Published: November 9th 2010November 7th 2010
Today's post may come from Laos, but it concerns my time in Northern Thailand. I have been neglecting this blog as of late, too concerned with street food and waterfalls to seek out time at an internet cafe. There is much to update, and I must start with my trek in the jungles near Pai, Thailand this last week.
We ended up booking with a guy named "Tony"--obviously his English name, but easy to remember. Tony was talkative, outgoing, and not shy about divulging personal information. He assured us that this trek was in a "non-touristed" area. This seems to be a hot word among the trekking circuit--every poster we encountered advertised its "non-touristed" route, and we began to wonder whether they weren't stretching the truth there...at any rate, the trek looked decent, it was in an area I wanted to see, and the price was right. Besides, it seemed a little more imaginative than the cookie cutter tours sold by every single travel agency on the block.
We had an auspicious start to the trek when it was canceled the first day. Apparently four people with diarrhea is what it takes to cancel a tour. I wasn't one of them, thank you. The second day we waited over an hour and a half for the guide to show up because he had a hangover. The guide turned out to be Tony's brother, and you could see Tony getting more agitated by the minute as he assured us "Crazyman" would arrive soon. Turns out that "Crazyman" is actually what he prefers to be called. He was a short, stout man with a belly that reminded me of the Buddah. He had a habit of lifting his shirt up and rubbing his bowling ball gut which slightly sagged over his velour trousers. His name was well conceived, and we noticed a slightly manic look in his eye as he made a pit stop for some rice-whiskey on the way up to the mountain.
Upon arriving in the first village, we were accosted by a gang of children trying to sell us handmade bracelets. They would tie them arond our wrists, take our ten baht, and then run away again like woodland sprites. Some of the more curious kids hung around and giggled from a distance. The smallest ones were strapped to their mothers or sisters in big slings, starring at us with big, blank eyes. I was fascinated with the older women of the village too. They all seemed to be permanantly bent at right angles and I couldn't figure out why they all looked the same. Further from the village, I saw the younger women in the fields and observed how they worked in a similar posture, often with children strapped on or clinging to their backs. It was literally back breaking labor.
The first few days we experienced frustrating terrain that conformed to one of two scenarios: straight up or straight down. The rains the previous day hadn't helped the situation and caked our shoes with slimy mud. I hung back with a more cautious group of girls who placed each foot with thought and care, though I still managed to fall. Twice. By the end of the day our muscles felt like rice noodles, limp and quivering with exhaustion. Though we hadn't walked very far, we felt our effort more than deserved a giant bottle of beer each, and we drank it wrathfully.
The frigid temperatures at night came as something of a shock as we hadn't properly prepared for such weather. "Frost" and "Thailand" aren't two words that immediately go together. I cocooned myself in three blankets and thanked Buddah the next day when the sun finally began to warm the air again. Crazyman took care of breakfast, and we were soon off with our other guide, Tom, leading the way. Tom was from one of the villages and knew the area extremely well. He reminded me of Puck, or possibly Rufio from "Hook." He wore boxer shorts and flip flops and could have easily completed the hike in half the time it took took us to plod through in our boots and outdoor performance wear. He got a kick out of yelling "Snake!" every now and then, just to see us jump two feet in the air.
While the trek had some shortcomings, it also had some more magical moments. When we descended from the hills for a pit stop, we were suddenly surrounded by hundreds of yellow butterflies. I remembered a scene from a Marquez book where one of the characters is always announced by the presence of yellow butterflies so this was, for me, quite a lovely little scene. The elephant riding was also more fun than I had imagined it would be. I had been worried about how the animals would be treated, but there were no cages or chains to speak of, and they looked quite healthy, though I suppose there was no way to know for sure. Most of the trip had come with very little instruction and this was no different. The elephants were washed and then harnessed with a small wooden bench. I realize the word "bench" sounds quite massive, but so were the elephants. We walked out to a small wooden ledge poised above their heads, and were commanded to simply "Get on!" I stepped gingerly onto her neck, worrying that I would hurt her despite her size. It was a strange, squishy sensation that I could feel even through my shoe. We lurched forward as the elephant turned to move. The ride was anything but smooth and we felt as though we could fall off at any moment. As had been the theme for the entire 3 day trek, we never had our feet on solid ground. It was a surreal experience, seeing the jungle from ten, fifteen feet in the air, not flying, not walking, but moving in great spasms through the vines and trees atop a giant beast.
We all a little reluctantly ended the trip, wishing we could spend another day in the mountains, but also deeply thankful for a hot shower and a mattress. I left Chiang Mai the very next day, but that will have to be the subject of my next entry...