On The Mountain by Ron Emmons
that Points toward Heaven
I was about fifty metres from the summit when I finally understood the meaning of the mountain's name. Meena, who worked for the Forestry Department, was telling me in Thai that the local Akha tribe had a different name for the mountain that Thais call "Poo Hin Shee Fa". I knew that "poo" meant mountain "hin" meant rock and "fa" meant sky or heaven, but didn't know "shee". I asked Meena and he started pointing upwards. "Mork (clouds)?" I guessed. "Mai, mai (no, no)". His face contorted with the effort to communicate, and he waved his finger round to point at other things; a tree, a rock. "Tohnmhai? Hin? (tree? rock?)" I offered, hoping to reassure him with my knowledge of some Thai words. He hung his head in frustration, gazing at his finger, which now pointed limply downwards, and suddenly I realised; he meant the action, not the object. I was standing on "the mountain that points toward Heaven".
I had met Meena the previous evening at the end of a tiring but thrilling day driving northeast from Chiangmai. After Payao, a quaint enough lakeside town in itself, the sense of rural living grew in intensity. I paused at Poo Zang Waterfall in the late afternoon before starting the unsealed road up the mountain, and got into conversation with a friendly group of visiting monks. Later, as dusk descended, I stopped in a small village below the peak of Poo Hin Shee Fa and asked about a place to camp. Meena was waiting for a ride to the Forestry Department compound where he said I could pitch my tent. He came along and was a great help, warning me of the difficult parts of the steep dirt track, most of which had to be negotiated in 4-wheel low and first gear. He found me a secluded spot to camp and organised a fire, the patterns of which mesmerised me for an hour before sleep.
The next morning he made sure I was up in time for dawn, gave me a hot coffee, then guided me in the jeep up the final, hair-raising, bone-crunching stretch of track to an open area just a hundred metres below the summit. My heart was pounding from the ride and I dreaded the thought of having to drive back down again later. Meena led the way through waist-high grass to a small hillock on the shoulder of the mountain, where after our comical exchange I finally understood the meaning of the mountain's name.
From where I stood, the aptness of its name was particularly clear. The peak jutted out from the earth above us like a gigantic, outstretched hand gesturing skyward. Poo Hin Shee Fa is a towering wedge of rock (about 1700 metres high) that leans at an angle and forms an unassailable barrier between Thailand and Laos. The track on the steep side of the wedge leads to the summit, allowing visitors from Thailand to look out across the pristine wilderness of Laos, from cliffs that drop hundreds of metres into the dense forest below. Though I had seen pictures before, I still gasped involuntarily at the sight before me; a vast valley, its floor covered with a thick layer of pure white mist. Hilltops and silhouettes of trees hung suspended in space above the mist like islands in a dream.
I shared the hillock with a couple of young Thai men with cameras poised. The awe-inspiring view below us became gradually clearer as dawn approached, but our attention was constantly drawn to the top of the sheer cliff about 50 metres above and to our left, at the edge of which a sizeable crowd of dawn-watchers was cackling excitedly, like seagulls on the rail of a fishing boat. Flashes popped in the pre-dawn dimness; then the chattering hushed as the eastern sky glowed orange and finally a chorus of acclamation came from the crowd as the sun's disk slipped into view.
An hour after sunrise, most people had wandered away from the summit where a chill wind was blowing. I packed my camera and tripod away and rested against a boulder to breathe deeply and immerse myself in the beauty of it all. As the mist below began to recede from the rising sun, I could make out the tiny roofs of a village way down below. That would be in Laos, where life would be led in more time-worn ways than in much of modern Thailand. I could see no sign of roads or vehicles, and for a moment envisaged an enormous gulf between those villagers whose lives depend solely on natural rhythms and my own time-regulated, city existence in Chiangmai, just a few hours drive away.