Over eggs and toast the Canadian girl and I helped Suntan with his hostel brochure. He and his sister made up the backbone of Chiang Dao’s tourism industry, and Suntan wanted to stay on top. “Mafia,” he kept saying. The brochure, written by some prior guest, was full of cheesy adjectives, relying heavily on the word “beautiful”. The two of us did our best to eliminate redundancies in the writing and after an hour or so felt the brochure had been given an ample facelift. I was glad to help Suntan after all he’d done to make my stay in Chiang Dao comfortable and memorable.
I packed up, said my farewells, fired up the scooter and hit the road. Once I reached the main highway, signs pointed me to Chiang Rai. For the rest of the day my world was pavement, heat, and motor exhaust.
An hour into my journey, I was drawn to a roadside stand by massive red strawberry signs. I watched the woman cut the strawberries and blend them into a pink smoothie. It was cold and fresh and just what I needed.
Passing through another town, I stopped at a market and perused. I bought a skewer of hard-boiled quail eggs, a sugary cup of Thai coffee, and a bag of fried pork skins. I sat in the shade outside a 7-11 and snacked before getting back on the road.
At about the halfway point, I took a break for a meal in a valley town; chicken and rice spiced with chilies.
The elderly woman who brought me my food was inquisitive. “Where are you from? You like Thai food? You have girlfriend? You handsome young man.” She stood there smiling and I couldn’t help but smile too. She asked where I was going.
“Chiang Rai,” I said.
“Chiang Rai,” she brought a hand to eye level. “Chiang Mai.” She put her other hand lower. Though I never made it to Chiang Rai proper to find out if this was true.
Hours more on the scooter in the hot sun, cruising freeways and passing trucks. I passed an unbelievably ornate white temple and it was such a stunning structure that I had to stop. I paid to enter but didn’t even go inside the temple because I didn’t feel like taking my shoes off. I was wearing my huge backpack, after all.
The sun was dropping as I pulled my scooter off the highway and onto the jungle roads that led into the mountains. It was cold in the shadows. Pavement became hard-packed dirt. Miles of these roads took me further and further off the beaten path. At last, I ascended a steep hill and entered the hillside village of Akha.
The village was small and I was able to spot my treehouse homestay by its sign. I parked my scooter under the bamboo bungalow next to a small pool and a bamboo hammock. I climbed the stairs and stood on the deck overlooking the jungle. It was early evening. The sun had disappeared over the green mountains but it was still light out. A woman greeted me and showed me my room: a simple, thin mattress on the floor. She told me about a local waterfall and I promptly changed into a swimsuit and set off to find it.
Village signs led me to a short jungle trail and then to the waterfall. No one else was there. I waded into the shallow pool beneath the cascading falls and rolled over in the cold water. I put my head under the pulsing falls and let the water pummel me. It cleansed me of the sweat, dust, and exhaust accumulated during hours on the highway.
Refreshed, I followed the trail further until it spit me out onto a rural road. I paused, deciding whether to walk to a hot spring, a half-hour away, or go back to the bamboo homestay. It would be dark soon. As I stood there, debating, a man approached on a scooter. “Where you going?”
“Hot spring,” I said.
I perched myself on the back and he took off through the village and down into the canyon.
The springs were closed when I arrived so I ordered Pad Thai from a friendly couple running a stand nearby. I tucked the food in my pack and begin the long march back to the village. I passed several people gathering bamboo, their motorbikes parked nearby. After walking for a while, a teenager on a scooter came up behind me. He put his headphones down around his neck and asked, “Do you want to go with me?”
His scooter was underpowered for two riders, but we traveled successfully until the steepest hill right before the village. When the scooter struggled and stalled on the slope, I put my feet on the ground, stood up, and he zoomed off. I called out thank you in Thai (khaawp khun khap). I watched him park his scooter under a porch of one of the village homes and stroll inside. There are many ways to grow up.
Back at my homestay I met Khalan, the owner. He was short and well-built, with clever forearms and a wispy beard. I guessed he was in his thirties. He had spent the day hours outside of Chiang Rai guiding tourists through tombs. He’d been guiding since he was fifteen and spoke English well. He explained that accommodation had only recently opened up in Akha village. This explained all the looks I got when I arrived. A golden puppy came out of nowhere and greeted me before sticking his nose in my pack. He was after my Pad Thai.
“Cho!” snapped Khalan. He grabbed a handmade broom and commanded Cho upstairs.
We talked amidst my scooter while he cleaned out the little pool with the broom. Despite Khalan’s solid grasp of English, there were long pauses in our conversation.
“A pool?” I asked.
“Yes it’s a pool. Water from the mountain. You can drink.”
He explained that he wanted his treehouse homestay to be place for people to learn about the Akha tribe, including a bamboo skills workshop. He gestured around his bamboo bungalow and told me he had built the place himself. The land, he explained, had been passed down from his family.
“Gas?” I pointed at my scooter.
“There’s a pump down below. Chinese village. New Year so they’re celebrating.” Another pause while he sized me up.
“Want to join?”
We gathered ourselves for five minutes and when I came back downstairs, he was turning around his white crotch rocket Honda motorcycle.
“Should I take my scooter?”
“No, it’s ok.” He kicked out the passenger pegs and I sat astride. When I reached back, I didn’t find a bar behind my seat so I put my hands around his middle. He let out a small laugh so I reached back again and this time found the bar. “Ready?” He asked.
Khalan gave the engine a few test revs and took off up the steep, gouged road. He charged it like he’d done a million times, finding the smoothest, fastest optimal path, revving his engine before committing to a line. His bike reminded me of a tiger, growling and purring. I tried to memorize his exact route for my future ascent, but doing so was hopeless.
It was a short trip to the first house. We parked and joined a man around a slight fire. Our seats were wooden and impossibly small. Adults were eating and drinking at a table outside. Kids were everywhere, running around lighting M-80 firecrackers and throwing them in the street as scooters drove by. A grandma helped a toddler (who couldn’t have been more than one) steady a bottle rocket. It fired in bright bursts.
Someone brought us whiskey and beer and Khalan began to open up. He told me that he has two wives.
“They’re ok with that arrangement?”
One of his wives, the woman I had met who helped him run his homestay, was “very poor, came from Burma. That’s how the love began. Now not so much. Have a wife in the city.” His face lit up when he mentioned her.
We were given oranges. Khalan chatted with various men that joined the fire circle. I heard both Thai and Chinese. The mood was gregarious. Khalan got up to take a family picture of everyone at the table. I noticed he had finished his beer. He instructed me to do the same so we could go to the next party. I stood up, waved goodbye, and said thank you in Chinese (“xie xie”).
Back on the motorcycle, we turned onto a dirt road and he gunned it up an abrupt hill, his headlights cutting a path through the dark. I saw fireworks in the distance. We parked outside another house and walked into the backyard to a merry group congregated around a fire. An elderly man in green U.S. army fatigues looked at me and then approached. He addressed me and Khalan but I couldn’t understand him. I took a seat by the fire and was handed chopsticks. Plates of food came out, one with various meats and one with black roasted bugs.
“Crickets?” I asked. I’d had those already during my time in Thailand.
“Not crickets,” someone said. “I don’t know translation. Insect. They’re special.”
I felt eyes on me as I took a small handful and munched. They were salty and delicious.
Khalan and I were each given a bottle of beer and a glass with ice. Following his lead, I poured the beer over the ice. This is the only way to keep beer cold in Southeast Asia. A pair of young boys ran around dressed as Captain America and Batman. One kicked the other, hard, and was scolded. He kicked off his sandals as he transitioned from the porch to the house without breaking his stride.
We finished our beers and switched to whiskey sodas. A baby on a woman’s lap stared at me and people started laughing and joking, gesturing at me and the baby. I surmised that they thought the baby loved me more than he loved his father. When the father returned, he was heckled. Someone told Khalan about another party up the road so we finished our drinks and, without bothering to turn on the motorcycle, rolled in neutral down the hill.
Another gathering, another few whiskeys and beers before we walked up the driveway to yet another small party. Khalan had gone to get his bike so I approached the group shyly, leaning against a pillar. A paunchy fellow with ruddy cheeks welcomed me inside.
“Where you from?”
“Talk to my sister, she speaks English! Sit! Sit!” He offered me a spot at the kitchen table and his sister poured me a beer in a glass with one big ice cube. Khalan joined. The sister spoke to me in a British-Thai accent. She was the first from her village to marry a Westerner. She was 21 and he was 41 when they met at a bar in Chiang Rai.
“We have two girls together,” she said proudly.
“Where are they?”
“Asleep.” She gestured down the hallway.
“And your husband?”
“In the city. He may come tomorrow. Maybe it gets tiresome being around native Thai speakers?”
I assured her I didn’t mind.
“How old are you?”
“You’re 25 and you’re here?!”
She was impressed that I had made it so far north, mere miles from China and deep in the heart of the Golden Triangle.
We moved outside to another fire. After some time Khalan began refusing beers. We migrated below to join the young people’s party. Khalan was on his phone the whole time, sending heart emojis presumably to his wife in the city. A group of guys and girls asked me a little about myself and where I was from before resuming their conversations in Thai. I couldn’t follow and so I simply listened and observed. I accepted another lager and zoned out watching Thai music videos displayed on a laptop.
At midnight Khalan and I split a final beer and rode home. On the way to bed, I passed a photo of Khalan as a young man. His powerful forearms were in development and he wore a headband. I fell asleep in my bamboo room, drunk.