We returned yesterday from a short but exhilarating visit to Papae—Ajahn Khamjan’s home, a Lawa hill tribe village in the jungly mountains of rural far northwestern Thailand. Since our visit was quite brief, I’m qualified only to share a few facts but many impressions.
I’ll start with the few facts:
Papae is not terribly far from the Myanmar border. It is enveloped by lush jungle-covered mountains, and nestled in a quiet valley far from any town of considerable size. To get there, one leaves the busyness of Chiang Mai far behind. (It required 4+ hours of driving from our base in Doi Saket.) The village is home to some 100 families. It is small but has grown considerably since the conditions in the village began to improve around the time of the first of four visits by King Rama IX some decades ago.
Now, my impressions:
First off, the drive to get there is simply amazing. Fortunately, we were in good hands with Vii and Phra Ake as our guides. Depending on which approach one takes, you’re treated to generally excellent road conditions and far-reaching views as you climb into the mountains. Arriving at the village, we passed a number of homes and a school, crossed a bridge over a small creek filled with large fish begging for vegetable scraps tossed to them by the villagers (an ordinance of sorts prohibits anyone from intentionally killing fish along this stretch of the creek) then drove up a short, steep incline to Wat Papae.
From what I understand, this small but remarkably beautiful monastery is largely devoid of monks for most of the year. Typically, a few monks will come for the annual 3-month Rains Retreat. As this was a week before the end of this year’s Retreat, we arrived when three monks were in temporary residence.
Our group was offered comfortable accommodations in one of the main buildings. After getting situated, we proceeded to tour and visit the monastery grounds, which had not only beautiful architecture but a visually stunning position above the valley and much of Papae. It wasn’t long before we were met by Ajahn’s mother, sister, and niece. This was the beginning of a brief but wonderful connection we made with these kind and caring people.
After a time, we walked into the village, watched a man feed the fish, then paid a visit to the rice field of Ajahn’s family. He’d encouraged me to visit Papae soon, as the lushness of the rice fields was particularly captivating this time of year. We were not disappointed. It was indeed beautiful.
Before long, we headed to Ajahn’s home, where he grew up and where his family still lives today. (Ajahn’s mother was born in Papae and has lived in her home at least since Ajahn was a little boy.) In brief, I’ll just say that we met many members of Ajahn’s immediate and extended family—to include Phra Rit’s mother, sister, and niece—and were quickly captured by their warmth, generosity and sweetness. Despite a significant language barrier (and despite the fact that although my Thai is poor, Thai is not the first language of most of the villagers—Lawa is), we were able to connect in a largely non-verbal way—through smiles, sharing, and an attitude of gentleness—and through the interpretation skills of Phra Ake and Vii. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner together (and an equally wonderful breakfast the next morning) and eventually retired to a quiet night at the temple.
Although I was largely awake quite early, I waited until the sounds of monks sweeping the grounds, the ringing of a bell to signal that the current resident monks would be going on alms round soon, and ultimately, my confidence to arise that the mosquitoes had gone to bed, before I emerged from the comfort and security of our sleeping quarters. The coast was indeed clear, so I wandered about the monastery grounds for awhile in the emerging day and practiced some walking meditation near the ordination hall.
I soon encountered Phra Ake, who was sweeping the grounds. We chatted for a bit then finished packing up before heading back to Ajahn’s mother’s home for a lovely breakfast before beginning the long drive home. Before departing, we shared some nice moments with Ajahn Khamjan and Phra Rit’s families, including not-a-few photos.
I am grateful firstly to our guides and friends Vii and Phra Ake for making this trip possible; secondly, to Ajahn Khamjan for planting (and watering) the seed that took us there; and especially, to Ajahn’s extended family for being so kind and caring, generous and genuine. We were touched by everyone’s hospitality and inclusion.
Perhaps we’ll return to this charming and beautiful, peaceful and lush village in the not-too-distant future. And maybe with Ajahn Khamjan with us, as I told his mother.