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Published: November 29th 2006
Bamboo Rafting on the Mekhong
Mark on pole duty at the aft. It was an added risk doing pole duty, because your chance of falling in the river drastically increased!
Yes, it's true. We were forced to purchase, and wear, balaclavas here in Thailand. The nights can get quite chilly in the mountains (about 5 degrees Celcius), and during our trek we were sleeping on plastic mats on bamboo with pretty much the thinnest sleeping bags I've ever seen for warmth. Luckily, they provided a few extra warm blankets for each of us at our "hotels" (bamboo huts with dried leaves covering the roofs). With balaclavas, extra blankets, sleeping bag, fleece coat, long underwear (MAN I'm glad I brought that!), pants, and two pairs of socks, I managed to have a good warm sleep for each of our two nights in the mountains. The chilly nights were quite a contrast to the sunny days, which were HOT! But a nice change was that you could actually find releif from the heat when you entered the shade, as opposed to Bangkok and other places in the south where you're just plain hot no matter what you do.
Alright, I'll try to start at the beginning. At 8:30am we loaded into a songthaew and piled our gear on top. Then, after picking up the rest of our crew at a nearby guesthouse,
A meal fit for a gecko
Crickets, anyone? They were readily available, by the kilo, at the market we stopped at to buy our balaclavas
bringing our numbers to 10 trekkers, and registering with the tourist police in case we failed to return, we began the long truck ride into the mountains. The traffic out of Chiang Mai was terrible, and it took us forever to reach the market where we were supposed to purchase our balaclavas. We finally made it, though, and had trouble trying different ones on. It was super hot at this point, and we all found it a bit comical that we were purchasing face-covering wooly hats, but we did it anyways. Then back to the truck for about a half hours ride to stop #1: ELEPHANTS!!!! I think in the past Eagle House trekkers have gotten to use the elephants on part of their journey, but the elephants (as I understand it) are shared amongst an extended family and right now they were with a cousin who was running a tourist-oriented elephant camp. Our time there was still REALLY fun, if a bit touristy. Derek and I loaded on to a huge elephant, who we named Urchin because of his thick, spiny hairs on his head, and prepared for a little jaunt. We sat in a sort of box seat
The elephant ride
We were sitting on top of Urchin just like these two. Soooo fun
that was strapped to Urchin's back in a variety of places. We had an 19-ish year old sort of "driver," but the elephant seemed to know what it was doing. Good thing, too, because at one point our driver hopped off, and our elephant just started walking away. We looked back, horrified, and the guy just laughed and said, "he's taking you to Bangkok!" That was the first English we'd heard him speak, so we couldn't be entirely sure if he was joking....
It all turned out to be OK, though. Luckily, Derek and I had just purchased a bag of bananas and sugar cane at a sort of "elephant restaurant" on stilts that we'd come upon (there were lots of them around on the path we were taking) so we were able to feed Urchin and keep him happy. The elephants were soooo funny. At some points they would just stop walking and stick their trunk back at you as if to say "treat, PLEASE." Sometimes they wouldn't move until they were appeased. We were determined to make our one bag of treats last for our whole ride, so poor Urchin had to learn how to "wait until
One of the many we came upon which were strategicly placed along the path.
later" while we were on his backs. Eventually, our driver came back and rescued us from the bamboo bushes where Urchin had been munching, pouting that we wouldn't give him more bananas, and set us off again on the proper path. We crossed a road, and then went down this incredibly steep bank into a river. I have no idea how the elephants stay on their feet--they can cover some insane terrain. Derek and I were literally barely able to stay in our seats because the elephant's back was nearly vertical. Once we were safely in the river, Derek turned to me and said, "if we were elderly, we would have fallen off that elephant." True. That was intense. I think I may have clapped when Urchin safely made it down. After a little walk up the river and up another, less steep bank, our time with Urchin was pretty much over. We got off, fed him some more, and said goodbye.
While we were waiting for the rest of our group to finish with their elephants, Derek, Mark and I went over to visit a tiny baby elephant we'd seen before. We named him Edward, and he LOVED
Or jousting? Not sure. Eitherway, it's a nice picture
me!!! He kept nuzzling me and using his trunk to play with me. He also continually stepped on my foot, so I'm glad he was just a baby. He was so cute. I miss Edward. Mark has some really great pictures. I couldn't get any good ones because he would always come right over to me and I needed to be back a bit to get a good shot.
After the elphants we loaded into our truck again to drive to our lunch spot, where Doh (our guide) made us an incredibly delicious lunch. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but it contained a bunch of fresh vegetables, chicken, a ton of herbs like lemon grass and corriander, and a whole bunch of sauces that made it delcious. We were each given a bag of sticky rice and told to dig in... with our bare hands. Now, please remember that we had just been riding and playing with elephants for an hour, and it had been a while since we'd seen any soap. Not to mention the group of strangers we were with were complete unknowns. But, when in Rome... right? So we all through caution to the
Edward and His Mom
This was the only picture I could get of Edward because he didn't know me yet. Once we met, I couldn't get far enough away to take his picture because he continually nuzzled me!
wind, and it was delicious. Delicious, but maybe not such a good idea because by the end of the trip, many of us were rather ill. I'm still not 100% today, but I'm much better. I'm so annoyed, because I'm always SO paranoid about hygene here in Thailand. I wash and disinfect my hands all the time and I'm really careful about the places we eat, but yet I'm the only one that got sick. Derek was totally fine, and Mark only got a little bit sick. Grrrr. Oh well, it wasn't, like, debilitating, just a hassle more than anything. But enough about that.
After 2 looong house in the back of this pickup truck over very, very bumpy roads (some of which were paved with hand laid, interlocking brick. Can you believe it!?) We reached our destination. It didn't look like much--just a dirt track driveway into the bush. We wasted no time in setting off, however, because we were an hour late in starting our hike and it was a race against the sun. I guess the traffic out of Chiang Mai really hurt us in the morning. The hike was gorgeous. Not too hot, not too
Now that the dry season had begun, the cattle had come home to the farmer's fields where they would be provided with hay over the next few months. The rest of the time they roam the hills and fend for themselves. They come home on their own when the dry season starts--you don't even have to round them up.
strenuous, and really, really enjoyable. We hike through a combination of forest, rice fields, and cattle pasture. For once, we were able to leave the awful sounds of smells and of Thailand like the roar of mufflerless motorbike motors and the stench of open sewers, and replace them with the soft clang of different ox bells and the sweet scent of countless different flowers and herbs. There were lovely yellow sunflower-like blossoms everywhere, and the yellow petals against the green foliage and red-brown dirt made for a feast for the eyes. It was great.
Just as the sun disappeared behind the mountains we reached the hill tribe village where we would be spending the night. Our group chatted around a campfire (some of the guys had carried in a couple of big logs from our walk to burn) while some of the women from the village prepared our dinner. I'll tell you a bit about our group at this point. There was Vicky, a great woman from Belgium who was travelling through Thailand for 2 1/2 weeks by herself; Jost, a Dutch guy our age who was just starting a big trip through SE Asia; Roberta, another Dutch guy
Coffee and a campfire
Still chilly at this point, but that didn't last long. Within an hour of this picture being taken temperatures were soaring once again.
who made his living as some kind of security consultant with a bit of DJing on the side; Krishna, an English girl our age who was dating Daniel, an Australian bloke; and Michael and Katalina, a couple from Austria (though Katalina was a Romanian native). I'm not sure what Michael does but Katalina makes her living as a pianist in Vienna, which I thought was pretty amazing. Maybe we'll get to hear her play when Derek and I go to Vienna.
The spread the Karen tribe laid out for us was huge and delicious. It had rice, a hearty soup with potatos and meat, pinapple... I don't actually remember the details. But it was good and filling. Afterwards we sat around the fire for a bit more, and we all took a turn trying out a horn instrument which we'd heard being played inside the hut where our food was being prepared. That was pretty much the only time that Doh, our guide, interacted with us that night. I wasn't very impressed with that, but we got a lot more explained to us the next morning. Everyone was very tired, so shortly after that we hit the hay...er, bamboo.
My new friend
I'm really disappointed in the quality of this picture, because there's a good story here. After I asked to take this woman's picture, she seemed happy that I did and tied the bracelet she's holding on to my wrist. I assume she wanted me to buy it, but I didn't have money to pay her at the time (and honestly I didn't really want to buy it...) but I didn't feel like I could just take it off, either. So, I went in my pack and brought out a really nice postcard which depicts a few Orcas breaching with Mt. Baker in the distance. It was a great exchange, because she showed the postcard to many people of the village, including a few children who seemed pretty amazed with the scene. Maybe they'll do their next school project on Canada...
We got to sleep in till 8am (awesome!) at which point Doh roused us and we were greeted with a delicious western-style breakfast of omelette with tomatoes and onions, pinapple, and toast with pinapple jam. Mmmmm. We ate way better on this trip than we've been eating at any point in Thailand, since we're so cheap. After breakfast we packed up and went to visit a couple homes in the village. Here, Doh showed us a lot of different tools that the villagers use in their daily life, including an ingenious rat trap. It's hard to explain, but it was kind of like a stare coupled with a tube, so that when the rat stuck his head in, the snare would be triggered, snapping his neck. There was even a BBQ'd, skewered rat available to see to prove its effectiveness! Then a very old tribal woman game and gathered some unhusked rice from a big straw basket. We followed her "downstairs" (to the open area underneath the hut, which was built on stilts) where she put the rough rice into a big vat and then started beating it with a lever apparatus using her foot. I took a video,
which I'll try to post. The really impressive part came afterwards, though, when she was able to separate the different qualities of rice by swirling it around and flinging it into the air using a flat straw tray. The different types of rice would separate according to weight (and thus, quality) and she would further separate them with her hands according to food for "pigs, chicken, or people." It was a really good system. The villagers all wore bright, beautiful clothing, which was further enhanced by the golden glow of the sun coming off of the mountains. I'm not sure if my pictures will do it justice. They had JUST finished harvesting their rice for the season (they had still been at it on Doh's last trek 4 days previous) so most of the people where in the village having a bit of a relaxation before they got to dry season tasks, like repairing their equipment, and such.
After we said goodbye to the village we started our big day of hiking. We had about 5 1/2 hours of hiking this day, but none of it was really bad or strenuous. There was one long section where we were
Hill tribe baby
The Karen tribe children were adorable. This one liked smiling at me, and I liked smiling at him!
on a dirt road in direct sunlight climbing up a big hill--that was kind of rough--but other than that it wasn't bad at all. Our packs were incredibly light (at least compared to what I'm used to) since we were just carrying our clothes, the super light sleeping bag, and whatever other little things we felt it necessary to bring. Some people opted to borrow packs from the trekking company, but I opted to take my big pack since it's the one I always use when I'm backpacking and it's really comfortable. Good ol' Tatonga Lady Creek II--it's served me extremely well these past 10 years since I bought it at the age of 11 for my first big Scouting expedition. Thanks, Dad, for putting in the investment to get me a great bag! It was really worth it. Another peice of equipment I had that no one else did was the hiking stick that I'd bought in Sydney a month ago. I love hiking with a hiking staff. It really helps push me up big hills, and I find it invaluable for providing extra balance when I'm crossing streams on slippery rocks (there's no doubt it saved me from
This rice has been separated into pig feed, chicken feed, and human feed. Doh and Jost stand behind.
wet feet more than once on this trek). This day's hike was, once again, full of beautiful scenery, and was generally super enjoyable. I regretted not having my proper hiking boots, but with two pairs of socks my runners faired OK. Despite the fairly tame hike, the final descent to the riverside camp where we would be staying for the night was pretty trecherous, and took us ages to get down. The path was really steep and full of switchbacks, and the ground was just loose dirt and rocks with nothing solid on either side to hold on to. We had to go one at a time and carefully place each step, while always being prepared to slide part of the way down. When we finally made it and crossed the bamboo bridge to camp, Krishna remarked, "I feel like kissing the ground!" This camp was just sort of an outpost beside the river, and it wasn't in a village like our previous accomidation. Some Thai people did come by to hang out with Doh and cook our dinner, though, which was again excellent. Oh! And I forgot to mention lunch. In the morning, some women gave us little packages
Cucumber sandwhiches (OK, not quite)
After a day's hiking, Doh treated us to a snack of fresh cucumber from a field we'd just passed. The cucumber was HUGE! Seriously, as big as a small watermelon. All throughout our trek Doh picked various ingredients and snacks from the fields and bushes we passed through
wrapped in banana leaves and tied with straw twine, which turned out to be delicious fried rice which we carried in our packs and ate for lunch. No dishes to do, just throw your banana leaves in the bush!
There was a guitar at this camp and we tried to have a bit of a sing-a-long, but no one really had guitar skills that were up to par for an international sing-a-long, and although I taught everyone a few Beaver campfire songs the singing aspect of the evening kind of fell by the wayside. We stayed up for a little while talking, but before long we were bundled beneath our mosquito nets again for another night's rest.
We woke up excited on day 3 because some villagers and Doh were already hard at work constructing our bamboo rafts! We'd seen the bamboo in the river the night before, and by the time I got up the rafts were pretty much assembled. They'd been lashed together with natural twine, similar to what our rice had been tied up with, and were actually really sturdy. Our truck had driven to this campsite, so we got to load our packs into
A rest at the river
Katalina takes a load off at the river side. This is the same river (I think) that we rafted down the next morning.
it rather than taking them on the raft (this was a special luxury that isn't normally done). We had 5 people and a driver on each raft, which was propeled by a combination of the current and a fore and aft bamboo pole pusher. Our driver was REALLY skilled in manuevering the big raft through the rapids. I was really impressed. I was also impressed with how the quickly constructed raft held up to the beating against the rocks, which caused me to fall off my feet a couple times. We managed to get through the experience without anyone actually falling off the raft, but there were a couple of close calls! It was really, really fun, and everyone was very sad when we rafted up to the river bank (although when we hike past a big dam a few meters down we were glad we got off when we did!). It was a 40 minute walk to the reandezvous point with the truck, and so ended our trekking experience.
It didn't end our journey, though, because we still had to go to Doi Inthanon National Park, where we drove up to the top of the highest mountain in
Busy building tomorrow, beavers (beaver joke)
Some diligant Thai workers, up at the crack of dawn, construct our sturdy bamboo rafts for us. After the beating those rafts had to take, I'm glad we didn't build them ourselves!
Thailand. This drive was really long and quite arduous, and I'm really not sure if it was worth it. Poor Michael gets carsick really easily, and it sure wasn't fun for him. I don't get at all car sick, but I was tired and sleeping wasn't really an option when you're sitting on a bench in the back of a pickup. The view from the top of the mountain was totally unspectacular. Although there were signs warning about the "high altitude" and "thin air" for seniors and children, us British Columbians were slightly unimpressed. Oh well. There were some nice gardens up there and a couple of big buddha shrines. Then we drove down the mountain a bit to a huge waterfall, which was much more impressive. From there, it was about a 2 hour drive back to Chiang Mai. As we got closer to the city we descended into a thick haze of lung-choking smoke, which seemed to be coming from a number of burning garbage piles and one burning house (with no fire truck in sight). As tears streamed down my eyes from smoke irritation and we weaved our way through noisy traffic, I couldn't help become cynical
This was as common sight during the trek: backpacks in front, rice fields to the side. Awesome!
about the "progress" that "civilization" has made from the hill tribes' ways. On the contray, I think the tribes are doing great. They're happy, healthy (from what I can see) and they haven't turned a blind eye to modern advances, they've just simply taken what they need and nothing more. The villages all have solar power to light small lightbulbs, though they prefer to use candles, and they have battery powered headlamps if necessary. They have motorbikes for getting to town when they want to, and roads to their village are available. In the end, they've chosen to live the way they do, and they seem extremely content--and rightly so.
Trekking was great and gave me a chance to see a Thailand that, until this point, I'd only seen on postcards. It was beautiful, and peaceful, and lovely. Hopefully it can remain that way for a long time to come.
Although Chiang Mai is a lot nicer than Bangkok (in my opinion) after an evening of inhaling smoke I was definitely looking forward to getting out of there, so the morning after we got back from trekking we went to the bus station and caught a bus to
The view from the top
At the top of Doi Ignanthon
Pai, which is 4 hours along a windy, windy, mountainous road north of Chiang Mai. The bus ride was pretty funny. The ticket was only 80 baht (less than $3CAN), and we soon found out why. It was an old clunker CRAMMED with people, rice, and other cargo. We only just barely got seats, and Mark was barely able to find a place for his big backpack. Just when we thought it couldn't hold anything more, we picked up two hill tribe women from the side of the road, and then three more people a little ways down. The hill tribe women sat in the tiny aisle between me and Derek on bags of rice. Classic Thailand =) To complete the experience, the driver pumped Thai pop over the soundsystem the whole way, which I tried (in vain) to drown out with Tim McGraw on my iPod. Although the journey was through some seriously gorgeous countryside, it was a long four hours. Actually, it was made a lot longer by the fact that I couldn't eat anything the whole time for fear of... problems... since there was no bathroom on the bus and I was still sick from trekking. Oh
A rare pic of all three of us together, and here at the top of Thailand!
well. We made it! Pai is great, but this is already the most expensive internet usage EVER and I still have pictures to upload, so I'll tell you about it tomorrow. Tomorrow night we take an all-night bus to the Laos border.... exciting!
ARGH! The computer won't recognize my camera. Grrr. I'll try to upload again tomorrow.
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