Turning 27 Among the Trees
A surprise birthday getaway in the hills and mountains of Chiang Rai that left my lungs wanting a respite and my soul wanting more
Twenty-five was the first birthday of mine that Brooks and I spent together. Our celebration consisted of a mad dash to get Thai takeout in the middle of a Connecticut snowstorm, mid-week. We ate it sitting crisscross on the floor of his childhood home, on a coffee table that now lives in our storage unit, watching a NY Rangers hockey game.
Twenty-six was also spent in a very snowy Connecticut. Brooks made me a steak dinner and bought me the most glorious carrot cake I’ve had to date, which we ate while watching Phantom Thread and I staved off a migraine. We continued the celebration the day after, in a much snowier New York City, where we ate Thai food, joined by some of my dearest friends: a surprise and love-filled intermission in a time that was pretty physically, mentally, and emotionally tumultuous.
A couple weeks ago, Brooks and I celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday without a snowflake in sight. Instead, we were on the bank of the Kok River, surrounded by the hills and mountains of Chiang Rai, Thailand, eating delicious, homemade Thai food prepared by the lovely Nok. Safe to say those first two birthdays Brooks and I spent together were a premonition for this truly magical one.
Nok, aside from being a wonderful cook, is also the owner of Bamboo Nest, the homestay where we spent my three-day birthday surprise. The taste of Nok’s homemade bread and jam and her stature next to her giant, manual Toyota pick-up truck—not to mention her maneuvering of it—tells you all you needed to know about her. As did her warm greeting of me and Brooks, whom she remembered, despite his long hair. When Brooks last stayed with Nok, almost a handful of years ago, her property was situated more so in the mountains of the national park, about 15 minutes up the road from her current riverside location.1
From the accommodations to the views to the homemade breakfasts and dinners (which are included!), I can’t recommend Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai enough.
Crisp nights and sun-soaked days. Homestead pups, sleepy village dogs, hens and roosters running amok. 50 shades of greenery. The symmetry of the rice paddies. Nature's hums. The cool spritz of a waterfall. A surprise proposal sighting. A leaf-hidden puppy the size of my hand. A late-night card game with a French family. Bread toasted on a metal grate over a clay-contained fire. Nothing to do but be with nature, play Rummy 500, and read. It was delightful. And on the day of my birth (Thai time), after a mid-morning nap, we went hiking to see one of the waterfalls in the area: a very vertical start to my twenty-seventh year on Earth.
I come from a long line of nature lovers, green thumb havers, and gardeners on my mother’s side. Truth be told, as much as I’d like to fancy myself a nature gal, I really can’t ruff it. Now, having traveled through Southeast Asia, my expectations have dropped down a peg and my threshold for comfortability is not perched so high. Alas, a sweaty, lung-pumping hike was still not the have-a-good-time activity I'd actively seek out. But "When in Rome..." (or in this case, the hills of Thailand), you hike.
A hike—a five-hour hike, like the one we did, while on the peak day of my period, no less, when my energy was already at an all-time low—was just the challenge I needed to expose my lack of cardiovascular strength and the fact that my body may actually be older than my age would imply. Another year old, another year panting up a hill. I vowed, at the top of a nearly forty-five-degree incline, where a small Hill Tribe village met a small human-blazed path into the wooded, jungled landscape, that I would start exercising routinely…once I was back stateside. (Hold me to it, people.)
Thankfully, I was hiking with someone on the same nature-wavelength as me: the “I like nature, but I’d rather go glamping”2 type of guy. Although he was far more athletic than me—one look at Brooks and you'd never know he was asthmatic—I knew he was just as uncomfortable at times as me. And that, my friends and family, made our time alone in the woods together extra precious and, dare I say, fun.
We hiked up roads, down rocky inclines, up dirt paths with rocks that demanded I basically rock climb, and down paths the width of my two feet (for reference, I’m a size U.S. six).
We followed the sound of running water, walked faster when the hum of bug got too close, and stopped not only for me to catch my breath but also to take in the scenery that changed from hills to valleys; from valleys to woodlands; from woodlands to fields of flowers and thickets and tall hay-colored grass; from fields to lush jungles with leaves the size of me (again, if you need a reference, I'm 5'4"). We made our way past sleeping village dogs, let village chickens cross the road before we did, and walked through a village (whether or not it was a Hill Tribe3 village, I'm unsure) before quickening our pace as the sound of rushing water grew stronger.
We weren’t exactly sure what tier of the waterfall we were on (apparently, there are a few, some of which have some larger pools you can wade in), but the sounds and sights from our vantage point were as glorious as I’d hoped they be. Small bamboo bridges allowed passage from one side to the other, like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie.
Aside from the natural beauty of it all was the beauty of the solitude. We were alone for the majority of our hike; the trails weren’t super crowded, as there weren’t any definite trails to follow, and the villagers we happened across were a welcomed living marker of how far we’d gone and how much further we had to go. Only once we got closer to and arrived at the waterfall did was come across…other tourists. We saw a couple and their two Thai guides and one other hiking group and their guides. (To note: everyone else had walking sticks, something we should’ve probably considered.) Aside from the waterfall, we got another surprise when we happened upon that last group.
Someone decided it would be a good idea to pop the question to his girlfriend, not when they were alone sitting on the makeshift bamboo bench, but once they were back in the mix with the rest of the group. Based on the stance and hand gestures of the woman, which seemed to ask an uncomfortable Why? (as in, “Why are you doing this here, or now, or period?”), it didn’t seem to go over too well. Thanks to the small audience, though, something akin to a “yes” was uttered.
As the kids these days say, “Cringe.”
As we made our way down, the dense canopy of the forest turned into dirt roads and into another small village, in which we stopped to admire some of the wares and for Brooks to get a little snack, which he later boasted to be the best, albeit simplest, fried rice he ever had. (Eggs, rice, oil, and dried chilies. Really that’s all you need.) After purchasing a bracelet made of metal that could be anything from silver to nickel, we creeped back through the tented bamboo, muddied trials, dusty paths, and down the slippery and rocky slopes from which we came. As the sun started to set, we took a little detour to the old Bamboo Nest location, situated high in the trees, overlooking some rice paddies.
At this point, we were running out of water and my need to pee surpassed my desire to use a toilet. So, as Brooks poked around some more, admiring the view and the burning that started to creep into the sky,4 I squatted on a trail, relieved myself, and changed my bloody pad. (Yes, I’m giving you the real, raw truth here, people. If you said, "Ew”, well, yeah, but such is the female body and such is life). Thanks to the hilly hike, I needed to stand up and resume squatting a few times to get a reprieve from the burn in my quads. (It was a long pee, but with a view few bathrooms offer.)
Needless to say, our hike was a birthday surprise I wouldn’t have dreamt for myself, but it was a challenge my body and soul enjoyed after all. Whether I’m an outdoorsy type or not, I can’t deny that being immersed in nature is something that my body and mind needs. I was truly as happy as the village doggo pictured below.
We hiked to Nok’s old Bamboo Nest property and the dirt roads to get there were challenging in the dry season. I can’t imagine what they’re like in the rainy season—hence why she moved more downhill, to a more all-year-round accessible location.
If you didn’t know “glamping” is slang for “glamorous camping”, aka camping but not in a tent and with some creature comforts like toilet paper, running water, and a toilet.
Up in the hills, there are tribes in Thailand, known collectively as the Hill Tribes, just doing their own thing. Many Hill Tribes in Thailand are stateless people, meaning they aren’t Thai citizens, but they occupy Thai land. The Thai government really has no reason to claim them as citizens, from an economically beneficial standpoint, but they don’t have any reason to kick them out, either; and the tribes benefit from this because they’re just able to live as they desire, in their own worlds. However, because of their seclusion, literacy is relatively low, and they’re dependent on their own yields and resources for the most part. They can become Thai citizens, if they wanted to, but that would mean entering into “the system” (i.e., having to pay taxes, speaking mainstream Thai, etc.), which would pose its own set of problems, given the learning curve and cultural shift. It got me thinking about this idea of participating or not participating in our modern world, electively or non-electively, and how one can’t really straddle the line between these two realities/worlds because it can cause such a paradigm shift, in some aspects, once you make a move towards or away from the modern world. The fact that communities like the Hill Tribes still exist in the modern world, some with no knowledge of it and its inner workings, fascinates me from a sociological perspective. Just goes to show that multiple realities can exist at once.
Starting around the month of February, Thailand experiences a burning season, which is caused by farmers in the north burning some of their crops in order to reset their plots for the next planting. It makes Thailand pretty smoggy; the air quality isn’t too great as the winds from the north carry all the smoke down. Just a coupled days ago, Bangkok issued a warning to stay inside, wear a mask, and work from home the air quality was that bad. That said, the smog makes the sunsets and outlines of the hills and mountains hauntingly beautiful.