I am always surprised by the kindness of strangers I meet while travelling. I’m not sure why that is so, since I have been the recipient of many instances of human kindness on every trip I have ever taken. A visit that my sister, Sandra, and I made to Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand this past October was no exception.
We stayed at Lanjia Lodge (langia means “peaceful” in the Hmong language). It’s a sustainable community-based tourism initiative involving the Hmong and Lahu ethnic groups that live in the surrounding area. It is stunningly beautiful and remote, with the Mekong River way below in the valley in front of the lodge, and the Laos border visible in the misty distance. There’s not a flat strip of land anywhere nearby, but the villagers—mostly farmers—manage to grow corn, ginger, tapioca, cabbage, and mountain rice.
The lodge itself is quite unique, with four four-bedroom guest houses, each of which has a delightful Hmong name: Lulee (“moon”), Shando (“sunshine”), Jua (wind”), and Londu (“sky”). A roofed common verandah/dining area spans the front of each building, extending 20-30 feet out over steep hillsides, and affording spectacular views which are framed near the buildings’ edges by delicate bamboo branches. It felt as if we had walked into an airy ink drawing done by a Chinese artist with a two-horsehair brush.
The lightness of the place is further enhanced by the fabric of every lodge in the complex, made almost entirely of woven bamboo strips: floors, walls, doors, sliding windows. At one point, I thought I saw little strips of Christmas tinsel on the floor of our room, only to discover when I tried to pick them up, that they were bits of light shining up through the floor from a storage room below.
Tong was the nickname of the young house-mother for our four-bedroom unit. Every local person with whom we dealt gave us a short nickname, and I originally thought it was because we were too stunned to either pronounce or remember their real names, but it turns out—at least in Thailand—that people actually only use their birth names in formal situations such as signing official documents. Apparently the widespread use of nicknames stemmed originally from an ancient belief that one could prevent evil spirits from interfering with a newborn by confusing them through the use of a nickname rather than the baby’s formal name.
So our Destination Asia (Thailand) guide was “Dee,” our driver “Duan,” and the Lanjia Lodge manager “Tai.” They, along with Tong, couldn’t do enough for us. On our first day at the resort, Sandra asked Tai some questions about what would be happening at the local Buddhist temple the following morning when the 3-month Lenten period came to an end. During that period of time, which coincides roughly with the rainy season, the monks do not go out to the village in the early morning with their begging bowls but simply accept whatever the villagers bring to them. But with the full moon rising, the local Buddhists would be going to the temple the next morning to pray anyway, and it was a particularly special day because it coincided with the last day of Lent for the monks.
The Hmong and Lantu people in the hills around the lodge are not Buddhists, but a mix of Catholic and Seventh Day Adventist who worship in their respective small churches across a dirt lane from one another. There is also a healthy sprinkling of animists but no Buddhists nearby, the closest being in the valley below, about four km away. So Tai volunteered to use his truck to take us very early the next morning to the temple so that we could join the locals for the full moon ceremony.
Just before our arrival there, Tai suggested we stop to buy offerings for the monks, thereby saving us arriving embarrassingly empty-handed. So we got to the temple around 7:30, bearing alms of fish, milk, water, noodles, and sweets, at which time things were rather winding down. The place, however, was still chock-a-block full of kneeling, chanting folk, who quite gracefully made way for us to shuffle on our knees up to the monk leading the prayers, so we could leave our offerings with him.
According to Tai, the villagers had been arriving with alms from about 5 a.m. onward. Every so often while the monk chanted, the villagers poured water from a small urn into a bowl they had brought with them, to honour their ancestors by giving strength and good deeds to their spirits, helping them shorten the time they must wait to reincarnate. Of course, we had no bowls or pitchers, which didn’t deter the man kneeling next to Sandra one little bit. Recognizing that she was a visitor, and wanting her to be able to participate in this temple ceremony, he reached for her hand, and silently helped her pour water from his pitcher into the bowl in front of him. I expect my mother’s spirit appreciated that—I know Sandra did.
All photos by Sandra Phinney – All Rights Reserved
1. Lanjia Lodge, sunrise, with view over the valley
2. Temple where Sandra and Carmen visited to give alms on the day of the full moon
3. Inside the temple
Guest Author Bio
Carmen Phinney has been sending travelogues to friends for many years now, from various spots on the globe: Australia, Mexico, the USA, Germany, Costa Rica, and most recently, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Thailand. She enjoys painting word pictures, and feels like her friends and family are along for the ride when they are reading them. Favourite trip? Any one that offers new friends, experiences, and recipes.