Last Goodbye in Chiang Mai, Thailand

From the July/August 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Palm trees and red earth greet a haze-free sky as the overnight train from Bangkok slows and clanks into Chiang Mai station. I’ve long wanted to explore Chiang Mai, Thailand’s cultural epicenter, with its elephants and temples and hill tribes. But there’s another reason I’ve come halfway around the world, and there he is, standing on the platform: my father.

We hug, and that familiar smell of my whole life wraps around me, both comforting and disorienting way out here in this loud, hot, foreign city.

My father is 81.

Four years ago he slung on a backpack, headed to Asia, and met a Thai woman named Nachanok Wichitrattanathada—Nanni—on a bus traveling in Laos. They hit it off, and now he and Nanni operate and live above Chitlada, a simple little soup joint on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, where Nanni is from. My father is an old-school traveler and guide: I remember how every visitor to my childhood home in Washington, D.C., was driven around to see the monuments and marched through George Washington’s Mount Vernon while he rattled off history.

Chiang Mai is a long way from Mount Vernon, even farther from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Which had me wondering: How in the world did he end up hawking soup in Thailand? I’ve come to check out this exotic land my father has chosen to live in. The irrepressible old tour guide in him will likely have lots of suggestions of places to visit in his beloved Chiang Mai, but I plan to explore the neighboring hill country with its remote tribal villages as well. Perhaps I’ll get to know my father a little better.

Outside the train station, we slide into Nanni’s pickup truck, its ceiling liner carrying Buddhist good luck prayers written in Sanskrit. Nanni has short black hair, a serene face, and eyes that sparkle. My father points out the city’s old walls and canals. We drop my bags off at the restaurant­, which has three simple wooden tables inside and six on a covered veranda surrounded by a wall of potted plants. Blown-up photos of Nanni kneeling before the King and Queen of Thailand (“This is the time I cooked for the King; I cook delicious, true!”) hang on the walls.

Nanni’s friend Ping joins us—she lives next door—and soon we’re hurtling through the countryside, Nanni driving like Danica Patrick at Indy. We swing past fields of corn and banana, rice and taro, and climb into low green hills dotted with brilliant dabs of red peacock flower. We cross a bridge.

“I was born here,” Nanni says. “My grandfather had a ferryboat, and when they built the bridge, he had to find a new business.” The family started cooking.

“They have woks big enough to put two people in,” my father says.

“You hungry?” Nanni says to me.

“He’s always hungry,” my father says.

It’s true. We’re both opportunistic omnivores. We’re not particular or squeamish—food is to be explored the same as books, cultures, or art. I can recall sitting around my grandparents’ table during summer visits, a gang of relatives sucking the marrow out of bones. My grandparents were Orthodox Jews and kosher; my father declared atheism at 17, when he also lied about his age and joined the Army. He later had a long career at the nexus of newspapers and politics in Washington, and he eats everything and anything, especially if it’s got chili peppers.

So does Nanni. So do all Thais, it seems—they love to eat and they love to cook—and soon enough we’re sitting around a long wooden table on a restaurant veranda overlooking a lake. Under overhanging eaves we eat. And eat. Fish and fish heads and tom yum soup and mushrooms. It’s all thick with chili, garlic, basil, and peppers that sizzle and pop with flavor and heat. The tails and heads pile up, and my father says, “What could be better than this?”

When nothing but scales and bones remain, we drive through the rustic countryside, passing old teak houses on stilts, conical hay bales, and rice paddies.

My father tells me he’s reading Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands, and it hits me how much books and writing have fueled our shared wanderlust. “I can still remember, as a boy, reading Richard Halliburton’s descriptions of dinosaur eggs in the Gobi,” he says. “And here I walk into a hotel or a shop, and it’s like I’m in a novel by Maugham or Greene.” A curious boy reads about deserts and dinosaurs and Eastern intrigue, and the man wants to go find them.

“We were at the market the other day,” he says, “and it reminded me of visiting the Jewish ghetto in New York with my grandparents—how noisy and crowded it was but also how warm and dynamic. Whole families have stalls, and of course that’s what my grandparents had, a vegetable stall that became a market.” My father, I realize, as we zoom through rural Thailand, has traveled so far from the crowded Jewish neighborhood of his early youth that he’s come full circle to an Asia that reminds him of it.

ROOSTERS WAKE ME in the darkness the next morning. My father and I eat eggs scrambled with little red peppers that scratch my tongue with fire, and drink our coffee against the backdrop sounds of scooters and motorcycles and Thai voices. I press him about ending up in Chiang Mai. “Well,” he says, “Nanni is here, and she takes care of me.” He sips his coffee and ponders. “Thais are so much nicer, easier, than Westerners, and I like to walk and to find out how people are.” But his days of strolling are limited now—he’s three-quarters blind after a stroke and battling lung cancer that leaves him wheezing after walking a few hundred feet.

Breakfast finished, I borrow Nanni’s motorbike and rattle and roar into downtown Chiang Mai. Unlike Bangkok, with its huge shiny malls stocked with Maserati dealerships and Starbucks, Chiang Mai retains a provincial feel, its walled old center woven with quiet, narrow lanes.

I duck into a one-story building offering traditional Thai massages by blind masseuses, and while being pummeled and poked by an eyeless woman with hands like orchid petals and steel rebar, I ponder how much my father loves the exotic and the romantic. Add his relentless curiosity and fearlessness, his refusal to fit in like everyone else, and his love of spicy food—well, Chiang Mai seems like the little golf hole he’s been hurtling toward all his life.

We’re not very different. As a child I was spellbound by tales of the “primitive” in the Amazon and Arabia and Borneo, and now I have my eyes on the hill tribes that live in the tangled green mountains stretching to the north of Chiang Mai, along the border with Myanmar (Burma). Descendants of nomadic wanderers from Tibet, China, and Laos, the Lisu, Lahu, Akha, Hmong, Karen, and Mien tribes are known for their rich textiles and metalwork—and a political limbo that preserves their culture even as it keeps them poor. When my hour-long, five-dollar massage is over, my cell phone rings: A friend in Bangkok has connected me to Eak, a guide who says he can take me to places few tourists go.

Eak is 34, short and sturdy, and, born near the border, able to speak a couple of hill tribe dialects. He picks me up at the restaurant in the morning, and we head north. I realize my father never asked me why I was going; he just knew.

“If you stay along the border at night,” Eak says, “you can hear dogs braying like donkeys, and the Burmese tribes come across the border with opium.” Borders have always fascinated me, and this one more than most; one side is an anachronistic military dictatorship presiding over a forbidden world, the other a dynamic, fast-rising nation.

The road ascends to long leaf pines and plunges to river valleys and bamboo houses. This is Lisu country, Eak says, and the sons are named “son number one, son number two, son number three. A boy will say, ‘I am son number three and my father is son number four.’” It sounds apocryphal, but I savor the idea.

The road becomes one lane, dirt, and dives into the jungle. We ford a river and after 20 minutes bump into a beaten red earth clearing of perhaps 20 bamboo houses on stilts: the Lahu village of Houy Yha Sai.

The Lahu originally hailed from Tibet, animistic hunters of wild boar and barking deer. These days, the Lahu farm more than hunt. Eak is known here. We climb a bobbing ladder of six rungs into a bamboo house. A man lies in a corner, head and shoulders on a pillow, smoking opium out of a pipe fashioned from a Coca-Cola can. Children crowd inside to stare at us, as does a graceful old woman in a blue T-shirt and orange sarong. Her still black hair is in a bun. Her short fingers clutch a cigarette rolled in a corn husk. Her name is Na Jae. “I was born in Burma,” she says, as Eak translates, “but my parents decided to come to Thailand 15 years ago. We walked for ten days and slept in the forest.”

Encounters like these are always awkward at first; imagine someone from Thailand just waltzing into your home one afternoon. Patient surrender is the key. I smile; I smoke a cigarette even though I don’t smoke. I let the children look at the camera. We pass around photos of my three children. Everyone relaxes.

Sure enough, Na Jae invites us for lunch at her house, which is a few doors over. A five-foot-square pile of freshly foraged ball mushrooms fills one corner, and they make the house smell like damp forest. Na Jae has six children and three grandchildren, she says, and introduces her husband, Jha Ha. Na Jae is the village shaman, it turns out, and a back room of her house is stocked with handmade bamboo vessels to hold the pure mountain water­—“water for the gods,” she says—and white cotton flags that symbolize “a bridge to heaven” when someone dies. She grasps a machete and a stalk of bamboo and in five minutes carves a flute, on which she plays a haunting, rough melody.

“This is a very old traditional tune,” says Na Jae. “A woman plays this after her work is over to tell her lover to meet her in the fields.”

Jha Ha takes the flute, plays something, and then laughs. “That’s my picking-up song,” he says. “It’s my love song to her.” Suddenly I realize this is no abstraction but the couple’s song. “We worked in the fields together when we were children,” Na Jae says, “and then he would play that for me.”

Their grandchildren come and go, sidling up next to me, their small fingers touching my legs and shoulders. Na Jae starts singing in a thin, high voice. I’m happy to be tasting a life so different from my own, which is what my father has done with Nanni at Chitlada. After all, he’s the one who prepared me for this, handing me books when I was small, telling me not to worry when we drove through rough-looking neighborhoods, presenting the world as a place of wonder to be dived into, not feared. To take big mouthfuls of the world. To be an opportunistic omnivore.

Speaking of which, I follow Na Jae into the “kitchen”—a small, dark room with a dirt hearth, soot-covered pots, and glowing coals. She squats and fans the coals red hot, chops garlic and mushrooms and chilies, and throws them into a wok. Eak donates a can of sardines, which Jha Ha opens with a knife, and soon we kneel in a circle on the springy floor in deep shadows, eating. The mushrooms and chilies are earth and fire mixed with rice, and I’m thinking about staying forever when Eak taps my shoulder, taps his watch. Time to drag me out of the rabbit hole.

AN HOUR NORTH OF CHIANGE MAI we turn into the valley leading to Sangduen “Lek” Chailert’s elephant preserve. Elephants and Thailand, especially northern Thailand, are inextricably linked, the animals symbols of power and fertility, as well as trained beasts of burden. But their natural habitat is shrinking, and logging was banned in 1989, leaving many animals unemployed and subject to abuse. There are a lot of elephant attractions around Chiang Mai, but Chailert’s is different. A tiny, charismatic ethnic Khamu, Chailert fell in love with the beasts as a little girl and started rescuing them from logging camps and street beggars. Through pluck and force of will, and with the help of international donors, she now operates a 200-acre preserve where 30 elephants are free to just wander and play. Unlike at other preserves, riding them is forbidden. Visitors can spend the day just watching them or a week or more volunteering.

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I walk with Chailert, who’s wearing two long braids and knee-high Wellingtons, down to the river, where about ten elephants bathe and frolic in the mud. “I had a poor background,” she says, keeping a close eye on them, “and I didn’t know anything about animal rights, but in my heart I began to think I couldn’t turn my back on them.” Covered in mud now, the pachyderms amble by us close enough to touch, then rub themselves on the pylons of an observation deck. I hand them chunks of cucumbers and bamboo. They trumpet, snort, and caress each other. It seems remarkable that any living thing so big and powerful could be so gentle.

FOLLOWING MY FATHER'S URGING, I spend a day exploring some of Chiang Mai’s hundreds of temples, known as wats, with Berm, a friend of Eak’s. “My favorite,” my father says, “was built around the time of Columbus.”

The wats are oases of calm, containing pagodas and paintings of the Buddha’s path to enlightenment and monks in saffron robes. Each wat has a story. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, for example, was established in 1383 by a wandering white elephant. The wat I like the most lies in the exact middle of the old city and is 600 years old. The sprawling Wat Chedi Luang compound centers around a nearly 200-foot-tall pagoda, faced with stone elephants. Huge resin trees that Berm says are hundreds of years old flank its base.

In a side building, a display of dozens of small, glass, pagoda-shaped vials holding relics surround a life-size wax monk in cross-legged prayer. Each vial contains a few tiny quartz-like crystals. “Buddhists are cremated when they die,” Berm says, “but sometimes we find a small crystal left behind in the ashes, which is a sign they found enlightenment.” Each vial has a monk’s name.

In a corner, a young monk with a saffron robe and a shaved head sits at a table with a couple of benches. The Chedi Luang wat holds monk chats—a chance for monks and everyday folks, mostly tourists, to talk. “Lay people have a lot of problems,” says the young monk, Pena Met, “but in the temple we follow the middle way, with less problems.” His day, he says, is simple: up at five a.m. to pray and meditate; collect alms from people outside the temple at six; study and pray and meditate and sleep. “We don’t think about the future; it is day by day.” He is 25 and has been a monk for four years. He will probably leave the monastery after eight years of study. He admits that a monk’s life isn’t easy. “I have to struggle to control my mind, to fight not to worry.”

It turns out he’s got wanderlust. He wants to talk to tourists, to learn English, to read books written in English; he has even downloaded TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) lectures onto his computer to find out about other lands and other ways. Finally, he says it: “I really want to go to America!”

MY FATHER, BEING THE EATER THAT HE IS, likes to talk about Nanni’s soup, a thick, spicy northern Thai specialty called khao soi. One morning I wake early to help her prepare it, in a big wok on a one-burner stove in Chitlada’s little kitchen. Mix coconut milk with a thick red curry paste, stir and boil and stir for an hour, as it reduces and richens. She empties in chunks of beef. As the basic soup cooks, my father and I tuck into a bowl from the day before, with freshly squeezed limes and noodles and Nanni’s homemade chili paste.

Travel is all about stepping through gateways into other worlds, but usually just for a time. You drop in but climb out again. I’m about to leave Chiang Mai, go home. My father isn’t—he’s here on the ultimate travel journey, a one-way ticket. He’s here to stay, sucked in by the grace of Thailand’s green warmth, ubiquitous peppers, and a smiling Nanni.

“See all those plants?” he says, pointing to the verdant wall of green surrounding the veranda. “She and her relatives chopped them out of the forest!” He pauses. “Sometimes you just see an elephant walking down the street.”

He doesn’t have to say anything more. I know why he’s here; in a way, I knew it the minute I stepped off the train. Home is fine, but Chiang Mai is hot and smoky and filled with rich smells and tastes. It fills his imagination and gives him a sense of wonder each and every day.

Carl Hoffman’s father passed away in November, not long after this story was reported. Carl is the author of The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World . . . Via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes. Photographer Palani Mohan lived in Thailand for six years.

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