slice-of-thai.com Journal 3/23/99: Chiang Mai Trek

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

Support
This Site
I created this site and made it available free to all readers. If you have found it helpful or amusing, please support the effort, and future updates, in one of these ways:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.

get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.

3/23/99 Trek day 1

Our group of 8 climbed in the sawng teeo (pickup truck with two rows of seats and shade top welded into the bed) and we rode north out of Chiang Mai about 4 hours to Chiang Dao. The hill road we took out of Chiang Dao had only recently been paved, and the locals were not familiar with the limits of roads. We saw a truck that had gone off the road a few days ago, killing the passengers. There were prayer flags to guide the spirits away from the scene.

When we got out of the van we were a few miles from the Burmese border, which remained visible for nearly the entire trek. Along the road there had been multiple military outposts with armed guards; this was prime territory for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Fortunately, this was not one of the areas where Burma is actively involved in attacking its own hill tribes.

The first, most obvious thing we noticed was: clean air!

This is the first time the air actually felt good to breathe in since I left the SF bay area (and that says a lot given the SF bay area air). The stiff wind made it all the more brisk. That night was the first yellow and blue sunset (as opposed to the fire-red haze sunsest) I had seen since I left SF. It occurred to me that if I had left Chiang Mai earlier, the air quality alone would have done wonders to fix my ailment.

Decent Air out of Chiang Mai: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Decent Air out of Chiang Mai
Click here if image does not load automatically.

We hiked for 3-4 hours in very exposed terrain. I think would have seriously overheated except that an unseasonable rainstorm miraculously arrived and drenched us. We had no wet weather gear but we managed to dry things out at the village.

We saw some plants (banana trees, etc.) with some seriously big leaves. We saw some small leafy plants which, when touched, shrink away from your hand to protect themselves.

We stopped at a Lahu village. This place sees one group of farangs from my guesthouse every day. The buildings and equipment looked generally unaffected by the visitors; thatch huts were the norm, and the villagers crushed up rice with an elaborate see-saw like device made from bamboo poles. The villagers nearly all wore English-language t-shirts; traditional clothes were almost completely absent. The children were experts at grabbing your pockets and begging for money and candy. There was a constant tension about the place (at least for me). The village had received so many visitors that they knew everything about us. Language and the tribe's courtesy prevented us from knowing whether we were welcome as visitors or whether we were just a revenue source which the villagers tolerated. No such tension existed in most of the towns I visited (or broke down at) in Lao. Most of the adults kept away from us, while the small children were sure to hang out with us to tap into this daily, endless source of attention. Walking further into the village, I saw a large crowd of adults and children playing a game that consisted of a stick and a pack of rubber bands. They would hang half the rubber bands off the stick and fire the other half from very great distances in an attempt to knock the rubber bands off the stick. It was refreshing to see people amuse themselves to this extent without getting caught up in elaborate apparatus (like, say, for example, rollerblades).

Our guide was a short, hermity Thai named Tan who learned many of the local hill tribe languages. He wore a stiff, brimmed cloth hat whose top he had cut off (thus converting the hat into a visor!) and he kind of looked like a tube of toothpaste. His backpack consisted of a big wicker basket with two handles on the side for the arms. Each day of the trek, Tan cooked us Thai meals using food he carried with him, and then as we ate he went into the chief's tent to eat the local's food. One night I snuck in and sampled the real stuff: a super-hot snake curry, complete with scaly sections and organy sections!

Lahu Village: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Lahu Village
Click here if image does not load automatically.

The instant we finished with dinner, 15-20 Lahu women suddenly descended on our table hard-selling their local weavings. They sold colorful necklaces, bags, hats and other items. They had every pity angle covered—salespeople ranged from tiny girls to old ladies. They offered each item to each farang multiple times and it began to get a little annoying for me. Fortunately these villagers did not get angry if we didn't buy. Most items cost 5-20 baht. I think they may have grossed 100 baht max that day—not a lot. I really wonder how much Tan pays the village for our overnight stay.

There was a special hut in the village just for the farangs, with raised platforms for sleeping, and some semi-dodgy blankets and pillows. We had brought thin sleeping bags as well. The nights in this terrain are cool, sometimes downright cold—another nice feeling I had not had since leaving home.

At night they built a nice fire for us. Most of the other people in my group (3 aussies and 2 brits) seemed content to talk about western pop music, drinks, and the stock market. I spent the time asking Tan about the village, since this is the first time we'd really seen him since arriving in the village (which I also thought was a bit odd). These Lahu people started in China, escaped to Burma, and then within the last few decades they escaped to Thailand. The hill tribes in Thailand seem to be receiving amazing care from the Thai king, including everything from grants to road projects to schools to anti-drug education campaigns. This village had a small school with Thai language posters inside and a sign in Thai. I think the school went up to early high school level. From there, a child would have to leave the village to learn more (only the children of the chief or other elders would ever be able to do this).

There were two not-really-English-speaking Japanese guys in our group. One was quiet but the other, Taka, was quite a riot. Supplied with endless energy, he had the ability to immediately disarm any situation with one of his goofy facial or verbal expressions. He could have whole conversations with people using only the words "ohio gozimas (sp) toyota mazda mitsubishi." He could communicate with the villagers on a level that none of us could; he and a boy who lives in the village spent all night by the fire talking about, well nothing, but they had a good time of it.

I asked about opium. Tan spent about five minutes telling us how nasty the stuff was, how several guides he knew became addicted to opium after being in the villages and using the stuff every day. He described how it was mostly the old folks in the villages using the stuff and how they didn't want to get the young kids into it. But then he said "and by the way, there's a man in that hut over there who will give you some if you want." Kind of a strange contrast, I thought. But given that the man was charging 150 B per hit of opium, I began to understand where the village was making all of its money. Today nobody chose to partake. Tan said sometimes the whole group (up to 12 people) does it.

3/24/99 Trek day 2

Today we did a 5-6 hour valley hike by some lush rivers.

Very nice.

After fording a river we arrived at a Lisu village. This tribe has been here for much longer, at least 100 years. Tan disappeared immediately as before and we wandered around the place. Tiny piglets squeaked around everywhere. All girls and women in this village wore traditional costume (for our sake?). This village was in a lush flat river valley, and there was the most beautiful sunset (gold and blue!) over some distant hills with the fields visible nearby.

We ate Tan's prepared dinner, which consisted of a bland-looking but amazingly good potato soup. Then the sales onslaught began. To my uncouth eyes the goods looked nearly identical to the ones in the Lahu village, but supposedly there were important differences. This time, many in my group reported that the ladies were offended and offered dirty looks if we refused their goods. Many of the vendors were quite outgoing and seemed to inspire a desire to bargain in the farangs.

Some of the Lisu villagers, especially the girls and women, were outright obnoxious! One particularly spunky villager came up and yanked out some of my leg hairs to make fun of me, presumably because I didn't buy any of her woven trinkets. Then she went over to her friends and they gossiped to each other for a few minutes about our group. I can only guess, but based on their expressions and finger pointing to each member of our table, I think they were trading condescending remarks about our strange farang attire and behavior. The daily supply of paying farangs must place great pressure on the villagers; these seem to have reacted by placing the farangs somewhere near the livestock on the social ladder. Back in Chiang Mai we worry about contributing to cultural erosion of the villages in the form of western t-shirts and children begging for candy and coins. But if we are teaching the villagers to devalue us, I think this may be our worst long term effect.

That night the village had a dance. They gathered around a fire in two circles, about 10 and 15 feet in diameter. One villager plucked a strange 3-string banjo-like instrument (that was shaped more like a violin) to produce a catchy but repetitive melody. The two circles rotated back and forth following a set pattern of steps, backsteps, big steps, and stops. There was very little to the dance but it kept them entertained for at least an hour. Two friendly villagers, apparently friends of Tan and possibly the ones receiving the cash for our stay, tried to drag us into the circle. Even those of us who wanted to dance couldn't really work out the step fast enough to avoid annoying the villagers already in the circle. Tan had told us not to take any flash photos but the Japanese folks did not understand. The villagers put up with his flashes without showing a bit of annoyance, but I couldn't help but to think of the "human zoo" effect at this point.

3/25/99 Trek day 3

For some reason it is taken for granted that any trek out of Chiang Mai must include elephant riding. So that morning, two trainers showed up at the Lisu village with four elephants. We climbed up the village's specially built elephant-mounting platform into dinky wooden seats lashed onto the creatures' backs. The seats are best for short people; I had the choice of either placing my long legs right on the elephant's back, where a bone popped up alternately left and right as the elephant walked, or holding them awkwardly close to my body in a yoga-esque pose so that I could rest them against the wooden seat.

We rode for about an hour and a half across a stepped rice field, a dirt road, and some rivers. This was just the right amount of time; after that the novelty started to wear off and your bum (and in my case legs) was in some serious pain. You need only watch an elephant's back as it walks to understand that the ride is constantly pushing you back and forth, left and right. The elephant can also step up and down enormous heights, with the expected jolting in the passenger cabin! I now have much more respect for those who must use elephants as their every-day transport!

The two trainers walked on the ground, prodding the elephants on by grunting some unintelligible words, pulling back a little slingshot (which they never acutally fired), and throwing the elephant's dung back at them. It was clear though that the elephants had the final say: whenever we reached water, the elephants would always stop and cool off by splashing and blowing water over themselves. Sometimes they blew a little too hard and sprayed the passengers!

After dismounting these creatures we took a short truck trip to another trailhead. We hiked for a half hour or so to the next requisite part of any Chiang Mai-based trek: river rafting.

The river rafts consisted of 15 or so 20' long bamboo poles (each about 3-4" thick) lashed together (again with bamboo) into a gigantic rectangle. With the normal load of four people and luggage, the top of the raft floor was typically at the water level or an inch or two underwater (definitely a barefoot activity!). The luggage was hung safely a few feet over the water using a bamboo tripod that was also lashed to the raft. We later learned that these rafts are manufactured right near where we put in. The company organizing the rafting actually purchased the rafts for the day. When we finished our raft trip, the raft company sold the rafts the same day to another company downstream, and they sold the rafts again the next day to the next most downstream company, etc. This would continue for tens or hundreds of miles. It seems nobody bothers to bring them upstream again; perhaps the bamboo is used for other purposes downstream.

It being the dry season, our trip was more river scraping than river rafting. We understand that the ride can be quite harrowing in the rainy season. For us it was more of a relaxing journey through occasional slightly whitish waters. We pushed the raft forward and steered with bamboo poles, like a punt.

Bamboo Rafting: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Bamboo Rafting
Click here if image does not load automatically.

Our two guides, at the front of each raft, would occasionally break into song in an echoey river area, which was pretty cool. I don't know what kind of music they sung but it was similar to Khmer and Lao folk music I had heard before, with lots of trills and pitch bends not typical in western music. The guides occasionally tried to incite water fights between the boats and with villagers on shore, but for some reason nobody was biting (perhaps because we had gotten drenched by rain on the first day and our things were just now getting dry :).

After a few hours of that, we went ashore, had lunch, and checked out a cave. By this point I had had my fill of caves in Thailand and Lao, so the formations and bats were nothing new. But we did see lots of big spiders and a Thai guy carefully harvesting the piles of bat guano for fertilizer. At the exit of the cave there was a wall completely covered with an inches-thick soup of daddy long legs spiders, crawling over each other, desperately looking for more ground in which to fit. Our guide brushed the swarm with a stick and they eased to the ground like a living sheet of featherweight cotton. Naturally, he deposited them right across our exit trail and we had to quickly run through them and the thousands more that lay above them!

Finally we had an hours-long ride over a just-cut four-wheel-drive road back to Chiang Dao. This was remarkable only in that we became totally covered with dirt, an experience I missed out on in Lao :) We took a few last breaths of nice air and returned to Chiang Mai.

Support
This Site
I created this site and made it available free to all readers. If you have found it helpful or amusing, please support the effort, and future updates, in one of these ways:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.

get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
See AlsoYou'll probably also like these sites...
allaboutpai.com
A site about Pai, my peaceful home in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!

World's Stupidest Holiday and Birthday Presents - stupidest-presents.com
World's Stupidest Wedding Websites - stupidest-wedding-sites.com
World's Stupidest Baby Websites - stupidest-baby-sites.com
World's Stupidest TV, Movie, Music, and Sports Stars - stupidest-stars.com
World's Stupidest Politicians - stupidest-politicians.com
World's Stupidest TV Shows - stupidest-tv-shows.com
World's Stupidest Movies - stupidest-movies.com
World's Stupidest Blogs - stupidest-blogs.com
World's Stupidest Websites - stupidest-websites.com
World's Stupidest Company Websites - stupidest-company-sites.com
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
CopyrightEntire website copyright 1999-2016 Chris Pirazzi unless otherwise indicated.

License for use: