Last email from SE Asia

25 Jan

Since my last email I took night sleeper from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north for a lovely three days. I’ve written before about Chiang Mai, a beautiful city with a feel more relaxed than Bangkok. (Viv, I got you the tweed pants from the night bazaar. I think  they’re tweed pants.) On Monday I took the three hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle, the world’s opium orchard till the king wound it down through a canny blend of stick and carrot that left Afghanistan with the job, close to the borders with Burma to west and north-west, Laos to the east and north-east. I stay there with Bruce, an Englishmen and Thai resident these past eight years; a man I’ll have known forty years come October. Great to be with him again: he is a genius of hosting and damn fine company.

Yesterday was Bruce’s 65th. We took his four wheel drive and buddy Khun Khatai, a personable forty-something with enough English to hold his own on topics as diverse as Johnny Cash, coffee production and Swedish architecture – on which, you will know from my books and TV lectures on the subject – I have vast expertise. Khatai has a dream house of lyric simplicity, built and designed by him and overlooking the graceful Gok as it flows with the pace and clarity of a Scottish salmon river. K’s local knowledge and easy presence made him as indispensible as the 4WD. This is the winter season (not that it stopped me getting sunburnt again) so God only knows what the roads we took are like in the wet season. Impassable surely. On tracks of red dirt with axel-crunching, stomach wrenching ruts we climbed into foothills of the Himalayas, last seen by me thirty-five years ago and two thousand miles away in N.E India. With inclines to match Honister Pass, easily one in three in places, Bruce had grave doubts about a vehicle that had shown itself highly strung in the clutch department. Nevertheless she came through with flying colours and now stands outside Bruce’s Somerset Maugham bungalowe looking like any self respecting 4WD should  look; wheels, body and most of the windows thickly caked with dust.

Yesterday was one of those days when everything’s blessed with serendipitous magic. We drove past crops of rubber, coffee and tea, and stopped to talk with people from two hill tribes, Lisu and Akha. When I say talked that’s in some cases an exaggeration since we met people who spoke no Thai, far less English. Some connection was generally established though, and we experienced a lot of warmth from some very smiley people.

A gang of lads by the edge of the jungle, coffee pickers on their break, cracked wild macadams with stones. Exuding rude health and humour they grinned, passed us ready-cracked nuts and had no issue with being photographed – which I did as much for Bruce’s benefit as my own. Bruce, gay, was in seventh heaven over these ruggedly good looking boys with their high spirits and easy grace. This is not a part of the world where farangs, other than the odd serious trekker, are known so we weren’t being treated to a tourist show. The good humour, vitality and gener­os­ity of spirit was just what it appeared to be; neither more nor less.

So much was happening – and I’d been slowing things to snail’s pace by insisting we halt every five minutes to photograph this vista, that butterfly, this native wanderer (permissions sought and granted wordlessly) – that we’d given up on reaching the Burmese border twenty miles away. Bruce, like me a coffee freak,  wanted to find a grower he’d bought from in the past but whose whereabouts in this network of jungle tracks he couldn’t remember. We stopped at a hill­ village for directions. As we approached the valley rang to the sound of children singing in a language Khatai assured me was not Thai. I should have mentioned earlier; this part of the world only came under Siamese control in the twentieth century and cultural invasion by Thai authorities and Christian missionaries is a major threat to native traditions. The Lisu, I was about to learn, worship their ancestors.

Pulling off the track we entered a village store with machetes, soft drinks, coffee and cauliflowers on display. But the shop owner, Chome (“Jo-May”) proved the real attraction. Vivacious, smart, university educated, speaking passable English and a passionate spokeswoman for her people, this plump women arranged for lunch to be cooked, which she ate with us on a shaded verandah with panoramic views of the mountains. Chome was dressed in a costume of such splendour I thought it must mark either a special occasion or her status as VIP. But on the main track through the village I saw other women – breast feeding infants, carrying firewood, shopping and gossipping – all with similar getout of rich vermillions and irridiscently velvet blues. This is how the Lisu dress. They must spend half their days washing and mending to keep up such a class act. Given the lives they lead, these clothes are as incronguous as dinner suits in a steelmill.

As we ate, Chome held forth on the plight of a people dispersed over thousands of miles on all sides of the Himalayas. She told of an unusually enlightened father who’d seen to it she got to university – an astounding departure from Lisu norms – railed at the uselessness of Lisu men, and declared her intent to produce a book on the Lisu – a project for which Bruce and I had been conscripted, by the time the second course arrived, to provide writing, photographic and web skills. We’re to come and stay in the village for a month or more …

I’m tempted. You’d be too, stood as I was in dappled sunlight, beauty everywhere your eyes landed. I took shot after shot of this fascinating woman then left her with Bruce to go down to the dirt road insearch of other Lisu to photograph.

So who knows?

Later we had an unofficial tour of a coffee plantation – boss being away for the afternoon – by more delectable peasant boys; a birthday and a half for Bruce. When they showed us round the ware­house, its coffee in giant sacks and in half kilo bags given I guess to tasters, Bruce asked if he could buy. This plantation only sold to commercial buyers though, so the lads had to say no. The thing is, all around us as though in a living museum the story of coffee was being silently told: on bushes picked by pretty women, babies on their backs; in water tanks and sluice systems to separate bean from twig; in half acre carpets drying in the sun; in huge piles awaiting roasting … It would have been the easiest thing in the world for the lads to have taken and pocketed the equivalent of a month’s wages. No one would have known – the stuff was everywhere – but the idea clearly never occurred to them.

* * *

Tonight I fly to Bangkok, arriving at eleven thirty. I’ll be looking then for the finest piece of floor or bench the airport can offer since it won’t be till four in the morning that check-in opens for my Abu Dhabi flight. There I must kill twelve hours before my next flight leaves for Heathrow.

It’s all been, well, incredible.

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