In my final weeks in Thailand I made mandatory stops in several large towns representative of the northern provinces. As I’ve written elsewhere, cities require a special energy to explore, so whenever I had the chance I shifted gears by stopping in small, unassuming places. It was this kind of settlements, which could be explored in 1-2 days’ time until I had the feeling that I could hold them in my hand, that had helped me understand Thailand in the first place. The trip between the two staples of the north, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, an easy half a day for most tourists, took me one week as I detoured through three towns / villages in that region: provincial one-trick ponies, whose trick, as it turned out, was not what the guidebook had promised.
A breezy ride away from Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao had lured me with the promise of seeing my first major hill tribe market. Every Tuesday morning hill tribe people were said to come down from the mountain villages surrounding the town to sell their products. Upon arriving in Chiang Dao on a late Monday afternoon, I went on a reconnaissance mission and already saw people dismantling equipment and merchandise from their pickup trucks. Throughout the night my imagination was flooded with cliched images of exotic items, colored fabrics, and smiles on painted faces. The next morning I biked the 2km from the guesthouse to the market with excitement, and made it there just as the first rays of sunlight seeped through the bluish scenes underneath the vast tarps.
I left the main road and entered a sprawling maze of textiles and household items, eager for the sight of hill tribe people, but they were nowhere to be seen yet. A long breakfast served as a pretext to stick around until the market had reached its peak. On the second tour, I spotted a few betel-chewing women selling unfamiliar herbs, seeds and vegetables, but I largely settled for the conclusion that the market was an outlet for mass products or Vietnamese imports, and, apart from the fresh produce section, most hill tribe people came to shop rather than sell. They were roaming around with their extended families, bargaining or getting lost amid the countless displays of fake leather shoes, replica shirts, plastic containers, or more original stands, like the “pajama oasis” — a four-walled enclosure made of colorful bedsheets around a motionless catwalk of mannequins dressed in pajamas.
I spent the rest of the day biking to the limestone mountains outside Chiang Dao and exploring two Buddhist temples, one tucked away in a cave, the other perched high up on rocks overlooking the rainforest canopy.
When I least expected it, Chiang Dao’s true reward – the “diamond” – came about while I was taking a break on a meadow by the forest. A loud noise from a nearby tree captured my attention: the wind had cracked open a long bean-like pod which let tens of white flakes (seeds) out into the air; they whirled around the tree like a localized snowfall, sparkling in the sun, until they quickly drifted apart — five seconds of magic that will hopefully be forever imprinted in my memory.
Within spitting distance of the Burmese border, Thaton was described as a quiet river village, where the proximity of the water offered lots of opportunities for activity (and inactivity, for that matter). Thirty minutes after my arrival I was already comfily set up in a pink bungalow by the waterfront. The multicolored resort, like much of the place, was at the low point of the tourist season, which left me wondering why the receptionist had chosen this particular bungalow color for me and whether it was a very coveted one otherwise. The river too was at its lowest. Wide stretches of muddy banks had been exposed, where Thai families were having sad-looking picnics while elders were opting for a more therapeutic approach to mud. A young woman with a makeshift tube rental business went the whole evening without a single client.
Thaton had however another attraction: a Buddhist temple complex spreading on nine different levels of a forested hill.
On the day of my arrival, before sunset, I climbed up to level three, hoping to make it to the top the following morning, when the air would be cooler. Level three was already high enough to offer a good panorama of the village, partially blurred out because of the persistent smog. A group of monks struck up a conversation with me while we were all admiring a giant white sitting Buddha; they were chaperoning an old monk who was visiting from another Thai district. This monk wanted a photo with me so his aides passed on the request. I seized the opportunity and asked for the same thing in return.
And voila – two months into my trip, there it was, my first photo together with Buddhist monks. That same night it landed in the inbox of my grandparents – who didn’t think much of my travels in the first place – as proof that I was actually doing something dignifying.
The next day, I breezed through the first six levels of the complex as the sun rose and got glimpses of the monks busy with morning cleaning. I headed straight for an impressive pagoda at level 7, which I conveniently reached just before the official opening hours, getting to enjoy it all for myself. The pagoda was next to a center marked as a restaurant and I headed there for breakfast, only to stumble on what appeared to be a large Buddhist monk conference. The room was filled with young monks, who listened carefully and took notes as an old monk was speaking into a microphone at the front. The audience kept presenting him with gifts. I stood at the back of the room and watched the proceedings without understanding much, other than that I was the only farang and the only woman around.
When I started to worry that I might be in the wrong place, a smiling lady in a business suit came to me and politely invited me to the hall outside, where a bunch of women were preparing food and drinks for the conference. Her gesture had had nothing to do with protocol, but rather with her curiosity about me. With basic words we had a conversation about why I had chosen to travel by myself and what I thought about Thailand. She offered me tea, the same tea that they served to the monks, and turned down my offer to pay for it. She said goodbye to me with a hand gesture that meant high respect, and her generosity somehow made level 7 feel like the actual level 9 of this temple.
Another border village, Mae Salong was perhaps the most attractive in this whole detour: in its turbulent history it was the home of Yunnanese runaway soldiers and an opium hub; the present-day settlement was considered a pocket of a bygone China in Thailand. However, the moment the song thaew dropped me in the courtyard of a popular guesthouse instead of the bus station, I could feel a familiar smell in the air. The smell persisted during an ensuing long walk through the village, which revealed huge mansions hosting Chinese karaoke parties, hill tribe women chasing passersby to sell ethnic products, and a low key family-run noodle shop where I received my meal without any interaction but with all the self-assured gestures of a fast food restaurant.
The morning market only added to the impression. Tourists abounded and were taking photos while keeping distance from the sellers (except for the extremely popular strawberry stall), hill tribe boys and girls were going around with baskets filled with ethnic bracelets, and above all and everything, the figure that validated the scene: a tall, safari-dressed man speaking straight into a camera attached to his body in selfie-mode and recording some sort of video-log, completely oblivious to the stares and even to local life. I had seen this man in Chiang Mai at an evening market in a similar posture and had dubbed him “Mr. Video Scarecrow.”
Rule for myself: when a guidebook calls something “a hidden gem” it is anything but.
Eventually I went on a day’s hike outside Mae Salong to discover something more local and walked through three hill tribe villages where, unsure of the etiquette and local customs, I didn’t take any photos and didn’t touch anything (in certain communities some of the artifacts are sacred and they would have to be rebuilt if an outsider touches them). In a Lahu village, I caused quite a commotion as I walked past a school because, as I understood, the children were not accustomed to seeing bespectacled people.
Once the path led me back to the main road, I entered a more developed Thai village where all the locals were participating in a school festivity. The place was teeming with uniformed teenagers, balloons, flowers and music. On my journey back to Mae Salong I was constantly greeted by speeding teenagers on scooters, late for the show but still respectful of strangers.
Their joy was contagious, so I sat down on a stone bench on the side of the road and looked at these young riders as they rushed past. Because of the speed and the curvy road, the giddy backseat passengers sometimes dropped flowers or ribbons from their arms, leaving a colorful trail on the asphalt road. As I walked to the guesthouse, I decided to pick up some of the lost flowers as keepsakes. They were all artificial.