As the bus winds its way through the hills north of Phrae, small flashes of distant memories arise in me— a distinctive hill top here, an ancient temple there, a particularly sharp curve just experienced. All come to me bathed in the flickering sunlight that quickly darts through the trees— as if I am watching some old 8-mm movie long since forgotten. I have the feeling that, had I waited much longer, these memories would have been extinguished all together. The road hasn’t changed much except that the town of Wiang Sa has really built up.
Nan is still somewhat of a backwater. There are a few Western tourists running around this time of the year, but not many. After arriving on the bus from Lampang, I decide to stay at the Dhevarat Hotel in the center of the city. It is the same hotel that I used to basically live in when I worked in the refugee camps. In fact, I am now sitting here in the refurbished lobby in the approximate place that I used to be in the evening, talking to whoever passed by, over hours of green tea at a table near the street of the hotel’s cafe. Missionaries with mystical tales of China before the revolution, Indian cloth merchants, Thais wanting to practice their English, the “60 Minutes” team, a few Congressional delegations, workers from a variety of national resettlement organizations, and an odd tourist or two all added to the flavorful memories of Nan. The hotel’s basic structure has not changed that much, but it has been totally modernized from the dingy rooms with the indifferent air conditioning of 28 years ago! One of the women who worked here then remembers me when we talk about what I had done there. “Oh you were thin then and always very busy,” she exclaims. (Thanks a lot!)
When you get stares as you make your way through the evening market, you know that you are in an area not on the usual tourist route. After the third pass, however, no one takes particular note that I am this Westerner tooling through the market looking for Buddha-knows-what—- sandwiches? I think not with all that tasty Thai food and goodies about! The evening market is a real find, colorfully adorned with seemingly infinite types of foods, fruits and vegetables filtered thorough a variety of large umbrellas set up to protect people and products from the sun as much as the rain. I can’t even bring myself to disturb this universe by taking pictures. I just love blending into the place as much as I can.
The next day, I hire a driver to take me out to Maejarim, where one of the refugee camps, Sobtuang, was located. I don’t bother to consider going to Nam Yao as I am sure nothing is there now. My driver, Chaleupan, as it ends up, was a soldier at Nam Yao when I was there, but we cannot recall ever meeting. He was often out fighting Communist “insurgents” he tells me. On the way, we start talking about the “old days” in that area. It is interesting to hear the perspective 28 years later from one who was in a very different position here. We both remember the day the king came to visit and the insurgents fired on his fleet of helicopters. Chaleupan was working a checkpoint and I was in Maejarim camp at the time. It was pretty intense. We also talk about the time that there was a “fire fight” next to Nam Yao camp when I was there interviewing. All in a day’s work!
Anyway, I don’t know why I mention that I have a Nissan, too. He merrily tells me that his 10-year-old Nissan is so good that he hasn’t had to do a thing to it– only spark plugs! “And the brakes?” I am about to inquire, but have quick second thoughts– I’d rather not know. After telling me that the car is pretty old and the roads mountainous he says, “my tdong riap phay” (don’t have to go that fast). The fact is that he punctuates this very sentence by hitting the first curve like he is at the Indy 500! I soon realize that the car is in desperate need of at least an alignment as it rattles and shakes its way around the sharp curves. My mind experiences that self-protecting numbing sensation often associated with terror on more than one occasion as I fear we will slide sideways right off the road! He talks the whole way to Maejarim. What a character! He was born a Christian, but his wife is a Buddhist. She continues to give him Buddha images to keep him safe when he drives, but he just keeps putting them in a bag in the glove compartment of his car. (Guess she has driven with him before!) “I’m a Christian,” he says emphatically, “I don’t wear those things, but I do respect Buddhism, of course.” I have my heart and several other body parts in my throat a few times as he accelerates DOWN the twisting mountain road. I ask him a few times to stop so I can take pictures, but it is more to collect my wits than anything else!
We make the 39 kilometers to Maejarim in 40 minutes. As we head out of Maejarim, I realize that he really has no idea where we are going! He thinks I want to go to a town further up the road near the Lao border. We spend the better part of 30 minutes asking a number of people how to get to the old refugee camp. I recall the general location of the road up, but it has changed somewhat. Chaleupan walks into the village with all the confidence of a returning son. He is gone for over 10 minutes. When he returns he laughs and tells me that he had to ask people over 50 because the younger ones have no idea there even was a camp there. At long last, we finally find a cement road that runs along the side of Maejarim School. (At first, I am glad it is cement as the rains seem to be threatening. I recall having to leave the camp immediately when it started to rain as the road was often too slippery to drive on. Once I even walked part of the way as the car was sliding too much in the muddy clay!) It isn’t long, however, before the road narrows to a dirt path and then barely more than a goat trail with tall grasses growing along the side. We stop at the school to talk to one of the teachers. He tells us it is about a three-kilometer climb to the top (sounds about right), but doesn’t recommend it as there have been a few incidences of people going in 1’s and 2’s and being robbed. “Besides”, he explains, “There is nothing more there now than a few Hmong families and a lot of mountain corn.” I am once again reminded that change can come in many forms– even things going back to the way they were.
Strangely, I am not disappointed. After all the agony and drama played out in that camp and others, it is enough for me to close the book on it entirely. Finding a path to fields of corn rather than a road to the remnants of a refugee camp is just fine with me as it turns out.
Chaleupan takes me back along the same route to Nan, but we stop so that I can take more pictures. We also go to a place called Ban Huey Kham (as I recall the name being). To get there you have to follow this steep, narrow, cement road along the mountain side. The steepness of the road has me breathless at times as much from my nerves as the beautiful scenery. Even Chaleupan respects the at times frightening descent we have to make. We stop at one point for 10 minutes to sit in the shade of a roadside grass hut to just drink in the view and the silence. Even the old soldier that Chaleupan was has to remark that it is indeed a phenomenal sight. He then says something that at first seems odd, but on a moment’s reflection makes perfect sense. “We are lucky to be alive from back then,” he offers reflectively. I can only respond by patting him on the shoulder as I can think of nothing to add. (Prior to this, he shared that he had lost a lot of army friends in the fighting.)
As we race back up that cement roller coaster of a road, I can only think about how very worth it this side trip to Nan has been. I am no longer afraid of that corkscrew road running along the mountain. I am just all too happy to appreciate the view. When we arrive back at the hotel, Chaleupan reaches into his glove compartment and pulls out one of his wife’s Buddha images and hands it to me. “Maybe it will give you good luck, too. Travel safely back to America,” he yells back as he speeds away down the road. You too, old soldier. You, too…….