Guided hikes are a major industry here and often incorporate all kinds of extras, from the have-to-do (like an elephant ride; we did) to the touristy silly (like pet the tigers at Tiger Kingdom; we didn’t). We had thought to do some trekking here without a guide, but were we wrong about that notion! As we discovered on the trek we did over the last two days, the intricate network of cowpaths across the local hills and parks are completely unmarked, unlike the randonnees of France where half its trees seem emblazoned with route markings. At best, you will get lost, and that’s not counting the various dangers along the way, like leeches that sneak out of the ground (one of which got Nancy till it was glutted and bloodied her sock, but with no lasting harm), poisonous plants, snakes or wild boar in feisty moods.
Nor are you really welcome to visit the hill tribe villages, whose homes are the nodes along the trails of these protected areas, without permission from the people themselves and the parks authority. These villages are the communities for thousands of people in 7 different ethnic groupings that still live in small farming towns tucked next to waterways and rivers in the crinkly hills of Northern Thailand. The villages consist of wooden and bamboo huts accommodating 60 to several hundred people who try to maintain their old subsistence lifestyle and language, but increasingly try to balance that with the new. They are highly respected in Thailand, though oddly they are frequently Christian and not Buddhist because of the Italian missionaries that came a long time ago and taught in these areas. One indicator of their faith are the crosses hammered onto trees that are to be protected and not cut down.
So it turns out we were well advised to do our two day trip with a local guide, and ours was a fine one. Ek (pronounced like a long A) was not only a Karen tribe member, but was a Buddhist monk for five years, and expert at all the indigenous skills like the use of the machete. He could strip a stalk of bamboo into ever finer slices, like a four star cook with an onion.
So our two days consisted, foremost, in hiking. We hiked up 1000 feet and down 1000 feet three times over, for about 7 or 8 miles. Not that much of a challenge for us typically, though carrying all our stuff on our backs made it reasonably demanding. And, all of this was through beautiful rainforest, with much of it along narrow ridges between valleys, so you often could see into both at once.
And it was an unending lesson on the ways the tribal people live off the bounty of nature here. Ek demonstrated for us the uses of hemp hacked from an unassuming tree (as rope), how the sap of different plants could be used as glue for catching animals or sweetener, for example, and the innumerable uses of bamboo (baskets, bamboo shoots as vegetable, as walking sticks we used, as our river raft, and as housing structures in the villages). Throughout the country, scaffolding used for constructing or renovating buildings is often a bamboo lattice.
It was roughing it in a Karen tribal village. Though we really dined and slept in a guesthouse that mimicked their actual homes, not where the family lived, we saw and shared a bit of their simple lifestyle and learned a tad about their daily life. They rise early as farmers usually do, go off to work in the rice fields mainly, return in the heat of mid-day for lunch and then siesta, then finish the day with work. At night, they prepare the food and dine communally with the extended family, talking about, well, who knows what day after day, and go to sleep early.
Why host us? Many of the villagers were heading into the cities due to the difficulty of subsisting mainly on the farming of rice and trekkers wanted access to the gorgeous and challenging terrain. So, the tribal leaders, trekker organizations and the government worked out a way for everyone to share the resources and still preserve their lifestyle. Villagers had a source of extra income and let us gain respect for a lifestyle we would not be able to fathom otherwise.
The rest of our adventure was just fun, and mostly undemanding. Our obligatory one hour elephant ride was steered by a compact jockey of a villager, who sat right behind the elephant’s ears and called out “huh” every few seconds to keep it moving. We sat on the typical bamboo chair used for at least two millenia of fighting wars atop these beasts. Our route was along a sedate part of the Mae Tang river, one of four that converge into the Chao Praya and Bangkok. We went through the water up to the elephant’s knees. And when the elephant would walk down the slopes into the river we were at a 45 degree angle and had to hold on, feet braced on his leathery gritty back. The driver, or mahut, did this several times just to give us a thrill. The elephant ambled like a huge horse through the river, only pausing along the way to deposit packets of dung we watched float downstream.
And that river raft of bamboo… It consisted of 15 bamboo stalks of perhaps 25 foot length all tied together very sturdily with bamboo strips, newly made for us by our guides using bamboo supplied by the villagers. We sat so we wouldn’t tumble into the river. Our guides stood on the raft at each end and, with just two long bamboo poles, expertly managed to navigate some moderate rapids for over two hours and keep us unflipped.
So we got to enjoy the whole thing, the lovely Mae Tang river, the rainforest cascading above it and the lush green hills rising a thousand feet over us.
An adventure indeed.
(For more pictures in a slide show, go to our Thailand itinerary page.)