Winter never touches Thailand. From November through February, Thailand’s cool season is a perfect summer of endlessly sunny days that peak in the upper eighties. Chiang Mai is blessedly devoid of the shirt-sticking humidity Bangkok is known for, and so going to Huay Tung Tao lake is a lot like going to a lake back home. It’s a perfect way to spend a Sunday.
Desultory laughter echoes all around, but the sun is too bright to see anything but silhouettes splashing out in the water against the shady background of the foothills that rise above the lake. I can’t remember the last time I smelled a lake in summertime. South African breezes were always full of brine. Luckily, lakes must smell the same all over the world: a contradiction of laziness and freshness, fresher and sharper in the cool mornings, languid and hot in the still afternoons.
We haven’t been near a grassy area larger than a couple hundred metres since Kobe, Japan, and didn’t realize how much we missed the freedom to stop and take a deep breath without worrying what smells might assault us, or that we’d be in the way of a slew of people coming up from behind.
Our neighborhood in Chiang Mai often smells like raw sewage or exhaust. Our roads are pocked with holes and open manhole covers and lined by open ditches, our sidewalks do not exist. The ground is neither wholly concrete nor dirt; it’s just the dusty milieu of flies, rats, roadkill, and poop. None of this bothers me anymore.
We downshift into dirty street mode and plod along. After all, we could be far from grocery stores or places for Spencer to play, or worse, we could be in a tourist area, where there are sidewalks but no room to walk on them amidst the crowds milling around stall upon stall, each selling the same cheap harem pants and Chang beer tee shirts that are sold in Bangkok and made in China.
No, the aging apartment building at the end of a quiet alley suits us well for now, but it is nice to remember the feeling of open spaces, and of course the smell of the lake.
We let Spencer play in the mud at Huay Tung Tao for half an hour, and listen to the teenaged boys splashing each other. I love that unlike other commonplace lakes and rivers who pretend to be full-fledged wonders of nature with “scenic boardwalks” and a bevy of restaurants with names like “River View,” Huang Tong lake has no pretensions.
There are few people and there is zero decoration. It’s just a lake. Teenagers come there to splash around like kids without worrying whether or not they’re cool, kids come there to push each other in a half-deflated inner tube, babies come there to get dirty in the mud, and parents come there to eat and drink beer in the huts near the shore without worrying about their kids.
Eventually we walk over to one of the huts and are served a decently priced, decent tasting platter of pork with basil, sticky rice, chicken with basil, more sticky rice, and two cold cups of broth. Of course, a decent meal here would be an excellent Thai meal back home. While our public sanitation standards are lower now, our food standards are impossibly high. Thailand spoiled us with its insanely delicious, cheap food.
Spencer wants to leave the hut and go play on the beach. Normally I’d tell him to stay with us because I’m not finished, but today I can’t see why he shouldn’t go play by himself a few yards away. He wanders near some other children, and normally I’d watch him like a hawk, worrying that he’l take one of their toys and refuse to give it back.
For once, my parental neurosis has stayed back home in the city. Spencer never wanders out into the water, and if he did I’d see him. Although he does frequently steal other kids’ toys, he also says please first fairly often, and they can surely work it out on their own.
Sure enough, by the time we’ve paid the bill and the sun has turned the trees purple and the air pink, we start walking down the beach to find Spencer playing nicely with two boys at the edge of the water. They have lent him one of their shovels, and all three are happy agents of erosion, scooping up shovels of mud and tossing them out into the lake. But it’s a lake. There is nowhere for the mud to go. It will settle, and the water will eventually massage it back into place.
We walk past an aging fleet of swan boats toward the parking lot where a songthaew truck waits to take us back to the city. I notice that even the mosquitos are observing a day of rest. Spencer waves goodbye to the mournful dogs who sleep among the trees at the edge of the parking lot, and we ride back to the city. Huay Tung Tao’s scenery hasn’t been stunning, but it’s been scenery: an unobstructed view of trees and mountains after two weeks of tall buildings and the person in front of you in line. We paid $16.50 for the round trip ride from the city, $5.90 for our dinner, and in return we were refreshed by the simplicity of breathing deeply in a wide open natural space.
If you’re reading this I hope there’s an unadorned, inexpensive, respite in your near future, and the type of peace that will massage you, at least for a few hours, back into place.