We were met off the train by our new guide - Anam. A softly spoken gentleman we would come to know him well and put our trust in his extensive bushman skills. With our guide and driver we drove up to the Doi Suthep temple atop the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. After a quick stop in the local jade factory we had dinner at the Kantoke Palace - the kind of place they pack out with tourists and put on a mediocre display of the local cultural dances. They served us way too much food but we did get to try Deep Fried Bananas - a treat for those with a little room left in their arteries. We snuck out before the end of the show, thinking that the "Tea Dance" looked much like the "Rain Dance" which looked like all the others. We were keen to get packed and have a good night's sleep for the trekking which started the next day.
One hours ride on the back of a tuk tuk and we were at the Local Market - where we stocked up on provisions such as toilet paper, lollies, biscuits and baked items of uncertain description. Little did we know these would come in so handy. Another hour's ride and we were at the Ma Fok waterfall. Fairly small due to the fact it's winter here, but still we were unable to stand under the waterfall without it feeling like getting a massage under the fingertips of an angry sumo wrestler.
Another hour's ride and we were at the Hot Springs. At this altitude they were only 50 - 60 deg. Celsius. We started trekking from here and soon found the source - geysers spouting a steady stream of 100 deg. C water. Apparently monkeys come down in winter to warm their toes (do they actually have toes?). Anam trekked slowly - probably from a combination of wanting us to pace ourselves and the fact that he was carrying our food for 3 days on his back. He did admit to not liking the hills but by Day 3 his pack was significantly lighter. We're good like that.
A good hour or two of trekking up and down a steep hill and we arrived at the Karen Village where we would be staying for the night. We were excited at reaching the village and had no idea what lay ahead of us. We made our way through the
wooden huts to our lodge for the night. Our bedroom consisted of a hard wooden floor with mosquito nets above. Some blankets were folded neatly to the side against one of the walls. Anam announced this was our Honeymoon Suite for the night as we were the only guests and 'had the place all to ourselves'. Well I've never seen a barer room but we were happy to have reached our destination. The bathroom was outside and consisted of ceramic squat toilet and a tap with water from the local stream (which was freezing). The toilet had to be flushed using a bucket but we were fairly proficient at that by this stage as it was the norm outside of the major cities.
As Anam got cooking dinner for the night (deep fried chicken with ginger and vegies with rice) we explored the village. There were pigs, dogs, chickens, cows and water buffalo all milling around under and around the raised wooden huts. The locals themselves weren't unfriendly, but kept to themselves and I realised that tonight would be more like a B&B than actually getting to chat with the locals. Still, we got a few smiles here and there. The old lady from our hut gave us a smile when we left, her teeth blackened from chewing betel nuts from a time when white teeth weren't in fashion.
Andy fell ill that evening and took himself off to bed as soon as I'd laid 5 or 6 blankets on the floor. Even in his sleeping bag with another 5 or 6 blankets on top he still felt freezing and had to put on all his jackets and woollen hat. He'd not felt good all day, probably due to an adventurous curry he'd eaten at a roadside restaurant. It was worrying to see him unable to eat and so cold, but Anam said he'd seen this a lot before and was certain he'd be OK for the 4 hour trek the next day. I'd already made a contingency plan to take him back to Chiang Mai the next day if he wasn't better. It was a cold cold night on a hard hard floor with a few dusty blankets for comfort. As night fell around 7pm it was a long twelve hours until daybreak. Busting for the loo I was too scared to go by myself (the dogs were howling) and daren't wake Andy up for fear of messing up his recovery. The roosters started crowing from 3am and I cursed not bringing a set of earplugs with us. Who would have thought it would be this noisy in the jungle? At 5am Andy set off for the loo, with me gratefully in tow. A million stars lit up the night and we were treated to a small show of shooting stars for our efforts. It's hard to negotiate a pitch black outside toilet with only a headlamp, having to balance loo roll and getting one's shorts off but not stepping onto the mud. Andy asked me if I had had a comfortable night's sleep - "Yes" I said - "if you compare it with sleeping outside during winter, naked on a plank of wood".
The next morning we ate a modest breakfast and set off on our 4 hour trek. Going uphill was ok but going down was at times rather slippery in my shoes so I had to be careful - wouldn't want a sprained ankle this far away from civilisation. Seeing my difficulty, Anam disappeared off into the bush and emerged with a custom made walking stick from bamboo - "Very strong" he said. He'd fashioned it himself using his trusty machete. You're not a bushman without one. Anam came from a village where he used to catch fish and find vegetables in the jungle for food, so he was very at home in the jungle and that made us feel very safe with him around.
We trekked for 3 hours, stopping at a village to buy some handicrafts and some well needed Sprite. It's amazing how you can be in the jungle, miles from anywhere - but they'll still sell you Sprite. Another hour of trekking and we arrived at the elephant camp. Some more handicrafts were bought and we had a simple lunch made of 2 minute noodles. Still feeling unwell, Andy managed to eat some of the broth but nothing solid.
Riding on an elephant to the next village sounded like such a cool, romantic thing to do. The reality we swiftly found out was that elephants are very very tall, and sitting high above them you feel rather unstable as they lope along. Our seat was on a lean, which didn't help Andy who felt as though he were going to fall off at any minute. As they'd tied our bags to the back of our seat they'd fallen - into a big pile of elephant dung. Luckily it was relatively dry, but I have an idea we should get our daypacks laundered before too long. Setting off, the trainer directed the elephant towards the river, down a very steep embankment. Neither of us could believe our eyes until we were gripping on for dear life, trying not to go head first over the elephant and into the river. There are no seat belts, just a rickety bamboo seat to hold on to. I kept telling myself people do this all day, every day and well if we fell off I hoped it was into the river. We continued on for one and a half hours on the leisurely scenic tour, until we arrived at the Lahu village, situated high above the river.
As we neared our hut for the night Anam called out to let them know we were here. As they have no telephones or means of communication the guides just turn up with the tours. The lady inside had been sleeping and promptly started hitting Anam in good-natured (but fairly forceful) slaps. Andy thought they were 'an item' however I think she was just making sure he'd brought her some good produce from the market. This repartee continued for a few minutes, with the woman snatching Anam's pack and emptying it - threatening him all the while with his machete. We later learned that he's been bringing tours through here for 11 years and knows the family very well. The tour company pays them around 100 Baht per night to have people to stay - around $4 aud. No wonder she expected some gifts.
A small voice chirped out "Hello - Hello!" as it entered the gate, past the guard pigs. And the children of the family filtered in to see these foreigners. They were such cute kids, very cheeky and very appreciative of the bag of lollies we'd brought from the local market. Chaos ensued as we played with them and they inspected my travel hairbrush and postcards of kangaroos and koalas that we gave them.
An old lady came up behind me and whispered "Lahu Massage" and started to massage my shoulders. Well let me say - after 2 days of trekking I didn't need much convincing. So I lay down and was immediately lulled into bliss as I was massaged by many hands. I had trouble telling how many pairs of hands there actually were, but the old lady had two 'helpers' learning her trade. It was a fantastic massage and combined not only deep tissue massage but a few chiropractic moves thrown in for good measure. Andy came in to check that I was still alive and pretended to massage me as well, sending the women into fits of giggles. Apparently the Lahu women massage their men when they come home 'from a hard days work' and that's why they're so good. Andy's ears pricked up at this and he's been trying to convince me to adopt that ritual in our home. I told him if he made a bamboo raft, rode it downstream, caught fish and killed a water buffalo and carried it back up the steep hill every day then we had a deal.
The hut was again very basic, with wood stoves and a table but no other furniture to speak of. There seemed to be little in the way of possessions but the family all ate together and were pouring over our postcards of NZ that we gave them. That night was even colder than the first, and I could not sleep a wink. I wrote pages and pages in my journal by the light of Andy's head lamp once the candle had gone out. There never seemed to be enough blankets and what sleep I did have was disrupted by a nasty cold I'd caught. Another long 12 hours stared me in the face and I willed the sunlight to start breaking through the walls of the hut.
The next morning as we sat eating breakfast a family of elephants strolled upstream and into the village - next to a bamboo raft that was being made for our next leg of the journey. It was amazing to see these animals in such a rural setting, they seem so gentle and elegant, despite their size.
We were to leave the Lahu village by what else - bamboo raft - and Anam and a local boy had been up since 6am building it from scratch. The rafts are taken down the river, where they are dismantled and the bamboo used for other purposes.
Anam steered in front, I held on to the makeshift teepee structure used to keep our bags out of the water, and Andy helped steer in the middle. At the back were two of the local children - a boy of 16 and a girl of 14. They had been married for a year and were 'hitching a ride' to the local market hours away. They would then have to trek back at least 3 hours to get back to the village. Seems to put a local trip to Woolworths for us to shame. We rode the rapids and marvelled at the wreckages of some of the rafts who had not made it intact through the river. With the cold river water swirling around my ankles I watched the Mae Tang river's beauty pass by and wondered if there was a better way to spend a monday morning.
A few hours by tuk tuk back to Chiang Mai, a quick shower and a 4 hour mini-van ride to Chiang Kong and we collapsed into the hotel. By any other standards, this motel would've been terrible, but to see a sit-down toilet, mattress and running water was indeed a treat for these dusty, tired travellers.
Chiang Mai - it's like a cleaner, nicer and quieter version of Bangkok. A hub for trekking, biking and other outdoor adventures it contains the crumbling walls of the old city, surrounded by a moat. This stands out like a large square amidst the sprawling city when you view it from high on a mountain top.