I was determined to visit the hidden valley of Phrao. Or was it Phayao? Or Phrae. Shit. Where was I trying to go? The chicken scratches in my journal became my enemy as I tried to make my way to this tiny off-the-grid town. From Chiang Rai, I took a bus to Phayao only to realize Phayao is not Pharo and Phrao is where I wanted to be. After taking a look around, I decided to continue on to Mae Salong.
After my adventure with Gilles in Mae Salong, I made my way back to Chiang Rai to try to catch a bus to Phrao…again. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who confuses Phayao with Phrao, and I almost ended up on a bus BACK to Phayao (I was literally about to get on and then my gut told me to get out my map and point to Phrao). Eventually, someone at the bus station informed me that I had missed the last bus and I would have to get one tomorrow.
Funny enough, I ran into the Gilles at the bus station, and he was nice enough to take me to the secret $5 a night guesthouse he had stayed at the week before (getting there on his motorbike was a balancing act since both of us had our backpacks). I spent the day wandering along the bar-lined streets of Chiang Rai, had a couple beers at a Rasta bar, and treated myself to surprisingly good Italian food.
The next morning, I made my way back to the bus station, only to be told once again that there were NO BUSES to Phrao. My patience dwindling, I literally dragged the woman at the information “desk” to talk to the bus drivers, (who were all telling me different things), and after an extended conversation, they determined that I could get a bus to the town of Wiang Pa Pao, spend the night there, and get a bus the next morning to Phrao. It became clear through all this chaos that not many people go Phrao, which amplified my curiosity…
My night in Wiang Pa Pao ended up being a blessing. After arriving, I set out on a bicycle ride (when I asked for a a motorbike, the guesthouse owner proudly presented me with an actual bike, and I decided a little exercise wouldn’t kill me…). While biking, I came across a group of rice field workers eating and drinking on a platform near their rice field. I waved to them and they waved me over, insisting I join them. They had just finished their long workday and were happily taking shots of Thai Rice Whiskey (and insisted I do so, too). I knocked back a couple, spoke the 10 Thai words I knew (I counted to ten twice and they all counted with me), and continued biking. On my way back, I met one of the same guys I met earlier, this time with his wife and daughter. I took a couple more shots of Thai Rice Whiskey, as they (drunkingly) talked my ear off, not seeming to care that I didn’t understand a word they were saying.
When I finally arrived in Phrao, I was immediately struck by its tranquility. I was the only traveler in sight; and I didn’t see any the whole time I was there, even at my guesthouse. The German owner of my guesthouse, Doi Farang Bungalows, explained that the place was empty tonight, but tomorrow I would have to leave because a team from Google Earth was coming for the weekend. They come every weekend, he said, working to put Phrao, quite literally on the map.
The scenery was absolutely stunning as I slowly puttered along on my motorbike. Beautiful, bizarrely shaped mountains surrounded me on all sides. Glowing green rice fields went on for miles. I passed through the small village of Ban Haui Sai, or “Sandy Stream.” It is a peaceful settlement rarely visited by outsiders, where locals make their living farming tobacco and rice in the valley’s fertile ground.
Later in the evening, I found a high hilltop to watch the sunset, and I barely have words to tell you how dazzling it was against the mountain range. It changed colors from minute to minute, and I just stood there alone watching it creep behind the landscape. I’ve been to many countries and watched many sunsets, but this has to be one of the most stunning I can recall. I sang out loud, and did a little “I love life dance,” and thought of family and friends as the sun took its final breathe before disappearing into slumber.
Phrao offered me a look into the unspoiled Thailand that I longed to see. Pristine and free of tourism, it is by far one of the most traditional, rural regions in Thailand at the end of the 20th century. Until recently, the only way to reach this village was by longtail boat (the road, though it doesn’t seem new, is new, and perhaps that’s why it was so hard to get there). As I went to bed in utter quietness, I couldn’t help but wonder what changes Phrao would see in the next decade. Part of me didn’t even want to make this entry (there are barely any blogs or online information about Phrao) because I’d like to go back one day and have it be the same…
The next morning I rose early and made my way to Chiang Dao where I visited the Chiang Dao caves. I didn’t take too many pictures because I didn’t want to bring my flash, and I wanted to experience the cave more than photograph it. I did a 500 stair walking meditation to the top of a temple where I did another meditation and a bit of yoga as the sun set. This was a beautiful part of my trip, during which I spent all my days alone. I think part of why people are afraid to travel alone is the inner thinking that it sparks; being alone without family, friends, and significant others, navigating unfamiliar cultures and languages, flips your thinking inward. As I’ve made this journey, I have asked many questions about myself, the state of the word, our shared future in these tumultuous times, but I’m also learning to shut down my mind, which has always been a challenge for me, and especially when it’s just “my thoughts and i.” I feel so strongly we are in a time of great transformation, both in our personal paths, as well as our collective journey as communities, nations, an earth, and a universe. This manifests in a multitude of ways, but as my dear friend Emily eloquently wrote to me a few weeks ago “It’s as though I can barely breath one minute, and yet in the next, I find my deepest breath ever.”
I can’t explain to you what I’m experiencing and I don’t know what you are experiencing as I write this, (I don’t even know who reads this) but we are experiencing something together, and that might be our most important experience of all.
got a little too close before i realized they were beehives…
this is one of my favorite pictures right now, and has inspired an idea about a photoseries….
did i mention i got lost? ended up on some fairly rocky, steep terrain
the sunset from the hilltop
i’m doing a photo series on mothers and daughters
chiang dao caves
i started my 500 stair walking meditation here.