Author: Jennifer Sutherland-Miller

The Thailand of Your Dreams

The only sound upon waking is the whine of a single mosquito. The one that’s been eluding me all night. The one that somehow breached the screened defenses and has spent the night mocking me while I’ve slapped myself silly.

Just before I open my eyes, I forget where I am and have to think for a minute. I listen for clues. Beyond the all-consuming mosquito drone, I hear a soft splash and a bovine blow, then a quiet whistle. The soft patter of bare feet on bamboo and hushed voices of young girls trying not to wake the farang (that’s us).

Yesterday, we arrived late, after a long day of travel down from Mae Hong Son that included getting severely lost, plumbing the depths of our illiteracy, very bad coffee, and even worse tea, sipped with grimacing politeness under a rusted, dripping, tin roof on a mountain top. Let’s not forget my three enormous “farang” boys and their gigantic father being cheered as heroes for push starting a broken-down truck, uphill. Apparently, in certain contexts, size does matter.

Finding this place at all was a statistical anomaly. We called ahead when we realized there was no hope of any signs being legible to us.

thai rice paddies

“The Man mutters under his breath, something derogatory about Agoda, and how we should know better than to try to reserve anything in the backwater corners of the world.”
“Hello,” says my husband, carefully enunciating both syllables. “We have a reservation. We are trying to find you.”

I overhear a tinny chatter of Thai from the other end of the line, then nothing.

My husband, aka, the Man looks at me, blankly, “She hung up.”

He calls again, this time giving up on connecting words and speaking very slowly, “Hello, Hotel. Where? What road?”

Again, the chatter of Thai. Again, she hangs up.

The Man mutters under his breath, something derogatory about Agoda, and how we should know better than to try to reserve anything in the backwater corners of the world.

It’d seemed like a good idea at the time. We continued to meander, exercising our usual method of feeling our way to a place as if reading braille.

And then, the phone rang.

“Hello?” The Man answers.

“Hello, she no speak Engrish. She come on motorbike. She meet at corner. Red hat.”

And the voice was gone, leaving us with all of the usual questions revolving around whether we were on the right road, which corner and how many red hats were owned by non-engrish speaking Thai women of no description whatsoever. And so, we crept along the Thai-Burmese border, keeping all twelve eyes open for some sign from the gods, or a red hat, or something. Without her red hat, a beacon of welcome in a jungle of the unfamiliar, we’d never have found this place, not in a million years, and this is a place I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

Having traded my spring mattress for a bamboo chair on the bamboo deck of my bamboo cottage, I’m sipping my first cup of tea and watching the morning mists snake into the blue sky from the forest canopy.

Men in cut-off shorts and sarongs, carefully wrapped and tucked into their belts walk behind water buffalo, thigh deep in the liquid silver of the rice paddies that hold back the tangle of everything beyond. Their beasts, inky black and languorous in their progress, carve long rows through the water, rippling reflections of liquid sky.

Water Buffalo, rice field, Northern Thailand

“We share a wordless moment, enjoying our children; so much of what matters most in life transcends translation.”

My children are crouched over the canals that run between the cottages and along the footpaths within the family compound playing with two little girls, miming all that’s necessary for perfect understanding. It occurs to me that, perhaps, if children were in charge of international relations, the world would be a friendlier place. There’s a peal of laughter, a big splash, and one of the Thai mamas looks up from her work under the open pavilion. Our eyes meet. She smiles and nods at me. We share a wordless moment, enjoying our children; so much of what matters most in life transcends translation.

When we pulled our dusty little car into the bamboo fenced compound in the falling darkness the night before, the neighbors all turned out to observe the oddity: a family of farang, this far off the beaten path. When The Man unfolded himself from the confines of the tiny Honda rental car, a titter ran through the community. He hunched a bit and smiled, his usual defense against feeling like a monster in the crowd.

We’re ushered into the main room, an open-walled space with bamboo floors and a thatched roof while the lady of the house tries to determine why we’re here and what’s needed. I smile, mime, and try to communicate that we’re hoping for two cabins for the evening. She looks confused. We’re two people, or two cabins? If we were two people, why two cabins? I point at the car and mime “children,” holding up four fingers, mime “2 cabins” again and smile. She looks perplexed, holds up one finger, and disappears.

My turn to look confused.

Meanwhile, an old grandmother and a young girl sit on the floor with wide flat baskets full of black-hulled rice, alternately tossing the contents into the air and catching it with a dry hiss and then picking through with sharp eyes for unacceptable grains, bits of chaff, sticks, or bugs. They smile up at us with a bob of their heads. We wait.

In time, the lady of the house returns, with an iPad in hand. She smiles, flips open Google translate and her fingers fly. “Good evening, how can I help you?” appears on the screen in English. She taps a button and an English keyboard pops up for me to use.

“We’d like two cabins please, we have four kids in the car, six of us all together.”

She laughs, points at the car and translates to the gawkers who all peer at the small car, and then one by one go to tap on the windows and see how we were possibly hiding so many in there. The children emerge, unfolding like origami swans from the confines of the vehicle and begin extending their best wais with a bow to the amazed audience of locals. And just like that, we’re adopted into the family for the duration, our farang-ness notwithstanding .

I couldn’t tell you how to find this place. The sign is green and written in the fanciest Thai script. It’s a right turn off of the main highway that runs along the border with Burma, south of Mae Hong Son a few hours. It’s past and through a couple of nondescript towns, after another right turn on a dirt road; then back around the wide side of the rice paddies and within the hand-hewn bamboo fence. One of the water buffalos working in the field has a pink patch on his rump. Or he did, anyway.

bamboo cabins northern thailand
This is the Thailand you were dreaming of, but not the one you’ll find on any postcard, or anywhere south of Mae Sot. There is something magical about the north of Thailand and the area encompassing the uncertainties of the Burmese frontier, where waking in a rice paddy is a way of life.

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Photo credits:, Pra Chid /, iCNX /, Chokniti Khongchum /, CHAIYA.