FARMSTEADING IN THAILANDTrue stories of a solo foreigner who travels to Thailand in the latter part of the 20th Century with no connections, no handle on the language, and little money - and goes on to develop organic orchards and a showcase meditation/fasting retreat set in the limestone hills of northernmost Thailand near the Burmese border. An outdoor rock climbing park is in development as this is being written.
The entire 250 page book is available as an E-book or as a paperback book
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subtitled: why Thailand should not go Nuclear
Note: The E-book version is accessible as a pdf or as html, viewable on regular computer monitors or on hand-held electronic devices. Ebook version also includes FREE, two other Ebooks from Adventure1 Publications. Namely: Lali's Passage (a novel) and EGAT's Thaitanic, a 75 page expose telling why Thailand should not go nuclear.
First two chapters of the Farmsteading book below, after some reviews from readers, and the table of contents.
actual unedited responses from readers........
“I started reading it today. While eating my fresh fruit for breakfast I almost choked to death on a watermelon seed. The part about you going down the river with the inflatable kayak with the suitcase sticking out got me laughing. I can just picture what was going on in the local Thais mind while you floated by.
I wish I could have seen that.” Charlie Gallery, Bangkok
“Ken - wow what a truly fascinating book. I just gave it a quick skim, and plan to take a look in more detail. Is this a book that will be in Thai bookstores? If not, it should be. Its so much better than some of the other books one sees in there - most of which seems to be focused just on BKK nightlife!”
Rembert Meyer-Rochow, Attorney, Intel Semiconductor, HK
"This is all interesting to me, as I have some of the farm bug in me and I love avocados also." Dan Berman, Editor in Florida actual, unaltered comments “I recently bought and read your Farmsteading book, which I enjoyed very much.” Robert Sinnott, California
“Hi Ken, finished reading it today. I enjoyed reading it, I particularly like to read of other peoples endeavors in LOS [Land of Smiles]. Overall very humerous and interesting. I'm passing it on to my friends, hope you don’t mind.” Sam in Phuket
"Just finished reading your book - thoroughly enjoyed it. You have and are continuing to lead a very interesting life. The part where you held off the undercover special police - is it true?! Amazing stuff."
G.Pfeiffer, farmer near Nong Khai, NE Thailand.
|a.k.a. Table of Contents, with page numbers|
2 FINGER ON THE PULSE
3 SHORT ARM OF THE LAW
4 SLICE OF CAMBODGE
5 ROCK LAND I
6. MANAO KEYBOARD
7 STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
9 GATHER NO MOSS
11 VEGE GARDEN
12 BRUSH WITH THE LAW
13 BARREL SCRAPS
14 TRUSTING TO A FAULT
15 SECOND STORY
16 STONED ON LANDSCAPE
17 767 WORDS ON HEMP
19 ROGUE HAULERS
|20 GRAFT IN THAILAND
21 WELL ON ITS WAY
22 EDDY IN, EDDY OUT
23 THE RAKE AND THE HOE
24 MONEY AS AXLE GREASE
25 ROAD TO MANDALAY
26 RAZORS AND SPORTS
27 MY BRIEF TRACK AND
28 ACHAN KEN
29 IN AWE OF THOSE WHO
30. TRYING TO DO BUSINESS
31 UNCOVERED MEAT
32 HOSPITALS, UP CLOSE
33 THE THICK AND THIN OF IT
34 BUNKER HILL
35 SOME ITEMS WHICH
ARE UNIQUE FOR THAILAND
At Kew botanical garden near London, there’s a tree-sized palm growing out of a large clay tub. A bold sign bills it as ‘world’s oldest pot plant.’ A Yankee reading that might picture the world’s oldest marijuana plant.
Some plants just aren’t well suited to being restrained in pots – preferring instead to stretch their roots out in deep soil. In 1998 I brought an avocado pit to Thailand from California – it nearly got me in trouble.
As my luggage was going through the Stateside airport security check, the brown billiard-sized ball prompted the guard to draw me aside. He might have thought it was a ball of heroin or maybe an explosive, he didn’t say, but after a couple minutes of scrutiny he let me and my pit pass on down the hallway to the plane – and that was pre-9/11.
Upon arrival in Bangkok, the avo pit slipped past customs inspectors with nary a raised eyebrow (from the inspectors, not the pit). Next day it was set to start germinating. Avocados originate from the Americas, and though there are various types, there are two basic families. The pit I started with was a Haas-type – which produce small to medium sized, strong flavored fruits. Their rinds are greenish-black to all black, and they’re decent keepers when ripe. The other general type of avocado is the ‘Feurte’ type (‘strong’ in Spanish) which are larger, and have thin greenish rinds and large pits.
Avocados are rarely seen in Thailand, but can be found in the markets of their direct neighbor, Burma. There, you’ll find the Fuerte types of various qualities. Burmese farmers there seem to keep all types in production, rather than culling the inferior types in order to focus on the better ones. Some Fuerte types grown in Burma harbor inferior traits such as; uneven ripening, and large seed to fruit ratio. That’s probably because the farmers don’t graft their trees but instead simply grow from seed – without seeming to care whether the seed came from a good quality fruit or not. Besides its food value, avocado oil is a sought after commodity that’s used in soaps, lotions and other specialty products.
Like that sole avocado pit, I came to Southeast Asia with little fanfare. My arrival differed from Tiger Woods’ homecoming in that no one knew me, and the Thai government wasn’t rolling out any red carpets nor offering me honorary citizenship. Rather than being skilled at hitting little white balls in to holes, I had some skill at farming. That first pit has since been followed by dozens of others, along with seeds and cuttings of other plants which are not familiar in Thailand. The idea is to propagate useful fruits and nuts that could be introduced to the Thai marketplace.
Eventually, the best producing plants will be made available to locals in this region who express an interest in growing them. People who can afford to purchase, may do so – which would help in keeping the program going. On the other hand, those who are low on funds could get plants for free. Some hill tribe people might fall within that category.
From the large town of Chiang Rai in northernmost Thailand, there are verdant hills which roll out to the nearby borders with Burma and Laos. By the way, who put the ‘s’ on ‘Laos’? Southeast Asians refer to it as Lao, and that sounds better than a word that sounds like the singular version of ‘lice.’ Anyhow, speckled throughout this region are hill tribe villages. Basic lifestyles there have changed little until recent years. Now, all but the most remote villages have mobile phones, TV antennae, and fashion magazines. Yet even the trappings of modernity can’t obscure the cultural roots of the people. Some of the clan names are: Lahu, Muser, Akha, Lisu, Lao, Meo, and Karen.
Historians tell us many of the hill tribe ancestors migrated down from the steppes of Tibet. To play the migration card even further, it can be argued that some Native Americans also claim their distant ancestors came from the Tibetan plateau. Indeed, there are strikingly similar appearances between contemporary hill tribe people and depictions of native Americans, north and south.
Though there must be some studies on the subject that I haven’t seen, there are also intriguing similarities between the colors and patterns of contemporary hill tribe weavings, compared to weavings of present-day indigenous Americans. It may also be interesting to note that Tibetans and Hopi Indians of the southwestern U.S. are two of the very few cultures worldwide - that use colored sand paintings – and each has similar words for ‘firebird’ (Palulukoñ).
The present day fate of the hill tribe people is a mixed bag. Though most of the younger generation leave their villages by their late teens, there’s still a stalwart minority who stay and make a go of living off the land. Old habits die hard, and slash and burn is still common – though slowly giving way to farming methods which are more conducive to fixed settlements – and less prone to erosion. Until recently, opium was the crop of choice. American administrations put pressure on Thailand and Burma to stop growing opium – and the campaign has worked rather well on the Thai side of the border. Now ginger and vegetables more commonly hug the hillsides.
Here and there, new crops are being introduced. Macadamia, coffee, mandarin orange and black tea are a few that come to mind – and each show varying degrees of viability as income generators. As with such endeavors, there are myriad factors that come in to play, such as growing conditions, climate, salability of the goods, plus the alacrity and skill of the people involved. The idea of introducing higher value crops is not unique in concept. Some of the fruit and nut varieties I plan to offer may also prove to be useful alternatives to existing crops.
Every year Thai newspapers feature articles about price supports for farmers. These subsidies are supposed to be paid back to the State, and wind up putting farmers further in debt. Latest findings say if all goes well (good yields, good prices, willingness to repay debts, etc), the average farmer can pull himself out of debt in four years. In Thailand, price supports are commonly used to prop up rice, rubber, and various types of fruits - the list goes on.
Put simply, the best case scenario would be if farmers grew crops that were in demand and therefore yielded decent prices. Instead, too many farmers wind up growing crops that are simply not popular with consumers (jackfruit, for example). Another pitfall is growing too much of certain crops and then expecting government to pick up the tab when prices dip below expectations.
Because plant nurseries didn’t have the type of stock I was interested in, I chose to bring over avocado and pink grapefruit seed from overseas. A single grapefruit from a San Francisco grocery store got me started with a mere four seeds. Each sprouted – thus yielding a 100% germination rate – though one has since shown vulnerability to leaf blight, so it was uprooted and thrown away. It brings to mind the influential crop breeder; Luther Burbank, who lived and worked in Santa Rosa California around the 1940’s. The story goes that when he experimented with hundreds of plum trees grown from seed, he would only keep the one or two that had the best all-around qualities including top quality fruit. All the others were tossed in the trash bin, even if they were quite good.
I’m told that grapefruit grow ‘true to seed,’ meaning the fruit they come from is pretty much the type of fruit they’ll yield when mature. In contrast, most commercial fruits are like apples, whose seeds yield all manner of odd-sized and weird tasting fruit. More recent info, however, indicates that grapefruit derived from a melding of Asian pomelo and Barbados sweet orange, so I won’t be surprised if fruit from seed-grown plants yield some surprises later on. As I write this, it’s been just six years since the four seeds sprouted, and the three remaining trees are still about another four years from yielding fruit.
Each year, my workers and I endeavor to propagate additional trees. There are several methods we use. Fortunately, citrus responds well to rooting methods, so we’ve had success with two basic methods; 1. branch cuttings placed in soil, and 2. rooting branches still on the tree by wrapping a section in special soil and a plastic covering. We’ve also had some success with grafting, but more about propagating in later chapters.
2. FINGER ON THE PULSE
While holed up in the city, I would take excursions to the surrounding countryside whenever possible. The best terrain was northwest of town, where there were cliffs on both sides of Mae Kok (‘mae’ = ‘river,’ and ‘kok’ = ‘water outlet’ in Thai) - a medium-sized river that flows east in to Thailand at the town of Taton, on the Burmese border. It might be challenging to explore the wilder stretches closer to its source, but that would entail heading further west up into the hills of Burma. That region is currently wracked by armed clashes between three factions: The Burmese junta, the Wa Army, and a loose confederation of Karen hill tribes. The Karen faction is split by one faction which lean to Buddhism, and the more militant Christian faction. Not surprisingly, the Burmese junta is encouraging the split – according to the old adage; ‘divide and conquer.’ Another major player is the Wa Army – which is Chinese-run and is somewhat involved (or involved up to their eyebrows, depending on who you talk to) in the opium trade.
As if that weren’t complicated enough, the U.S. government has taken sides against the United Wa Army (for trafficking drugs) and against the Burmese junta (for being an oppressive military junta). Even so, the American government isn’t offering tangible assistance to the Karen resistance – who would appear as the ‘good guys’ by default.
On the other hand, the Thai government, though making conciliatory noises to humor the U.S. in its ‘war on drugs’, takes an ambiguous stance on the manifold conflicts entangling its border region with Burma. Thais with government connections and big money (synonymous) quietly appease their Burmese counterparts. One example; old growth teak trees, the cutting of which is closely monitored in Thailand - come across the border from Burma at a steady clip. Some are cut in Burma (where there’s not much concern for preservation), and others are felled in Thailand, smuggled over to Burma, then trucked back across the border in to Thailand marked as ‘Product of Burma.’ Also, the Thai government is afraid of taking a conscientious stand on the Burmese junta’s tarnished human rights record – mainly because it’s an ingrained Asian trait to look the other way when one has a troublesome neighbor. The other reason is some VIP Thais have close business relationships with VIP Burmese – so they’re disinclined to let some wimpy environmental or exploitation considerations jeopardize the bulge in their wallets. When the choice is (A) doing what’s right, or (B) avoiding anyone losing face, the Asian will take the latter path. And, like people everywhere, the lust for money supersedes all else.
So, to lighten up: I once packed an inflatable kayak in to a suitcase and took a series of morning buses from Chiang Rai up to Taton. Taton is the Thai town that sits near the border right near where the Mae Kok flows in from Burma. I inflated the raft and was in the water by noon. It must have been an odd sight, a lone foreigner sitting in an rubber dingy – paddling down the river with a suitcase propped up in front. On-lookers might have thought the guy just got on the losing end of an argument with his wife.
The hope was to find some white water, but the only rapids are a quarter mile section which is half way between Taton and Chiang Rai. Wild animals were also a rare sight. A water snake joined me for a spell, and a few elephants hung by the shore that, upon closer inspection, were tethered to trees. No turtles, no large birds – nor any monkeys, big cats or large lizards came in to view. If that float had been done fifty years ago, there would have been at least two types of monkeys (capuchin and howler) swinging in the trees and perhaps cranes, geese, storks and herons along the shoreline - plus the occasional monitor lizard lurking in the brush. A hundred years ago, there would likely have been cloud leopard, deer, large pig-like peccaries, and maybe the sighting of a tiger or two. One thousand years ago, one-horned rhinos, orangutans, and pigmy hippos may have jostled along those same banks, and I probably wouldn’t have made it very far - with the prospect of a team of bulb-nosed crocs attacking a flimsy inflatable craft.
As the sun was setting, I got apprehensive about a place to stay the night. I thought I might paddle all the way to Chiang Rai my nightfall, and had brought no provisions for camping out. I was at a long stretch of river that had scant few dwellings. Years later I realized that it would have been alright to simply show up unannounced and request a place to lie down for the night – but at the time I could only speak a small bit of Thai and was encumbered by the thought of not wanting to impose on anyone. I floated for a few miles after the sun set. Then, like a vision of heaven, I spotted a grouping of lights that turned out to be a riverside guest house called My Dream. It took all my remaining paddling strength to traverse the river’s current – and land clumsily at the shore by the property. I fished in my pocket for two hundred baht notes wrapped in plastic – which paid for one of the most appreciated room and board I can recollect. The next morning I took off again – and found it was an additional six hours downstream to Chiang Rai – though part of that time was spent indulging at a riverside hot springs park along the way.
Back on land, I would explore the in the river valley region near Chiang Rai, always keeping an eye out for a parcel of land hat might be available to develop. Behind a particularly scenic hill, there was a small secluded valley with steep hills on three sides. About the size of five football fields, it looked like it had never been farmed, though large trees may have been logged from there years earlier. The first time I went to explore, the grass was so thick and high that I used a piece of plywood to forge a temporary trail – repeatedly picking it up and letting it fall ahead to trample the grass – an all-too-tiresome method, for sure. Instead of a crop circle, I was creating crop lines. If paranormal buffs happened to fly overhead to get an aerial view, they might have surmised that UFO’s were embedding encrypted signals in that little valley in rural north Thailand.
Besides being tucked away and out-of sight, the reason the land was undeveloped was that its long and narrow access path went by a Buddhist cremation site. Asians are a superstitious lot, so that would explain why people avoided that path – thinking that ghosts of the deceased were lingering – and why the valley was devoid of people. I got hold of a bi-lingual Thai friend to accompany me to talk to the village headmen about securing squatting rights to the place. The small council heard me out and decided I could ‘squat’ on the land for a lease fee of Bt.5,000 ($125) per year.
Though the offer was intriguing, I wound up opting out. My concern was; if I were to clear the weeds and develop it, people would notice its new-found attractiveness, and locals might come around to help themselves to the newly cleared and beautiful piece of land. I don’t know whether my earlier inquiries had stirred up peoples’ interest, but within 18 months, local villagers began trickling in and staking claims on the recently-sleepy little valley. Last time I checked there were barbed wire fences, trees felled, animals penned, and trash strewn about – all part and parcel of human settlement.
Even though I didn’t pursue a farmsteading option there, I would return from time to time for various reasons. A few excursions were focused on climbing some of the limestone rock formations that frame the valley. Another time I returned with a worker friend to do a poor man’s archaeological dig.
It so happened the day before I had been visiting with a farang friend (who we’ll call Joe) who enjoyed traveling around northern Thailand searching for ancient rock tools. His modus operandi was to travel solo on his motorbike through remote rural areas. Every so often he would stop at a village carrying a couple of sample rock tool items he had garnered earlier, and casually show them to locals to see whether they might be able to find similar items. There was modest remuneration offered, and yes it might be illegal – depending on whom you ask. Strictly speaking, it is not unlawful for a foreigner to have primitive rock tools in his possession. However, because they may be classified as ‘cultural heritage’ material, it is illegal to take any out of the country. Even so, there apparently were some Thai archaeological experts who begrudged the fact that Joe had managed to garner some items.
It’s a catch-22 type of concern; if Joe had not been looking over hill and dale for stone tools, then the items might never have come to light. Even if a farmer were to stumble upon some primitive bowl-shape or a chipped spearhead, he might not appreciate its significance and likely toss it aside. But by creating an awareness among villagers, and thereby garnering some items – which wouldn’t have been found by Thai intellectuals holed up in hallowed halls of Bangkok, Joe was stepping on toes. Last I heard he was planning to display his collection in a small museum-like venue.
Anyhow, a chance conversation with him prompted me to go looking the next day. Along with my friend and maintenance man Gaow, we packed some tools and headed out to a small plot on the approach to the valley mentioned earlier. It was a secluded spot located right where a fallow field abuts up against a steep hill which shoots nearly straight up at an 80% angle. The most notable feature was a giant solid stone slab, about the size of a flattened tugboat, which gravity had long ago lodged upon some prominent rocks – leaving a dry area beneath. It was not quite a cave, but certainly big enough to stay dry in a rainstorm – if the rain wasn’t driven horizontally – which can happen with the high winds at the beginning of the monsoon season in May.
The floor was a deep layer of loose rocks – ranging from pea to soccer ball sized. Gaow and I spent two to three hours rummaging through the rocks and didn’t find anything exciting. The best we got for our efforts was a small pile of rocks broken on one or two sides – whose rough edges could have been intentionally crafted for primitive cutting tools. Nothing looked conclusive to my untrained eye. The nearby Mae Kok river has changed course often – and it is no stretch to envision it flowing by this rock formation in the past. Certainly, some of the lower rocks showed the smoothness of erosion. Except in flood conditions, that spot could have conceivably been a viable shelter.
As we were packing up to leave, one of the newly arrived valley ‘squatters’ happened by with his donkey in toe. He called over to ask what we were doing, and we told him. He then beckoned us to follow him to his new dwelling – a half mile in to the little valley. Apparently he didn’t have a problem with walking to and fro by a cremation place. He was certainly a man of simple means and I wouldn’t be surprised if he found a good portion of his sustenance from what he could gather in the hills. There were no more deer or wild pigs in those parts, but there were a plethora of edible plants growing wild.
The three of us bedraggled guys and the donkey walked back to his place. It was still under construction – all ten square meters of thatch and bamboo. The only metal on his dwelling seemed to be some bailing wire and nails. He had us wait while he went inside and scrounged around for a couple minutes. He emerged with a water carrying container. It was a dull gray ceramic vase. He asked what I would pay. I offered him 200 baht ($5). He smiled and accepted. My worker thought I offered too much. In contrast, as we were leaving the little valley, a neighbor called out to ask what had just happened. When told, be blurted out some strong words which I didn’t understand, but construed they had something to do with; ‘don’t sell artifacts to a farang.’ Or perhaps; ‘you could have sold it for more!’ or ‘where’s that piglet you promised me for the twenty lengths of bamboo? Or; “you and your wife sure make a lot of noise when you’re making bacon in the middle of the night.” …I’ll never know, but I was smugly contented – walking out of the valley with my new-found artifact.
I took the container home and immediately washed it. Even with a chipped top lip, it is a beautiful classic shape – about 15 inches tall and 9 inches wide. It has a thin-walled, evenly contoured exterior. There were remnants of a couple little clay loops near the top (for attaching a tote string) which had long ago broken off. Since then, I got a ball-park estimate of its age – between 100 and 200 years – so it’s not a big deal in the classical artifacts department – but it looks lovely by the window – even with its missing parts.
Soon after that, I continued to mosey around looking for interesting pieces of land. I came across a three rai (1.2 acre) unclaimed plot near town which I call Crystal Bee Rock. It had large trees, no houses nearby, and was a five minute walk from the river. Its most dramatic attributes were the tall limestone cliffs that rose straight up along its entire north side – ideal for climbing. The ‘crystal’ part of the name refers to a barrel-sized quartz outcrop at one spot. The ‘bee’ part of the name will get explained a bit later on.
I’d go rock climbing there solo, sometimes even taking time to clean climbing routes. That entailed a combination of whacking with machete, pulling sticker vines out with gloved hands - sometimes, but not always while tethered to a climbing rope. The closest path was about 70 meters away. For the rare person who happened to be walking by, it must have been an odd sight – to see a farang (foreigner) hanging by a rope, pulling out weeds on a cliff face and chucking the debris to the ground.
Climbing solo without safety equipment is borderline nutzoid. To compound the danger, some of the rock is not ‘sound’ – and can break off. Other potential dangers include; natural seepages where the rock is slick and sometimes mossy, plus patches of sticker weeds called ‘nam.’ Insects too are in no short supply.
One notable type are weaver ants which are a literal pain when disturbed. They like to commandeer trees, and will station themselves at every square inch throughout the entire tree – right down to the tips of each branch and leaf. Once, while focusing on a rock holding maneuver, the tip of my nose momentarily rested against the leaf of a protected tree – and paid for it with a few bites on the proboscis. Weavers are medium sized, light orange ants that build nests by knitting leaves together with white ‘threads’ they emit from their mouth parts. The resulting connections are smooth as cloth as well as being water-repellent. Their leaf nests start out small, but can readily grow to the size of a large watermelon. When large, they can become food for indigenous people - who lightly roast the entire nest and eat the cooked larvae inside.
We recently had an infestation in one part of the orchard. By the time I became aware of it, the weaver ants had built a dozen medium-sized nests – most of them high up in a broad-leafed tree. To fight back, I got a long bamboo pole and fastened bits of newspaper at its end. The torch was lit, then positioned alongside or under the nests. It was the end of dry season, so the nests’ leaves were brown, so one-by-one I set the nests aflame. However, not all the nests were accessible enough to destroy, so I devised a way to discourage ants from climbing up and down the tree – figuring if they couldn’t
re-supply the remaining nests, they would die. I fastened a cloth around the trunk of their tree and sprayed it with insecticide. I found that the rag needed to be re-sprayed every day or two because the scent would fade, plus the ants were so determined to cross the barrier – even if they died halfway across the width of the cloth.
If they’ve been at home for a long time at a particular tree, they’ll guard it by stationing themselves at every square inch throughout the entire tree – right down to the tips of each branch and leaf. Once, while out rock climbing, a particularly challenging vertical piece of limestone required particular focus. The tip of my nose momentarily rested against the leaf of a tree that I soon realized was being guarded by a host of weaver ants. An awkward few moments ensued – but I survived with just a few bites on the proboscis.
Other types of ants similarly station themselves at the tips of plants. Perhaps they get some nourishment from the plant in the form of nutritious sap – but I would venture that the main reason is to capture and dine on other insects which land within reach.
Another quick ant eradication story: We’ve all heard of ‘fire ants’ and, though there are perhaps twenty five different types of ants on the properties here, there haven’t been any noticeable fire ants – that is, until recently (Spring 2007). They made their presence achingly known when they attacked my sandaled feet. I can tolerate all types of insects, even scorpions to some degree (if they’re few and far between), but I had to draw the line at fire ants (called ‘mot dang fai’ in Thai – literally; ‘ant red fire’).
Their infestations through large tracts of the southwest U.S. are as well-documented as the difficulty in eradicating them once they’ve set up shop. I don’t know firsthand about the U.S., but once I went to visit a friend at a farm in Belize, but could not cross from the street to the front door of her house – because her entire lawn was a mass of fire ants. I had heard that pouring paraffin, then lighting it, might kill them off. Though I’m somewhat of a pyro-nut, I opted instead to try digging them out by hand. I acknowledge that trying that method when they’re established is near impossible, but I figured with a small infestation, I would try that method first off. I dug down a couple of feet and found a number of ant eggs (and hopefully killed the queen) – then went back and churned the same soil again several times for the next few days. It must have worked, as a fire ant hasn’t been seen since.
There are at least two types of small bees, neither of which produce significant amounts of honey. One type live in little crannies of rock and keep mostly to themselves and their stings are just mildly annoying. Their slightly larger cousins hang their catcher mitt sized wax combs in tree branches, then completely cover the combs with their bodies – creating beautiful subtle rippling patterns of steely blue. Their communal beauty belies their fierceness when disturbed. They’ll come at a person’s face at lightning speed. They don’t ‘land and sting,’ but rather sting immediately upon contact, so they must position their stingers forward at the last split-second before contact - to strike like darts. Not surprisingly they aim for eyes or any relatively dark part on the face, but if you’re as quick as a prize fighter, they might stab you on the cheek or neck. Once, I went to buck-up a small tree that a neighbor had felled over the fence on to my side. Out of the brush came the tiny attackers, two of which got me right between the nostrils – which had me snorting like a mad dog for several minutes. It was then I realized why the neighbor hadn’t finish dealing with the partially-cut tree.
Once while climbing, I eased my head up above a small ledge and found myself staring at a mass of hornets inches away. They were black with bright orange thoraxes, altogether, as big as brazil nuts. One got me on the finger – a smart pain, but not overwhelming. A particularly big one, surely the queen, looked to be over 2 inches long and nearly an inch wide – not counting wings. It reminded me of a nose to nose encounter I’d had years earlier while climbing in a California ravine. That time it was a pair of startled baby rattlesnakes. In each case, I gingerly eased myself down, afflicted with ‘the Elvis’ – an uncontrollable shaking of the knees. Also on Thai limestone cliff-sides are the odd wasp nest, some as big as Fat Boy bomb. Their preferred sites are just below ledges. Remnants of older nests are also common – as evidenced by pocked patterns left on the rock, perhaps by a type of rock-hard glue they use.
Another cliff-side dweller are owls, which are also one of the few large birds left in northern Thailand. They’re off-white with brown speckles. When startled, they fly off while defecating – a decent defense against any predator approaching from below. I once saw a little boy walking near Crystal Bee Rock, carrying two live owl chicks. He had one each hand, clutching their feet while letting the bodies dangle down. I was aghast, and reached in my pocket to offer to buy the chicks to set them free. He could sense my disdain and with a frown, he kept walking briskly back to his grass hut – perhaps to give the birds to his mamma cook up for supper, ….or maybe they wound up downtown. Two years later, I saw two juvenile owls in a small cage at a propane shop. Again I made an offer to buy them in order to set them free, and again was rebuffed.
The limestone cliffs are purported to be a cumulative build-up of coral that thrived in that region who-knows-how-many years ago. Called ‘karst,’ it is generally smooth and colored shades of gray at lower elevations. Sometimes, a small section can be found that’s particularly smooth and colored white and pink – as if it were the petrified underbelly of some mountain deity. Clumps of crystals are not uncommon, though most have been mined – leaving just concave outer parts of large nodes, now housing sand-colored crystals - a teasing reminder of prettier stones that were once embedded there. Higher up, the rock blends from dark gray to black – and as it does, it becomes pock-marked and rougher, like volcanic pumice. The uppermost reaches are deeply furrowed, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal. The chasms between can be several meters deep, as the peaks taper to meandering knife edges.
People often use the expression ‘razor sharp’, but always metaphorically (as though…, or similar to...) and rarely is what they’re describing actually as sharp as a razor. In regard to these rock formations, saying their tops are ‘razor sharp’ is literal. Indeed, one could slice a piece of paper or cardboard up there as easily as with a battle-scarred carving knife. One would be smart to climb the upper reaches with leather gloves, but I’ve become accustomed to climbing as slow and carefully as a 3-toed sloth, at times placing fingers as gingerly as a Galapagos iguana eating prickly pear pads. Few things can focus the mind and body as much as clinging to a sheer cliff face from 150 meters up – with no safety equipment – clinging to silica-sharp vertically-grooved rocks.
One evening, an hour before dusk, I went out to go climbing. There’s a horseshoe route that goes up a 55 meter crag on the right side - then traverses up high to the left for about 30 meters – over the lip of an overhang. It’s last leg is a zig with some zags down on the left. I’d done it before, so I knew the difficult part was halfway down the descent leg. That’s where there’s a pencil-slim horizontal crack for stepping upon, and only a rock shelf at face-height that’s too steep for a hold, and a straight down 25 meter drop below the crack. The only blip on that three meter shelf that could be called a finger-hold is a smooth knob the size of half a garbanzo bean. On dry days, that knob affords a barely substantial fingertip hold for a decent climber. If the weather is wet, or a climber has sweaty fingers, that little knob can be about as useful as a wood stove made out of wood.
By the time I reached that spot that evening, it was nearly dark and it had been drizzling for awhile. I knew that when I passed it, I’d have a relatively easy descent. I stretched out to begin the move, felt the now-slippery knob and, after some deep contemplation, aborted the move. I then had two choices; either hunker down and make it through the night on an exposed shelf on the cliff face, or attempt to return the way I’d come. I chose to attempt the return. It was one of those nights with no moon and no stars - as black as they come. The way back – across the high traverse, then back down the earlier ascent face was done completely by tactile senses (feeling my way). Visibility was nil. More than a few times I would slowly lower myself down from a narrow shelf, and feel around for a foothold. If no purchase was gained right away, I’d clumsily kick and shimmy from one side to the other. If that too failed, I’d have to pull my body up and attempt the same maneuver at another spot. It took over two hours to get back down. When my feet were firmly on level soil, waves of relief rolled over me.
For sunnier times, I had planned to develop the rock climbing around Chiang Rai as an option to tourists. Until the turn of the century, recreational rock climbing in Thailand was confined to just one small region in the south of the country. Located at the tip of a small peninsula near the town of Krabi, Railey Beach is still the main place to rent equipment and/or a guide. It’s also a lovely place to visit for other tourist-related reasons. Though it’s a peninsula, it has the feel of an island, because it’s cut off from the mainland by steep forested hills. No motorized vehicles are allowed, though ubiquitous long-tailed taxi boats make their presence known – their un-housed motors echoing off sea and hills for miles around – one slight blemish on an otherwise lovely region.
More recently, a few other climbing routes have been developed in other parts of Thailand, notably; Chiang Mai, but the potential for more is vast. During motorcycle sorties around Chiang Rai, I found the region stretching NW from town has the best climbing potential. Besides Crystal Bee Rock place mentioned above, there are a others worth mentioning: A couple of miles west of Chiang Rai, abutting the south side of the Mae Kok river is a prominent hill that juts nearly straight up on all sides. It’s reminiscent of those great Chinese landscape paintings with vertical hills and gravity-defying trees whose branches grow every-which-way. It’s called ‘Doi Kong Kao’ (rice box hill) – due to it’s shape like a small wicker container for rice. It has a police post on its south side and a large monastery on the east, which winds around to the north, close to the Mae Kok river. When first starting to exploring it, I asked the head monk for permission to take people there to climb. He told me ‘no problem,’ though added a condition that; ‘any females should say a prayer to the Buddha statue at its base before ascending the rock’ - apparently to allay females’ ‘less clean’ standing in the religion’s view.
I started to develop a crag near its peak by cleaning the rock face of dirt and weeds. In the ensuing months I hosted several climbing groups to that spot, but the overall project was abandoned awhile later due to logistical concerns. However, I never lost my love for the hill, and have since soloed the sheer south face twice, without equipment, and scrambled up the east face about two dozen times. That east face is patchy, with sections of rock alternately clean and brushy. To access its starting point, one has to negotiate a monk’s meditation hut which sits precipitously on a ledge. The hut has been vacant all but one of the many times I’ve climbed past it. After reaching the peak, you can climb down steep winding stairs on the west face.
There is a four meter tall gold-colored standing Buddha statue at its peak which was constructed a few years after I got acquainted with the hill. As the steep western stairway is the only access, all the building materials had to be brought up that route by hand. Local soldiers had been commandeered to haul rock, sand, water, bricks and cement in their rucksacks. It was quite a sight seeing dozens of young men in a long line – hauling heavy loads on their backs - nearly straight up the 200 meter stairway – among the cheeriest group of guys as I’ve ever met.
The stairs to the top are a fine excursion in their own right. Often I’ve accompanied friends up there. The Mae Kok river, meandering in it’s majesty between pop-up verdant hills, never fails to dazzle. Once, I encountered a beautiful young Thai woman halfway – she was coming down the narrow steps while I was trekking up. We were probably the only sentient beings on the hill that day. She was dressed in only a thin white tunic-like garment and claimed this was her last day as a ‘layperson’ - and was scheduled to take vows of renunciation the next morning. She was standing a step above while we conversed for awhile on the steep narrow steps and, feigning clumsiness, eased her svelte body a slight bit closer to me than the dictates of proper social behavior would allow. Carnal thoughts blipped through my mind, but another little angelic voice said it would be wrong to lust after a woman who was on the verge of being ordained. I admit I’ve re-written the script of that episode in my mind since then. Never saw her again.
Another time, while visiting the Standing Buddha statue with a Thai lady friend we noticed some novice monks cutting down a tree with a machete. The tree was alongside the narrow path but, as far as I could see, its demise would benefit nothing. I went to ask the young men in robes why they were whacking away at the twisted tree, but my lady friend gingerly shut me up before I could warm to the scolding. Apparently, I was out-of-line, particularly as a farang talking sternly to a group of monks. I stood down, the tree fell and the monks looked cheery throughout it all.
We learn from an early age that rainy weather is bad. When a Brit friend of mine mentions ‘awful’ or ‘foul weather’ - I know he’s referring to rain. Or perhaps he means ‘fowl weather?’ – as ducks take a liking to it. Personally, the rainy season here is my favorite time of year. It brings to mind the story I once read about an Arizona couple who moved to Oregon. They liked the rain so much they had a corrugated metal roof built so they could hear the infrequent deluges at full volume.
Another tribute to rain: A few times, while climbing alone, a muffled roar could be heard coming from afar – the sound growing faintly louder by the second. Being caught by a moving rain storm can be exhilarating – especially when you hear and feel it coming. As a bonus, the pounding rain here is cool rather than cold. So if one can put aside the hardwired disdain of precipitation we learn as children – rain can be exhilarating. Even from a science perspective rain is amazing – rain is composed of oxygen and the lightest element, hydrogen – both alone are gases at regular temperatures. The natural forces that combine to produce a shower are amazing also – and despite articulate definitions by scientists, I still don’t really know what makes a cloud.
On the north side of the river west of town, there‘s a recreation area called Pattaya Noi (little Pattaya). Until recently, it consisted mostly of a long string of small restaurants that are more popular with Thais than with foreigners. The fifty or so restaurants are identical, all with bamboo & thatch places to eat while seated on the floor, and all with identical menus. The Pepsi and Coke franchises must have struck a deal early on, because there were several dozen Coke signs on the left and several dozen Pepsi signs on the right. More interesting to me were the rock cliffs which faced it from the other side of the river.
Directly across the water from Pattaya Noi, is a long hill. Between that hill and the water’s edge, a narrow strip of natural landscape stretches about 1.5 Km. When I first saw it, there were cattle grazing there and I was concerned that some locals would plant grass huts and thereby claim it as their own private settlement. I drew up a rough multi-color sketch of the parcel and submitted it, via a Thai friend, to the village elders at the closest town – requesting that they consider it be designated a park or at least as public domain.
The original grass huts have since been removed, but every so often another bamboo and thatch hut gets put up by a squatter. The idea of a public park, whether or not from my suggestions, must have jangled some peoples’ neurons, and a concrete path has been built. The path pleasantly winds between the cliffs and the river. If they’d asked me, suggested the path completely encircle the long hill and pave it with yellow bricks. They could then call it ‘The Yellow Brick Road’ – complete with a Wizard of Oz theme park. I jest only slightly. To know Thailand, is to know that parks in or near cities are rarely left to nature inasmuch as having dirt paths and natural surroundings. All too often, parks are seen as a means to commemorate some revered organization, most often Royalty or the Sangha (Buddhism). To do so, the powers that be feel obliged to pour a lot of concrete and erect shrines. A typical city park in Thailand is often a formal affair sealed in masonry.
Chiang Rai has a paucity of parks. Though, to its credit it’s better endowed than most Thai cities, it still suffers from that Thai municipal custom of not planning for parks. Thai cities and towns seem to be in competition to see who can get the most traffic lights, western franchises, biggest super stores, and most high rises. In the rush for modernity - parks for recreation and relaxation become a non-item.
At the riverside park across from Pattaya Noi, several climbing spots could be developed, and perhaps the best overall is a cliff facing the water – halfway along the hill’s southern stretch. The largest tree in the area also resides there – its bright red figs clustering along massive branches during fruiting season. Not long ago, toucans and monkeys would have clamored for its luscious bounty, with perhaps a few deer loitering below. There’s not even an echo of such wildness today. The 60 meter high rock walls alongside that fig tree nearly beg to be climbed, though it’s doubtful anyone ever has. The western and eastern ends of the hill also host unclimbed sections. The west end is home to a cave temple, so that would render it off-limits to climbers, but the east end has strong potential. The crags there are a bit too gnarly for even a hare-brained foreigner like ‘yours truly’ to attempt without proper equipment and a climbing partner.
Another little-known feature there is a cave which meanders all the way though the hundred meter wide hill. The first time I stumbled upon it, there was a monk in solitary retreat there. It features two cathedral-high chambers, each with a ‘skylight.’ Altogether, with its majestic tropical trees and the river so close, it’s a lovely stretch of land, and not hard to imagine a day when that narrow stretch might become popular with rock climbers, and onlookers – some with scopes – will be watching climbers from vantage points at Pattaya Noi, on the other side of the river.
Though that area is officially off limits to development, there are still squatters who show up once in awhile – sometimes to build bamboo kiosks to sell beer and others who graze cows there and/or harvest wild things such as orchids, insects, crystals and honey. Best of all would be designating that stretch along the river as the centerpiece for a ‘protected area’ comprising about 300 acres (740 rai) that is, without a doubt, the most scenic section near Chiang Rai. It’s not too late. Those 300 or so acres are nearly all fallow now, though that will certainly change in the near future – as housing estates and city expansion takes its inevitable toll.
In fifty years, some people may have a few photos to remind them how pristine the area used to be. Alas, there seems to be no willingness by city and province authorities to preserve the little bit of wildness that’s still extant. The closest authorities come to preserving open spaces is to plan for golf courses – to cater to rich Thais and foreigners. The amounts of water and maintenance needed to maintain a golf course are immense.
One day, while exploring a sleepy little valley about a Km inland from the stretch of river mentioned above, I happened upon modest cliff which stretched several hundred meters wide, while averaging about 70 meters high. It’s base was set at the top of a large hill which also featured a two-story house-sized boulder standing alone like a sentinel. Though there were prodigious amounts of weeds throughout, I found purchase of some rocks, and scrambled up to admire an expansive view stretching for miles. I also found a couple shallow caves - altogether a skylarking type of day. As I revved up the motorbike to return to town my mind snapped one last snapshot of the sunset reflecting off the west facing cliffs.
Months went by, then one day a Thai friend casually mentioned that he knew of some rural land for sale. He offered no description, other than it was near town. We went out to see it and lo and behold(!) it was the same chunk of land that I’d become infatuated with months earlier. There was no way he could have known, because I hadn’t mentioned that day’s meandering to anyone. He told me the size and price of the parcel and, even though he didn’t know exactly where the boundary lines lay, I said ‘I’ll buy it’ right away. Two days later, payment and receipt changed hands.
As similar episode took place in northern California, twenty two years earlier – where I’d committed to buying a piece of land without knowing exactly where the boundaries were. It was a rural piece which had been seriously burned a year earlier. I went out with a realtor and he pointed to a hill and said, ‘in that general region is the ten acres for sale - though I don’t know exactly where the lot lines are.’ The entire area looked good to me, so I paid the down payment and signed papers that same day. The price was relatively low because of the hundred or so fire-blackened oaks which stood out against the sky. Whereas the realtor and seller had written the trees off as dead, I had a hunch that some would revive. Roughly half sprouted bright new leaves and branches to pull through, and the others wound up as prime firewood – bucked, split, and sold in town.
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