Delightful Northern Thailand 8 Chiang Dao Nature lovers
Smoothly our jeep rolls north on highway 107. We enter Chiang Dao, an especially drab roadside town. Supposedly there are mountains and mountainside lodges here, but it has been flat country so far, and now the horizon is blocked by the usual Chinese
— DOI PLUMPUDDING —
"Oh, look", I say to Norah, "I guess we have to take this turn-off there". I steer the voluminous car into a narrow soi to the left. Just 50 meters on, civilisation gives way to open vegetable fields. Another 50 meters on, and I jump onto the brake in amazement. The horizon is blocked one more time – but now it's mighty mount Chiang Dao towering above us!
What a thing! Ping river valley here is only about 400 meters above sea level. Out of it, like a colossal plumpudding, grows mount Chiang Dao up until 2175 meters.
To get the best perspective for a backlight picture with the field in the foreground, I have to jump over a canal between road and acre. Norah and some field workers watch interestedly as I grab the Nikon, take a run, take off, fly about 20 meters through
fresh Northern Thai air and – ha, I land on the other side in one piece. Norah falls back into her passenger trance, the field workers continue to chat as I snap away. When I have to jump back, everybody interestedly watches my return flight across
the canal; fortunately, Buddha has a benevolent eye on me.
— NATURE LOVERS —
An hour later we sit on the verandah of our stilted bungalow at Malee's Nature Lovers, Chiang Dao, breathtakingly close to the mountain in a small, but pleasant garden. Malee, the energetic manageress, hurries past: "Don't forget, dinner is at 6.30 pm!" – "Sure!"
Like always, Malee had showed us the cheapest bungalows first. They are smallish and very dark. More agreeable is the one and only shack called "Honeymoon Suite", where we reside now for about 800 Baht. Nothing romantic at all, but it's high on stilts, so nobody can peep for your honeymoon practices.
Malee rushes along one more time: "Dinner 6.30, you know, don't you?" – "Sure, Malee, we know."
We crack another bottle of drinking water that's provided with our rustic "Honeymoon Suite". The menu card had informed us that dinner here is "Thai family style" by the way of all and sundry sitting around just two tables – but not on the floor, which would be more Thai in my experience. There is a selection of only one or two main courses per evening.
We look down onto the delightful flowers throughout the compound; that's nice, the manageress is called Malee, and in phasaa Thai that means "flower". Malee seems to be busy this late afternoon, rushing past our "Honeymoon Suite" yet again: "6.30, dinner time", she reminds us. – "Ok, no problem".
I guess around Chiang Dao there is only one more person with more energy than Malee, and that's her three year old luuk kreung son Peter. He even undertakes the strenuous task to climb up the steep stairs to our elevated porch and
looks at us with big eyes. – "Don't forget, dinner is 6.30", I remind the young one. – Peter soon realizes that no sweets can be grabbed here and tries to get back down. He has no clue how to master the scary stair, gets stuck on
the second-highest step and starts to scream in death fear. Malee, rush past one more time and grab your kid! Malee for once remains hidden, so I teach Peter how to properly walk downstairs and supervise his efforts until solid ground is reached.
It's 7 pm now. Our "Thai family style" dinner has started three minutes ago. Together with Malee and a Farang punk couple we sit around a table. On ground-level, young Peter is crashing his toy cars against our chairs. Malee, her mother and two helpers have cooked up a delicious massaman curry; it even gets thumbs-up from a critical gourmet like Norah. I interview Malee about anything I never dared to ask in Northern Thailand and beyond. It's great to meet a Thai with very clear English and a somewhat western mindset, who seems to understand what puzzles me and why.
The punk girl next to me artfully slaloms curry, rice and vegetables past her lip piercings. Her dreadlocked boy friend further on welcomes each spoonful with ear-deafening smackings. From the other table a broad Texan voice lectures about who should rule the world and why (forgot who). Just another "Thai family style" dinner.
— DUBIOUS BIRDS —
On two different occasions, we spend about three nights at Malee's. On day one of stay one we rent two of her sturdy, well-kept, but expensive mountain bikes for an hour. She forgets to put them on the bill. When we make the bill for our second stay, a week later, Malee says: "Last week you rented two mountain bikes for an hour. I forgot to charge you for that. So I charge you for the bikes this time. But you get discount!" She beams, proud of her generosity.
The area is all about nature walks, and Malee's should be the place to collect information. What she has is a book full of hand-scribbled walking instructions, plus a sketchy few maps, hand-drawn in red and blue. I capture maps and instructions with digicam, then we set out into the thicket. We decode the nature-guide off the tiny 1,8 inches digicam monitor.
Soon we are in a dry jungle. There is no trail. Have we lost the way or not? No idea. Norah has this look of "no idea, Hans, why we do *this* now, but up to you". Then I see her climbing up a tree and relaxing on a thick branch above me. – "Come
up, too, my darling", she beckons. How could I, I'm not a monkey.
We walk on. We only get orientation from fragments of a fence. A little later it looks as if we have to walk down a very steep mud gorge. We slide down, desperately seeking foothold on roots and bushes. We have to crawl through dead jumbo trees and cling to wet foliage that keeps breaking.
Now I must admit that the walking description is not exactly meant for pleasure hikers like Norah and me. Around Chiang Dao, it's all about bird watching. I can report only one sighting though: the clever fake-mosquito-bird. This one copies real mosquitoes to the degree of actually stinging you. In my personal non-scientific opinion, the fake-mosquito-bird is not on the list of endangered species. But it should be.
"Look, Norah, there's a river bed and a water hose!" We stumble through the most forgotten woodland, but Norah doesn't complain. She looks tired though. Now we follow the water hose, until it disappears under the ground. The river beds divides into two, and we don't know where to go. I explore the nicer looking alternative until I reach a very old brick water mill. We decide to try this route further downhill.
Finally, full of wounds from bushes, trees and the thirsty fake-mosquito-bird population, we reach the road. I don't understand all that hype about bird watching. Norah agrees.
— WALKING ON —
Ever so ambitious, we try another nature walk that's even signposted from the road. Through more nice, but not special dry forest it takes us up a slope. Looking back through holes in the green wall, there are good views of Pa Plong pagoda, which we will visit later.
In the middle of nowhere we suddenly hear Thai voices. Walking around the bend, five Thai lie right on the path – obviously maintenance workers on an extended lunch break. They don't get up, so we have to walk almost next to their heads; I understand that is very un-Thai, but we have no space to circumnavigate them.
Somewhere deep in the bushes the trail forks, of course with no signs. We explore all alternatives and finally decide to take the lower one and – yes -, twenty minutes later we are back in civilisation. We've reached the parking lot of Chiang Dao cave. That's a famous place – good for us, so there are numerous snack stalls and after our newest jungle outing, we don't hesitate to raid the first few of them. A few young Thais hang out there with their motosais. They claim not to be taxis, anyway we can convince a young girl to ferry Norah and me back to the bungalow; she charges 30 Baht for two kilometers and two passengers.
In the late afternoon we finally make it to Pa Plong pagoda. It's not Shangri-La, but it exudes some magic. Less kitschy and overloaded than the rest, Wat Pa Plong is not your mainstream Thai pagoda. Everything is extraordinarily well preserved and
maintained. First you walk up a flight of easy stairs, seemingly right into the jungle. Nice picnic salas gracefully offer a rest on that part of your approach. Then a comfortable concrete path takes you through thick forest.
Until suddenly, there is a clearance, and there sits Wat Pa Plong on its own dedicated hilltop, dramatically backed by the sheer mass of mount Chiang Dao. No human activity to be noticed. Still we only dare to whisper. We climb up another flight of stairs up to the temple, lined with the usual Naga serpents. Great views, and see, Norah, have we ever met such luxurious monks' quarters?
We walk back after 6 pm. It's almost night when we return to the concrete trail through the jungle. Nothing. No voice, no bird, not even noise from motosai, chainsaw or TV. This is scary. I stop and ask Norah to wait for a moment.
"Darling", I breathe, "I know this is still pagoda land and you want are a good Buddhist. If you can, I want to kiss you here. But if you cannot, NO PROBLEM, you understand?"
Norah nods. Norah thinks. Norah closes her eyes.
"Hans. I know this is pagoda land. Maybe I will go down forever for what I do now. But I WANT to kiss you now."
Norah's eyes are still closed. She slightly opens her lips.