Isaan, on a Cloud10 min read by
Doi Suthep shades a small, northern Thai city from the last hour of tropical sunshine. Once the daylight fades, a single glowing dot remains floating in the void of darkness, marking the spot of the mountain-top temple.
I ride up a two-lane strip, filled with twists, turns, dips, and hills. On my motorcycle, I lean into bends as deep as I can, until it feels like the wheels are about to slip. I take wider arcs across lane divider, trying to keep gear constant while checking rear-view mirrors for trucks and big bikes speeding into my trajectory.
The air cools following the steep, sharp curves leading up to Wat Phra That temple, the same one that glows at night. A thin scent of pine needles fills the air as the road narrows. The drive is now a haul as the bike’s carburetor struggles to cope with the elevation.
Deeper into the forest, the road is a pothole-ridden track, no wider than a car. Its bends are furnished with signs instructing drivers to honk; there’s no way of seeing oncoming traffic beyond the rocky corners.
One of the turns leads to a small village. I park the bike and walk past a row of restaurants, then a short, shaded strip of gift shops. Beyond, dilapidating brick stairs open up to a view of distant hills. An elderly couple walks by and disappears into the fog up a hill. There’s no one around.
I stand and watch mountain ridges blend into the clouds. The familiar sounds of busy roads and mumbling mouths fade further into my memory. Here, the sonic scape belongs to the forest.
Satisfied, I descend through scratchy bushes, tall grass, and whipping branches. Noticing a highway of fat, short ants forming along the railing I realize that I’m a foreigner, yet again, in a world of insects.
Below, I find myself leaning against a tall pine, listening to the cicadas. Rare passing files slice the air with a whirly buzz. Black butterflies silently flap their large wings. I think of the time I proposed to my wife at this very spot. Trembling on my knees, fumbling atop the uneven ground, scattered with pine needles, thick roots and dry leaves.
I stay for another few minutes until the curiosity of the little inhabitants starts to become a bother.
A straight flat road leads left into the hills, where the bike is suddenly forced to pull up the sloping twists. The saddle has done a great job of absorbing the bumps, the butts are okay, but we make a rest stop anyways.
I sip my coffee slowly, gazing over the minty-green rice shoots. Little black birds dive in and out of the field. There isn’t much room left for deliberate thought so I just observe.
Gradually, my ears recover from the rolling roars of the exhaust. I become aware of the hum of insects. My gaze strays towards the hills beyond the fields. It’s time to go.
The road twists tighter, folding onto itself, knotting through the rock. A sharp turn slopes up along the mountain face. My eyes focus on the divider line, visible only a few feet ahead. On my left, blue sky blurs into clouds below, glimpsed through a thin row of trees beyond the guardrail.
Road signs signal cows and elephants crossing, affirmed by large, globular dung scattered on the road. A mile later, I break to weave around the nonchalant, milky-brown bovines sprawling across the highway.
Pumping clutch, switching gear, leaning, ducking, working to make gravity and centrifugal forces meet directly over the wheels for hours. I’m worn out. My hands and thighs tingle from the vibrations the engine has been sending towards the bones. My ass has no blood left in it.
Finally, we make it to Pai. Remote, yet popular with tourists, it stretches along a plateau. Bars, restaurants, hotels, shopping streets littered with trinkets, are surrounded by farmlands deep within mountain forests.
Early next morning, we leave our room on a mission to see Mae Yen Waterfalls a few miles deep into the jungle.
Along the sandy river bed, shimmering with fool’s gold, we stomp past wild banana palms that grow under a canopy of eucalyptus and pine. We trace the river which snakes down a valley, up along a steep hill and finally towards a waterfall. Water. Soft ground. Rocks. It’s been hours.
At the pool below the gushing jets of water, the feet finally get to cool. A bright blue butterfly lands on conspicuously same-coloured snickers. A line of ants forms around our belongings. It’s getting late.
Exhausted, we mindlessly stumble our way out of the jungle towards the village road, mount the bike and make our way to the shower room in the hotel.
For the past two days, my mind was busy keeping up with the body; navigating, operating, moving the feet. Today, we spent hours strolling along the tall wooden walks above the rice fields. Hiding from the rain in the gazebos.
On a bench underneath a straw roof, I watch small drops of water roll onto the ground. Soft, drizzling prickles hitting the shelter submerge into the hushed rattle of insects, periodically cut with the high-pitched quacks of the distant frogs.
One of the low-rolling clouds is caught by a hilltop, forming a hazy roof over the field.
We are surrounded by life in, perhaps, one of its most pleasing forms.
The road up Doi Inthanon is steep, wide, and lustreless.
We arrive at the foot of a trail leading up to the tallest peak in Thailand. I am greeted with something that resembles a theme park. A paved lot, full of people clustered around their cars, the restaurant, and a long line to the gated entrance. This is definitely not a hidden gem.
Beyond the gate of unexpected annoyance, we stroll up the stairs with a sparse but endless queue of visitors. It takes our surroundings a few minutes to wash over the past disenchantments.
We continue into a thick, cool, grey fog. As it rolls over, the deep shades of green become ashy. Trees, branches, and leaves fade into the air just beyond an arm’s reach. “We are in a fairy tale,” I think, but catch myself from uttering a cliché. I hear the sentiment echoed around me.
The fog floats in and out, occasionally revealing carpets of soft, deep-green moss covering trees and guard rails.
The gleeful exclaims remind me that I’m not alone. I grab my camera and concentrate on the viewfinder.
I took the photos above in Chiang Dao with my dad's old Soviet camera.
That night my wife and I drove back to Chiang Mai. It drizzled intermittently as we weaved through the mountain road. The darkness and the scant yellow beam oozing from the motorbike’s headlight forced me to open my tinted visor and squint hard as the droplets of water stung the face and threatened my vision. I wore contact lenses; a foolish mistake.
The next morning, I left the film at a small shack across town to have it developed a week later. Looking over the slides, the camera, emulsion and the lab evidently conspired to crystallize the deep, melancholic colours, and strong, dark shadows. That felt lucky.
Ride aside, the images bear the memories of a quiet, lazy day.
For an hour following our arrival in Chiang Dao, I sat at the table, watching the sinusoidal peaks, towering beyond the pines, scraping and tearing the cloud blanket above. On the other side of the restaurant, gentle rain slowly washed down the leaves, trickling in thin streams onto the ground.
The rain stops, we pay the bill and gather our wallets, keys and cellphones. To be safe, we take an umbrella along for our evening stroll.
On all sides, the forests are elevating upwards, dripping with plumes of bottomless green. Past the gate, we climb a long line of stairs leading towards a golden roof that shines like a beacon somewhere within a stormy sea. Past the overgrown shambles of porous rock, we arrive at the last flight with a small plaque reminding to please, take the shoes off. We walk up.
The sun dips between the peaks into fiery, pink clouds. It starts to drizzle again.