Delightful Northern Thailand (6) Two Nights In Finland
By Hans Meier
Smoothly our jeep rolls along the dirt track towards Ban Wat Chan. Just a few miles ago we have reached solid ground. The horrendous dirt track that started around Mae Sa gave way to – still a dirt track, but a smooth and even one.
It's around 5.30 p.m. now. After a noisy bouncing day in the boondocks, we are craving for a quiet dinner in decency, a hot shower and a soft, warm bed. If Ban Wat Chan has nothing for us, we have to continue to Pai, another 35 miles, then in the night and who knows about road conditions and vacancies there?
First we'll try where we are now. Slowly we roll past the scattered houses that seem to make up Ban Wat Chan. A few buildings look very clean and new, maybe they belong to a Royal Project? Wow, see, Norah – there is a "Guesthouse" sign! Oh, but that building looks scary, windswept and rotten. – "You want to look?" – No comment. – I don't stop.
Now was that Ban Wat Chat? A wat we don't see, but a little store is on the right side. That's a good reason to stop, we stock up on fruit and water.
I want to ask if there is another hotel around. But it is such a remote place, not even especially beautiful. And again I don't know if they do speak Central Thai here – well, I guess they need it for TV? Anyway, my question for "long laem" seems to be understood, and they say it's "si kilomet, lohr". Wonderful. For the price, it's "kao-sip haa baht, lohr". We say goodbye, and it's "chok-dee, lohr". Funny, lohr, whatever "lohr" may mean.
Slowly we drive on – we don't want to to miss the hotel. Finally we meet a pompous complex with manicured gardens and wooden mansions to the left. We figure it's another Royal mansion, the area has so many retreats from Puping on Doi Suthep
to Mae Fah Luang north of Chiang Rai. But see, there are no soldiers on guard, so we easily pass through the gate and enter the compound. Maybe it's a secret golf course? Finally we reach a wooden reception building. After only ten minutes,
a Thai guy shows up.
"Sabai-dee khrap – mee hawng mai khrap?"
First he takes us to smallish wooden A-frame bungalows with almost no windows. They go for 500 Baht. But by now I've learnt that they always present the cheapest accommodation first.
"Bungalow-nee lek-lek", I splutter. "Mee yai-yai mai khrap?"
It's a ten-minutes-walk across well-kempt lawns. Another separate hill has been decorated with three nice sturdy wooden bungalows. Not too small, real windows, squeaky clean, and with an inviting sun- and rainproof verandah out front. It's the rustic wooden ambiance I only now from Thai live-music pubs.
We are shown the proper parking for the car – it's far away from our bungalow. As he walks off, the caretaker asks if we need dinner. – "Ao khrap!!!" – That's 7.30 sharp, we learn. Clear rules. What a surprise to find such a bourgois place in the middle of nowhere.
We walk to the car to grab our luggage. The Suzuki Vitara is completely covered in red dust. On the neat asphalted parking lot with the meticulously cut plants around, our worn jeep looks almost obscene. I open the rear door: Our travel bags are completely covered in red dust.
Dinner is had in front of the small store. There are two long picnic tables where all customers have to sit up; but except of four Thais there are no other customers. Just opposite of me sits a Thai school girl, who stares monotonously at a place right over my head – that's where the blasting TV hangs on the wall.
Over a very decent Thai style set dinner, we meet the friendly young man who is in charge of the whole operation, which seems to belong to the Royal government. This huge bungalow complex is just one year old and of course he drops the magic word of "ecotourism", which has to be boosted here.
It's really really cold at our outdoor dinner tables, so we are cuddled into our jackets, when he tells us he graduated from Bangkok's Kasetsart university and did forest research in over 70 of 76 Thai provinces. Together with his helpers, he serves us rice, the next day he rents out the best mountain bikes i ever saw in Thailand, he plans the the buildings, and of course he has to study the local flora. Just a friendly, unpretentious, hard-working guy who tries to keep his country clean and healthy – one of the nicest people I met in Thailand.
Of course we have chosen the most remote bungalow, where no more people should walk past. Still the next morning I hear not only rain, but also steps. Looking out, there are several gardeners setting up the sprinklers for the spacious lawns. The sky is dry and hazy as always.
Breakfast is again on the picnic tables next to the little store. They offer no menu or choice. Just "breakfast". I get dull toast and marmelade plus the ubiquitous muddy Lipton tea; while Norah, my ASEAN lover, is fed a huge bucket of hearty
rice soup plus assorted bowls and dispensers of poisonous reddish condiments. One day I will learn to enjoy rice soup for breakfast; at least next life.
Yes, we are so fed-up with the car that we stay for another night. The bungalow is available, of course – like almost every other bungalow there.
On bicycles, we see a few very unspectacular forest roads. In the afternoon we walk around the large compound; much more accommodation is just being built. Through coniferous forest we hike down to a small, brown lake and sit in the grass. We can see our blockhouse from there. This is very very quiet – and boring. It seems more Finland than Thailand. Very little excuse to swing your digicam. It's all rolling hills of monotonous conifers; any harvested rice field in Isaan, any rubber plantation in Krabi looks more exciting. And just a few hours to the east, there's lovely eye-pleasing Pai valley (a whole different story, see here and here).
Of course I am so proud we discovered the bungalows of Ban Wat Chan, which I hadn't seen in any guide book. Only three weeks later, back in Chiang Mai, in a stylish coffee shop on Ratchadamnoern, I open the Bangkok Post's "Horizons" section to see a huge story about Pai on the title page. See, I think to myself, Pai is mainstream now, but nobody's ever heard of ecotourism in Ban Wat Chan. Our secret! I personally discovered hidden Ban Wat Chan! (If only by losing the way.) I flip the Bangkok Post to the next page, and there's another huge story about Ban Wat Chan.
A very nice series, again.