Jungle Bells (CONTAINS VIDEO)

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Sunday, December 24, 2006







As I write this entry, we are watching the sun go down in a tiny hill tribe village, waiting for our dinner to be prepared. It is as basic a village as you can imagine: maybe 20 thatched-roof cottages, a bunk room for the tourists, a cooking hut, a couple of outhouses and a schoolhouse. The ground is all dirt and pigs and chickens wander around undisturbed.

The day began at 9:45 with the arrival of the pick-up truck containing our guides - Jun and Sammy - and our seven fellow tour group members. We have two German couples, a Dutch couple and an Australian girl, all very sociable and good company.

We drive out of Chiang Mai and into the hills, during which time we all chat in the back about travelling and our Thai experiences. About an hour in, we stop to ride some elephants. Jane and I and Allie, the Aussie girl, share one elephant, with Allie and I on the seat and Jane volunteering to drive the massive beast, sitting on the neck. We bounce around on board this huge creature as he plods along through a bumpy mountain course. Every few minutes we would approach a kind of tree hut with a lady sitting in it selling bags of bananas - elephant food. The elephant would sense the food station and lurch off towards each one. If anyone on board bought a bag, the elephant would throw its trunk back expectantly until you place a banana in it. Then he wuld swallow it whole and throw back his trunk for another one. If he had to wait more than a few seconds he would signal his impatience by blowing a stream of warm elephant snot all over the occupants, especially Jane because she was the closest.

Although it was all a bit touristy, with a lineup of pick-ups like ours full of trekkers waiting for their turn, it was at least authentic, especially compared with the elephant rides you find at zoos or amusement parks. We ride for about 40 minutes, just the right amount of time before it starts to get uncomfortable. The elephants are very surefooted on the steep terrain, with their dinner plate-sized feet and leisurely gait. The only thing we didn't like was when the guide would fire a stone from a slingshot into the elephant's hide to get him moving.

For lunch we stop at the foot of a good-sized waterfall for a bag of fried rice. Me and one of the German guys go climbing around the rocks, which gets a little dodgy at times because the rocks are so slippery, but no damage done. We also practice our slingshot skills, firing rocks across the river.

It's a two-hour hike to our next stop. The countryside is quite varied, through thick jungle, up some steep hills, across rice paddy fields and so on. Every now and then we will see a ramshackle hut and a small field with a lone farmer tending a couple of water buffalo.

We arrive at the village just as the sun is beginning to drop behind the hills. All us tourists are sleeping in a big, wall-less hut with 12 mattresses laid out on a raised platform. The village is very basic, of course. They have no hot water but have recently gained some electricity thanks to a few solar power panels donated by the ever-popular King of Thailand. The people are part of the Karen tribe, so they speak their own language and don't have a lot of contact with mainstream Thailand.

As soon as the sun goes down, the temperature drops dramatically. From shorts and singlet weather during the day, within an hour it is fleece, beanie and see-your-own-breath cold. Dinner is a great feast of delicious, if perhaps a bit conservative, Thai food - rice, noodles, vegetables, etc. Today is Christmas Eve, which is the day that most Europeans celebrate, more than the 25th. Most of our group is European, so they put on some Christmas hats and talk about different Christmas traditions. Sammy caught some kind of fat, bulbous worm larva and roasts it up for us to enjoy at dinner. Jane tries a bit (I wasn't so brave) and says it tastes like bacon.

After dinner, all the children of the village (about 30 of them) come by and we all stand around the campfire to sing. They sing a few Karen language songs and we reply, a little more feebly, with songs from our own countries. The guide announces the country each person comes from and the children all scream, for example "Song from Germany!" I'm introduced as Canadian but I sing a New Zealand song, "Pokare kare ana". It's usually a slow love song but the kids all start clapping in rhythm so it becomes more of a jazz version. Jane, ever the crowd-pleaser, sings "If you're happy and you know it" in Slovak, getting all the kids to mimic her actions. The 'sing-off' continues but we are clearly out-matched by the well-prepared village children and us foreigners struggle to find many songs that we all know the words to.

The kids tootle off to bed leaving the remaining grown-ups - our group, the two guides and this villager they call Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill is a bit eccentric, some previous tourist taught him to say "lovely jubbly", so he wanders around the village saying it over and over. Jun plays a pretty good guitar and has a well-worn songbook so we all have a good old-fashioned campfire singalong.

Sleeping is an interesting experience too. Despite wearing all our clothes, plus the thin sleeping bag and the two blankets provided, it is absolutely bloody freezing overnight. We have no pillows so I roll up a pair of trousers and rest on them, not very satisfactory. The mattresses are pretty thin too; basically everyone had a long, cold, uncomfortable night but it is all part of the experience and no one is really complaining.
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