A bowl of noodles and many snapshots of the Matterhorn later, a Mr. Long appeared, cheerfully swinging a rusting machete and accompanied by two slingshot-wielding teenage boys. The "20-minute" stroll turned out to be a strenuous, hour-long hike in the midday sun to a narrow hole in the ground, out of which poked the top rungs of a bamboo ladder. Mr. Long motioned for me to climb down into the darkness. I eyed his machete. This is it, I thought, stepping onto the ladder. No one will ever find my body.
Of course, I survived the trip down into the crevasse, and I wasn't disappointed by the cave, a cool labyrinth of limestone stalactites and stalagmites. On our return trip to town, one of the boys tried to teach me how to hunt with his slingshot. I managed to take out a giant leaf or two.
Back on the main road, I fell in behind a minibus about to burst with passengers, including one brave—or just crazy—boy who clung, spread-eagled, to the roof, grinning widely at me on the hairpin turns. I lost sight of him when I stopped to pick up a hitchhiking soldier who didn't speak a syllable of English but nodded gamely in response to every question I asked.
A while later, on top of a chilly, fog-shrouded peak, he helped me attempt, unsuccessfully, to squeeze six giggling hill-tribe women into the car.
By the time I reached Mae Hong Son, it was sunset. Atop the town's highest hill, the white stupas of a Buddhist temple glowed a vivid pink. Though Mae Hong Son had lengthened its tiny runway to accommodate small jets and acquired a couple of nice hotels, its pleasures were still decidedly local and authentic. That evening, there was a festival at the hilltop temple. After milling through crowds of families and orange-robed monks, I watched what appeared to be a provincial talent show on a makeshift stage. I bought noodles and a beer and ate my dinner on the grass, providing brief but amusing entertainment for a gaggle of teenage girls.
The next morning, while wolfing down rice-flour-and-coconut pancakes at Mae Hong Son's busy morning market, I fell in love with northern Thailand again. I realized that my past life had been spent not in Chiang Mai, but here in Mae Hong Son, devouring these scrumptious kanom krok, fried while I waited and still hot when I popped them into my mouth. I saw myself working the morning market or haggling with the hill-tribe peoples for their handicrafts. Whatever I had been in my past life in Thailand, it surely wasn't a bus driver or a train conductor. From now on I would be traveling through the north, in my latest incarnation, in air-conditioned privacy.
ALAN BROWN is the author of the award-winning novel Audrey Hepburn's Neck. He wrote and directed his first feature film, Book of Love, which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.