Thailand: Still Life with Bird Sounds
An early morning tuk tuk ride; cramped into the back of a red minibus with hard benches and half a dozen locals chattering; hitching to the turnoff in the front seat of a pickup truck with a laughing driver; walking until we catch another ride up the hill to the park.
It's like learning a new language and I'm conjugating “to go.” This is the verb of travel for which I'm sure there's a Zen-like aphorism written down somewhere: There are many ways to get there; the important thing is to go.
Chiang Mai is full of places offering treks into hill-tribe villages but I'm bent on going to Doi Inthanon National Park, the site of Thailand's highest peak. I'm a sucker for superlatives -- tallest, oldest, largest -- and when I run into Laurel, from Australia, again at the night market, I talk her into coming along.
We go until we stop.
At Mae Klang waterfall where we stand on enormous slabs of rock, deafened by the roar, and get soaked in the spray. At Brichinda Cave -- two kilometers down a parched, dipterocarp trail under a blistering sun -- where the earth has erupted into a gaping hole and we descend as if into an elaborate laboratory for lithophiles whose voluptuous stone sculptures were suddenly abandoned. For a hot noodle soup lunch and a brief respite in the shade. We buy extra water before going on.
Laurel is cheerful company but helpless when it comes to maps, travel decisions and anything in the Thai language. My own language skills are nothing to brag about but at least I can greet people, say a few polite phrases and count in Thai. After two hours of walking she complains about feeling dirty and smelly. “We’re trekking!” I want to remind her. In the summer, in the tropics. I start having second thoughts about talking her into coming. We hitch another ride in the back of a pickup truck and when the rain comes pouring down, the driver pulls off the road so we can take shelter under the trees.
Laurel ignores my desire to sleep in a tent, the cheapest alternative, and suggests we splurge for a bungalow so that we can dry out. I give in. Upon arrival, I flop on the bed and take a nap, grateful for the extra space. Afterwards, we drop into the park’s only restaurant, run by Mr Dang who is wearing a “Save the Birds” T-shirt. Like one of our drivers, he too laughs all the time. Aside from the park rangers, and Jak, a helpful guide in training, we are the only customers.
Back in the bungalow, geckos lie about the walls while lines of ants stream past them. Moths occasionally bang into the screen door, desperate to reach the light. Unlike last night’s endlessly droning motorcycles in Chiang Mai, tonight I hear only whirring and clicking of insects. Lying o the bed in the pitch dark, I listen for one of the geckos to make its eponymous call.
We stop until we go.
Bird chirps ricochet from all around the green canopy and spangled butterflies float about. The sun blazes down. I'm walking up a paved road through a forest to the top of Doi Inthanon. Without road signs, nothing can pin me down to Thailand or to a particular day of the week or month. For now, space and time have ceased to have distinguishing features. I am somewhere and somewhen, perhaps in a landscape painting: Still Life with Bird Sounds and Butterflies. Far behind me, Laurel clomps along. I'm enjoying the quiet, the feeling of solitude, and glad I don't have to make small talk. Now and then, a private tourist van labors past -- the license plate and passengers bring me back to Thailand.
At breakfast, Mr Dang taught us how to say, “We want to go to the top” in Thai and sent us out to hitch a ride. We had only a moment to wait before once more we were in the back of a truck, taking in the scenery with wind in our hair. The driver turned off at “Checkpoint 2” and we hopped out and started walking up the road to the summit, ten and a half kilometers away. At first I hoped to catch another ride, but the more we walked the more I wanted to continue.
Clouds begin wafting up from the valley, giving us a break from the sun, and our hike takes on the feel of a pilgrimage, that we are going somewhere important and mysterious. We pass two bell-shaped chedis on a ridge; they hang in the mist like a Shangri-La. It is soon evident that will only be able to see clouds at the top. A man driving a construction truck insists on giving us a ride a couple of bends up the road to his site. He smiles and points further when he stops. We walk the rest of the way up.
Gray ghosts of cloud pass over and through us and we stumble upon the end of the road. We must be at the top, though, with nothing else to see, we could be anywhere. To her credit, Laurel is optimistic the clouds will break and give us a view, however brief. We have lunch and if anything, the clouds thicken.
Nearby is a trail through a bog and we take it for something to do before heading down. Moss and ferns grow on heavy, drooping trees, and bright red mushrooms sprout beside the trail. We shuffle through, accompanied by the sounds of hooting birds that break up the silence. In the thin, calm air, I get that same “still life” feeling, that this is a place which will always exist and I only now happen to be a part of it.
We walk back down the road and before long, we are out of the clouds again.
Something is always happening. Even when we're trying to do nothing, it's still something.
Laurel and I are drinking tea by the wood-burning stove in the Common Room Hut at the River Chat Camp, where all the park rangers stay. We're still wet from our waterfall shower.
On the way over, two village boys stopped us to practice their English. Amid bursts of nervous laughter, they pressed through the usual questions about name, country and job without listening to our answers, as if reminding us that is all in the past. Now we are simply farangs – foreigners.
Outside, rain pours down.
We came here intending to rent a tent but one of the rangers was going to Chiang Mai for the night and offered us his hut. Jak invited us to join them for dinner: sticky rice, hot chilies, vegetables and fish soup, plus a ceremonial shot of Mekong whiskey to start things off. Cooking and eating together nightly, these rangers, in their twenties, knew how to do it right. It’s hard not to envy their simple lives. Concerned, they all asked if the food was too hot.
Maps, tea cups, books and musical instruments clutter the hut. Jak brings a Thai violin down off the wall and gives me a lesson. From the two strings stretching down its long teak neck to a coconut shell base I make great screeching sounds before drawing a faint, raw tune out.
Jak strums some Neil Young songs on the guitar -- inventing words where he can't figure them out. The rain provides a steady percussive backdrop to the music. The fire crackles.
We traipse through the mossy, muddy trail, under fallen trees, over large boulders, up and down slopes through the damp rainforest -- toward the distant sound of the rushing water that beckons us along like a god. We follow silently. It's in the guidebook, on the map -- Mae Pan Waterfall -- a destination, a place of beauty.
On the way, at the bottom of the road, is Huay Sai Luang Waterfall, tall and wide but with an underwhelming flow down the brown cliff face. With its protective barriers, picnic tables and dozen people hanging aboutit has no feel. We take no photos. A pair of German and French couples offers us a ride back up the road. Since Laurel has been dragging her feet all morning, we consider it. “Tell us when you are ready,” they say, having soaked up the pluvial noise and the view of the spilling cliff wall long enough.
But we are looking for seclusion and pools large enough to swim in and decide to venture on to Mae Pan Waterfall.
Slogging through endless variations of lush and green, soon we are caught up in the rhythm of the trail. Behind us, the sound of Huay Sai Luang recedes and for a while, the silence is broken only by our footfalls. Before long, the hushed chant of Mae Pan draws us forth; as it grows louder we pick up the pace. We meet no one.
Hidden in a gorge, Mae Pan is a twisted, four-tier cascade waterfall, steep and powerful like a multiplex shower for giants. Bushes and vines droop down the walls. The water thunders. Laurel and I haven't been saying much -- we're tired, hungry and on each other's nerves -- but suddenly we start laughing. It's too good to be true. We congratulate ourselves for pressing on, for being explorers, and choose a wide flat rock next to the second-tier pool for our picnic. Feet test the water: cold.
After lunch, I change into my swimsuit and wade into the pool; with each deeper step down the sandy bottom my voice edges higher and higher, as if testing musical scales. Laurel laughs and then does the same. I immerse myself and rise again, my body electrically charged. This is it, this is what we came for: the unexpected, exhilarating tingle of beauty. We become kids: floating in the pool and splashing about, battling against torrents of down-rushing water in narrow chutes, mingling with the water as long as we can.
Afterwards, we shiver on a rock, and again hope in vain for the sun to bore a hole through the clouds. Looking around the gorge, I summon all that I’ve read and heard in Buddhist meditation about being mindful, partly to be completely present, here and now, and partly to re-imagine this scene again in the future, like a painting that freezes time: Still Life with Waterfall Sounds.
We change back into our clothes and, with a long last look over the shoulder, hit the trail again.
My favorite souvenir is a toss-up between two: either a small round marble plate of a turquoise flower I picked up at a shop in Agra, India, that has the same kind of inlaid tiling design featured in the Taj Mahal or the two indigenous masks I got at the famous market in Chichicastenango, Guatemala.
Daniel Hudon, originally from Canada, is an adjunct lecturer in astronomy and math in Boston, MA. He is the author of the forthcoming nonfiction book about the biodiversity crisis, Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals (Pen and Anvil, Boston), as well as a nonfiction book about astronomy, The Bluffer's Guide to the Cosmos (Oval Books, London) and a chapbook of prose and poetry, Evidence for Rainfall (Pen and Anvil, Boston). He can be found at danielhudon.com and @daniel_hudon.