Delightful Northern Thailand (5) The Front Passenger
By Hans Meier
We are in a light pine forest now. Somewhere in the endless woods between Mae Chem and Ban Wat Chan. The road isn't horrendous as before, still it remains a shaky dirt track. The jeep moves on with about 10 mph.
It's already afternoon. The jeep is ok, but both of us don't like to drive long hours, especially not on rough tracks. Where will we end up – end when? This day slowly develops into a disaster. What does Norah think of my driving and guiding skills?
On this trip through Northern Thailand, I don't meet many new Thais; so different from Isaan, where new encounters are the biggest part of the fun. One thing, I'd say, is that generally Northern Thais are more well-off, reserved and sedate – thus less exotic – than Thais elsewhere; so maybe there is less incentive for a curious exchange.
Another reason for less contact with the Thais: Unlike so many trips before, this time I had dared to bring a partner onto my usually sacred solo travel paths. Norah and me, we are both mostly concentrated onto each other, not onto the outer world. This time, northern Thailand is just a backdrop for our ongoing trip into something much more serious than just a delightful holiday destination.
I guess we both are here to check-out each other. So how does Norah fare as a travel companion – and maybe as a life companion later on? Thinking back about that time, three tiny episodes spring to my mind concerning Norah on the front passenger seat. The first one right on the road to Ban Wat Chan.
— In The Woods
We are still bouncing north, and it's absolutely unclear where we will end up tonight. Our road leads to Ban Wat Chan. But what to expect from a dot on the map called "Village Pagoda Chan"? A hotel? Haha. Some 40 miles beyond Ban Wat Chan, there is the backpacker resort village of Pai. I wanted to avoid Pai as much as Mae Hong Son, but now – after getting lost in never ending forest – Pai looks like a dream destination. But will we make it there? If the road stays like that, we may arrive between midnight and sunrise. Or we drop into a gorge.
What does Norah think of my driving and guiding skills? We have bounced through the woods for hours. But we haven't talked for hours. It had felt like a peaceful consenting silence, still I am not sure about her mood.
In that moment I spot an invitingly flat corner of forest floor covered with needles and dry leaves. I stop the car and ask: "Do we have a bit of food with us?" – Stupid question with kitchen commanderess Norah on board: "Have!" she beams. – We spread our picnic mat on the forest ground, unload fruit, yoghurt, biscuits and water. We snack away and duly continue with a soothing siesta. We should better try to get closer to civilisation; but we are both tired of the bumpy ride that started around 9 a.m., and we both do enjoy a peaceful outdoor picnic so much. In that 90 minutes on the forest ground, exactly two jeeps pass by; they don't care about us.
Norah doesn't seem to care for our situation either. Or maybe she cares, but she doesn't say it; I'm not sure. It seems that to her, driving is a man's thing, and she won't intermingle. This also includes that she has no interest in checking the map or assisting when I steer into difficult parking space. On the other hand, she has completely taken over our food supply management, and there is no chance I could do anything about that.
We are stuck in the woods with no idea where we end up at night. Still Norah contently lies next to me on our picnic mat. She doesn't say a word about our difficult situation. Instead, she peels another orange. She feeds me the first piece.
— On The Mountain
Talking Norah on the front passenger seat, I do recall our trip on a side road that forks off highway 1095 between Mae Hong Son and Pai. We had been looking for a quiet shady picnic spot for more than 15 miles along the highway – but nothing. Now we are running very low on gasoline, but stupidly I steer the car up into the mountains. We have to stop at a military check-point, after which we reach the very rugged mountainscape bordering Myanmar. Together with the half-secret road from Ang Khang to Nong Tao further northeast, this is the most spectacular road on our trip. But: Gasoline is practically empty now, according to the fuel gauge.
I don't even care to turn around and try to make it back to a gas station on the highway. I know clearly that the car will bounce to a final halt soon, and I'll have to hike back to the checkpoint and find out about fuel. I wonder if Norah ever had a look at the fuel gauge? Obviously not? It shows 0,0 liters by now. Norah remains silent.
The area is spectacular, but for our long-planned picnic it is too steep, open and windy. We realize that the next agreeable picnic spot is beyond the Myanmar border. So I turn the jeep around, we drive back to the checkpoint. I hope that the gasoline runs out right at the gates, it will be easier to get help. But the Suzuki jeep still takes us past the soldiers. Rolling downhill for several miles, I turn off the engine. Then another five miles back to Soppong. I see a gas station and turn left – we made it back without an empty tank!
Right when I pull into the gas station, Norah bursts into beams and laughter and sighs: "Oh my darling!!! We made it back without an empty tank!! I thought gasoline would finish somewhere on the mountain!! So glad we are here!! I checked the fuel gauge every minute."
"Ha", I say. "You checked the fuel gauge every minute and didn't speak to me?"
And Norah: "Why should I speak about gasoline? I know you see the fuel gauge too."
— IN THE FIELD
This time we are cruising the remote area around Nong Tao, west of Fang. The valley is packed with orange plantations. Most fields are heavily protected with barbed wire or even walls. Finally I spot a small orange field close to the lake that's not shielded off. I park car and Norah next to the road and walk over to the orange trees.
I dive into the orange tree forest, pick five inviting oranges off, stuff them under my t-shirt, hurry back through the bushes, across the road, into the car and onto the driver seat. A surprised Norah watches me as I close all our (tinted) windows. Then I lift my t-shirt – five most inviting oranges roll out.
Ha! Norah beams like a school girl on Christmas! What a healthy surprise. We drive on, en route Norah will peel the fruit for us.
Our jeep zooms along at around 35 mph through pleasant countryside, on a reasonable road. The first few slices of orange taste extraordinarily well.
"These oranges are better than the ones from the market", I comment, as I spit a pip out of the window. – "Sure", agrees Norah and spits pips out of her window. – "Why you say 'sure'", I ask between more chewing and spitting?
"Of course," says my Norah triumphantly, and gives me an admiring look: "Stolen fruit is always better!"
You have whet my appetite big time to spend more time in the north and explore the areas away from the main centres.