Day’s 18-22 were spent in Chiang Mai (CM) and near Chiang Dao. Overall CM is a lot cooler and greener than Bangkok, although in CM city this is not the case. In fact a lot of Asian people choose to take their holidays here to escape the heat and get out of the city.
On our second day here we were picked up by our local guide, Tan, and taken by open air truck about an hour out of the city to our trek starting point. Along the way we stopped at a local food market where they sold the usual – pigs heads, trotters, freezer bags containing soup and cold drinks and of course our lunch for later that day. We were used to the stench of fish and raw meat, kept un-chilled in the sun, by now. Before we arrived we rode an elephant through the river and up through the hills and into the jungle, some of us encountered wet faces along the way, as the elephants used their trunks to cool themselves in the baking heat. When we arrived back we were also involved in a bit of an elephant stampede, as one of them decided to barge into a shop and across the stairs heading in our direction! After lunch at a local village called Mae Ping, about 5 hours from the market, we tucked into our tepid, sweating lunch bought previously (whilst our guide left for proper ‘safe’ hot and spicy food).
The first day of our trek wasn’t too long and was designed to break us in gently. Tan wore flip flops and shorts whilst we wore all the usual clobber – and we were glad we did too - he must be mad! Along the way he used his machete to hack back the trees and the undergrowth so as to make a path for us. You can imagine how hot we were, carrying big rucksacks and heavy water bottles up steep inclines, the sweat was dripping off us and our legs were burning. In all, there were 4 of us including Tan. The fourth was an American guy in his early 30’s called Jason. Along the way we talked about everything and anything – I guess it took our minds off the walking; we all got along great. The first day we saw all manner of things including star fruit, avocadoes, lychees, macadamia, bananas, lemongrass, limes, jumping spiders, a poisonous snake right in front of us, beautiful butterflies and trails of gigantic ants the size of my nail!
The second day was 10x harder than the first, we found ourselves on our hands and knees, stopping every 3 minutes to check for leaches as we brushed through the wet undergrowth that whipped past our legs in the torrential rain. Yes it rained and rained for about 5 out of the 6 hours. Tan constantly picked the leaches off his legs and chopped them in half with the same knife he had used for hacking back the undergrowth and cutting the fruit he picked for us from the trees. The mud poured down the mountain sides and along the paths in torrential rivers, we were covered, and there was no let up in the heat either or the burning in our joints – I was thankful for the stops every so often, so I could catch my breath and swig some water. The trek uphill seemed endless and must have gone on for the majority of the day. However it turned out the descent was just as difficult and pretty scary too, the green moss type algae on the very steep paths coupled with the water made it virtually impossible to stand upright and we were all flat on our backs several times – the best way we found, was to straddle the path with our feet in the shoulder high (probably spider ridden) reed like fauna at the sides. I never imagined anything could be so slippery, it was worse than ice – really.
We were thankful when we reached the bottom - the end of that day’s trek. And what an end it was, out of nowhere about 15 Lahu children (aged 2-7) ran down the hill at immense speed – as if they were either chasing something or running away from it. I couldn’t tell where they were running to, and then at the last minute it turned out they were running at us! It was like a human stampede! Initially they didn’t smile one bit, none of them, and were incredibly curious both in us and our sticks.
The Lahu village we had entered was about 30km away from the nearest main road. There is no electricity or mod cons and they don’t even speak Thai but have their own kind of tribal language – even Tan can’t communicate with them! They receive visitors about once a month and never more than about 4 at a time. They are self sufficient but those that pick tea outside the village will earn an extremely good wage of £3.50 a day. Some work the foot grinder and grind the rice from the local farmer, obviously this is not paid; it takes 2 hours to grind enough rice for one meal here and looks like hot work. There is an undulating path between the houses (you would not be able to drive a car along it) and chickens, dogs and children running around everywhere, there appeared to be few adults – I think they were all collecting food. Our hut was next to the pig pen and the village toilet and ‘shower’- a tap just above waist height. Our home consisted of an elevated bamboo hut about 8 feet off the ground, containing 3 rugs and 4 candles. As you walked on the floor it moved, it was the thin kind of dry bamboo that snaps easily. The walls did not meet the roof and there were holes everywhere.
The whole place was out of this world. I knew places like this existed but they were so far removed from reality I almost never believed it. There was such a great vibe to this place. Few of the children wore shoes and many had teeth with big gaping black holes in them (as only a minority brush their teeth here and it is actually desirable to have black teeth – it’s a sign that you are a hard worker and is even considered attractive for women). One child had a pet beetle with pincers, bigger than her hand, which she kept in her pocket and would bring out at impromptu moments; another seemed to live totally naked – he was not embarrassed what so ever!
As always we had to leave our boots and shoes outside our room, it was then that I discovered I had been attacked by a leach about 3 hours earlier – well it was still bleeding (because of the anticoagulant which it had injected into my bloodstream). The kids thought this was amazing and tried to touch my wound, when I stopped them they started to blow on it to slow the bleeding and I guess make it better – it was so funny. It was like they really cared.
After about an hour of playing games, showing them tricks and showing them the pictures of themselves – which they thought was amazing, they all started to smile from ear to ear. It was great to see. They were now fighting for our attention – literally hitting one another. At one point I had 10 children all squashed up against me, grabbing my arms all wanting to be swung from side to side, back and forth – they were even grabbing my legs and weren’t letting go. I soon lost track of who had been swung - there were no manners here – no “form an orderly queue please”. I was exhausted and had worked up a sweat and a hunger.
For dinner we ate on the floor, as we had the night before at the last village. We sat in the corner of the kitchen whilst it was cooked over a fire, directly in the middle of the floor, above which there were racks for drying various herbs. Other than the fire the kitchen consisted of one shelf, on which there were a few items of food, there was obviously no fridge, no sink (that was a pipe outside), no cupboard, chairs, table or pictures. As we ate the locals sat outside and once we had finished they entered, resumed our position on the floor and ate theirs. Well it gets pretty dark here so we all went to bed about 8.30 or 9 – with no lighting, tv and no street lights - there’s little else to do!
I have to say this was my best experience so far – the people and the place was just amazing and almost unbelievable looking back. It really makes you feel lucky but then again you question life – why are we all so unhappy and obsessed with having the latest this and that. We do have everything but then at the same time, these people have so much more – contentment, happiness and an openness and honesty about them. One day here just wasn’t long enough for me. I was sad to leave this village and felt I still had more to learn.
The rest of the time here was spent walking back; crossing 4 rivers by foot and the fourth by a bamboo raft. Back in Chiang Mai we had a massage to try to ease the pain before walking to a local monastery called Wat Chedi Luang, where we talked to a monk named Kampong. He was in his 20’s and willing to chat so we talked to him for about an hour and a half about Buddhism, his life, the family he had left behind in Laos and all manner of things in his broken English. This too was fascinating – he wakes at 5, to pray at 6am, before cleaning the temple and studying. He is not allowed to eat after midday and receives all his food through donations. We learnt, it takes around 7 years to become a monk and they have to abide by such rules such as – that if they touch a woman they have to meditate for 3months, they are also not allowed to listen to music or play games.
Well what a long blog – I hope you’re all still awake. There is just so much more to say about the trek and Chiang Mai but I guess I’ll have to fill you in when we return.