Day 103: Getting caffeine high in Thai highlands (videos)
“He who's down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is...”
– Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Eventually, at the die's will, I got out of bed. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I REALLY want to stay in bed. It's about 11am, the gray cloud cover that's been playing a drizzling tune on the roof of my basket of a bungalow at Mae Sai Guesthouse dims the light and fades the colors outside my window.
It's probably the first stages of sugar withdrawal, but it seems unnecessary to do anything, at least in this weather. Yet, at the same time, there is the niggling guilt of wasting time. Waste money, sure, but don't waste time.
I roll the die. It says now is the time for action. I get out of bed.
By the time I'm dressed and ready to head back up into the mountains to wander down the little side roads that stirred my curiosity yesterday, the sun itself is peeking out from behind the clouds, promising not to let us down.
Grabbing just the media essentials (laptop, drone, camera and tripod), I head out in search of fuel. I was cutting it pretty close yesterday, though I hadn't ended up using any of my reserve. This style of riding will have to come to a stop in Africa, or my bike will refuse to budge in a place less forgiving than Southeast Asia.
Lost in my head, I zip by the first two gas stations. However, it's a thrill to see that the next one also houses an Amazon Cafe. Nearly every PTT station, at least all the main ones, in Thailand boasts this chain of coffee establishments, which are decent and comfortingly uniform.
With gas in the tank, I hesitate. I am headed up into the coffee and tea plantations along the mountain sides, though it's unlikely that there will be anywhere to get good coffee, it seems a shame to waste an opportunity of having my first cup up there in the clouds.
It's the sort of decision that the die could make. However, I pull out of the station without rolling.
Let's see what secrets are up there.
The clouds settle over the coffee fields. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli. Music: Glenn Simonelli
First mini-adventure is seeing what's down the cobbled road to the Pa Mee Training Center, whatever that is.
The little mountain lane is broken in places. There are greenhouses and plant nurseries on either side, though no clear indication what the training center actually is. A gradual loop leads me down to a couple unmarked buildings, one flying the Thai flag. A middle aged Thai man working with some bulbs or other bit of plant on a wooden table nods as I slowly drive by.
At the fork in the road, I, I go the wrong direction.
A dozen meters farther down, the cobbled road turns into a mud track. After the unnerving experience of burying the motorcycle up to its engine in mud in Chiang Mai, I'm not about to explore any further. However, turning around is an issue in itself, even without the bike fully loaded. A little off the road, on a steep, hard slope, perhaps designed direct rain runoff, the bike's tyre spins.
Remember this? Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The bike stalls.
I grab the brakes to prevent the it, and myself, from taking a long downhill roll. I start the bike, give it gas. The bike tire squirms for traction. We make a couple centimeters of progress. Then, I kill it.
I start it. I give it gas. I kill it.
With a little patients and a great deal of manhandling, the bike gets both tires back on “real” road and we're off again.
The man points the other direction, indicating that stone path loops back around to the main road. And, it does.
I'm still not sure what the Pa Mee Training Center is.
Further up the road, another cobbled path wiggles off into the mountains. A large arching sign above the road marks it as one of the access roads to the Pha Hi Village. I had started down this way yesterday, but bailed.
Now, as the cloud cover seeps into the coffee shrub filled valley below, obscuring the mountains on the far side, I commit to seeing the village.
Meet the Phu Hi hill tribe village. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli. Music: Bosques de mi Mente
Up a steep pitch of road, cement buildings appear on both sides of me, along with a spattering of fruit trees. The road melts into another small road at the center of town.
It's not much of a center of town, just two streets coming together on a narrow ridge the flees down the mountains side on both sides, houses clinging to what earth they can find. If it wasn't for a small, open, triangular community house, crowded with half a dozen men, backed by a small canteen, I wouldn't have recognized the junction as the epicenter of the community.
Slowly, I turn the bike down hill, a couple young woman wearing thick, black woven shirts with bright pink flourishes on the edges – traditional hill tribe garments – walk past me. The road bends back on itself before plummeting down to another row of houses. Not wanting to get trapped somewhere below, I turn around and head back up the hill, past the junction.
Four poles, each looking like one of the Go Teng poles raised to call down the gods for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, are tired together at the top, where each boasts a single plume of leafs. Their bases are spread wide like the legs of a camping tripod for cooking (though in these case a quad-pod). A gaggle of kids laugh and cheer as one of them mounts the rope swing hanging from the poles and swings out into the abyss. At the apex of the swing, their little figures are momentarily froze between the mountain tops, the jungle hundreds of meters below them.
Why do we worry so much? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Even as a proponent of letting kids play with dangerous things – how else are they to learn – the sight gives me pause. The giant swing is at the top of the village that cascades down the steep mountain slope, row after row of cement houses clutching to a tangle of two or three narrow roads and surrounded by the the thick foliage of coffee shrubs. As quickly as the parental worry rose, it sinks, like the fears of having found the Loch Ness Monster in the local swimming hole.
The kids are shy. Only one says hello as I snap pictures of them playing. I struggle to fit the entire story into a single frame. The swing is at the turnoff to the Pha Hi Village Headman's House, as well as the Pha Hi Coffee House.
It had been a gamble to skip the coffee at the gas station, though I guess one more Americno in the system wouldn't have done too much damage.
The dark roasted coffee, is bitter and delicious, lingering in the mouth like a fresh espresso. The clouds blow in, masking the mountains and then the tin roofed and finally leaving the flock of dragon flies swarming out in front of me without context.
Below, before the cloud consumed the coffee shop, a grandmother, perhaps a great-grandmother, followed by her adult child walks into a building below. She's dressed in traditional clothes, bright oranges, dark blacks and greens, silver ornaments dangling from tassels, as she hobbles into a house with cement recently poured, a pile of bricks nearby. Many of the handsome houses seem to be in the process of expanding, perhaps the coffee trade is treating them much better than the opium trade, for which the region is infamous.
On the other side of me, as I sit at a long corner table overlooking everything, there are the thick, waxy leaves of coffee plants, branches laden with heavy clusters of green beans, not yet ready to be picked, stripped of their cherry and roasted.
The man who made my coffee has disappeared, so I leave my laptop and other belongings out on the table and wander back up the road toward where the roaster supposedly is. After attempting to get direction from a group of young local women wearing jeans and t-shirts, playing on their phones. I go with my intuition. The women were more than willing to be helpful, but the language barrier was too much, and I'm not good at miming coffee roasting.
Up slope of the road is a swath of coffee bushes; down slope, houses. A few dogs bark as I pass their homes. There's the sound of a group of men laughing somewhere inside on of the houses.
The coffee processing area is closed.
From bush to cup. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
With nobody working there, it's just unplugged equipment, large cement washing basins and a small warehouse with a padlock on the doors. People often see green, unripened coffee cherries and assume that these are what's picked and then roasted, when in fact there is a bit more to the process, as the cherry will grow red before it's harvested and then the pulp and skin need to be removed so the bean itself can be processed and then roasted.
There isn't much poking around to do, so I wander back to the coffee house. The man who made my coffee, one of the roasters, if his white polo is to be believed, arrives moments later with a military officer dressed in a tan ceremonial uniform riding pillion on scooter.
From somewhere below us there is the loud clanking of symbols as a group of villagers begin to play music.
The officer shakes my hand softly, his hand lingering in mine, as tends to be the case with friendly handshakes in Thailand; there is that familiar contact, maybe a hand at your elbow that is nothing more than amiable. We talk briefly, though I'm eager to wander off and get the drone up in the air.
Hard to beat a coffee and the view at the village. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
When I return the officer, Dansomchai, is gone. A barista in a red apron, the one who wasn't around when I originally arrived, which was why the man in the white polo had apologetically been only able to offer me a hot black coffee.
The woman's snotty child cusses me out in Thai, well at least he seems to based on his face and his mother's reaction, when I ask his mum for a coffee. He's not interested I sharing his mother with others.
I laugh it off, though by the look on his face, he truly despises me.
Sipping on another coffee, I try to enjoy the view despite the chain link fence running the perimeter of the open-air cafe. The irony of the fence, given that the kids of the village are several dozen meters swinging out over the abyss is not lost on me. Rising up behind me is the droning electronic sound of a child's app playing on a phone. The idiotic music going and going. It takes a moment for me to realize that it is in fact the ABC song. Though the music is no good for the ruminating mood of a coffee house in such a stunning location, it's good to see the kid learning English.
In a much better mood by the time I'm leaving, the boy and his mother wave me off.
The Myanmar military fort I passed yesterday, bamboo sticks, tin cans and all, isn't much farther up the road. Surprisingly, the officers don't stop me from taking pictures, two of them, the ones behind a bunker of sandbags wave hello.
It isn't the most impressive military fort. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
With the setting sun turns corn fields on the western slope gold and the mountainsides an emerald green, the eastern slope of the ridge is blanketed in a thick white cloud. The road, running the ridge of the mountain, divides the two dramatically different worlds.
There is a part of me that would like to stay here until the sun disappears. However, I never have the patients for sunsets when I'm alone, so I push on down the hill. Going the other direction is a middle-aged Thai man clad in spandex. He's out of the saddle as he powers up the steep mountain road on his mountain bike. Then, there is another and another cyclist climbing the hill.
Rolling down hill on the motorcycle, I give the cyclists a big, encouraging thumbs up as I pass them. It's an impressive climb, especially since nearly all them seem to be hobbyist out for an evening ride, rather then young bucks hoping to go pro.
It's dark, dinner time, when I arrive back in Mae Sai. Keeping things simple, the dice order a whole, salted fish freshly grilled by one of the street vendors at the border crossing. I order a little chicken to go with the fish and we head back to the bungalow.
It was a beautiful day to on the road. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli