Trip Start Dec 28, 2011
101Trip End Dec 12, 2012
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It didn't help that the most highly recommended trekking tour companies were impossibly hard to find; buried away in back streets and having moved several times since our map was printed. After a mere two hours wandering the block in the midday sun, the suggested places turned out to be beyond our budget. It appeared all hope was lost and we would have to crack on to Chang Mai, but for one last ditch look at a random guesthouse tour. Bingo! On budget, packed with activities and our own private tour guide. Things were looking up, even if it seemed a little too good to be true.
Post lie-in, we turned up for the trekking at 10am. Our promised 'experienced' tour guide turned out to be the 29 year old 'M', who had only been a guide for six months (including training), having previously been a mechanic, truck driver and factory repair man.
'M' couldn't grasp my name, so in the end we settled on him calling me savvy; a name that JK was quick to point out didn't suit me in the slightest.
We were dropped at the longboat station and had a peaceful hour-long ride up the river, spotting birds and elephants on the way. From there we disembarked at the elephant sanctuary and went for a ride on Michealmas, our friendly lumbering Chang. He waded into the river, ignoring cries of 'Na' from his ear driver (the mahout steered him using his ears), getting perilously close to taking us and himself for a full bath. We bumbled through a village, spotting the ginormous pythons that villagers had raised for pictures with the tourist. One particularly large one must have totalled 10ft, with an 80inch round body!
We thanked Michealmas by feeding him sugar cane, and he thanked JK by placing his trunk in highly inappropriate areas (it's like I wasn't even there!).
Then the trek began. M's inexperience showed in his pace - he clearly thought us young and healthy, setting off at a breath-taking pace. We wheezed, sweated and did that half run - half walk thing children do to keep up, as we climbed and climbed and climbed in the midday sun. When JK compared it to his army training, I knew I was in trouble, but I dug my stubborn heels in and marched on. The reward at the top of the mountain was stunning views, deserted hill tribe villages, not another tourist in sight and a feeling that we'd worked off our beer bellies!
Though he'd make a rubbish pacemaker, M did impart a lot of Thai knowledge to us, including the age of marriage - which tends to be in their thirties for men and twenties for ladies (M had a 19-year old girlfriend, the dirty dog and a line in t-shirts called "super playboy"). In return we improved his English by teaching him essential words, including: gullible, naff, old-school and crunchy. Pretty much all you need to get by in our country!
Our trek-on-speed ended that day with an incredible three-tiered waterfall, where we took a cheeky dip. Its crystal clear, ice-cold waters soon returned us to normal temperatures.
That evening we stayed in a homestay, with our own jungle hut and kitchen hut to cook our dinner with M. Placing me in charge of the flavouring of our Thai green curry was a mistake, as I've become a bit of a chilli fiend in recent months. Even one of the local guides was surprised at how hot it was.
After breakfast the next morning (which JK and M prepared, whilst I admired the valley view from the balcony) we set off with an additional local guide; and we thought day one was tough! The guide and M stormed off up a vertical hill face, leaving us gasping for breath behind and sweating profusely. JK told M they call it a 'Route one' in the army, meaning you abandon any sensible winding route and take the most direct path up the hill. Adding to the hilarity was that our ninja guide (who was at least 60 years old and only 5ft tall) smoked roll-ups all the way. M told us that we were 1500m above sea level; JK pointed out that Ben Nevis is only 1342m high.
On we went through bamboo forests, tea plantations and jungles, spotting an array of edible goodies, including tea leaves, green tea, wild ginger, cherries, lychees, coffee beans, courgettes, apples, pomelos, large figs, white bananas, papayas and mangoes - many growing wild.
At the Akha village on the mountain top, we stopped briefly for fresh green tea and to pick up some bits for lunch. I cooed over a local family's one month old baby, having a lovely cuddle before she wee'd all over my leg - they don't do nappies. The guide assured me it was a sign that I was maternal, but I'm sure I saw the baby smirking.
Lunch was a highlight, not for the menu, but the manner in which they cooked it. The guides hacked at bamboo in the forest to make temporary saucepans. They filled these pipes with water and vegetables and heated them over the fire. Once boiling, the veg and water was thrown into the banana leaf covered-hole in the ground, with instant noodles and left to cook shortly. We poured it straight from the ground into our bamboo cups, made then and there, eating it with our bamboo chopsticks. Is there nothing they can't do with bamboo?! JK and I have resolved to grow it when we get back and make cups for you all.
The trek ended with a sprint downhill, through the bamboo forest (momentum got the better of me and I couldn't help but run, whilst hurling myself at bamboo en route to try and slow myself). At the bottom was a hot spring, where JK took a warming dip (it was too much like an egg-scented warm bath for me, so I passed).
We celebrated our superb trek with a trip to the night food market in Chiang Rai- which offers an array of delights for under $2 and free singing and dancing. All in all a smashing couple of days.