For people of a certain age, and for those who can still remember lazy Saturday afternoons curled up with a pile of second-hand or swapped comic books, the phrase “jungle home” will have a certain resonance.
Somewhere deep in the jungles near the Bay of Bengal is the Skull Cave – the jungle home of the Ghost who Walks, or Mr Kit Walker, or the Phantom. All three are played by Billy Zane in the 1996 film in which the Phantom, like the Canadian Mounties, not only gets his man (Xander Drax), fights off a villainess or two and ends with hints of a rosy future possible with the lovely Diana. After all, the Phantom needs an heir to become the twenty-second Phantom …
A long way from Bengal … but only forty-five minutes from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand … is another jungle home.
There is not a pygmy to be seen. Headhunters have long since fled the area, finding that the Seven-Eleven is an easier source of meals. Villains and pirates and witchdoctors are not given landing rights. This is the jungle home of my friends Chai and Gina – a Thai/Canadian couple who have created a quiet haven near Chai’s home village of Pasak Ngam. It is their get-away-from-it-all holiday home – but it is also available through Airbnb (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5551132) for others who want to enjoy the quiet life – and the good life. It is also the base for Chai’s Chiang Mai Experience tour company.
The excellent four-lane highway north gives way to a two-lane road to the east, climbing high up into the mountains and a superb viewpoint over the valley below. See Chai in a short YouTube video at the viewpoint: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ6iSM5smMo The road then becomes a single concrete lane … and finally, just a short distance from the house it becomes gravelled country road and then a two-track driveway up a short hill, through banana trees drooping with fruit, past mighty teaks and longans and lime trees to the Jungle Home.
Built of re-cycled timbers, tree trunks harvested locally and concrete painted a rich warm orange colour, the house has a large central room flanked by a bedroom and a bathroom. The main room faces North and has full-length windows giving views into the valley and across to the hills of the Sri Lanna National Park – on the other side of the small stream. and the trees currently festooned by clouds of pink flowers on climbing vines.
In the wet season, this stream offers waterfalls tumbling into deep swimming holes with tilted tree trunks placed just right by nature for climbing and jumping off. One small pond is ideal for sitting on a log and dangling legs and feet in the chilly water. Schools of small fish nibble your toes – a bit like the exotic Fish Spas found all over Thailand, but this one is quite free – and there aren’t millions of flakes of other people’s dead skin in the water around your feet. In the winter time, when rainfall is scarce, the stream is much smaller – but then the exposed river banks and muddy river bed seem to hold a great attraction for clouds of colourful butterflies – vibrant greens and blues, and oranges the same colour as the house.
But I thought you were bringing the baked beans …
The compact fifty-four square metre house is fully self-contained – but apart from basic shops in the nearby village, the closest big market is several kilometres away at Jae Dee on the 1001 highway, so visitors should come laden with supplies of champagne, pâté de fois gras, smoked salmon, baguettes, brioches and Belgian waffles … and Vegemite … and any other essential survival basic they can think of.
Nearby are other rustic cottages and salas and bathrooms if larger groups want to use the area for trekking along mountain paths, for nature studies, for relaxing far from the madding crowds or for exploring local waterways.
When some friends and I visited Gina and Chai last weekend, Mr Neung – Headman for twelve local villages – called in and had some lunch with us, and then offered us the opportunity to take a scorpion-tailed boat out onto the Mae Kuang Dam. These boats have low-slung narrow aluminium or wooden hulls – sometimes with benches for seats, sometimes with no seats other than the floor – fitted with a powerful motor attached directly to a drive shaft ending in a propeller. In Bangkok and elsewhere, the scorpion-tailed boats are huge and the engines – rather than glorified motor mower engines with a propeller – seem to be old V-8 engines ripped from dying Chevvies and fitted with the powerful blades to drive the boats through armadillos of morning glory.
[Yes – I know I mean armadas … but armadas are too big and too Hispanic for a boat to plough through … whereas small armoured ball-shaped animals sitting on a lotus leaf or two should not prove to be too much of a challenge for a Royal Thai Scorpion-tailed boat!]
Like many man-made lakes, Mae Kuang has drowned a couple of villages – Chai told me that the people were relocated somewhere else – and this dam is soon to be joined by a massive underground tunnel to the even larger Mae Ngat dam. These huge lakes provide much of the water for use in Chiang Mai, so water management is an essential part of life in this part of the Kingdom. Elsewhere – in Isaan to the North East, and in much of the low lying Central Thai plains – droughts and floods occur every year, but Chiang Mai province seems to be pretty safe from such extremes.
A new bridge and a new road system are currently being carved from the forest at one end of the dam. When completed, these will reduce the driving time to the Jungle Home and make it much more accessible for visitors … but I wonder if the new roads will also mean a huge increase in numbers of visitors, destroying the quiet and remote nature of the area.
Our visit was on a quiet day – a few fishermen and a ferry and us.
The fishermen were chasing whatever they could get. A fishing friend (Gerry Google) tells me that in the dam there are Giant Snakeheads, Jungle Perch and Giant Mekong Catfish to be caught – if you are lucky. Actually, I think if I caught a giant snakehead I would probably feel that I had been particularly unlucky. Then again, Thai wet markets sell fish maws (as well as pork “masks” – the entire skin and fat from a pig’s head) for use in making fish maw soup. Until today, I never really knew what a fish maw is – or was. My very good friend, Gloria Google, tells me that fish maw is the commercial term for the dried swim bladders of large fish, and that they are graded according to sex and that male bladders are better than female ones … Well, of course! Or is that too sexist a comment? My bladder is better than thy bladder?
- Fish maw soup, anyone?
- No thanks – I’m slightly bladdered today …
The other boat on the lake that day was another, slightly larger, long-tailed boat working as a ferry:
- Climb aboard! Take a seat! Or sit on the floor!
- Oops! Sorry!
- I will just wheel my motorbike up this plank here and down into the boat!
- Oops! Sorry! Did not see your toes there!
Oh I do like to be beside the seaside …
As we were just about the only people on the water that afternoon, it was a splendid opportunity for skinny-dipping.
- Except we didn’t …
- Except they didn’t …
A few of us stripped to underwear and paddled into the waters (nice and warm in the top layers, but pretty chilly a couple of metres down) but I think I was the only one who then stripped off completely to swim au naturel … but for modesty’s sake and to spare the sore eyes of the others in our party from the sight of my saggy old body, I dragged on my knickers before paddling ashore – to share with everyone else the one towel we had brought with us.
On the road again, Chai, who grew up in this area and knows every secret pathway and every forest secret (“These are wild almonds … and these wild coffee beans…”) led us astray deep into the teak forests near the lake.
- Chris – you might like to leave you car here as the road is a little rough …
Years ago I hired a car in Hawaii, and spent a few days at the unlikely named little WOOF gay and naturist farm called “Isle of You” (say it quickly and you’ll see what I mean) (http://www.isleofyounaturally.com) and experienced its steep and bumpy driveway. One evening I planned to have dinner in Hilo – a few kilometres from the farm. It was a dark and stormy night (as they say) and I felt the car bump and grind as I went down the driveway. A flashing red light on the dashboard warned me that something was not right somewhere … and soon afterwards the car stopped.
In the middle of the road … In a huge torrential downpour … And my mobile telephone was back at Isle of You … And dinner seemed to be a romantic dream away.
Many hours later, after being rescued by the local police force and having a gourmet dinner from the greasy spoon café at a service station and a long and expensive taxi ride back to Isle of You, I found that the little bump I had felt was in fact a bit more than that. I had cracked the gearbox – or something – all the oil had drained out … and the engine had ground itself to a pulp before offering me the chance to experience being stranded in a tropical downpour in the middle of a road to nowhere.
- OK – am glad to do so. I am afraid of cracking my gearbox …
The red heart of Chiang Mai province is the Kad Phi area Chai took us. In the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by mighty teaks, are undulating scarlet waves of earth, punctuated by crimson ant heaps, scarred by carmine tyre tracks where yahoos have driven their four-wheel ego-machines in loops and whirls across the vermilion dust pans, and where frightened little leafs huddled on the ground as carmine dust storms slowly spread their feathery fingers.
Cerise pebbles and claret dust battled with the few bits of (green) vegetation that survive in this salty-soiled region that reminded me of Australia’s Red Centre, and of the barren lunar landscapes of Weipa, Queensland’s bauxite-rich countryside, where ruby soils yield the ores that give us 747s and alfoil for wrapping up left-over chicken bits that survived from the huge lunch at the Jungle Home.
- Did I mention that the area was pretty bloody red …?
- Umm … Yes … I thought so …
I have been to the Jungle Home a couple of times now, and each time I have found new things to do and to enjoy. Surprisingly, I do like visiting Bangkok (population 6.3 million) and I really enjoy living in Chiang Mai (200,000 people), but it is so good to get away every now and again and to spend some time in a place where the population can be counted on fingers and toes … and when some of those counted are chickens.
- Journey: February 2017
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017. Photographs © by Adam Pleasance: Chai the Boatman, All Aboard!, Chai and Chris
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