art gallery
contributors subscribe links trumpet fiction back issues exit

From the Land of Smiles
Benjamin Malcolm

"Paradise Found"


I’ve arrived.

After 35 years on this earth, I’ve finally arrived. This is my paradise. It’s a town called Mae Hong Son, next to the Burmese border, nestled in the mountains and forests of northern Thailand.

This is my home now. I share it with my fiancé, Supalak. It’s the place where I write and work and think and live. From my porch, as I drink my coffee in the morning, I see tree-covered mountains, rice fields, a tamarind tree in my yard and a road stretching off into nowhere.

Later in the morning, alone with my laptop and the rising heat of the morning, I hear a cat in the brush, mewling and crying over hunger or loneliness or pain and a chicken squawking its head off from across the street. A random motorcycle growls and roars and disappears down the road.

In the evenings, I watch students plodding home while shadows slowly stretch across my porch.

I’m a phone plug away from the internet and an on switch away from HBO, CNN, the BBC, and ESPN. Western movies and shows with Thai lettering at the bottom, British Premier League soccer games and rugby matches, it’s all there for me if I want it. Sometimes I do.

But I’d rather plug myself into the natural rhythms of this small town in Thailand. Enjoy the days in my teak wooden house and hear the birdsong and the rising buzz saw of cicadas in the heat of the day. Nod my head to the villagers as they make their way to the fields, the town, and the schools in the morning mists. Hop on my bike, explore town and practice my Thai with some random merchant.

I love this place.

My house seems far away from town. It’s north of the airport, a big wooden testament to history and culture. Thailand’s architecture suffered after the countrywide logging ban of 1989 (which was enacted to stem deforestation of the country). Now most buildings are made out of concrete. This house is almost all wood and has all the things the concrete apartment blocks and condos of Bangkok don’t have: creaking floors, sun-baked teak wood porches, an old windup clock ticking away the hours on the wall, a set of rotted deer antlers, and pictures of old Thai kings scattered on the walls. There’s a large wooden gate in the front. It breathes and moans with the winds in the evening, and creaks as you walk about during the day. I’ve put a few small testaments to my other lives up, a New England calendar, a Nomar Garciappara bobble head doll, a few kitchen magnets and a U.S. men’s soccer team calendar.

I’ve lived in the countryside before, in New Hampshire, and even here in Thailand. I’m suited to it and I know I’m suited to this house. The temperatures, the mountains, the quiet and the foreignness of this are the right mix. The house here reminds me of another special place I lived, in New Hampshire, in a 19th-century farmhouse, when I house-sat for a couple over the winter. I produced one of my best pieces of writing in that house, a horror story based on H.P. Lovecraft. Old wooden houses in the countryside imbue me with a special feeling.

Town is ten minutes away by bicycle. It’s a downhill breezy ride past the airport and a lung-punishing hill climb on the way back. Especially in the middle of the day. Sometimes I sprint back to the house, beating one of the jets as it taxis to the north end of the runway. I’m enjoying my trips into town and my slow garnering of knowledge of place, of the right stores to go to for supplies and of the right market stalls for fruit or flowers or spices. People are starting to recognize me (I’ve been here too long for your average tourist) and my dusty mountain bike. I go in at least once a day just to take a break from things and to get some exercise. Sometimes, I go to shoot hoops at a rutted old court near the town hall. That’s down the road, through the rice fields and past other teak houses. I’m in no hurry to make new friends here. That will come. I enjoy the time alone during the late mornings and afternoons and sharing evenings and weekends with Supalak.

I love finding out the best routes into the shops. Little nuances to the town. Like combining lunch with a stop at the combination coffee shop/newspaper place (the day’s paper doesn’t come in until the first flight into town). The coffee at that shop is prepared in the traditional way, brewed in a long burlap bag and served with tea as a chaser. Or knowing that the best banana bread in town can be found at the cake stand in the middle of the night market.

The only thing missing is decent ground coffee (you can only buy instant coffee here in the stores), technical items (like computer parts) and a decent bookstore. Other than that, this town has everything anyone could need from the modern world.

I also have someone to share all this with. Supalak is my benefactor, as she is providing an opportunity and a home. When we were planning this move late last year, we discussed our futures and I said I wanted to finish my novel, to sit on a porch and hammer out the plot and characters and really pull together this semi-amorphous story that has been floating in my mind for over five years. She said this was the time, we should move north to her new job, find a house to live in where she could take care of both of us while I tried to do that. How many times in life do you have someone believe in you that strongly? Paradise is defined as much by the power of this belief as anything else.

Supalak teaches in the refugee camps with Karenni (Burmese) refugees. The Karennis fled their own country more than ten years ago and haven’t been back since. You’ve probably read articles about Burma (officially called Myanmar) in the paper under the headline "Generals Crack Down on Rogue Populations" or "Human Rights Advocates Accuse Burmese Generals of Abuses" or something along that line. Suffice it say, it’s a police state. Burma is also one of the leading producers of opium and illegal methamphetamines, which doesn’t exactly endear them to neighboring countries and to the United States. But they’re only runners-up on the Axis of Evil list and are thus largely ignored. All their infractions are regional.

I already have gotten a taste of life in the camps. I attended graduation at the teacher’s college next door to one of the camps this last weekend, and acted as the semi-official photographer for the event. It’s the first ever graduation for the teacher’s college and the program was an intriguing language mix of English, Burmese, and Karenni. The officials crowded the room in the beginning, for the certificate ceremony, ate lunch, and drifted away, leaving the room to local children and mothers. The children and mothers filled the vacuum in the room, watching in wonder as the graduates showed off their English TV video and grouped together on the stage to perform a concluding dance.

The graduates are now set to head out into the world, a world that is limited to their camp. I wondered how the graduates really felt. How does it feel to know that your world consists of a small plot of land, that you must bide your time, make the best of your situation, and wait for democracy to return to your country? I feel incredibly lucky to hop in the company truck and return to my home in the city, free to do whatever I want with the rest of my day.

We’re full swing into the hot season now in Mae Hong Son and I can feel it when I take my bike into town in the middle of the day. The sun hangs heavy, but the nights are still cool enough that I need to pull up a blanket in the middle of the night. There’s crispness to the air in the mornings. That’s part of what I love. It’s the only place in Thailand where I feel cold. The thickness of skin I had growing up as a New Englander is being replaced by a thinner Southeast Asian skin.

I’m already seeing the fires that are set in the hot season, as the local farmers burn their fields. In the evenings, from my porch, I can see the sides of the mountains red with flame – an eerie yet beautiful sight. During the rainy season, most of the dirt roads become impassable. During the cool season, the night air dips to 0 degrees Celsius. I’ve been through the cool season, but have yet to negotiate the swamp-roads. There’s a big dirt road between the house and the airport. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to that. My new mountain bike will be baptized when the rains start, probably in June.

In fact, I’m looking forward to settling down for a while. All last year, I traveled the length and breadth of this country and Laos. I’ve been back to the U.S. and traveled around the East coast. Now I need a home. I need to watch the changing of the seasons from this house. Watch the rains come over the mountains on their way into town.

It’s almost been like a dream the way this has happened. The way my life has turned in over a year from the non-profit caffeine and workaholic world of Washington, DC to the simple rhythms of the Thai countryside.

A few months ago, we attempted recently to get a gardener to work on the grounds of the house, to cut away some of the dead foliage from the banana and mango trees. A local Thai landscaper, named Andy, arrived at my house early in the morning at the beginning of the week, and told me that the gardener wouldn’t be arriving for a few days. He said his whole staff was at a party, celebrating a local festival in which young men enter the monk hood. Everyone was too drunk to work, and thus the gardener couldn’t come until Thursday. Andy lived for many years in Utah and Canada, and we both had a good laugh about this. Something like this would never happen in D.C. The gardener was drunk … you don’t get upset about this. You just wait until Thursday.

Mae Hong Son is one of 76 provinces in Thailand. It’s not particularly big and is far away from the beaches and islands of the south where the bulk of the tourists go. It’s northwest of Chiang Mai which is the biggest city of the north and the second largest tourist destination in Thailand. It’s not all that easy to get here. From Bangkok, you’d have to take an overnight train to Chiang Mai and then hop on for a seven-hour bus ride around hairpin turns and endless switchbacks. You could also fly, either from Bangkok or Chiang Mai.

Interestingly enough, the first question any Thai asks me when I mention that I’m living in Mae Hong Son is "Have you been on the bus that has to go through 1,869 curves yet?" I have yet to do this. Some day I will. I’m in no hurry.

I live in the main city of Mae Hong Son, the provincial capital, a home to about 6800 people of Thai, Burmese, and Thai Yai (Shan) descent. Plus a handful of hill tribe villagers, who come in and out to sell handicrafts. Hill tribe villagers are Thailand’s native population and are as beset as our Native American population with alcohol abuse, poverty, and other debilitating social conditions. The names of the hill tribes sound like letters in an alphabet – Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Mien (Yao), Hmong, and Karen. By the main lake every day in town, Lisu women, clothed in their traditional black embroidered clothing, spread their blankets and sell handbags, hats and other woven masterpieces. Day in and day out, they are there.

I notice time in Mae Hong Son. You’re allowed to notice time here. It’s marked by the passage of the sun, by the passage of days and by the incoming and outgoing flights of Thai Airways, which runs three roundtrip flights a day through Mae Hong Son out of Chiang Mai. After the final 5:30 p.m. flight, the airport runway becomes a jogger’s track and the airport parking lot becomes a soccer field. I’ve biked by the runway late in the afternoon and seen the crowds gathering just before the final flight out of town. The house is close enough to the airport that it shudders with the noise of the jets’ engines as they gear up to take off.

I’ve also climbed nearby Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu, the temple on top of the mountain, a few times and looked down over the town. The town is easy enough to see from the temple, laid out in a small valley with a lake in the middle of it and the airport framing the north end. The temple is lit up starting at dusk, a sight that always amazes me as I glide into town on my bike. As you take off from the airport, you pull level to the temple as you ascend, before leaving it behind and head into the clouds. In its own way, it acts as a holy lighthouse for the city.

I used to live in Southern Thailand and became accustomed to the darker-hued, fast-speaking Southern Thai, the Muslim and Malaysian influences, the sea gypsy populations of the islands, and the sprinkling of Chinese and others. In Mae Hong Son, it’s subtle mixes of Burmese, hill tribe villagers, Shan, and Chinese. Even the local temples are intriguing mixes of Buddhist spires and Burmese lattice-work.
There’s a sizable foreign population in town, courtesy of the myriad refugee organizations in Mae Hong Son, and enough tourists make their way through to keep the center of town active in pizza, internet cafes, and souvenir shops. The tourists here tend to be a hardier breed, who shun the beaches and who seek out mountain biking territory, caves, and treks into the forest.

I first came to Mae Hong Son in 1996, with two other friends. I thought at the time how wonderful it would be to settle in this town, to live in one of the old wooden houses I saw from the road. It’s finally happened.

I’m here for a while. I’ll enjoy my stay, but when I leave I’ll remember this gentle, quiet town in my dreams. This mountain town on the border of Burma, with its soft sunsets, mountain mists, squawking chickens, and a road leading to nowhere.

This is my paradise.

Mae Hong Son, Thailand.


email us with your comments.