"It's just a small house in the forest," Auntie Glen protests. But my partner and I call it the enchanted glade, a made-to-order escape...
PILOK, Thailand — “It’s just a small house in the forest,” Auntie Glen protests. But my partner and I call it the enchanted glade, a made-to-order escape from stress and concrete, and a glide back in time to an old, fast-vanishing Asia.
Far beyond Thailand’s touted beaches, shopping emporiums and cookie-cutter hotels, even past the byways where grubby backpackers stray, snuggles a place all but lost in a deep-lying mountain valley.
Just the journey out of the numbing urban sprawl of Bangkok, where I’ve been based for many years, and the thought of another stay at the nine-room Forest Glade hideaway, with its tranquility, Asian family feel and great food, sends quivers down my spine and stomach.
You drive westward to the province of Kanchanaburi — site of the infamous, World War II bridge on the River Kwai and “Death Railway” — and some five hours later encounter what my partner calls “Hobbit Country.”
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Serried ranks of mountain ranges, sculpted from limestone karst, recede into a dreamlike distance, sometimes clothed in thick vegetation, elsewhere craggy and starkly bare, like battlements of a castle primeval. Through them you wind upward to the village of Pilok, a trip that few make: The road dead-ends at a virtual ghost town astride the unfriendly border with military-ruled Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Then it’s a bone-jiggling descent. Only four-wheel drives can make it to Forest Glade guesthouse. Auntie Glen (that’s what everyone calls Glennis Setabundhu), is waiting there for us, along with her lovely, sarong-clad helpers and four welcome-back cakes — chocolate, orange, banana and carrot with a delectable yogurt icing.
The enveloping hills, jungle and waterfalls make the guesthouse special. But 68-year-old, Australian-born Glennis and her small, close-knit community — “my ready-made family” — make it transcendent. And the place has the haunting, loving presence of Glennis’ late Thai husband.
Forest Glade: Contact by letter: Forest Glade, PO Box 23, Pilok Valley, Thong Pa Phum, Kanchanaburi 71180, Thailand. Or phone 66-1-325-9471. There is no email or Web site.
A big family
Glennis and Somsak Setabundhu met in her Australian hometown of Kalgoorlie, where Somsak had come to study the family business — mining. He brought the young, inexperienced bride to his then exotic homeland in 1964 and they headed up to Pilok, a two-day trek from the provincial capital by river boat, jeep or elephant back and finally on foot through forests where cobras slithered and tigers prowled.
Despite the isolation and spartan living, Glennis was entranced by her surroundings, the loyal migrant workers from Myanmar, the operation of the tin-mining concession the Setabundhu clan had held for a century — and by her husband.
“He had the most soulful eyes. He was one of nature’s true gentlemen,” she says, pointing to his many photos.
The fairy tale ended in 1994 when Somsak succumbed to cancer. A decade earlier, tin prices had collapsed overnight, leaving hundreds of his employees and their families jobless and destitute.
Alone, Glennis faced a wrenching choice. She decided to stay, hoping to support as many of the workers and family retainers who had been so devoted to her husband as possible. A year after his death, she converted the cavernous company warehouse into a homey dining-sitting area. She built simple but charming bungalows and began to take in guests.
The guests are an eclectic lot — Thai business executives and avid off-roaders, mining buffs, expatriates and a trickle of foreign tourists. Most share a feeling that they don’t need to be coddled at multi-star hotels where local hospitality is being globalized by the well-rehearsed have-a-nice-day smiles of Western management.
Renovation, which has sucked the charm out of so many of my favorite places in Asia, isn’t among Forest Glade’s strong points. Life’s simple, deeper pleasures are.
The biggest upgrade came with the recent installation of a satellite telephone (forget about mobile phoning out of the glade). Electric power runs just five hours a day, generated partly by a waterwheel straight from the Industrial Revolution. Corn husks are incinerated to heat water for showers.
The warm showers were much welcomed on our last visit. We may have been roasting as we left hot, steamy Bangkok and the central plains, but that evening, under a star-studded summer sky, our group closed in around glowing charcoal. Shish kebab was grilled to be served with tangy curries, organic vegetables from the glade garden, fish from a nearby reservoir and four other dishes.
The slow life
The weekend’s only set program was a drive to the end of one nearby valley where Jokradin waterfall unexpectedly rears up, hiding within a bowl screened by trees. The water tumbles down a sheer rock face into a deep pool, and the silvery downpour gave me a great shoulder massage when I swam under the falls and clung to the mossy rocks.
Returning before sunset, we scrambled up a trail near the guesthouse to savor stillness broken only by birdsong and the ghostly, door-creaking sound of bamboo bending to the wind. The clang of a gong rose from a tiny temple below where a lone Buddhist monk resides, ministering to Glen’s flock.
That night, as on most others, guests and valley dwellers mingled in the converted warehouse, decorated with family photos and Australian Victoriana — figurines of ducks and teddy bears, doilies embroidered with flowers.
Children were glued to a movie from Myanmar and everyone passed around a smiling 1-year-old girl nicknamed “Darling,” whom Glennis regards as her grandchild. Some mothers busied themselves with bamboo tongs, mosquito nets, brooms and other items sold to supplement family incomes.
“When I am gone,” Glennis says, “and there is nobody else around to whom they can turn, they will need knowledge and skills to help themselves.”
Now, Glennis cares for five families — 11 adults and 14 children, all employed at the guesthouse in one way or another. And she tries to help other one-time mine workers.
“It’s a privilege to live here,” says Glennis.
It’s a privilege to visit.
Denis D. Gray is The Associated Press bureau chief for Southeast Asia.