Yesterday I returned from a wonderful two day trek.
Saturday morning, Emma decided to stay home and nurse an upset stomach while Kara and I packed our bags and headed out to meet our guide, Nui, a long haired, sunglass wearing, North Face clad, Thai dude. He screamed outdoorsy. At first he wasn’t terribly conversational, but by the end, he’d loosened up a bit.
([All in fun]
Me: “You aren’t asking us anything, Nui. Are you not interested in where we’re from?”
Nui: “That’s because you’re just talking to yourselves.”
Me: “That’s because you’re not asking us anything.”
[Mean glare from Nui]
Nui: “Where are you from?”)
Getting in the car, Kara and I asked if we were picking up more trekkers.
“Nope,” Nui replied. “Low season. Pay for group tour, get private tour.”
After paying at the Peak Adventures office, we were off to the mountains an hour north of Chiang Mai to an area called Sanpatong. Along the way we stopped for our first activity: elephant rides. Kara and I ooed and aahhed from the car window, watching tourists sitting atop the loping elephants.
Arriving at the stand, I felt a tap on my foot. Looking down I saw a long, grey elephant snout poking me.
“He wants a banana,” Nui told us, motioning to feed him.
We dug into our bag of bananas and sugar cane we had purchased and held bananas out for the elephant. It wrapped the end of its trunk around the fruit and curled it into its mouth. Moving forward, its large eyes focused on us. I was startled by how human they were, dark black pupils, eyelids and eyelashes.
The elephant ride itself was slightly underwhelming. I was conflicted by feelings of wonder at how large and kind the elephants were and also disturbed by their treatment: chains, sticks, ropes. My mother later assured me that if the elephants were unhappy they’d show it: sit down, shake off the riders, etc, but it still made me feel a bit odd. Watching the baby elephants though, my oh my were they cute.
After the elephant riding we drove to a family home where they cooked us lunch and we prepared for our hike, filling up our camelbacks with water and stuffing ourselves with carbs (fried rice!). Then the hiking began! 4 hours, Nui told us. We would go up a mountain, down the mountain, see a waterfall, then head back up another mountain to spend the night with the Karen hill tribe.
Now, I am not terribly athletic or outdoorsy, but I also don’t think I totally suck at that stuff. I’ll kayak, I’ve hiked, I do yoga. I don’t think I have one athletic gene in me, but I give it a go anyways. But hiking with Kara, a life-long athlete, and Nui, a rock climbing and hiking instructor, I felt like a grandmother yelling for oxygen and mercy.
“Can we pause?” I’d yell out between panting.
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Kara would say, turing to me fresh-faced, slightly glistening with sweat. While I tried to play it cool, I secretly wished I could crawl into the fetal position and take a nap. Or grab a cold beer, maybe.
Nonetheless, I kept up as best as I could and we accomplished the “4 hour” hike in 2 and half hours. “Were we really going fast?,” Kara asked. I could only look at her with raised eyebrows as I clutched my churning stomach. Thanks to yoga, my legs were fine, but my heart and stomach were not happy with me that day.
The Karen village was wonderful. The Karen are a tribe originally from China, immigrating to the hills of Thailand generations ago. They are a Christian community who live off the land and only interact with outside communities for monetary needs, selling rice, clothing, or other goods. They still believe in sacrifice, each family keeping a pig to sacrifice to God in case a family member gets sick.
Kara and I were given a bungalow set up for a group of 10, wooden floors covered with straw mats and small pillows, each covered with a mosquito net. We settled right in, meeting Nui’s friend Mu Mu, his brother, his friend Wat, who owned our bungalow, and several other members of the community. Kara and I took a short walk around, looking at the raised homes, cattle, chickens, pigs, women weaving and children playing. At night, Nui cooked us a green curry and vegetables and Mu Mu made a camp fire. They offered us hill tribe whiskey and Mu Mu’s little brother played Beatles songs he’d learned from downloading MP3s on his cell phone. It broke all of my expectations: drinking whiskey and singing Beatles songs with the Karen hill tribe.
I asked Mu Mu if he would ever leave. His response was an immediate no. “My body is here, my mind is here, my soul is here.”
In the morning we began our hike through a green and lush area of the mountain, working our way through branches and brush. An hour down the trail we arrived at a beautiful waterfall. We were the only people in sight and we had the entire place to ourselves. We threw off our sweat soaked clothes and jumped in.
The waterfall had a small cave behind it where Nui scaled the ceiling and Kara and I walked through the falling water, in and out and in again. After 45 minutes we were back on the trail again. This time, we made our way through soybean fields. The leaves had turned a bright yellow, making the fields look like flowers.
The Thai plant like the Peruvians, in stairs, flattening out the land and then creating a drop before the next landing, increasing the amount of planting space on a mountain side. We walked on the ridges between the flats, like walking down an enormous set of stairs, until we reached our destination: the family home that was our starting point.
After refueling with a fantastic lunch (this rice noodle dish with a spicy pork sauce and fresh lime juice), we returned to the truck to drive to our final stop: bamboo rafting.
Both Kara and I expected this to be a leisurely finale to our trek. I pictured myself leaning back, basking in the sun and breathing in the fresh river air. Of course, it was nothing like expected- it was better.
We boarded our raft (5 long pieces of bamboo tied together) with our steerman Zed. The water sloshed against my bottom and I was thankful to still have on my bathing suit. As we set off down the river and I began to worry about a horribly boring hour ahead of us: slow waters, leaky raft, quiet Zed. Then, we hit our first rapid. Though small, as it is dry season, it really rocked us around in our rickety raft.
Then, Zed jumped into the water, grabbing an extra piece of bamboo to bring back to the raft. “You,” he said to me, motioning me to stand up. “Me?” He nodded.
I got on my feet and mimicked Zed’s motions as best I could, digging the end of my bamboo stick into the bottom of the river, propelling us along. I’d be lying if I said I had much of an influence. Zed had us covered.
After a few minutes we came upon our first group of partiers, teenage Thai boys drinking cans of Leo and rafting along. They waved and splashed us as we went by. What the fuck, I thought? Then I saw Zed splash them back and I understood that this was the way of the river: if you float through it, you must prepare to splash and be splashed.
The next half hour was the best tour of true Thai lifestyle that I’d seen yet. Families set up picnics on these riverside platforms, drinking and eating. Some had rafts and would take turns steering. Children ran around with water guns and I really felt like part of the club.
We enjoying paddling through, Kara jumping off a rock with the locals at one point, earning us some street cred, and waving hello. One raft of boys shouted out, “Hello, hello! Call me!”
At another moment, Zed leapt off the raft and swam to the other side, beating his stick against the brush, yelling, “Snake! Snake! Dinner! Dinner!” Poor Zed did not catch the snake.
The best was the one girl who were heard sigh, “Ooooh, farang.” Pronounced “falang,” it means “foreigner” and is used like the Central American term “gringo”. Not exactly mean, but not terribly nice. We laughed and splashed them as they splashed back.
In the end, it was a wonderful trek. It was a bittersweet ending as I wasn’t entirely ready to return back to Chiang Mai. My venture out made me more excited to continue traveling, continue to gain new experiences and meet new people.
The ecstasy of my time in Chiang Mai is wearing off. Issues with the program are becoming apparent, tensions are arising between certain housemates. It’s nothing out of the ordinary and nothing I can’t manage. In the end, it may be better that I’m now finding faults in my home here, because it’s making me all the more ready to move on.
Then again, I do feel like I’m surrounded by some pretty cool people. The trip was a great time bonding with Kara, I’m enjoying my new roommate Kristine, and I’ll be sad to leave Emma, Meena and Cyra. But, who knows who I will meet next! On to the next week….
(Check out Flickr or the side panel of photos here to see pictures from the trek!).