Nan, Thailand: 27 March
Maecharim, Thailand: 28 March - 30 March
On the move again, after a full week in Chiang Mai. Despite its full-on tourist-town status, it did have gorgeous gilded temples and spectacular night markets. As much as I despise these tourist-track stops (the banana pancake trail, after Alex Garland and Lonely Planet) they draw us in. I think the elephant-pants trail would be a better name. All the backpackers where elephant pants, and everyone sells them. I looked for a pair for a while, and then stopped when I was unable to find a single design that did not incorporate elephants. It’s difficult to feel cavalier about elephants as decor when I know about the pajaan.
Nevertheless, some things are easier if we’re not the only farangs in town. We shopped, ate farang food as a break—my halfway marker.
But now we head back in the wild. Almost everyone (that we have met and I have read about) heads north from here, through Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle and onto Huay Xai—or by bus direct to Luang Prabang, the next backpacker stop. But we head east instead, into Nan province, the northern district that remains one of the least frequently visited areas of Thailand. My parents are running a weeklong English camp at the school there, the school their time in Thailand helped build.
Although my visa soon expires, so we’ll only be able to stay a couple of days, I still wanted to see them and help in any way I can. If I’m honest, though, I also had a selfish reason for wanting to come. It’s been my failed intention all along to visit the sites where I lived as a child, and this is the first real chance I’ve had. The apartments and complexes where I lived in Bangkok are being razed.
This house, though, is where we spent two quiet summers. Living in a concrete house on mission grounds, bathing from the collected water dip bucket in the concrete bathroom with the drain on the floor, no electric after dark—where I read all of Sherlock Holmes. Twice.
I feel like those precious summers meant more to me in some way, than other chunks of my childhood—inspiring me to live sustainably and ultralight as much as possible. To cast off: money, desire, other people’s expectations. There, at this house, I collected an egg from a chicken in our backyard, and fried it, still warm. Thence comes my love of farming as an avocation, my love of seeing where food comes from.
Also, maybe, my continued love of fried eggs.
So in coming here, to the mountains of Nan district, I want to come home. Sometimes I’m this desperate wandering child, clutching any scrap of home around myself for warmth. Maybe this is the closest thing I have to a home, the only building where I lived as a child that still exists. A home where I still don’t belong.
The house is bedraggled and cobwebbed and padlocked, but it looks exactly right. Smaller, maybe, as people always say on going back. The backyard doesn’t possibly look big enough for chickens.
One night there Dad drives us up the rutted dirt road to the refugee camp that used to be here. Lao refugees from the communists across the border. My whole childhood I thought the people we moved here for were Cambodians, refugees from Pol Pot, but I never asked. Most of the people here were Hmong, fighting with Americans against Lao guerrillas. Many of them emigrated to the States.
The forest is hazy and brown, from all of the burning. In hot season, the farmers burn the undergrowth. I used to call this slash-and-burn agriculture, but there’s not so much slashing. It just seems like a carbon-intensive and old-fashioned way to make biochar.
We see a bamboo hut, and speculate on its rental costs. This is really the middle of nowhere. No elephants in sight.