Been There, Done That
I’ve been coming to Thailand one month a year for about 12 years now. I’m 54 years old, have traveled the world extensively, but since I discovered Thailand, I’ve had no desire to go anywhere else. I truly love this place—the people, the food, and especially the smiles. About 8 years ago, I married a beautiful Thai woman, about 20 years younger than myself (non bar girl), and I can say I’ve never been happier than I am right now. For 5 or 6 years I did all the usual sightseeing stuff, but now I just come to play golf. In fact, that’s what I do almost every day.
This year, my wife and I spent 3 weeks in Chiang Mai, my wife’s home town. One day, I was fortunate to join a threesome of Thai golfers, who had invited me to join them instead of passing through them (like I usually do when I play by myself). The Thai golfers were extremely nice, and I enjoyed my round of golf immensely. During the round I discovered that two of them were engineers, one a dignified older professor, about 70 years old from Bangkok, and another man about my age who was the prize student of the older professor, himself being a Dean at one of the engineering schools in Chiang Mai.
After golf, the engineers invited me out to a Thai dinner, and then later to another posh restaurant for drinks and live music (a place called “Fine, Thank you”), and then after that to a smaller less formal restaurant that had a little karaoke bar in it. All in all, I had a great evening. During the evening the Dean told me that the next day he and his professor were taking a trip to the mountains to visit a temple and asked me if I wanted to join them. They were planning to build a small tram, like the one going up Doi Suthep (a beautiful temple in the mountains overlooking Chiang Mai) to help carry people and goods up to the very top of the steep hilltop. I was intrigued with the idea of taking a trip into the mountains, so I agreed.
By chance, the professor was staying in my hotel, and after meeting for breakfast, we were picked up by the Dean in a heavy duty van with a driver. The Dean had a Mercedes, but he didn’t want to take his car into the mountains because he said that it might not be suitable for the journey. At the time, I wondered why a Mercedes wouldn’t be a suitable car for this journey, and as the day progressed I learned that not only was it not suitable, but a Yak with studded tires for feet would still be a challenge.
From the night bazaar in Chiang Mai, we traveled about an hour through flat plains of rice fields. Then we traveled another hour on a smaller road, still paved, winding through the hills beyond Chiang Mai. The road went up and up and up, and then (for lack of a better word), up some more. We were surrounded by thick green trees, winding up this steep road, rounding bends and curves, twisting left and right, slightly down, then more abruptly up, and up and up. For another hour!! We had traveled more than 60 kilometers on a snakelike road which had no ending. I was surprised to see rice fields on the sides of the hills, and not on the flat plains. There were many crops besides rice being planted, and of course we saw farmers in their fields, and more and more water buffalos as we rose in elevation. In fact, we had to slow to a stand-still many times to work our way through small herds of buffalo and cattle.
Eventually the road became smaller and the pavement disappeared. The dirt road was no larger than the width of a compact car, and if another car had approached us I wondered how we would pass each other, as there were cliffs on both sides. Luckily we didn’t pass any other cars. Soon we came to a small village, where we picked up a Buddhist monk who had some tests done at a local hospital. This monk lived on the top of the mountain with one another monk who via cell phone asked the Dean to pick him up and shuttle him back to the mountain top.
On our way, we stopped at a small hamlet, which consisted of a small rice field, a little house on stilts and 6 or 7 farmers. The farmers were showing the engineers and the monk the dams they had built along the little creek which wound its way though their property. In the rainy season, the rain from the hills would run down from the mountains, and the farmers built about 800 small dams, (usually with bamboo) to stop the water from passing quickly down the mountain so they could use the water to irrigate their fields. The engineers stopped to advise on suitable techniques to improve the quality of the dams, and help the farmers better access the mountain water. The farmers showed me how rice was grown, and I knelt down to inspect the plant, and the magic that their lives revolved around. I was breathless at the simplistic beauty of their lives.
The monk introduced me to the entire family of farmers, and told me that two of the children had studied English with him, and asked me to speak with them. I chatted with them for about 15 minutes. They were about 13 or 14 years old, shy, and very quiet, and I think they were afraid of the tall farang, as I stood about 6’2”. I asked them to count for me to 10, and then I pointed to various parts of my face, and body to see if they knew the words, and they did say a couple of words, but probably no more than 5 or 6. Before I left I gave them a can of coke, and a can of sprite, and some cookies I had brought with me, but I swear that they looked like they never saw a can of coke before. At one point I mentioned a hamburger, and they had no idea what I was talking about. I even mentioned McDonalds which they had never heard of. The thought occurred to me that the hilltribe villagers, the ones who the tourists visited, were like Manhattenites compared to these people. Of course I considered myself privileged to be in their company, nicer people I have yet to come across in my travels.
A little later we got back in the van, and traveled the last 20 minutes further up the mountain. We eventually came to a gate with 3 long bamboo poles blocking the entrance to a steep incline which led up the last part of the mountain. The Dean had to get out of the van to drag the bamboo poles aside so that the car could access this last part of the road. After closing the gate, we traveled probably at a 45 degree angle up an incline that looked to be impossible to navigate. The road turned sometime 180 degrees up and sideways, and I thought one inch on either side off the road would send our van cascading down the cliff if it were not perfectly centered in the middle. Luckily our driver told me that she had trained as a Sherpa in Katmandu, and not to worry. I’m still alive to tell the story so I guess she was right. Either way, I was scared out of my wits.
Finally we came to the end of the road, which was a flat more level space, which was at the foot of an old broken down tram, leading another 1000 feet up the zenith of this mountain above the clouds. This was the tram that the engineers had come all this way, to inspect. We got out of the van, and the monk led us up steep steps made of stone for another 15 minutes til we got to the top of the mountain. As my eyes scanned the horizon, I was in awe of the spectacle before me. We were on the highest mountain, as far as the eye could see, but there were dozens of other mountains and hills surrounding us. Beautiful couldn’t describe the view. And to my complete amazement, I turned around to see an enormous temple in its final completion. The roof of the temple stood 50 feet tall, the columns were made of marble and stone, and statues of elephants were beautifully sculpted to the sides of the temple. The size of the temple was enormous. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how such an incredible building could stand alone on the top of the world. We were to my own eyes a million miles from civilization. How could this project have been designed and been implemented. In was unfathomable to me, just structurally, how this was possible. But here I was, staring at one of the most beautiful temples on earth.
Behind the temple was situated a smaller Wat, which had Buddha statues, and a smaller place for prayer. There sat the second monk, who I later discovered had an engineering degree from Stanford University in California. His spiritual teacher’s photo was proudly displayed above his sleeping alcove, and when he pointed it out to me, he beamed with consummate joy. He gave up his life in the States for enlightenment, and we sat and chatted for quite a while before he went into lengthy discussions with the engineers about the construction of the tram. As I looked around I saw that there were two computers along the wall, occupied by a couple of students, who looked like they were programming some technical information into the machines. And I saw a fax machine, and a large TV set with a LCD screen against the wall. Also, the two monks had two very powerful Sony laptops which were just lying around. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how they got electricity up the mountain, let alone all these modern day wonders.
So here I was; on top of the mountain; a mountain where 2 monks built a temple and found enlightenment. I was there. I found it — the holy shrine of enlightenment. I was on top of the mountain that you read about in fairy tales. I was in Shangri-La. I had truly found Nirvana. Two monks plugged into the World Wide Web of sublime happiness. I remember having a thought to ask the monk from Stanford, why he needed to get this high to find enlightenment. Couldn’t he find it in the valley, or even scuba diving in Phuket? Why did it always have to be on a mountain top in the middle of nowhere? Of course I never did ask him that, as it would have been rude to say the least. All I knew was that in a heavy rain, the whole kit and caboodle could come tumbling down the mountain and no one would ever know this place had even existed. It didn’t look like the monks even thought of this possibility. Perhaps the thought of the temple turning into a water park at Disneyland was a happy thought, and that also brought enlightenment. I don’t know.
So why did I just want to get back to civilization? It looked like it was going to rain. Also, the makeshift toilet that I used behind the Wat had a spider dangling 6 inches from my nose whose teeth were so big, he needed braces. I didn’t see any snakes up there, because the roads were too narrow for them. But I did feel several mosquitoes trying to abduct blood from my jugular vein. I noticed the monks even had their own burning circular thingamajig that kept away the little vampires. Hell, if the monk woke up on the wrong side of his bed, he’d be tossed down the mountain to the valley one mile below.
I waited about 2 hours up there on the mountain for my golfing engineer friends to finish their business with the monks. I spent my time with the driver of the van, who just wanted to get out of there as quickly as I did. We talked about a million things, mostly about what we were doing on top of this mountain in the middle of nowhere. One day I’m playing golf, trying to make pars, and the next day I’m trekking in the middle of nowhere trying not to get malaria. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I hate mountain trekking. For me trekking is like staying in a 4 star hotel. So to say that I was a little out of my element is an understatement.
And just as I thought of all these delightful ways to die, the clouds above suddenly opened up and even the engineers thought that it was time to leave. Perhaps God was getting even with me for being an atheist, I don’t know. More likely, Buddha had just made a deal with Zeus, and the two of them decided on flooding all of mankind, just for kicks. Luckily I had carried two industrial strength umbrellas from the hotel, and we ambled down the waterslides flowing down on the mountain, while a swimming pool emptied on our heads. Going down the hill was more difficult than climbing up ever was. As we got into the van, I wondered how in hell we would make it down, as water was cascading in every direction. At least an inch of water collected on the little road, and I, for a second, thought about shaving my head and going back to the top of the mountain to wait out this storm, and pray for the safety of the spider in the toilet. But as fate, or sheer luck would have it, the van made it to the bottom without anyone having to get CPR, or being airlifted by the coast guard. Two and a half hours later, I was dropped off at my hotel.
I thanked my engineering buddies, and decided that this adventure was something to be remembered for all time.
And when my friends ever suggest to me that I should climb the tallest mountain to find enlightenment, I’ll tell them —-“Been there, done that.”
Nice. It is these unplanned journeys and outings that are often the most memorable.