Day 105: Cold rain catches biker in Thai clouds
A golden Buddha image sat in the silence at the mountain top. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Outstandingly lies the Mountain
Stretching graciously far.
There stands a remarkable pavilion
Eternal witness of his heroic act.”
– Inscription on General Lee Pavilion, Thailand
THE rain that started as Rocinante and I wound our way up out of a valley and into the mountains has seeped through my jacket and gloves by the time we've snaked our way up to the top of Doi Pha Tang.
There is an incredible joy to hitting the road with only the vague, romantic notion of following the Mekong. So we basked in that, and the sun, while skirting the edge of the mighty river this morning. say this morning, but in fact it was nearly 1:30pm before her tires find the tarmac. The river, which is no-longer a Oh-huh-that's-the-Mehong-River sort of river, is finally gathering the sort of body that's, if not inspiring, at least impressive. It's water broiled at the surface, looking like several coats of poorly dried brown paint, hinting at a great deal of turmoil below the surface.
We're on a small, well-used two-lane road in the valley. A road that links numerous small towns to its larger neighbors in the Chiang Rai Province, though there are signs of progress, if that's what more roads are to indicate.
Along the river front, which is dotted by a handful of restaurants, cafes and small resorts on high ridges overlooking the Mekong, heavy work is being done to the road as it is expanded. Sections are torn to pieces, forcing us to crawl forward, gingerly working our way around potholes in the shadows of backhoes, which have recently been clawing out the bright red dirt of the hillside.
A green and blue sign shows a windy road working up a mountains side. This way to Phu Chi Fa and Doi Pha Tang the sign says.
I don't recognize either of the names, but that's to be expected. Rocinante and veer off the main road onto the 1093, up a narrow wiggling ridge,. Steadily climbing into the mountains, the sun is in our review mirrors, while there is thick cloud cover and green mountains ahead of us.
Heading up into the mountain range, and the rain. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There is such a relief in traveling without a day-to-day end goal. Admittedly, it's hard to anticipate what adventures await, but therein, the bard might argue, is where the adventure lies. Either way, the stress of having chosen, sometimes very unwisely, where to travel each day by dice rolls was a mistake. Too often earlier in the trip I zipped past side roads leading to waterfalls, caves, pagoda and hot springs, unwilling to explore out of a fear of failing the dice. So now, it is with great joy that the dice find a more immediate and long-term way of impacting my trip, removing the pressure of failure on mid-range goals.
The mountainscape on the sunny side of the ridge is more gentle than the slopes deeper inside the Luang Phrabang Range. They look like they've been designed as alluvial plans, but then the parts untouched by the river's fingers rose heavenward when nobody was looking, valleys within valleys within valleys cascading downward. It's a stunning landscape that keeps appearing along the northern Thai border, which has often left my brain fumbling, like numb fingers attempting to button a coat, to find words for it.
As we gain altitude, the rain, which I am expecting, comes. I pull under a tree on a section of steep road next to a few community shelters packed with people. My clothes are damp, it's too late to bother with rain gear I figure as the rain shifts gears, taking everything up a notch. Ahead, the flat gray sky enveloping the mountains doesn't seem to have any intentions of breaking. I re-start the engine, pull my visor down and get going.
It's slow going in the rain: steep slopes, low gears; sharp curves, deadly drop offs.
Deep into the mountains, I hesitate at the turn off for Doi Pha Tang. The rain has lightened, but I'm still wet. The road heading toward the peak is in disarray, long potholes that could eat an entire motorcycle wheel for breakfast streak its surface, gravel and dirt, no doubt once part of the road, run down its surface – what surface is left.
If you get use to the wet, it's not so bad, rather a way of being, I think, not allowing it to hamper the adventure.
The road improves, becoming a white cement surface as it works its way up the last kilometer and half to the peak. Past a handful of shops, half of which have their shutters pulled closed in the low-season gloom, is an empty parking lot.
I am the only tourist here. Not the only white person. The only tourist of any kind at all.
Welcome to low season.
The shops that are open, are dark, open-faced boxes. One is selling coffee and other drinks, another soup, while the others are selling local teas and booze, as well as dried and preserved fruit.
In the parking lot, I'm ready to get back to driving. Despite the rain, I've found a flow. A mountain top is a mountain top I figure, not interested in parking and hiking the couple hundred meters up to the actual top.
“Okay, if it's a four, I'll go check it out,” I tell myself, knowing very well that it seems to never be a four.
I look at the die in my necklace.
It's a four.
I park the bike near the wide set of stairs leading to the welcome arch of Doi Pha Tang. Beneath the arch is an awkward metal heart that you walk through, most likely engorged with flowers and a sight to behold during certain times of the year.
Narrow concrete steps work their way up the grassy nob of the mountain top.
A simple Chinese-style pavilion stands above me with its pink pillars and yellow roof with blue trim, the colors gently faded from the weather. Clouds shroud the landscape on all sides, though fifty meters further up the mountain is a golden Buddha statue facing Laos, its eyes down turned, its smile gentle as it sits there unblinking below a metal parasol. Given the weather up here, a Nga protecting the Buddha from the elements would be more appropriate.
The rain eventually cleared the clouds from the mountain top. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Beyond the pavilion, there is a twisted thick-branched tree among an assortment of sharp volcanic rocks. North of that, the mountain just stops: the green tumbles down into the clouds below, there is the sound of a waterfall somewhere in the jungle at the base of the cliff.
A white stone plaque inside the pavilion reads in English and Thai:
General Lee Memorial Pavilion
Outstandingly lies the Mountain
Stretching graciously far.
There stands a remarkable pavilion
Eternal witness of his heroic act.
There is the sound of a light rain on the foliage of the mountainside, the silence of the clouds as they sweep in and there is the fullness of a place empty of people.
I read the words again.
I feel the place.
The pavilion marks when General Lee and his troops “joined in the seizure of Doi Pha Mon and Odi Yao from the terrorists”, returning the land to the Thais.
A pair of dirty brass knuckles sit on one of the benches of the pavilion. I sit next to them and try them on, contemplating taking them with me. Then again, what would I do with them?
Leaving my heavy tank bag with my camera in it at the pavilion, I march up to the Buddha statue, which it turns out isn't the highest point on the ridge either. Further up, east of where I stand, or where I imagine east to be, there are two more knolls atop the mountain, each grassier than the first.
At the top of the first two humps there rise a pair of large, jagged boulders, a path to nowhere runs between them. It's a short path, a dozen or so meters, between the dark-gray rocks painted with orange mold.
The path ends.
It ends in perfect nothingness.
The ground drops away and in front of me is a gray-white landscape, uniform in its perfection.
Starring deep into the white, my eyes struggle to understand, I am consumed in the same way total darkness swallows a person when the lights go off in a cave. Of course, if I turn my head, I can find the greens of mountain grass fleeing beneath my feet. But straight ahead, there is perfection.
A more patient person could sit and stare into the whiteness for hours, I last a couple of minutes before turning back to make the final ascent – of 20-30 meters – to the peak of Doi Pha Tang.
The steps, carved into hard clay, are steep and uneven as they charge up the final slope. Either side of the path is covered in scraggly green weeds and a smattering of little white daisy blossoms.
At the top, the parking lot has disappeared in the clouds, as has Gen Lee's pavilion and the Buddha statue. The clouds are thick, blowing in from the Thailand side of the border.
Treeless, the only permanently erect object on the hill is a metal hangman's bar, like one you'd draw as a child playing the word-guessing game hangman. From it is an oxidized metal bell, which looks like it might have been made from the top of artillery shell.
The bell sounded in fast-moving clouds. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though not one for banging gongs or bells in general, I pull a heavy piece of rebar away from the top of the bell and strike it once, listening to it hollowly sing into the hallows below.
It begins to rain, not hard, but steadily.
I wait for the sound to die. I strike it again.
Lost in thought, I nearly forget to ring a the bell a third time.
The cloud cover is complete, and though there are a handful of people sitting in their shops somewhere below, I am alone.
It is a good alone.
I take off my white shirt and begin to wring it out. The cold rain hits my skin, awakening it.
Rain on your back, on your chest, on your shoulders, directly on your skin is wonderful. We know this as kids. Why do we forget these things?
I put my shirt back on and watch the rain clear the clouds from the sky. The golden Buddha image becomes visible, than the pavilion, then the parking lot and the road winding its way toward me, as well as an assortment of mountains and valleys in the distance, at least on the Thai side. Laos remains shrouded in clouds.
The mountain top I stand on looks like it was built from half-formed clumps of clay created in a child's hand who quickly lost interest, allowing greenery to pile on top.
In the distance, pillars of dark rain connect land and sky, a patch of sun breaks through, lighting green and gold fields somewhere near the horizon.
Caught between staying and going, feeling guilty about leaving such beauty simply because I am, like always, restless, I linger. Then, arrives a blessing in disguise. Four minivans, three silver and one white, work their way up the mountain road toward the Doi Pha Tang parking lot.
My moment alone here has come to an end, it's time to hand it over to the Chinese.
Holding onto the metal railing on the way down, I manage to fall only once on the slick clay steps, and even then, I catch myself before ending up completely sprawled out in the mud.
Back on my bike, the sky stops holding back. Monsoon rains fall unhindered onto the mountain – and me. The cold water spills off my tank bag, seeping through my pants and pooling around my balls.
To think that I thought I couldn't get any wetter. It turns out under the right circumstances you can always get wetter.
Carefully, the bike and I make our way down hill, turning toward Phu Chi Fa.
That's enough of an adventure for me for the day. Then again, that's not really how adventures work.
The gray sky reflects off the wet road, making me nearly blind as I attempt to see through my rain splattered visor.
The water begins to seep into my boots as my pants funnel the rain into them. The wind cuts through my wet jacket, chilling my skin. A deep cold sets in.
Mind nearly as numb as my body, I drive along the gently declining mountain road.
It's necessary to force my gloved hands to relax as they seem nearly frozen, gently pulling on the clutch and front break during the descent.
No more stopping today.
“Hot shower. Hot shower. Hot shower,” I think as the bike slowly rolls forward, never going faster than 40km/hr.
The rain intensifies. The cold cuts deeper.
After five years of living on a tropical island, Phuket, I'm not accustomed to any type of cold. I'd often put on a jacket in the evening if I was going out, despite it being about 39C degrees.
A cluster of four tiny cement bungalows, their balconies hanging over a cliff's abyss appear along the roadside. However, the cement mixing tools nearby are a sure sign that the structures are still under construction. Another set of bungalows appear. They're also under construction.
The rain eases up, though the cold remains, despite the gradual decent from the higher altitude. Along the roadside are feather piles of corn husks several meters tall and bags of unprocessed corn cobs piled nearby. Further down, a corn cob sheller spews out an arc of corn husks, spitting the kernels into the back of a huge truck.
The slopes on either side of the road are covered in corn crops, stretching all the way down into the valley. Coming from a state that knows its corn, Indian, I'm use to seeing these crops in miles of flat featureless fields or playing along gentle rolling hills. It's extraordinary to see them being harvested from 20-30 per cent gradient slopes. I half expect to see the crops popping out perpendicular to cliff faces.
However, I'm too cold to stop. Too wet to deal with yanking on and of f my gloves and trying to clean my lenses for pictures. Clusters of people stand around the processing areas, while others continue to harvest cobs from the field.
A pile of signs indicate a rash of guesthouses and bungalows up a steep cobbled road. I turn toward them, leaning forward on the bike, careful not to pop the clutch and send my front tire up into the air, which is a real threat on this steep of a road.
Nothing looks open. Welcome to low season.
Signs in Thai with phone numbers on them point down little paths off of the cobbled road. At the top of the road, there is a parking area, but even this set of bungalows, by far the nicest of the bunch strung out along the mountainside, doesn't appear to be open. In fact, the shutters to the registration area are pulled and the door is padlocked.
On the way down, I pass one woman in the ghost town. Slowly, slowly, I descend, searching the doors of the businesses for a any other sign of life. However, padlocks are on all of the doors. It's an upstate New York summer camp after the first thawing of winter, long before anyone starts knocking down cobwebs.
Thankfully, another sign indicates ample guesthouses up ahead, once I reach Phu Chi Fa.
Phu Chi Fa, is mostly closed down as arrive. A small street-side market is closed, only a handful of business are open. However, the Phu Chee [sic] Fa Guesthouse appears to have guests. Down the small driveway, I park in an empty field surrounded by a dozen bungalows with steeped roofs and brown picket fences.
A handful of young Thai guys are drinking Leo beers on one of the porches. The manager comes down from the office with a basket of keys to unlock room number one for me.
“How much?” I ask. I'd already decided 600 baht would be my cutoff point. Of course, that's probably a lot more than I should be spending, but at this point I just need a hot shower.
The room costs 400 baht.
It's a clean little room with wood paneling, tile floors and a firm queen-size mattress.
The bike leans and then crashes to the ground. The kickstand had sunk into the soft ground.
One of the Thai guys rushes out to help me pick it up. We count to three and heave. Then count to three and heave again, getting the bike upright.
The engine turns when I hit the starter, but doesn't fire. I hit the starter again, it chugs and then comes to life.
The Thai guy has found a flat rock for me to put under the kickstand.
I think him and then head up to the office to book the room.
I yank off my drenched gloves, inside my fingers are a pale white, going blue. I pay with a wet 500 baht note and scrawl my name on the registration form.
Flipping my boots over, I pour out muddy water and set them out to dry with the rest of my gear.
Under the shower, I can't warm up. The hot water is produced by a small electric heater that's haphazardly hanging by its wires from the bathroom wall. I turn the water down to a trickle to make it as hot as possible. Stepping away from the shower, the piercing cold tiles of the bathroom and bedroom send shivers up through my souls.
It's a long shower. The kind of long shower that I've not made time for since high school, when it seemed like I had all the time in the world to shower.
Wrapped up in my longi, Burmese man skirt, and a North Face hoodie, I walk past a number of closed businesses to a little restaurant and order dinner.
Back in my room, I curl up under a blanket. Without a warm cuddle buddy, I settle for a quick wank before falling asleep.
It's 7:00pm. However, the sky is nearly dark and I'm drained. I hadn't realized how much the cold and rain had taken out of me.