Story and photos by Hilary Cadigan
It’s a beautiful drive, despite the fact that our motorbike breaks down on the way and we’re smack in the middle of burning season. The fact that it was still beautiful is a testament to the area, a winding road through Phrao, lined with tall trees stark against the setting sun. We enter a small village about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai, Pasak Ngam, a one gas pump town, and there it is: the Rabeang Pasak Tree House Resort, my childhood (okay, also current) fantasy come true.
Parking/ditching our bike across the street (which is now emitting a steady stream of smelly smoke), we step across the street and into a teakwood forest clearing, complete with babbling brook, mini waterfall, organic garden and a squad of friendly cats. Oh, and tree houses.
Mr. Lee, the owner and architect, walks us around the property. He is one of those people you immediately adore, young for his years, a whimsical fellow with grey hair parted to the side, twinkling eyes and an impish grin. As he showcases each house, he talks about what makes it special. The first house he built was not a tree house, but a cosy little stilted cottage on the brook, all knotted wood and floating spiral staircases.
“Sometimes people are disappointed when they don’t get to sleep in one of the tree houses,” says Mr. Lee. “This makes me sad. Each house is unique and special.”
There are eight houses in all, four in trees (number five still in the process of being built) but all completely adorable, from the cosy Bamboo House with private waterfall view to the towering Tamarind House, perched at the top of the resort’s tallest tree, heavy with tamarinds and complete with a working toilet and bunk beds. Mr. Lee says the toilet was not easy to install, and the process of learning how to build the perfect tree house has involved a lot of missteps. “The trees move when the wind blows,” he says. “I learn more with each one I build.”
Each house was designed by Mr. Lee and built under his watchful eye. All are small but comfy, with running water and electricity, carved wooden figurines and used books lining the walls inside. We check into the Star House, Rabeang Pasak’s newest and largest addition. The main quarters are technically built around rather than inside the tree, but there’s a cute little third bedroom nestled in a high branch off to the side like a crow’s nest.
Mr. Lee was born and raised in Chiang Mai, where he owned a chicken farm and attended architecture school. He bought the land in Pasak Ngam 20 years ago, and has taken his time building up the resort, which began as a family home in 2010, and opened to the public two years later.
“I am a bad architect,” he says. We laugh, glancing up at the perfect little tree houses and dismissing his modesty, but he insists. “I can’t draw!”
It was his late-in-life introduction to computers that allowed Mr. Lee to translate his dream into reality. “You don’t have to be good at drawing to design on a computer,” he exclaims, gleeful.
Rabeang Pasak is a family affair; Mr. Lee’s daughter and son-in-law help with upkeep, cooking and marketing. “We didn’t have many customers at first,” he says. “Then my son-in-law, Mink, put us up on the internet. Now there are many customers!”
Not to mention five-star reviews on TripAdvisor. The resort holds an impressive 98 percent satisfaction rating on the site, along with over 50 excellent reviews (and nothing under three stars).
After settling into our new treetop digs, we head over to the outdoor dining area for dinner, a feast of tabtim fish smothered in Thai herbs, mushroom soup and curry. Then we take our bottle of wine back to the house to lounge on our private deck beneath the stars. It is a perfect evening, a full moon, with no noise but the crickets.
In the morning, Mr. Lee hands us a hand-drawn map and gives us an overview of the area. There’s a waterfall, a viewpoint, a bat cave, something mysterious called the swamp forest and not much else. We borrow two bicycles and spend the day exploring; the viewpoint is gorgeous, the cave is indeed full of bats (and a sleeping monk) and the swamp forest offers a cool walk through the jungle on a raised wooden platform shaded by giant trees and surrounded by darting butterflies.
As the sun droops toward the horizon, we pedal back to our tree house, making dreamy plans to build our own someday. There’s a certain kind of magic here, living in a tree, the branches bringing shade, the small cabin like a little boat in the sky. We leave promising to come back. Our motorbike breaks down again on the way home.
For more information and booking, visit http://www.chiangmaitreehouse.com.
Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Chiang Mai Citylife.