Choosing a trek in the North of Thailand felt like a bit of a lottery at the time. Every seemed to offer the same thing – 3 days 2 nights of a jam packed agenda including visiting a hill people village, doing an elephant ride, bamboo rafting and a whole lot of trekking, They all sounded like fun but we were not really keen to repeat the reluctant experience of meeting a tribe in the Amazon: they didn't want us there, we didn't really know what to do with ourselves while we were there, they showed us how to make fire the traditional way, tried to sell us some, it has to be said fairly substandard “craft” and we left after about an hour. We also certainly didn't want to be supporting dodgy elephant treatment – for such graceful animals they seemed so sad when seen on the Khao San road, objects of flash photography and drunken revelry.
So it was easy to choose to trek with Pooh Eco Trekking. Sure we could have gone on the commercial trek for cheaper, but no elephants or bamboo rafts on our trek (although they do run trips to an Elephant conservation centre where they make paper out of elephant dung). A limit of 6 people on each trek and the village visited a maximum of twice a week with a focus on learning – how the hill people live, really, not the show put on for the tourists. A motto, perhaps often clichéd but essentially good: Take only photos, leave only footprints, kill nothing but time. This was what we wanted.
We set off from Mr Pooh's after leaving our large bags in the office and having our valuables hermetically taped up and signed to ensure no tampering. We jumped into the sawngthaew with our fellow trekkers Christine and Kallie and after an hour we arrived at a local market where Rey our guide picked up supplies. The girls were veggies but ate fish so meat was off the menu. We had a few minutes to explore the market and pick up last minute essentials and have a few banana fritters. My tummy was a bit dodgy so I passed on the fritters in favour of some flat coke, one of my mother's old unfailing remedies still relevant in the tropics.
Then we were off again through the rich forested countryside dotted with fabulous temples and enormous Buddhas, one seem to lie into the very hillside. 3 hours later we arrived at the restaurant where we had a tasty fried rice lunch. Rey explained the medicinal benefits of the tiny local bananas, which kill bacteria in the stomach and are fed to babies. We had a good few of those bananas – not as sweet as the usual ones and more fibrous.
Then we jumped into a “local car”, one of the ways they ensure the local population benefit from the treks. In reality it was a beat up 4x4 with an open back surrounded by a cage (MOT 34, not sure what to call this one – like a jungle pope-mobile!). We piled into the back from the bumpy jaunt to the jump off point.
Finally we started trekking, not for a very long distance (but it was pretty hot so the sweat was dripping) and as we walked Rey paused every so often and explained the landscape. The village is itself surrounded by a circle of swidden (slash and burn) agricultural land which is in turn surrounded by a layer of “community forest”, not burned to ensure the village's water supply. The path actually followed one of the circles, with a desolate ashen landscape on one side contrasted by a lush green, teeming with life on the other. It was a bit strange to see rainforest so affected by man, having seen it so vehemently protected in New Zealand.
Under a blossoming tree, a Japanese something or other, Rey stopped to tell us a story about bees and honey. Tobacco is one of the village's crops and it seems most of the people smoke more or less constantly. Well, when they want some honey one of the villagers sits down under the blossoming tree, smoking and waiting for a bee to come along looking for pollen. When one does they blow smoke at it until is becomes dazed and drowsy. This is the bit I thought was really cool but didn't actually see it happen so who knows. Then they tie a tiny bright string around the bee and when it wakes up, follow it back to its hive. Then they take about half the hive, to ensure it can build back up again. I'm sure it doesn't work every single time but hey!
We carried on, approaching the village and Rey gave us the lowdown on etiquette. Photos are ok but just to be polite make sure you show the person you took the photo of – it seems a bit of a novelty for them. A quick vocab lesson – “Dablee”, meaning both hello and thank you can be used frequently and the slightly more formal “Nah boonay-tah”, wishing good health used as a greeting and as a farewell.
We rounded a bend on the track and the village, about 65km from the Myanmar/Burmese border came into view. The Karen people have their origins in Burma, coming over the hills throughout the years to find more suitable land and a less oppressive regime to live under. Thatched houses on bamboo stilts had pigs that looked a little more like boars scurrying about underneath them. Chickens clucked around and every person we came across had an intriguing, wrinkled face and a big smile of jet black teeth (they chew betel nuts a lot) as they said, and we struggled to remember how to say “Nah boonay-tah”.
We would stay at Tahan & Mutah's house, a couple who seemed to live in a very sociable house with most of the village either in it, underneath it or on the balcony, all smoking fat tobacco cigarrettes, rolled up not with paper but a semi dry type of leaf and tied with a string. The men wore brightly coloured, heavily woven v-necks and the unmarried women, white. They tend to marry within the tribe at anything from 12 up and start having kids at about 15. We had some tea and then went to see one of the women mill rice. It's quite a labour intensive process which requires more skill than you would think from looking at it (as I soon found out, much to their amusement – milling rice is women's work).
We were all invited to another house for some food – the girls left, I stayed on the balcony playing with one of the kids. I had brought a Point-It book which contains lots of photos of useful travelling stuff, so when you don't speak a language you can literally Point-It out and learn. We played that for a while, learning the words for animals, foods and even things like helicopters and airplanes (these had the same word, probably flying machine). He was fiercely interested in the contents of my backpack so we pulled it all out and if he knew what it was we would learn the word – it was clear we were not the first group there though – he could master a digital camera better than many westerners and said sleeping bag before I could get it out of my pack!
Then we all helped with the preparation of dinner inside, everything was cooked on an open clay fire inside the house. There were many comings and goings. Soon a bottle and a few cups were produced and shots of what they called whiskey were doled out to all and sundry. In reality it was a very pleasant rice wine, a bit like Sake only not so strong. Everyone smiled, smoked, spat through the cracks in the floor and generally had a grand ole time. Depression doesn't seem to come into their simple life.
We had an excellent dinner out on the balcony, joined by Tahan and Mutah. Rey prepared yellow curry with fish balls, stir fried veggies and the “special” local rice, purple in colour, somewhere in between sticky and jasmine rice in consistency and tasting amazing. We also got to taste some of the local curry, much much hotter than Rey's and great as well. After dinner the ones who had remained (and eaten I assume) inside came out with a pot of tea and a type of musical instrument resembling a guitar. I was curious and it was thrust into my hand. Not having an idea how to play a normal guitar never mind this rustic 4 stringed version I decided that a rendition of Amhran na bhFiann, the irish national anthem would be appropriate. One of the guys from the village returned the favour with a local song.
For the first time since giving up cigarettes a few years ago I tried one of theirs – it was very pleasant and light and somehow sweet, having a similar smell to pipe tobacco. Just when I'm in a tribal village :0)
After a while we started to get tired and the place cleared quickly. Mossie nets were hung for us inside the house while Rey, Tahan and Mutah would sleep on the balcony and keep chatting. It felt so welcoming and natural, not at all like we were outsiders, more like special guests. I got a fright as people were dropping off to sleep – a fairly big bug that had been buzzing about managed to sneak into the net and dive bomb my head. very hard to not giggle after that – especially as Tahan and Rey came in very quickly asking what had happened.
A cock crowed at 4.30 am, still dark, and started a symphony of crowing. Soon afterwards the village stirred into life. The fire was started and the cooking began but the lazy foreigners in their mosquito nets didn't rise till just before 8 when Rey gave his own little crow by way of alarm clock. We had a great breakfast of fruit and rice followed by a when-in-Rome shower from a basin. They're not tall the Karen people, nor the Thais. Neither am i for that matter but that didn't stop me from smashing my head of the house a few times.
It was time to leave the house and move on. We had stayed in the Christian part of the village and we would now go and visit the animists, the largest belief system in the village. We went past the school, surprised to see that it had satellite broadband and TV and the shamen's house. The shamen although becoming less important now that hospitals are accessible for serious maladies is still a fundamental part of the village and also doubles as the iron monger / blacksmith.
Rey then had a chat (he speaks Karen very well) with another householder and we were invited to another house. Again, we were welcomed with kindness. A pot of something bubbling away on the fire was poured out into a bowl for us all to share – a bee larvae soup made with rice, chili, sugar and salt. Actually it was very tasty and i had a good few spoonfuls although it was a little tough on our veggie friends. Another bottle of whiskey was produced – this time much stronger stuff and shots were passed around. Seeing the grimaces on the faces after the shots our host produced some honey which was mixed in to make it a bit easier to handle. Bottle after bottle came out and by the time we left the house was full to the brim of people laughing and we were all a little (or a lot) tipsy.
The host was actually the proprietor of one of Mr. Pooh's most important contribution to the village, a subsidised shop selling local produce, sometimes by barter (when necessary) which means the local families don't have to make the 22km trek to the market.
We carried on through the village and out the other side and were soon in the depths of swidden land. We passed through few other hamlets and waved and said hi to the locals. One old fellow making the bamboo grass thatching had the happiest face I have ever seen – and as far as I can tell only one tooth. After a few hours we came down a steep hill to the river. Our fried lunch had been prepared for us in the morning and was presented in banana leaf parcels. Tahan and one of his friends, who were accompanying us made us bamboo chopsticks and we enjoyed the cool of the water as we sat in the shade.
Changing into trek sandals we then moved down the river, wading through parts and walking along its banks. The landscape changed from swidden land to virgin primary rainforest and the hills of the valley began to rise above us as we reached the second evening's accommodation – the bamboo camp, a house made completely of bamboo perched on the river beside a small tributary which makes a perfectly cool and refreshing natural swimming pool.
After a dip and a wash (i was embarrassed to have let slip and lose the soap Rey gave us) we took funny photos sitting in the waterfall and had a wander around. The village men had dammed a small part of the tributary and were hunting fish with their hands in the resulting rockpools. The hunt for protein is pretty important in their lifestyle I would imagine. They filled their bright bags with tadpoles, small fish that looked like sticklebacks and anything that moved in the pools with a deftness and speed that was at times unbelievable. As if to show up our lack of bushcraft, then they showed us how to make a bamboo kitchen set, cup, butter knife, spoon ... to match our chopsticks. It looked like a piece of cake but after our third attempt (each) Claire and I gave up.
We helped Rey out with the prep for dinner – Kallie and Christine had produced a pack of Oreos which I had real trouble resisting – but I was glad I held out as it was a veritable feast, all cooked with, served in and eaten with the incredibly versatile bamboo. The little freshwater fish and tadpoles the guys caught had also been steamed with chili and served up. After dinner we played a few bamboo games and puzzles that Rey had taught us and we chatted about the similarities and differences between Thai, Karen and western culture – superstitions and science, Buddhist joy and reverence, Catholic guilt and sombreness.
I was disappointed not to have woken up a few minutes earlier. I heard a few voices soon after seven but went back to slumber. Rey told us, ironically during another sumptuous breakfast that a group of Burmese refugees had passed by the camp, asking for food and water having trekked down the river. I felt guilty that their fate probably still hangs on a knife- edge while I'm sure I will always be the better off having lost a few pounds.
We put back on our sandals and criss-crossed the tributary stream over rocks and under trunks strewn across the path during the rainy season. At one point Tahan and Rey stopped and crouched and made signs for us to do the same. A vermillion green snake had been spotted on a branch overhanging the track. After a quick discussion a catapult was produced and it was only after the second or third shot that I actually spotted it myself, now limp and harmless. Such a contrast to other places or treks where the snake would perhaps have been caught to discuss its habits and then released – out here it's clear that Homo Sapiens is the species with the right of way.
On up the river we went until we had a rest before entering the Taralod cave, or as Rey had described it during our briefings, the bat cave. I sort of half-expected a batmobile to appear. Instead bamboo torches were lit and we passed into the darkness, the almost imperceptible flutterings of hundreds of bats above us. After a short walk we passed through into the dappled sunlight on the other side and began the steepest incline of the 3 days. Certainly manageable but made tougher by the heat and humidity. Eventually we made it to another bamboo structure where we had another tasty banana leaf lunch before the final hour or so to our lift back to the restaurant. Ominous cumulo-nimbus clouds puffed high into the sky as we made the bumpy trip.
There we joined up with a pleasant and well travelled family from Washington state who had taken another trek with one of Pooh's other guides, Mr Tee. We shared the sawngthaew back to Chiang Mai, stopping for a welcome dip in a warm fast flowing river on the way.
Just as we were drying off the heavens opened. I've never been in Asia during Monsoon but I would imagine the sudden, strong winds, eerie darkness and horizontal driving rain are characteristic. A few trees were blown down across the road, dragging down some power lines. We were diverted but spirits were high in the sawngthaew and the journey passed quickly. I jumped at one point – something had hit the side of the truck with force but as we sped on we could see that it was a bucket of water (not the bucket – just the water!) that had been thrown, to great cheer by a group of people at the side of the road. Songkran, Thai new year was beginning.
As I went to sleep that night I pondered the whole experience. What summed it up for me were 2 things that I had hoped for but not expected. As we sat on Tahan's balcony around the guitar I had, joking, asked what I needed to do to get one of the men's woven shirts. They laughed back that I would have to marry into the tribe – the only time they are made is by a wife for her husband. The second was a set of questions I posed Tahan over dinner at the bamboo hut. “Name one thing you would like to change and one thing you never want to change about the village – anything is possible.” Tahan spoke for a while with his friend (I wish I could remember his name) and Rey translated an answer to the second part: “We would like to keep our language the same”, explaining that nobody could remember the Karen alphabet anymore – change was already in motion. Another discussion started and the tribesmen continued chatting amongst themselves. After a few minutes I returned to my question, wondering if they had forgotten. They were still discussing said Rey. Eventually a decision was made about what they would change in the village.
“Nothing” came back as the answer. I hope they get their wish, although progress has a way of marching on regardless.
Mr Pooh's contact details are:
59 Thanon Ratchapakinai, Chiang Mai
Phone: 05 320 8538, 085 041 4971