Sunday, February 13, 2011

Solitude and Sweat in the Thai Hills

The adventure started with a multiple hour ride in the back of a truck. We were headed into the hills for a three day trekking trip to meet some of North Thailand's Hill tribe people, and as the images of 'isolated hill tribes' and 'north Thailand' may conjure, it was one bumpy ride. It would be a stretch to call the dirt path that was littered with boulders and ditches a road. But apparently that is what it was, as we were driving on it. The driver laid on the horn for a good five seconds at every turn. Mostly because the turns were 180 degrees around the edge of the mountain. I can't even count the number of times that I was absolutely positive that I was going to be sick. A bolt that secured the canopy over our heads rattled loose and fell onto my lap. And this is Thailand. Our little-truck-that-could climbed up, up, up into the mountains. Although I could have done without all the jostling and bumping, I was pretty happy that we didn't have to hike up these particular hills. The views were spectacular. The hills rolled in every direction, as far as we could see. Local huts sat on top of the hills overlooking their plot of land, which was usually a rice terrace. We passed tribe people in beautiful, bright patterned sarongs, crazy people on motorbikes and clans of stray dogs. If I wasn't fighting the urge to throw up every twenty seconds, it all would have been very nice indeed.

Before we turned off onto the most 'fun' section of the hill paths, however, we had some elephant riding to get out of the way. Up until about five years ago, the elephants actually carried trekkers for a part of the journey. Then the owners must have realized that if they relocated the elephant camp to the side of the 'super highway' that they would probably make a little more profit. So 'Boombee,' our twenty-nine year old female elephant, only had to carry us in an hour long circuit around the designated forest trail and through a river. Don't feel too bad for her. There were three conveniently located stands along the journey where we could stop and buy her a bag of bananas and sugar cane to feed her. Not surprisingly, food is highly motivating. Unfortunately for her, her two year old baby elephant was trucking along oh-so-adorably beside us, sneaking her trunk up our legs and begging for Boombee's treats. Who can say no to a baby elephant? Who I ask! Our teenage 'Mahout' (Elephant trainer and driver) spent the first half of the trek texting on his cell from his perch on the elephant's head and wasn't much of a tour guide. Everyone else's guide was jumping down from the elephant to take photos of them and pointing out interesting sights. Not ours. He was tip tapping away like teenagers world wide. 'Dude, waz up.' 'Nothin' dude, u?' 'Nothin', Just ridin' en'elephant, yo.' 'Sucks, man. Come over when all those dumb tourists are gone and we can spend the whole night having a lobotomy in front of the TV.' 'Sick. See u then.' Well, I can't say for sure that that was an exact replica of the conversation, since it was in Thai, but based on the intensity of his texting, I'm sure it wasn't far off. Boombee, being a smart little cookie, was taking full advantage of the distracted Mahout. So while everyone else was forging life long bonds with their charges, we were being led into the depths of thorny bushes by Boombee snuffing out food, ducking under short tree branches and trying to protect our clothes from the elephant goober of the two baby elephant trunks that were snaking up our legs on each side: just long, slobbery and muddy enough to leave lasting souvenirs all over my only shirt. Has an elephant ever sneezed on you? At one point, while trying to fight off three elephant trunks at once (a baby elephant from each side and Boombee's massive trunk from the top, I decided to just give up and deal with muddy elephant slober. It was really mostly mud anyhow, right. And then. Because I had obviously jinxed myself. AH.... AH.....ACHOOOOO!! The sneeze bellowed like a plane engine. And, no it wasn't Jonathan. Elephant goober shot out of the baby's trunk and zoomed towards me like a lightening bolt. It all just happened too fast. There was no avoiding it. The massive glob of elephant snot, that is. And so, there it landed. On me. Where else? We hadn't even started trekking and I already was one (of one) shirt down. I can't lie and say I didn't love every second of it though. (Although I could have lived without the elephant snot) 'Can you take a photo of us?' I asked the Mahout. 'Moment,' he responded, not taking his eyes from the phone. Many 'moments' later, our Mahout succumbed to my pressures and instructed Jonathan to sit on the elephant's neck while he jumped down to document these kodak moments. Jonathan 'drove' Boombee very well, and it seemed that we were moving at his ideal speed for once! haha.

We bid farewell to Boombee and the babies and drove a few more hours to the start of our trek. We trekked up, down and around the hills to the Karen village that we were to spend our first night in. 'There's your Hilton,' our guide Dat said to us, pointing to an open air bamboo hut whose floor was covered in woven mats and piles of blankets. Mosquito nets hung from the ceiling. It gets downright cold in the Hills at night. We were at about nine-hundred metres. The days were warm, sunny and about twenty-five degrees. At night the temperature routinely fell to freezing.

We went out to visit some of the tribes-people. The first house we stopped at was hoisted up on stilts, which is probably very helpful in the monsoon season. The house is one room with a large fire pit in the middle (and no chimney). There were huge black charred kettles sitting at the edge of the fire which keep the tea warm all day. The fire is used for all the cooking and at night, the family lays their mats down around it for warmth. This particular house is home to seven people, one of whom claims to be one-hundred-twenty years old! The elder sat with a cat curled up beside him, his toes over the fire. 'He is very old and can't walk,' Dat, our guide told us. 'But he sits here by the fire all day and people bring him gifts.' Dat pointed to the package of soy milk juice boxes at the elder's side. The other old man poured us tea into mugs that were sections of bamboo, cut just under the natural partition. Bamboo is used for absolutely everything here: Walls, floors, roofs, mats, dishes, boats, tools, fences. Everything. Dat told us about his tribe, the Karen people, while we drank our tea. Many of the hill tribes in Northern Thailand have migrated over the years from Myanmar (Burma), where they are treated poorly. The Karen are one of the largest hill tribes in Thailand and are thought to have originated in Tibet. In the particular village of three-hundred people that we were in, every family owns a piece of land, on the side of one of the surrounding steep hills, that they grow their rice on. They can only grow rice once a year, in the rainy season, so they need to produce enough for the entire year. As rice is the main staple in breakfast, lunch and dinner, one family consumes a whole lot of rice. Especially because most couples have many children so that they can have help in the fields. Dat told us that the kids go to school in the nearest town about one-hundred kilometers away. They board there for the week and then take the bus home on weekends. When they are done school, most get married. When a boy is ready to get married he has to go around and visit the surrounding villages and meet girls. When he finds one he likes, he visits the family house often, in the evenings for tea, and helps out the girl's father with chores. Its important for the man to get along with his wife's family, because after they get married, the husband moves to her village and in with her family. 'When you want to get married, no need for a ring,' Dat told us. 'You just kill a pig and invite everyone over!'

At the next house we visited an older woman sat by the firelight smoking a huge pipe. The glow of the fire and the flickering red of her pipe in the dark room was very atmospheric. She had a million questions for us that she asked through Dat. Where did we come from? Where were we going next? Why didn't we have kids? What time did we usually go to bed at? Did we like Thai food? Did we think it was cold in the hills?

When we had climbed back up the bamboo ladder that brought us back to the house complex we were staying at, Dat suggested we sit by the campfire that separated our 'Hilton' and the family house, and enjoy the view over the hills while he made dinner. Village people came to visit and the house filled with chatter and laughter. It sounded like we were missing a good time. There were no closing doors or windows on the house, so we could see in from the campfire. At one point there was a particularly loud 'swoosh' of a huge flame and I looked over just in time to see the fire that Dat was cooking on explode up into the roof. The mother rushed out carrying the small child and all of the sudden the house was a flutter with action. 'Ummm, I think the roof just caught on fire,' I told the rest of the group. 'What!?' They rushed over to see the bamboo ceiling lit up like a clear night's sky with burning flecks. The pieces of red hot bamboo then started to shower down from the ceiling all over Dat. 'Happens all the time!' shouted Dat, stirring our curry frantically.

There is no electricity in the village, but the government had bought every house a solar panel. 'Sometimes the family will save up all their power and then they can watch the TV,' Dat told us. 'But the power only lasts for a maximum of two hours, so they have to choose carefully.' Apparently when this happens, the whole village turns up at your house to crowd around your TV and oogle at the latest episode of Thai Big Brother, or something.

That night we crawled into our sleeping bags on our bamboo mat, under our mosquito net and about ten blankets. It was cold, quiet and very dark. All things we hadn't experienced in quite some time. The next day Dat handed out our lunch bags that we had to carry with us on the hike. We each got a triangular package-rice and veggies double wrapped in banana leaves and then secured by twisting palm string into swirls on the top. Completely void of technology, and yet completely secure AND bio-degradable! (Who says that isn't technology?!)

We hiked for six hours that day, up the hills, down the hills, up the hills, down the hills. We stopped to watch fishermen, waist deep in the water, throwing their nets out, to watch women weave intensely pink sarongs, a pregnant woman flip the rice in wide plates, separating the kernels from the husk and couples working together to distill rice whiskey. When we got to the bottom of one particularily steep hill we came upon a completely isolated hut. We had been hiking for hours, and would hike a few more before coming upon any other hut. A skinny old man sat out on his front porch in the blazing heat wearing a bright red toque. When he saw us coming he jumped up, ran over to Dat and started talking quickly. 'Do you want some Coke,' Dat asked turning to us. We looked at each other. We assumed he meant the drink, of course, but were confused as to how this man would have come across a bunch of extra Coke he urgently wanted to get rid of, and if he had, where the heck was this stash? Plus, the idea of this completely isolated valley and the commercialism of Coke just didn't make sense together. 'Like as in opium?' Someone asked skeptically. We had made our mandatory stop at the 'tourist police' before leaving the city and the officer specifically came out to lecture on not doing drugs. 'You're in Thailand, people,' he had said. 'You get caught doing drugs- you the death penalty.' So, like, almost as serious as insulting the King. Which you really really don't want to do. Dat laughed at the question. 'Nooooo! Like Coca-Cola!' We were all still confused. We looked around the trees, rice field, vegetable garden.. nope, no vending machine. We were in the epitome of the 'middle of no where.' Dat led us over to the small stream that ran down through the man's property. There, was a huge rice sack, stock full of Coca-Cola cans, being kept cold in the stream! ohhhhh. None of us wanted any pop, but we felt so guilty that obviously this man had been sitting there awaiting the arrival of the westerners, apparently hoping there were fifty of us, and had gone to all the trouble of cooling it for us, that one of the girls in our group bought a can. For fifty cents. You can't even get a can of Coke out of your fridge for fifty cents, let alone in the middle of nowhere, kilometers from anything, with the novelty that it has been cooled by nature itself! Oh, Thailand.

Much later that day we made our final descent to the rafting camp where we would be spending our second night. The bridge that spanned the river consisted of a couple of thin logs haphazardly nailed together and a bamboo railing tied with palm string and nailed to seemingly random pieces of wood. It was about fifteen feet high, over the shallow river and about fifty feet long. If we survived the bridge, we would be home free. Either way, after that long hot day, I was getting into that stream. Whether it be because I fell through the bridge (more likely) or managed to don a bathing suit before taking the leap (preferred, but less likely).

The water was cold. Like cans in a rice bag full of ice. But, I was hot and sweaty. Plus, everyone else (other than Jonathan, of course) was already floating around, so I joined in. It was refreshing, to say the least. Its like we were in the wilderness-pop cooled by a stream, bathing in the river. Man, we were roughing it. Speaking of, our chef cooked us up another delicious dinner, minus the whole roof-catching-on-fire thing. We even had some rice left to feed to the adorable, tail wagging stray dog that was encircling our feet. She scarfed our leftovers like she hadn't been fed in a week. 'That stray dog is really cute,' we said to Dat later. 'Yes, she always comes around because the tourists always feed her! Which is not good,' he said, giving us a stern look. Jeez. He knew. How did he know. I guess that last time our cute little puppy ate was probably the night before, when the last group of trekkers took pity on her. What can I say? Would A. Marlene or A. Maryann let this poor puppy suffer? Of course not. She would have been adopted eons ago and would now be living in the lap of luxury on someone's couch by now. The least I could do was share some rice....

We noticed that our guide's friend who had been with us for the day had been carrying around three long bamboo stalks since lunch time. Every time we asked Dat what they were for, he would just say 'for later!' Finally later arrived. Dat filled the bamboo stalks with sticky rice and then poured thick, creamy coconut milk to the very brim. The stalks were then placed in the fire for a good long while, where something magical certainly happened.
For dessert, Dat brought around the bamboo, peeled off the outer layer and we ate chunks of delicious sticky rice in the thin bamboo husk. Maybe they don't have it so bad out here after all.

The villagers seemed to agree. It seemed like all night flashlights came and went from the village behind the rafting camp. Then again, before the sun could even make it through the trees, the hut was filled with happy villagers again. There was constant laughter in Dat's hut. He invited us in later that night to see what the locals were eating. 'Wow, its a boys club in here!' We noticed. 'Where are all the women?' 'Ohhh, They're at home!' laughed Dat. Men.

The next morning we walked down to the river to board our bamboo rafts for a trip down the river and through the rapids. First things first. Our raft already needed repairs. It hadn't even left the beach yet. Dat and the gaggle of men and children from the village who had come to the riverbank to bid us farewell set about tightening the palm string that held our bamboo stalks together. Dat was ordering everyone about, the kids were jumping around waving at us and shouting 'bye! bye!' and the men were sliding along the rafts using bamboo gadgets to do things to the bamboo raft. It was all very entertaining to watch from the riverbank. We used two rafts in total between the seven trekkers and two guides. Each raft was made soley of bamboo stalks and palm string. They were about a metre wide (enough to spread out legs out for balance) and very long, maybe about ten meters in length. We were meant to stand on them, which was good, because even though we were all spread out in our very own raft section, our feet were still fully submerged in the water. Dat told us to get on the raft. Then to get off. Then we changed rafts. Then we got on. Then we were ordered off again. And then we moved forward. Then closer together. Then back a bit. Then we did the hokey pokey and turned ourselves around. And that's what its all about! Right. Then Dat took a machete and started chopping off various chunks of our raft. There must have been method to the madness, but at the time, it wasn't all that apparent. Then three more bamboo shoots were cut, and tied together at the top. The bottom of each shoot was then jammed into a newly knifed hole in the raft and all our shoes were hung by their laces from the impromptu stand and our cameras were wrapped in 7-11 bags and stuffed into Dat's army-print sack, which was also draped from the stand. All the cameras, except mine, of course, because I was going to document this crazy adventure. It was a bad idea. I know. You can say 'I told you so' now and get it over with.

Once we were all in acceptable positions, Dat, in the front of the raft, armed with, surprise, a long, long bamboo stalk, myself, behind him where the 'princess' stand, Holger, our German friend behind me, and Jonathan, in the rear, and also armed with a bamboo stalk. Yup. Jonathan was going to steer us down the rapids apparently. 'Have you ever done this before?' I asked him. 'Yup!' he responded proudly. 'In Jamaica! Only I wasn't driving.. and I was 13.' Well, good thing I was looking for adventure. And off we went.

The river pulled us along at a decent speed. Being the dry season, the water was quite low at times, which worked out for us, since we had to hop off a few times to push our raft out from the rocks it had become jammed in between, or pull it over a shoal. Sometimes we tried jumping up and down on the slimy raft, to bounce it over the shallow points. Safety First! The bamboo was slippery to stand on. We would shoot through a rapid Dat yelling 'LEFT! LEFT!' 'RIGHT!" and Jonathan swinging the bamboo pole side to side, pushing off rocks and tree trunks and the river bank, ducking under low branches, then the river would calm momentarily and we would float along merrily for a bit until we came upon the next bit of fast water.

The scenery was magnificent. Massive bamboo bushes lined the river and formed a canopy of leaves above us. Other trees boasted leaves that were yellow and orange, which contrasted the otherwise lush green foliage. The sky was bright blue and the birds were singing. It took about an hour and a half. In the rainy season the whole river only takes a half hour to raft. 'Its very dangerous then,' Dat told us. It was only vaguely comforting to know that this was the 'safe' experience. Our hefty bamboos took quite a beating over that hour and a half. The bottom scraped along the rocks so loudly that I was surprised they weren't ripped off entirely, leaving us to stand on the string alone. The back of the boat, where first Mate Jonathan was, took the brunt of the beating. By the time we were half way up the river, I think the stern was left with about half the original bamboo. Chunk after chunk was sacrificed to the river rocks. When we found ourselves caught in between one particularly nasty rock and hard space, Dat eventually had to go to the back of the boat and use his machete to chop off even more of the boat just so we could un-jam ourselves! Then we got to a point where Dat told myself and Holger to jump off and walk so he and Jonathan (the experts) could navigate their way through a shallow, rapid corner without our extra weight. It was fantastic! Perhaps lacking in safety standards (completely) but still, fantastic.

'Get low!' Jonathan kept yelling at me from behind when we came upon a new set of rapids to shoot. He wanted me to squat down (and drag my butt through the water, because that's how under water the raft was) when we went through the rapids, because he was certain that I was going to tumble off like a clumsy child, completely void of balance. But, being stubborn, I mostly pretended I couldn't hear him. Although, considering the only sounds around us on this peaceful, pristine river, other than the swiftly moving water were bird songs and his bamboo stalk pushing off the rocks, I think he might have figured out that I was ignoring him. I was just thinking how bossy he was and how annoying it is that he's always telling me what to do, when we slammed head on into a rock hiding just under the surface that no one had seen. All four of us jolted forwards on the impact. I, however, was the only one who tripped over the stupid rope that was tied around the bamboo and fell face first into the half foot of water that our raft was under. Me and, of course, my trusty camera. I jumped up so fast that I almost slipped on the bamboo and fell the other way. But I didn't. Must have been my supreme balance that kept me upright... on my knees.

Our ride came to an end at the top of a waterfall. I'll say 'top' again, so you can be suitably impressed. We left our battered rafts lengthways across the narrow mouth of the falls. 'How are you going to drag our rafts all the way back up the river for tomorrow's group?' we asked. 'We won't,' replied Dat. Apparently the rafts were left every day at the top of the falls and people could come take them and use the bamboo for their roofs. I guess its like the equivalent of leaving your old couch out on the side of the road. You know, the one that's gone before you've even walked away from hoofing it down to the curb? They would just whip some more rafts up for tomorrow back at the camp. Like I said. They use bamboo for everything.

The last few hours of our three day trek were spent swimming in Chiang Mai's highest waterfall. The water plummeted over one hundred metres down to a small, incredibly deep pool before cascading down into another pool. Our fellow trekkers were very excited about swimming in the icy waters. That made me excited, because usually I am forced to swim solo. For someone who has a whole lot of hair (more and more everyday it seems) Jonathan is quite whimpy when it comes to cold water. (J: I'd like to know what's so great about swimming, anyway...) In his defense, I suppose, this water was absolutely freezing. As in any colder and it would have actually been frozen. As in Dat probably ran ahead of us to scoop the chunks of ice out of the pool before we saw them. 'Awwww, it's not so bad once you're in!' Our Irish friends called encouragingly from the water. 'We've been in colder!' I didn't see how that was possible. 'Where was that?' I asked. 'In Ireland! We were up in the mountains and it was a really hot day, so we jumped into a stream to cool off.' Crazy Irish. Must have had a Guinness or two under their belts at that stage. 'We had to get out, because our skin was turning blue!' They admitted. So far my skin was still white... ok ok, more of a sunburnt pink. I have never been in water so cold in my life. It was so cold that you almost couldn't breathe-when your head was above water! 'How is it?' asked my whimpy husband, sitting fully clothed on the rocks watching us. 'Refreshing!' I answered. We were the only ones there. Just the seven of us, and Dat. Our fellow trekkers included Jenny and Neil from Dublin, Nadia and Mai from Singapore and Holger, from Berlin. They were a fantastic crew. When another group of trekkers showed up at the waterfalls we took it as our cue to move on. We hopped onto the 'Super Highway' for the drive back to Chiang Mai. I had never been so happy to see pavement in my life.

p.s. Happy Birthday, Will!


Parentals said...

Finally, a new post. I know sometimes you're just too busy having adventures to write about them. This Trek makes our kayaking trips seem pretty tame.
This blog is Toronto Star Travel section/ adventure magazine or travel book worthy publishing!

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K.,
We waited longer for this one, but it was worth waiting for. That a trip you had in Thailand, away from the beaten tract.If I'd known the kind of "boat" you were in on that river, I would have prayed harder for you ! It was a relief to receive your blog and learn that you had landed safely.
You seem to be enjoying your trip and meeting interesting travellng companions. You describe your journeys eceptionally well. May you comtinue to have safe and enjoyable travel.
Love to you both.

Anonymous said...

how did the camera survive the swim???


Marta said...

Let me get this had the opportunity to support my work place for the cheap price of $0.50 and you passed it up? And who does this guy think he is devaluing the brand like that? Too much ranting about Coca Cola?

Love you guys and miss you. Keep up the amazing adventures.