We had been trekking through the Chiang Mai highlands for three days. It was the rainy season and, smelling damp and slightly steaming, we battled to keep large banana leaves above our backpacks to offer some protection. Raincoats required but too humid to wear them, we were all tired, and conversation had withered, as we trudged through the jungle undergrowth, trying to keep up with our guide, and transfixed by his slashing machete, clearing our rain-soaked path.
At some point a mangy dog joined us, his melancholy provoking our own. We could not help him. When we stopped he stopped, when we ate he ate, whatever scraps we could spare. He followed us for a day, this poor sad specimen. There was nothing to be done. After a day he slowed and we left him behind.
On the third day our route steepened, climbing steadily towards hints of mountains, momentarily visible through the lattice of leaves. So much rain, drawing greenery, tall and rapid, from the damp earth. Intensely hued blossoms fireworked across our path, and occasional oversized creatures, some with more legs than we cared to concede.
As afternoon and humidity thickened, our legs began to collect lead weights, the mountain Gods sitting at the unseen end of the path’s seesaw, laughing at our jellied limbs and increasing the incline for their own entertainment. Nausea now rising and mist descending, we prayed that the village was not too much further.
Now a small troop of mechanical zombies, we reached our place of rest. A large, wooden hut, weathered foliage on the roof finally providing a long craved for shelter. Pink, pruned fingers prized off wet-through boots, and a group of young travellers (and me) collapsed on bunks with scratchy blankets. Not even a bed of nails on fire would prevent our plummet into dreamland that night.
And then it was morning. Waking early with the sun, I uncurled and tested my body, padding across wooden floors to research a source of water. Opening the door I now saw a mountain village. It seemed it may have been delivered during the night, as it was hidden in claustrophobic cloud the night before.
At the edge of the slope was a breeze-block cube. An ugly little block of necessity – toilets within and sinks attached to the external wall. And, further breeze-blocks revealed a shower. Well, a pipe, with a valve to release or halt the flow of ice-cold mountain water. Relieved at the opportunity to wash off the hard work of the day before, I closed my eyes and drenched my head.
As the crystal clear stream did its work, I finally began to absorb my surroundings. Breeze-blocks only up to shoulder height (and constructed at the edge of a steep descent) I was left feeling somewhat exposed. But, this frugality of building materials meant that I could see beyond the cube’s confines, and what I saw there, when my eyes focused, took my breath away.
What the night before had been purely white and wet, had now opened out into a wide and steaming valley. With a few still-slumbering clouds, and banana plants as far as the eye could see. Here I was, in a mountain village in northern Thailand, with this lush valley and this mountain shower and this breeze-block cube all to myself. Despite the ugly cement, and the cold water on my back and my exhausted limbs, I knew this might very well be the most luxurious spa I would ever visit. And for that moment, I relished this peaceful, solitary vista, before my companions awoke and broke the spell.
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