First I went north about 40 miles to Kaeng Pan Dao, which you may recall, is the place I was staying at about 2,5 years ago when I was robbed twice, and learned so much about how the police work in Thailand. Now, however, I found that since the abbot has left (about a year ago he went to France, which I already knew, where he now teaches) the place is totally deserted of resident monks. There were 3 carika monks there, out wandering like me, who'd been there about a week already, and so I stayed a few days and then left. The villagers didn't say anything directly about it, but I suspect they recognized me. I'd hoped a few of the monks from 2,5 years ago would be there, but as it was there was the chance to cover once-familiar ground and also to speak with the 3 monks, who gave me some useful 'tips for the road'.
After leaving, I headed west, and walked, in 3 days, about 50 miles over rolling scrub bush interspersed with buffalo grazing and cultivated plots; just clusters of a few huts and small houses on stilts passing for villages. As I went on the country got a more and more primitive feeling to it, until there was a very fine feeling to the land: the people seemed different, more open, more accepting, helpful but not pushy, and the land, on the verge of mountainous, felt fresh and clean, well irrigated, not overpopulated, smelling of the elements not oil fumes.
So I was very pleased to be walking through this country when, some days ago, I came to this place, Nam Pung Duat, which is on a dirt road about 3 miles north of the main (partly paved) road (which goes through Pai to Mae Hong Son, near the Burmese border -- my destination), and there I've found what is to my mind the finest forest hermitage I've come across in Thailand. A hermitage, indeed: there's no one living here so I have the place entirely to myself. (I later learned it's used almost exclusively by carika monks, who come, stay for a while, then leave.)
The wat consists of 4 small bamboo cottages and one spacious hall, also mainly bamboo (though it has a corrugated metal roof and good timber in its framework). The bamboo around here can often have a circumference of over 12 inches. Used as whole lengths it provides a slightly springy base for a floor. Split lengthwise and opened up, it makes large panels which can be used for flooring or as walls. It's easy to sweep and comfortable to live on and around. The hall is very open (though it has an attached room which is enclosed where I've set myself up), with a fine view of pine forest, dominated by a verdant and precipitously steep mountain. Clouds like to pass across the belt of this mountain leaving its upper reaches exposed but no longer grounded, afloat in the clouds as it were; bamboo stands, wild banana plants in the lowlands, papaya trees around the hall, and no sounds other than forest sounds, and those muted and discreetly orchestrated.
Near the main road there's a village (15 houses) and another one about a mile north of here (10 houses) where the people are very rustic, with little or no formal schooling, but they are openly glad to have me here (they are careful to leave me undisturbed: they know the ways of wanderers, and I'm not the first farang -- foreigner -- to stay here), even though they know almost nothing about the outside world. Almost everything they have -- even their rifles -- are of regional, if not local, manufacture, houses are of forest material, they roll their tobacco in slices of cut and dried banana leaf (which, when dry, separates into thin layers), and even the women smoke large -- 10 inches long -- conical cigarettes. They carry short jungle knives in unwieldy rattan cases on their belt and hunt with their front-loading rifles (i.e. they load it by pushing a bullet down the muzzle) small animals and birds, which seems to be the only game left alive in these parts. (In Ceylon it was unknown for a villager to have a gun, and Ceylon still has lots of large wildlife; in Thailand everyone has guns and the animal population has been decimated.)
About 2 miles north of here are some hot springs, small geysers, water churning as much as 10 feet into the air from a few of the pots, steam visible a long ways off, and a river of hot water running off of them. By going downstream until the water is at just the right temperature for me, I took a fine bath in a pond of hot running water (maybe a couple gallons/second-quite rapid). Nearby is a (cold) raging river, with impressive rapids and falls, and a pond, and a fine flower garden kept by an old man who, I assume, is in the hire of the government: a few facilities and sturdy bamboo bridges were paid for by someone -- I suspect that when the main road was built, about 7 or 8 years ago, someone thought to make a park out of the springs, but since this dirt road is motorable (by Jeep, at best) only in the dry season (otherwise the river it crosses up near the main road is too deep for vehicles, though wade-able) the plan seems to have deteriorated, which means I've got the place pretty much to myself whenever I want to walk out there and get a hot bath.
I do have one new friend at the wat: a porcupine. He takes food from my hand and even lets me scratch him (a tricky business, let me tell you). He has no quills under his chin or around his ears. On his back I can scratch between the quills; his skin is baby-tender. He loves fruit, especially papaya and rambutan.
Another extraordinary thing about this wat: many fireflies at night. In front of the hall, in the clearing, where they can see each other, they tend to gather, and also tend to flash simultaneously. It seems to be line-of-sight, so sometimes different clusters will each have their own rhythm, but sometimes the different clusters get synchronized, and then it's quite extraordinary to watch.
The place has such a good and magical feeling to it I expect to stay for a spell. However, I haven't yet found a way to send mail from here and suspect there isn't any, so probably this letter won't get posted until I push on to Pai (another 40 miles), where there's a post-office.