Mos’ friend, Macky, who is a nurse in Bangkok, told us that she was planning on visiting Chiang Mai for a short break. She had just left her job, and had a gap before her new job started. I’d never met Macky before, aside from a few short messages on Facebook. Mos had met her a few years previously on Koh Tao. She was a customer at Mos’ dive shop, Scuba Junction.
Macky was going to be getting the bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. By far my least favourite mode of transport. There are plenty of regular and reasonable priced flights and a good reliable train link with sleeper carriages for an overnight trip. The buses, beside being horrible uncomfortable, are dangerous. Although the Thai media doesn’t like to cover them, bus crashes are frequent. And due to the lax health and safety policies and slow emergency response time. Often fatal. Every week I see reports, largely from twitter, of fatal bus crashes. The causes are varied, but a huge percent are due to driver error. Whether that be through drink, drugs, lack of sleep, lack of training or simply showing off. I’ve experienced examples of all of these. I really don’t like buses in Thailand.
When Macky arrived at Chiang Mai bus station I went to pick her and her suitcase up on the scooter. On our ten minute ride home monsoon style rain hit and thoroughly drenched us. As we arrived home and began to dry off Mos started to cook our dinner, pork ribs, on the barbecue. And before you ask, we have a very large porch, which we can barbecue under, even in torrential rain.
A couple of days into her stay at our house Macky announced that she was going to take Mos and I on a mini holiday. Right on the Thai border with Burma. Directly north of Chiang Mai. She knew a friend with a car rental business and would pay for the trip. So, of course, we agreed. Macky said that we’d drive up there, head into the mountains, and stay at a campsite she had found online. We would be able to hire a tent and bedding there, and as it was low season they’d have loads of space. No need to book.
I dropped her in town and a few hours later she returned to our house in a small Honda saloon car. As we headed north from Chiang Mai and into a much more rural, mountainous area it was clear that Mos and Macky were both feeling withdrawal symptoms from Facebook. Macky quickly spotted a coffee shop on the highway with a WiFi sign. Coffees ordered and iPads ready they searched for the WiFi network. It turns out that the owner of the coffee shop hadn’t paid his bills and was cut off by the provider a few months earlier. Shame. So we sat in this seating area overlooking the beatific mountain range the we were about to try to conquer. It was at this point that Macky got out her teddy bear and started posing it for photos. Mos and I did the same, but with each other. Not a teddy.
About an hour later, and another hour from our campsite, we stopped in a roadside restaurant for lunch. Both the girls pointed out that we are now clearly out in the middle of nowhere as they served buffalo. A meat that is rarely served in or around towns.
We continued into the mountains, the road got steeper and sharper and our car it’s an automatic gearbox was struggling. At a few points we only managed a couple of miles an hour. I’m still surprised the gearbox didn’t blow up.
Eventually we made it to the end of the road. There was a fork. The right turn turned quickly into a dirt track and through dense jungle. The other was guarded by a soldier in a green hut and a barrier. He said that the dirt track led to Burma. And his entrance was an army base. He said that we could come in to turn around and have a look if we wanted. They don’t see many farang (foreigners) in this part of Thailand. We parked in the base and started to look around. The first thing I saw was a military car the looked like an American military Humvee, but not quite the same. Almost like a cheap copy. The roof mounted machine gun however looked like it could do some serious damage.
The bad was basically a clearing on top of a mountain. In the middle was a helicopter landing pad. At the entrance tear the road were a few wooden buildings that appeared to be empty. Maybe used for meetings and cooking. Behind that an ammunition bunker. There were maybe ten small huts around the edge of the helipad each had two beds in for soldiers. There was also a toilet and shower block. All of the huts had their opening for the doors pointing the same way. The soldiers told us that was because the doors point towards Burma. The soldiers keep a constant watch on Burma. All I could see however was dense jungle until they pointed out a small speck of brown on the side of the adjacent mountain. That was the Burmese equivalent to the base we were in.
Just past the sleeping huts were bunkers dug into the ground. These had mortars set up and ready to go. It looked like they were all targeted at the Burmese army camp. Machine guns loaded and ready for action and platforms for artillery guns. Just past these was a dense fence of razor-sharp bamboo spears sticking out of the ground wrapped with barbed wire. Immediately after that was a steep drop into the dense jungle. Certainly looked like a pretty good deterrent.
Finding ourselves this far down the road meant that we had clearly missed our campsite. So we thanked the soldiers and headed back down the road we had come from. A few miles later we found a sign for a flower garden. Mos and Macky had clearly heard of this place as they seemed very excited. We decided to visit.
As we entered the gate to the gardens and paid our 40 baht (£0.80) per person entrance fee it became clear that this was not the type of garden that I was expecting. I had imagine a place like Kew Gardens in London. Arranged gardens with themes that you could walk through and take pictures. This was very different. All we saw were rows and rows of greenhouses stuffed with colour and workers carefully pruning and watering the plants. Some of the green houses grew plants for selling but some were cordoned off with fences, clearly separate from each other. Each of these was a research department. Some of them belonged to universities, some to government and organisations. My favourite one was ‘the Royal Centre for the Research and Development of Strawberries’. I’m fairly sure it is the only establishment in the world with that title.
Further into the gardens/farm we found an open garden, much more like the Kew type garden I was expecting. They had grass, trees, flowers, all sorts. Mos, who is a huge fan of flowers and gardening in general was in her element. Walking around smelling the flowers and taking pictures. It looked great, so many colours. I can’t comment on the aroma as I’m anosmic. Meaning I no longer have a sense of smell, see the link for more information. I lost it a few years ago after an accident involving my head meeting a Tarmac road at speed.
I headed for the more visually stunning parts of this garden. My favourite was the bamboo garden. It looked just like those you might find in martial arts movies. Or one of the default nature desktop pictures in a Mac (OS X 10.5 Leopard onwards). Yes, I’m a geek.
Macky wandered around sitting her bear on anything that was strong enough to hold its weight and snapped a load more photos of this clearly well-traveled bear. Is not quite as globetrotting as Paddington, but it must be close. In comparison, Mackys bear is far too underprepared for serious travel. Unlike Paddington, her bear is lacking a sensible coat, Wellington boots and a hat. Let alone the obvious schoolboy error of not having a suitcase. Now I can understand why he relies so heavily on the support of Macky. He’s simply not equipped to travel solo.
On the way out of the garden/farm I spotted a shop. It was fairly similar to what us Brits would call a farmers market. Local produce sold to local people. Handicrafts, fruit, vegetables, food, artwork and locally distilled strawberry brandy. We left with three bottles of it, and another of locally brewed ‘Zebra Vodka’. I’m fairly sure this is not fermented and distilled zebra juice. But… It looked interesting.
Somewhere between leaving the shop and getting back into the car I lost my glasses. I’m not blind, I don’t need these glasses to live, I use them for driving, cinema and looking at the amazing scenery around I see on a regular basis. Still, I was annoyed. I couldn’t find them. I blamed a dog, then I blamed school children who used the estate as a short cut back up to their homes. In the end, I accepted my loss and we left. With me moaning all the way.
My mood was not helped by our arrival at the campsite that Macky had planned for us to stay in. The campsite where we would hire a tent and bedding and didn’t need to book because it was low season. Well, it was low season, and they had been closed for two months. Great. I think Mos and I both considered putting Macky and her unprepared bear in the boot and making the long drive back to Chiang Mai and dumping the car in a temple. But, we didn’t. We kept driving hoping to find another site. We found two, both closed.
At this point, the dark of night was closing in and it was clear that we’d have to drive down the mountain in the pitch black. A road that has sheer drops, 180 degree turns and no safety barriers. Not to mentioned the frequent landslides that block the road or simply throw cars off it. Not some pitching I was looking forward to. But this is Thailand and the self-preservation part of your brain seems to go further into hibernation the longer you’re here. So we set off.
Before we reached the point of no return we spotted a green hut. It was another army camp. This one was positioned to look over the road that leads onto the mountain. It’s the only access road to the mountain and therefor this camp was in an ideal position to monitor the illegal logging vehicles.
We stopped at the gate and explains our situation. We asked if there are any other camp sites that they knew about. The soldier on the gate invited us in to talk to his superiors. We parked up and a man with a camouflaged jacket and t-shirt cam over to us. I quickly noticed that below the waist his attire was slightly less ‘military’. He was wearing Chelsea FC shorts and red flip-flops. Although he was the base commander and was surrounded by men with rifles, I thought it only right to express my dislike of his shorts. Mos and Macky looked at me in horror. Thankfully, instead of ordering us to kneel in front of shallow graves ready for execution he laughed and continued to talk to Macky and Mos in Thai about our predicament.
Although I don’t speak Thai, well nid noy (little bit), I was able to understand that he was pretty against the idea of us driving down the mountain on the road the his base overlooked, in the dark. He’d seen far too many accidents and had to recover too many bodies from the valley below. He disappeared for a few minutes to speak to some other soldiers. He came back followed by a couple of the base dogs, they could sense the bag of biscuits he’d just been passed. He told us that we could say at the base. Behind him, two junior soldiers walked over to the helipad and started to set up two tents. It was clear that this is where we would be sleeping. This base was similar to the previous one but this was all arranged in parallel lines. The huts and sleeping quarters in one line. then a small parking area a few meters lower, then the three helipads, then the bunkers and bamboo spear fences. The view from this camp was amazing. Infact the picture at the top of this page is of Mos standing next to our tents on the helipad overlooking the mountain range at 07:00 the next day.
We threw out stuff in the tents and decided to head back to a small village we’d seen to get some dinner. On our return to the base the soldiers had prepared a clay stove for us. It’s a traditional Thai way of cooking. It’s like a clay bucket that you light a fire in. A saucepan or work sits on top. The soldiers also explained that fires are illegal on the entire mountain range. But because we were under their supervision we could have one. As we sat cooking some eggs and noodles over the open fire a few soldiers came over and we sat talking for a couple of hours. They were all very friendly and hospitable. Far more than I’d expected.
Based on the advice from the soldiers we decided to get showered before it got too cold. It drops to around six degrees celsius in the mountains. The shower/toilet block was a concrete platform divided into three boxes with corrugated steel sheets and wooden posts. In each of these was a western style toilet seat, a large bucket with a tap above it and a small pan. The pan was for both flushing the toilet and throwing water on yourself to shower. It was very cold, but refreshing.
We lite a few candles and stuck them in the ground around our fire and decided it was time to crack open a bottle of whiskey we had brought with us. Macky the found a way to access the Internet on her iPad and disappeared into her tent to update Facebook. This left Mos and I cuddled up, sitting next to an open fire, on the mountain-top helipad of an army base in northern Thailand watching the campfires of the hill tribes light up as tiny specs on this huge mountain range in front of us. It was perfect.