Hill Roads to Phu Chaisai (Thursday, Nov. 10)

In the morning we said goodbye to Ampawn and Samaan (temporarily, for we were scheduled to return for one night before leaving by air from Chiang Mai) and headed north toward Chiang Rai province. Chiang Rai is a city, too  in Thailand every province has the same name as its principal city  but we weren't going there; we were aiming instead for a mountaintop resort named Phu Chaisai ("Poo Chigh-sigh").

We took the main road north from Chiang Mai, entering higher country, some of the mountains as steep-sided as the ones you see in old Chinese paintings. These are limestone karst structures, which often contain caves. We later saw them in Phang Nga province in the south, and, spectacularly, rising from the waters of Phang Nga Bay.

We didn't stop until we reached Tha Ton, a small town on the winding Kok river not far from the Burmese border. Wat Tha Ton sits high above it, looking out over the fertile river plain east of the town. The wat occupies a good deal of territory: most of it is built at various levels on the sides and tops of some steep hills. Even the lowest level, where the administrative buildings are, is well above the river. Here our visiting monks fell into conversation with some of the resident community. As it happened, these monks had a copy of the Forest Sangha Newsletter, published in England by Jayanto and Punnyo's community, and the Thai monks were quite surprised when Jayanto pointed out our home phone number printed in it. (Dorothea had been the local contact person for a group of American Buddhists who provide support for members of the community when they visit the Boston area.)

As we ascended one of the hills we passed several large monastic buildings and, on an outcropping where it can be seen from a goodly distance, an enormous white image of the seated Buddha. What the local monks had called a pagoda  a term that isn't common in Thailand, though in Burmese usage it's equivalent to Thai chedi  was under construction on the very top of the hill. There was a beautiful view in one direction of the river plain and in another direction of yet more monastery buildings on a nearby hilltop. We walked around looking at the pagoda, a round building topped with an onion dome, though Asians would recognize it as a lotus bud rather than an onion. The dome was decorated in a multicolored pattern and quite different from anything we saw in other parts of Thailand. Just inside the unfinished doors, we found artisans pounding thin sheets of metal into relief designs. Incomplete though it is, the pagoda apparently draws some visitors already, because a refreshment stand was open for business next to the sizeable parking lot. We took advantage of the opportunity to buy soft drinks.

From Tha Ton, the road  staying close to the border  wound farther up into the mountains, As we got higher, the atmosphere dampened. We turned onto a smaller road, continuing to climb, and it was drizzling when we reached the small town of Mae Salong.

Mae Salong is more Chinese than Thai. It was settled by members of a Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist) regiment who couldn't get to Taiwan in 1949. Instead they crossed the border and settled in Burma, from which they made several raids in an attempt to reconquer the Motherland, sponsored and supported by the CIA. After 12 or 13 years they were expelled from Burma (whose government had developed a friendship with China) and founded this town in Thailand, only 4 1/2 miles from the border. They were soon deeply involved in the opium trade, mostly in competition with the Shan and other Burmese participants. This business expanded greatly in the late 60s and early 70s under the sponsorship of the CIA, which used its private airline for both drug and bombing runs, but the Thai government eventually got serious about suppressing drug production and trading within their borders, and by the end of the 80s the Kuomintang (KMT for short) was essentially out of the drug business. Thailand invested a good deal of money in converting the KMT and local hill tribes from opium to more respectable crops such as tea and cabbage (leading Tan Punnyo to wonder if the North might be troubled in the future by violent conflicts between rival cabbage lords). Mae Salong is now surrounded by tea plantations. The local oolong, grown from cuttings brought from Taiwan, is said to be excellent, though not up to Taiwan's best. I'm not expert enough to tell.

I did enjoy the tea, though. We stopped at one of several shops run by local tea growers to sell their wares. Dorothea wasn't drinking anything with caffeine in it, and although I do enjoy tea, I wasn't especially keen on carrying bags of it around Thailand for another three weeks. Jayanto and Punnyo, however, are both tea enthusiasts, and we offered to buy them whatever they might want up to a certain amount. They were glad to get the tea, not only for personal consumption but also to offer as gifts to senior monks in their community.

Buying tea is a ceremony in itself. The shopkeeper brews the tea in the typical Chinese manner, spooning leaves into a little brown teapot and pouring boiling water lavishly on top. The teapot sits on a flat, shallow metal-lined box, topped with a screen, that catches the overflow; otherwise this procedure would be messy and possibly dangerous. After the tea steeps, she pours a sample from the pot into a narrow cylindrical cup about 3 inches high and an inch in diameter, places a shallower, wider drinking cup over the top, and inverts both, decanting the tea into the drinking cup. Then she puts the cups in front of the customer, who removes the empty, upside down narrow cup and inhales the aroma from it before lifting the drinking cup to taste the tea. I quite enjoyed participating in this ritual, and I liked the tea, though its finer points were beyond my ken. The monks involved themselves deeply, however, and after a while Dorothea and I took a stroll (a short stroll, because Mae Salong's business district is not large) while they continued tasting and considering. When they had made their choices, the proprietress scooped the fresh tea leaves into foil bags and then put the bags into a vacuum chamber to remove all the air before sealing them tight.

The drizzle was over by the time we left, but the clouds remained -- below us as well as above. The road took us along a high ridge, where we could look back and see the buildings of Mae Salong scattered above a green slope so steep that it looked like a wall. Little ragged bits of cloud were drifting across it. Lower down, tea plants were growing on terraces, and at the bottom of the valley we saw a couple of small buildings shaped like teapots, one silver and the other gold. The sun appeared, and with it a rainbow bending down into the valley. We couldn't wait for Et to pull the van over so we could take pictures.

After a while the road descended with many twists, and we ran along the bottom of a valley until we came to the turn for Phu Chaisai, a dirt road that soon began to climb steeply. Signs led us to a parking area near the registration office. The resort, which includes a spa and a retreat center, is a cluster of small and medium-sized open-sided buildings built of bamboo and a kind of pinkish adobe made from the local red mud. They're thatched with large, tough leaves that have dried to gray. Phu Chaisai owes its existence to the inspiration and work of our hostess, Khun Sudawadee. (She has given us permission to use her name on our site. It's pronounced with the accent on the second syllable: soo-DAH-wa-dee.) An interior designer from a well-known family of designers and architects, she named the resort after her mother, Khun Chaisai, who owned the original plot of land. Khun Sudawadee has designed all the buildings and overseen their construction, and keeps a busy eye on things, scooting from hilltop to hilltop in an all-terrain four-wheeler.

Click here to visit Phu Chaisai's website.

The first of our Thai hostesses whom we actually met, Khun Sudawadee greeted us as soon as we arrived and invited us to dine with her and some friends. We were her guests on the recommendation of a monk in Jayanto's community who happens to be a distant nephew. She was delighted to have monastic guests visit Phu Chaisai, having long hoped that monks would become regular visitors, quietly living the monastic life on one of the hilltops and perhaps sometimes leading a retreat. Up to now Phu Chaisai's retreat center has been used mostly by groups who gather for health-related reasons. One Bangkok doctor, she told us, holds retreats for patients who need to come to terms with incurable illness.

Khun Sudawadee began Phu Chaisai with the simple desire to build a vacation house on her mother's property, as her mother had always intended to do, but she found herself challenged in this effort by the poverty of the nearby Thai village and the much greater poverty of the Akha hill tribe village that is the closest community to the resort. Both could supply laborers, but the low level of the local economy made it hard to find skilled workers and well-stocked suppliers. Gradually, the project came to be focused on stimulating the economy of the area. This required more land and more building. Now 80% of her employees are Akha villagers, and her enterprise has enabled some local Thai contractors and suppliers to develop their businesses, to their advantage and hers as well. Khun Sudawadee has greatly increased the size of her mother's original plot of land and constantly comes up with additional ways to use it. The resort grows many of its own vegetables and has begun a tea plantation.

We were put up at the retreat center, where no one else was in residence at the moment. Dorothea and I were given one cottage and the two monks had another. Both looked out over a quiet valley to a nearby range of hills, and ours was fronted by a dipping pool, kept filled to the brim by a recirculating pump. When you stepped in, the displaced water just fell over the edge into an overflow pool, whence it returned after being filtered. The only open side overlooked the valley, so the pool was completely private, and it didn't matter at all that we had brought no swimsuits. Inside was a big double bed (hung all around with mosquito netting, for wildlife is abundant in the mountains), dual vanity sinks, a shower, and a big marble-lined Jacuzzi bathtub that we never got around to using. Like most of the other accommodations in the resort, the cottage lacked a television set and an alarm clock  purposeful omissions both.

Besides the cottages, the retreat center had a large pavilion that was open on all sides and had comfortable furniture for sitting around and talking. There was always at least one attendant on hand whose only duty was to bring us whatever we might want in the way of refreshments.

It was almost a mile, down one hill and up another, between the resort proper and the retreat center. When we wanted to go over there, we phoned the front desk and they sent a driver and vehicle (the latter mostly members of the Jeep class). So, on the evening of our arrival, we changed into fresh clothes, picked up the phone, and were conveyed to the resort, where we found Khun Sudawadee and her friends, Khun DH and Khun B, a married couple who live in Bangkok, but are having a vacation house built on a hill near the resort. We had a lively time over a great meal, during which I learned that my taste buds were not yet equal to the challenging spiciness of tom yum soup.

The Mekong and the Golden Triangle (Friday, Nov. 11)

The following morning, the monks led a 7 am meditation session at the retreat center pavilion which Dorothea, Khun Sudawadee, and her friends attended. Meanwhile I immersed myself in our little private pool and contemplated the entrance of morning into the valley, which was filled with clouds like a bowl that drained gradually as the sun got higher. At nine we were up at the resort, where the monks were offered a meal brought from the restaurant kitchen, and after they had chanted the blessing we left them and went into the restaurant for breakfast  a buffet that included Thai rice porridge and various accompaniments (some rather pickly) as well as Western cereals and omelets. (A chef made the omelet to your specifications, so it could be western as well as Western.) I did try the rice porridge one morning, but we were more attracted to the omelets.

The business of that day was a tour of some sights along the Mekong River. Before we got there, however, we drove to the Golden View Chalet Meditation Center, where Tan A, Jayanto's Burmese friend whom we had met at Wat U Mong, was visiting. The owners were growing tea on some of their hilly land, though not on a steep slope that offered a long view over the Mekong valley. You couldn't quite see the river, but you could see faraway hills that Tan A said were in Burma. A small open-sided shrine room, housing a Buddha image, was built to project out over the hillside, an airy space for teaching and meditation, and huts nearby provided lodging for a few monks and retreatants. One of each (in addition to Tan A) was present, and Jayanto and Punnyo entered the shrine room to meet and talk with them. Both J and P were interested in the Golden View as a possible site for a quiet retreat. As usual, I hung about outside, taking pictures.

We invited Tan A to come along with us for the day, and we went first to Chiang Saen (rhymes with "man"), an old city on the Mekong with several ruined wats from the days when it was an important part of the Lanna kingdom. We visited Wat Chedi Luang, which has the same name as one of the wats in Chiang Mai. It means "wat (with) revered chedi," which both do indeed have. This one also had a semi-restored temple building, in which despite its incomplete state we could see decorations being hung, probably for a Kathina ceremony. A radio was playing what sounded like a raucous and simple-minded comedy dialogue to entertain the decorators, though they weren't around at the moment. Jayanto told us that this kind of program is called "ding-dong" and is very popular. Ding-dong aside, the wat was a quiet place, surrounded by a grove of teak trees.

A short distance downriver from the town we found Wat Phra That Pha Ngao, a modern establishment that includes several buildings at the bottom of a hill and a big temple at the top. This wat's Kathina seemed about to start, or perhaps to have just finished, and the lower level was crowded with people, vehicles, and vendors of souvenirs, food, and drinks. (The latter were all innocent of alcohol, which is never sold or consumed in a wat precinct.) There was a stage nearby, and seating for several hundred people, but nothing was going on there. A tablet told us how the wat was founded after a black monk appeared to a local man in a dream and told him to dig in that place, where an ancient image of the Buddha was duly unearthed. We left the crowds behind and drove up the hill to the highest temple, where we found things much quieter. The monks walked around the temple while Dorothea and I sat on a bench. We had a fine view of the river valley from up there.

When we left Wat Pha Ngao, we drove upstream along the river, passing the waterfront of Chiang Saen again, and headed for the Golden Triangle, the point where the borders of Burma, Thailand, and Laos  all of which follow rivers at this point  come together. The northern bank of the Mekong belongs to Laos, while on the southern bank Thailand and Burma (renamed "Myanmar" by the military junta who currently rule it) are separated by the much smaller Ruak river where it flows into the Mekong.

The Thai village at this point is named Sop Ruak. It's dominated, visually at least, by a huge golden Buddha Image seated above a small building on the riverside. The building is contained on either side within walls of colored glass designed to suggest that it is a big ship, with the Buddha sitting on top. The place appeared to combine some of the features of a temple and a religious theme park.

For the rest, Sop Ruak is a long row of tourist shops and restaurants fronting a long row of docks for sightseeing boats. The smallest and cheapest are the "long-tails," which you see everywhere there is water, fresh or salt, in Thailand. A long-tail is powered by a swivel-mounted automobile engine at the rear, with a long drive shaft extending at a shallow angle to enter the water 10 or 12 feet behind the boat  hence the name. The operator steers it like an outboard, by turning the engine. Jayanto pointed out that long-tails are not very pleasant to travel in because the auto engines lack such amenities as mufflers and exhaust systems, and in small boats the passengers often have to sit cross-legged. So we negotiated for a larger boat. It was much bigger than we needed for six people (ourselves, the three monks, and Et), but the price wasn't high.

We got the standard trip, which took us up the river as far as a huge Burmese resort that we could see in the distance from our starting point. It's called a resort, at least, but it's mainly a casino, strategically placed to take advantage of the Thai love of gambling (which, at least in casino form, is illegal in Thailand). It wouldn't exist if the Burmese military government didn't benefit financially from it, but according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, the owner, mastermind, and principal beneficiary is a Thai businessman. The presence of the casino, whose large sign informed us that its name is Paradise, explained the notices we'd seen posted at the boat docks declaring that it was forbidden to take more than 50,000 baht (about $1,250) out of the country.

After we inspected the imposing front of Paradise, featuring an arrangement of flags from every country that might conceivably provide tourist cash, the boat turned around and brought us back past Sop Ruak and over to the Laotian side, where we were put ashore to visit a Laotian village. Although the village was authentically a part of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, it was on an island, so the government had few worries about illegal entry. No one was asked for a passport. Et, as a Thai citizen, got in free, and the rest of us paid a young man in military uniform 40 baht (about a dollar) apiece for an entry permit. This was a tiny stamped piece of paper, one of which I afterwards used as a bookmark.

The village was described on a sign as a "hill tribe cultural garden," but although there were some rustic buildings in which people might have lived, we saw no one near them. All the action was in the thriving market, which occupied several large and small buildings next to the boat landing. Its offerings ran from fine silk and cotton scarves down to T-shirts and silly souvenirs, and hit just about every level in between. One popular category, to judge from the quantity on sale, was liquor bottled with the preserved remains of cobras and other distasteful fauna. You could also buy liquor without dead animals in it, and, looking closely at a bottle of Johnnie Walker, I saw the words "Duty Free Shop, Don Muang International Airport, Bangkok" in small print on the label.

Dorothea bought a couple of scarves, observing (as she had already done in Chiang Mai) that no one would believe she was a Greek if they saw how poorly she bargained. I was no better  it's hard to put one's heart into bargaining over prices that, compared to what we would pay at home (and to what we can afford), are already very low. We also bought a few small wooden boxes and similar items, and as usual we all had soft drinks purchased from one of the several food vendors. (Soft drinks were a constant part of our traveling diet. They helped keep us hydrated, though we also carried bottled water, and always made sure to drink one of the Thai equivalents of Gatorade once or twice a day to replace electrolytes. The muggy heat kept us perspiring constantly, so all this guzzling was necessary, and Jayanto  well aware that his parents aren't as young as they used to be  was diligent about reminding us to take care of ourselves.)

From Sop Ruak we continued westward to Mae Sai, Thailand's northernmost city, which is located directly across the Sai river from the Burmese town of Takhilek. The river is tiny; as we sat enjoying yet another soft drink in a riverside restaurant, we watched a small boy wading in it from the Burmese side. I don't think he approached the deepest and swiftest places, but it looked as though an adult could easily get across, and Mae Sai does in fact have a reputation as a smugglers' port. Jayanto, who had once spent a night in a cave monastery nearby, characterized it as a frontier town with a good deal of cowboy quality. The main street, down which we drove toward the international bridge, has crowded markets on both sides offering all kinds of merchandise, but we had done enough shopping for the day. (The guide book told us that we could buy gems there, but warned against doing so unless accompanied by an expert gemologist.)

Burma does allow tourists to enter on a one-day visa, but it was already late and nearly time to head back to Phu Chaisai. Our only reason for being in Mae Sai, other than curiosity to see the town, was so that Tan A could try to obtain some Burmese herbal medicine that a friend of his needed. He couldn't go across and get it himself, for he and the rest of his family had fled to Thailand years ago to escape persecution by the military government. He found a couple of Burmese men willing to run the errand for him, and we waited with our soft drinks in the restaurant for them to return. But they came empty-handed  the druggist in Takhilek had none of the medicine in stock. So we got back on the road and headed for Phu Chaisai, first dropping Tan A at an intersection not far from the Golden View, whose owner, reached by cell phone, had arranged to pick him up there.

We got back in time for a dip in our little pool before dinner, which we ate in the resort's restaurant at a table beside a big pool full of koi fish.

Jayanto dropped in at our cabin to visit after dinner, and obliged us greatly by dealing with a scorpion for us. We had found it in the bathroom wastebasket the night we arrived, sitting so still that we assumed it was dead. Later, however, we couldn't see it, and were somewhat alarmed until it reappeared, still in the wastebasket. Obviously it had taken refuge in the folds of the plastic wastebasket liner. Again, it was motionless, and I was convinced that its final hour was near if not already past. But a little later, Dorothea found it trying desperately to climb out of the wastebasket, whose steep sides it couldn't negotiate. We certainly had no desire to help. But when we mentioned the scorpion to Jayanto, he said he'd let it go safely  during eight years in Southeast Asia he has learned to deal with scorpions, and we were happy to have him find a more Buddhist solution to the problem of remaining unstung. He took the wastebasket outside and dropped the scorpion over the railing onto the steep hillside below. It wasn't much more than two inches long, but Jayanto told us it was the kind with the nastiest sting.

This was the only scorpion we saw in Thailand (it was more than enough), and our visit was also blessed by the absence of poisonous snakes and similar nuisances. There were so few mosquitoes at Phu Chaisai, in fact, that even Dorothea never got a bite, although she wasn't so lucky during the rest of the trip. (Asian mosquitoes, however, found me as unpalatable as domestic ones do, and my hide did not sustain a single puncture even though I never used repellant.)

This section last updated 3-5-2007