I was nursing a beer in Daret’s restaurant, a favourite haunt of backpackers in Chiang Mai, Thailand, thinking how my life lacked both purpose and excitement, when a conversation behind me caught my attention.
“I tell you, Chris, this place is so fucking wild that if you go there you’ll never want to leave. God’s truth!” a Scottish voice said with a high-pitched urgency. “Aye, it’s fucking paradise up there, it is...” The speaker trailed off.
A quieter, more measured, American voice responded, “OK, Jimmy, don’t get so excited. You’re always raving about finding the perfect place. I remember when you thought that hilltribe village on the Burmese border was Heaven on Earth, and look what happened there!”
“Hey, man, how was I to know I’d get caught in the crossfire? But this is different. Look, how can I tell you? Up on the mountain, it’s like another planet, and no Burmese troops anywhere near.”
I stole a glance at the speakers. Jimmy was twenty something, longhaired and red-faced, with gauze patches on his cheek and elbow, a sure sign of a recent fall from a hired motorbike. Chris was in his thirties, stocky with short, sandy, receding hair. He shifted restlessly, as if bored by Jimmy’s tirade. Then he spoke.
“Sure, sure... so what’s so different up there?” There was a long silence, then Jimmy cleared his throat, as if to emphasize the importance of what he was about to say.
“Listen, man, how can I tell you? It’s like, Nature, learning from Nature. Those massive, silent cliffs, the trees growing straight from rocks...yeah, and then there’s these wild hill people, living the same for thousands of years, tending their fields of poppies. Wow, man, that stuff is too much... Then there’s the wandering monks, and the caves, and the spirits in them...”
“Hah!” Chris interjected with a huff of disbelief, “Don’t tell me you believe in that crap! You been smoking too much.”
Another silence. Then Jimmy again, intense, anxious. “You see, I cannay tell you. I cannay tell nobody. Well, fuck, man, if you’re happy going round North Thailand like a tourist, then you just go ahead. But I'll tell ye man, I’m going back there soon, and then I'll no be leaving...ever again!” Jimmy’s pitch was sky-high, and for emphasis he slammed his glass down on the table.
“Hey, cool it, Jimmy. So maybe there is something to check out on this mountain of yours. Just tell me how to get there, and I might go take a look as soon as Songkran’s over.”
“Ha! That’s just it.” Jimmy was wheezing now. “The spirits willnay let me tell anyone exactly... just gie us a few clues so only smart fuckers can find their way there. So here ye go.” Another pause. My ears pricked up.
“It’s less than 100 kilometres from here, and it’s one of the highest mountain ranges in the country, with a curved ridge of peaks shaped like a horseshoe. Inside that horseshoe is nay like anywhere else on this planet. The birds, the plants, even the rocks—they’re like nothing I’ve ever seen. Oh, and the only way in is through a pass on the south side of the range. That’s all I can tell ye.”
Chris probed for more information, clearly puzzled by Jimmy’s vague clues, but Jimmy clammed up, as if he had already said too much. Soon they paid their bill and faded into the Chiang Mai night. My mind was groping with Jimmy’s riddle.
I ordered another beer, took out my map of North Thailand, and started scanning it. After a while I began to tap my finger on one point with increasing certainty. “Less than 100 kilometres away...one of the highest in Thailand (though probably not Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest)...horseshoe-shaped...approach by south pass”, I muttered. Beneath my finger, the contour lines pressed up tight against each other, seeming to conceal some secret beneath them.
* * *
I turned off the main road into a small village, and stopped to check with locals that this road led to the mountain, as there was no sign at the junction. They nodded their heads. At the end of the village a dirt track continued between fields of peanuts and maize, where occasionally I passed farmers carrying knives and hoes. All gave me broad, weather-beaten grins and I felt that already I was moving into the mountain’s aura. It stood, vast, impenetrable and mauve in the afternoon haze.
Soon the ascent began and I needed all my concentration to keep my motorbike from flying into the ditch as I thumped into huge rocks and got knocked off course by tree roots on the road. Eventually, when the plain down below had disappeared in the haze and I was surrounded by tall stands of pines, I came across a barrier in the road, and a simple check post beside it. Nobody was about, so I got off the bike, leaned it at an angle and stooped below the red and white bar, then got back on and roared away.
From here the road became almost indistinguishable from the forest. Huge ferns had grown across it, and seasons of rain had washed away the topsoil, leaving just a rubble of rock shards, piled up in great heaps and ruts. I turned the throttle on full, and with my heart in my mouth, bounced up the track, the rear wheel constantly skidding from under me. Finally I arrived at a ridge and braked to a halt with a sigh of relief.
There, in all its glory, stood the mountain, or at least one mountain of the range—a perfect sugarloaf formation rising about 7000 feet from the ground. I gasped and let the bike roll silently down the final slope through a pine grove into a flat, grassy field.
Here the track ended as if the earth had swallowed it up. On exploring, I found a rusty outhouse, the burnt stubs of piles on which a house had once stood, and an overgrown, archaic generator. I put up my tent and, exhausted from the ride, collapsed into a dreamless sleep.
* * * Jimmy hadn’t been joking about the mountain. When I buried my motorbike in the undergrowth and started exploring the next day, I felt I had woken into a wonderland. Unfamiliar birds babbled in the treetops, lush ferns and orchids hung from the branches and a strong tang of pine hung in the air.
I started walking along an overgrown footpath towards the valley enclosed by the range, and after skirting a couple of hilltops, came across a view that I will never forget. A series of peaks stood jagged and contorted in the early morning light, their sheer, insurmountable flanks punctuated in places with caves.
As I walked on, the view kept changing, revealing yet more and more peaks that formed a kind of amphitheatre around the lush valley. I passed magnolias in bloom, peach trees and banana trees, fist-sized, electric-blue butterflies and bright red, flitting hummingbirds.
At the end of the valley I started to climb up the crumbling limestone towards the tallest of the peaks, following the vaguest of trails. I slipped and cut my knee a couple of times, but kept on climbing steadily and towards sunset arrived at the summit, my legs aching and shoulders sore from the strain of my pack.
When I slipped my pack off, it seemed I just floated off the ground. Both literally and figuratively, I was on top of the world. An uninterrupted view spread out in all directions, the tops of lower peaks appearing through the evening haze. I pitched my tent a short way below the summit, sheltered by a few scrubby trees, and shivered through the night, partly from the chill night air and partly at the excitement of my discovery.
The next morning I came across the cave that I decided to make my home. It was west facing, perfect for watching sunsets, and virtually invisible and inaccessible from the valley. I stumbled upon it after scrabbling across loose rocks to forage for wild bananas. The cave was also home to bats and swifts, which I didn’t mind so much, apart from their eerie squeaking and shufflings.
The great appeal was that a stream trickled down over the rocks just a metre from the cave’s mouth, and there was a steady supply of bananas. Within a few days, my backpack was beginning to collect dust in the corner of the cave. I had finished the food and books I’d brought with me, no longer needed the tent nor bothered to change my clothes. I found a sense of elation in having escaped the world of mirrors and worrying about my image.
I was exploring one of the overgrown tracks in the valley one day when a snapped twig and muttering voices approaching made me dive off the path into the undergrowth. Through the dense foliage I could make out the waistbands and trousers of three men of the Lisu tribe, one with a gun tucked behind him. I followed about fifty metres behind them as they moved towards the upper slopes of the valley.
Eventually they entered a field of opium poppies, well concealed on all sides by tall bushes, and disappeared into a grass shack in the corner of the field. I lay on the fringe of the field, my heart thumping as I gazed at the bulbous heads of the poppies with tell-tale trails of latex running from dark slits.
When they left a few hours later, I slowly approached the shack, and cautiously went in. A few woven plastic sacks lay on the dirt floor with grubby rags piled up into pillows. In between them was a long opium pipe, with two primitive petrol lamps beside it. I was about to leave the hut when the unnatural glint of cling-film wrap in the shadows caught my eye.
I bent down to pick up a pliable black sphere about the size of a baseball, wrapped in the shiny plastic. As my eyes adjusted to the dimness, I saw another twenty or so of the same balls piled up in the corner. Breathing deeply to control my excitement, I peeled back the wrap and pulled off a thumb-sized lump of the resin.
The pungent aroma hit my nostrils and the sticky mess embedded itself in my fingernails. I smoothed the ball over, replaced the wrap and left the hut quickly, clutching the sample of resin in my sweaty palm. That night, and many after, my dreams were packed with strange creatures speaking in tongues that I couldn’t understand—sometimes threatening, sometimes friendly, always fascinating.
I rarely saw anyone in the valley except the three Lisu men who went to tend their field at the same time each day. But one day, as I was slumped in a daze under a blossoming peach tree, I was startled to see a young, shaven-headed figure dressed in a dull orange robe approaching me. He walked barefoot and carried a round bowl and long, cylindrical umbrella, which were also sheathed in muted saffron cloth.
“You stay alone?” he asked with a smile, and settled himself down beside me.
“Er, yeah”, I answered, and sat up.
He took in my grubby appearance. “Where you stay here?”
“In a cave up behind that banana grove”, I said, pointing behind me.
He became thoughtful, then his eyes came to rest on the rough-hewn pipe beside me, and peered into my half-open eyes. He shook his head slowly. “You smoke this, very bad.” He said, lifting up the pipe. “Make head no good for think. And this cave...home of bad spirits.”
Suddenly I remembered Jimmy’s mention of spirits, and asked the monk what he meant.
“You see this beautiful place,” he said, “but nobody stay here. All scared of evil spirits, live in all the caves. Eat your mind at night”.
From his bowl, he pulled out a veritable feast of pickings from the forest – wild mushrooms, leaves and pale tree bark – and invited me to join him. I asked him about the spirits, and he explained that in the past, people thought to be possessed by evil spirits were banished here, and that after they died, their spirits lingered on in the caves.
I reflected on my recent wild dreams, which I had thought were drug induced, but now I wondered whether I had been listening to spirits babbling. When I asked him how he knew so much about the area, he told me that he had been born in a nearby village and that few villagers dared to roam on the mountain. “But for me,” he added, “must go everywhere to study Dhamma, you know, the Truth.”
After eating, Phra Santipalo, as he introduced himself, took me to a small pool and encouraged me to wash my face and hair. The cool water snapped me out of my drugged state, and I began to think that maybe he was right when he had said that opium “make head no good for think”.
He invited me to walk with him back to the pass where I had entered the valley, and I was glad to stay in the company of this young man whose eyes twinkled constantly and whose every word sounded sincere.
As we walked, he pointed out wonders of Nature that I had never noticed. When he touched a leaf on a bush, it upped and flew away. The leaves of another small plant curled inwards at his touch. At one point, I almost stepped on a beetle stranded on its back. He stopped me in my tracks, gently turned it right way up, and it scuttled off into the grass.
When we reached the clearing just below the pass in the hills, he bade me farewell and invited me to visit him at his temple in the nearby village on the slopes of the mountain whenever I liked. I pressed my palms together, bowed my head and waved goodbye, filled with a feeling of elation that reminded me of climbing to the top of the mountain.
I walked back to my cave, trying to spot other natural curiosities like those the monk had shown me. I didn’t smoke the pipe that night, but lay sleepless on a ledge outside the cave, worried about the malign spirits he had mentioned.
In the morning the monk was still on my mind, and I decided that I should follow him to learn more of his Dhamma teachings. I followed his directions and after a while reached a small village perched on the outer slope of the mountain. I entered the tiny temple compound, where an old monk was sweeping leaves. When I mentioned Phra Santipalo, his eyes opened wide with shock.
He led me into the temple and showed me an old faded photograph of several monks, including the one I had met on the mountain. The photograph was dated 2499 B.E., the equivalent of 1956 A.D. – more than fifty years before. He told me that the monk had left the temple shortly after the picture had been taken and had never returned.
I wandered away with my mind in turmoil, pondering the mystery of the ageless monk. I paused at the crossroads, unsure whether to go back to my cave on the mountain to live with the spirits, or head on down to the confusion of life in the city.