and covered in mud! Their bikes were big, strange and made loud noises. Peter and his gang could very well be from another planet! Father Eugene was pleased with the visit and encouraged Peter to return. He explained that this was two-way tourism - the tourists would meet the legendary Ghosts of The Yellow Leaves while the Mlabri would witness the crazy things other humans do to have fun. Peter agreed that on the next visit he would organize a small bike show.
And what a show it was. The second visit was like the circus came to town. The experienced drivers entertained the Mlabri with all sorts of stunts – jumps, wheelies and daredevil turns. The Mlabri were amazed and the younger ones were so stricken by the sport they decided to collect money to buy themselves a bike. Supported by Eugene and with the help of Peter, the Mlabri soon owned a Honda MTX. It was a big event for the entire village. Peter taught them how to use it and soon they became excellent drivers, and eventually even helped Peter as tour guides in selected tours.
The young Mlabri riders even asked Peter to coach them for the real races and he took on the challenge. They practised hard and took the task seriously, and when the big day approached, they went to practise on the race track. At one point, during the practice jump one of the young drivers fell and as the bike sprang away, the boy laid unconscious on the track. Peter was terrified; he was responsible for them and didn't want to return to the village with a missing competitor.
Even though the accident could be fatal the young Mlabri came out of it unhurt. Later on Peter learnt that the boy was exhausted and had pushed his body to the extreme. It was an instinct; when they were living in the jungle, exhaustion was not an option as nobody was allowed to be tired. When Peter learnt about this, he explained that biking was a recreation, not for survival! He explained that the driver must be, first and foremost, rested and fit, and that they were to stop when tired and resume only after resting. The first race was relatively a success and even though they didn’t come in first, they made front-page news throughout the country. All the newspapers had photos of the young “ghosts” who took part in the race.