The Highlands of Thailand!

Trip Start Jan 22, 2010
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Where I stayed
Litte Bird Guest House

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wow where do I even begin? I just had the most incredible 5 days. I don't even know how I am going to be able to begin to illustrate the amazing time I had, but I will try. Let’s just say it is what I like to call "impromptu trekking"! I am going to break it down day by day, but first a little background information:

The Karen hilltribe people migrated from Burma into Thailand in the 17th century. When they first arrived in Thailand, they could not live in the cities because they lacked legal immigration cards, so they settled in the mountainous jungle, mostly in the north of Thailand. They are the largest hilltribe group in Thailand, making up about 50% of the hilltribe people. Their main crop is rice, but most families have their own pigs, chickens, and other farm animals for food. They lack most material possessions, but are extremely happy. The villages usually consist of about 25 wooden houses on stilts, usually ranging from about 400-800 square feet. You always remove your shoes before entering someone’s house (and in fact, this is true all over Thailand and in many hostels even you have to take your shoes off). The floor is made of wooden planks, many parts covered in bamboo mats. In the corner is the “kitchen” which is a square hole, about a foot deeper than the floor, covered in dirt. To cook, they start a wood fire in a clay pot-shaped contraption, and place an iron pot or pan on top of the clay thing. There are no chairs and you sit on the floor. Some houses have a separate room where the “bed” is, which is a thin mattress on the floor. Others, the mattress is in the corner. Okay, now on to the trekking adventure!

Day 1: I get up early and go to the place where I booked to tour to meet Greg, my trekking companion and new friend, and Tom, our guide for the trek (although I doubt that is his real name). Tom is a native Karen hilltribesman and appears friendly and ready to show us a good time in the jungle! So we hop in a truck and drive for about an hour to his home village. We meet Tom’s mother and sister, who are busily weaving scarves and shirts to sell to tourists passing through. This is where we begin walking. We hike for about an hour until we come across 3 villagers fishing in the river. Tom yells over to them and they invite us to come hang out for a bit. (As we later discover, Tom knows everyone in the jungle and considers them all family.) These men just caught 5 little fish using a net and have a small fire going. They generously share the bbq’ed fish with us, which taste delicious, and invite us to try a Thai jungle cigarette, which is tobacco mixed with tamarind, rolled in banana leaf. (When in Rome, right?) I timidly inhale, surprised to find out that it is actually quite tasty and not too strong. Apparently the tamarind acts as a sort of weakening substance for the tobacco. After laughing and hanging out for a little while, we get on our way. After about another hour we reach a beautiful waterfall, where we decide to go for a shower and a swim. The water is cool and refreshing, as the sun is very hot! Then we hike for a bit more and eventually reach where we are staying. It is a little cluster of about 6 huts on stilts with mattresses and a mosquito net in each one. One of Tom’s friends is already there cooking dinner. We eat a delicious meal and then spend the evening sitting around the campfire, singing songs, dancing around the fire, and drinking moonshine (jungle whiskey!). As we will soon find out, our guide Tom is quite the alcoholic.

Day 2: We get up at our leisure, around 8:30 or 9:00, and Tom is the last one up (see last sentence from Day 1 ha ha). While waiting for Tom to wake up, I decide to take a quick dip in the river. I walk a little ways downriver in search for the perfect swimming hole and jump in. After about 2 minutes, I look up, and there is a herd of about 5 buffalos staring intently at me from the other side of the river. A little spooked, I convince myself that the buffalos cannot cross the river. My naivety could not have been more pronounced, as these were in fact water buffalos! They start to wade in the river, never taking their eyes off me, and head in my direction!  When they are about 15 feet away, I freak out, grab my shoes, and take off running barefoot through the jungle. Out of sight out of mind for the buffalos, and I wasn’t bothered again. When I get back to camp, Tom’s friend had cooked us a “western breakfast” of toast, butter, eggs, coffee, and fruit. After breakfast, we are on our way. We hike a lot today, stopping only for lunch, which is a delicious meal of noodles, tofu and veggies. We used huge leaves for bowls and bamboo for chopsticks! Around 4:30 after a somewhat strenuous uphill hike, we arrive at the top of a hill, with breathtaking 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. An adorable family lives up here: mother, father, and cute kid about 3 years old. This family has about 4 huts, similar to the ones we stayed in the night before, to host tourists, but they said they had not seen a tourist in over 6 months. We drop our stuff off in the huts, and then take off with Tom to a nearby fruit orchard. When we get there, there is a party going on. There are about 12 people eating, drinking, and dancing. They invite us to sit and give us food and homemade wine made from the juice of the citrus fruit they grow. They also give us these little oranges that you are supposed to eat whole (about the size of a big grape), that taste incredibly sour but delicious all the same (think nature’s orange flavored sour patch kid). We drink and dance with these lovely people until the sun goes down, about two hours. They try to get us to stay longer, but it is getting dark, so we catch a ride to a nearby village with the owner of the orchard (even though we are in the jungle, there are dirt roads connecting everything, so it is not uncommon to see vehicles, although most of them are motorbikes (which we had the pleasure of experiencing firsthand on the fourth day, but more on that later!). The village is really cute, full of wooden houses on stilts, clothes hanging to dry, kids running around, roosters cuckooing, dogs barking, little baby chicks waddling after their mothers (this village scene, we come to find out is pretty standard, and we visited several more of these in the next couple of days). Tom takes us to another of his family member’s house (we never did find out if these people were really family or friends or what). We walk in and a mother and her son (I’m guessing 8 years old) are eating dinner. The woman offers us food, which is delicious of course, and we take turns taking shots of the moonshine. Before long, Tom is drunk again and says it is time to go. By this time it is very dark out, and none of us have a flashlight with us. So he lights a piece of wood on fire and uses it as a torch. We follow Tom out of the village and back into the jungle. Tom is stumbling and nearly lights everything we pass on fire. Luckily, after about 15 minutes of walking, we arrive back at the top of the hill where the family lives whom we are staying with. They have cooked us dinner as well and are waiting for us to get back, so we eat a third dinner for the night! After, we sit around the fire and play a bongo drum and hang out with the family and their cute son. Ahhhh, another fine day in the jungle!  Can’t wait to see what is in store for tomorrow!

Day 3: We wake up to another “western breakfast”, courtesy of the mother. She has laid homemade jewelry and scarves on the table for us, hoping we will buy something. I pick out a necklace made of string, wooden beads, and a little elephant carved out of coconut and pay her more than she asks for it. Tom tells us he has to go meet a friend somewhere and that someone else will be taking us hiking to the next village. Okay, whatever goes! This is Thailand! So we get a new guide for the day and begin trekking. 2.5 hours straight uphill! Steep steep! Finally we get to the top of a mountain and it is beautiful. There we have another delicious lunch of noodles and veggies in a leaf bowl with bamboo chopsticks. Then the guide turns to us and says “nap time”! So we all find a comfortable spot on a rock and pass out for about 45 minutes. Then it is go time again! After about 2 hours of straight downhill hiking we arrive at another village. Our guide takes us to a family’s house, where we take off our shoes and head inside. This is where we will stay the night, this time inside their house and not in a little hut like the previous two nights. A father and his son (about 17 years old I think) get started on dinner. I look over and see a plethora of delicious veggies – acorn squash, onion, cabbage, tomato, cauliflower… this is going to be good! Once they are done cooking they call us over to eat. It is customary here for your guests to eat first and then you eat, so Greg and I sit down to eat first. Best meal yet! One dish is acorn squash, small sweet onions, and egg, another is cabbage, tomato, and pork, and another is cauliflower, onion, and these little delicious meatballs. All bursting with delicious flavor. As we are finishing dinner, the mother of the house comes in and starts making dinner for the family. The father walks in carrying something – I look over and it is a dead squirrel he had just caught!! I say, 'Are you going to eat that?' 'Of course!' So he gives it to the mother, who chops it up and tosses it in a stew, head and all! When it is done cooking, the family gathers round to eat and a couple more people come in, I’m guessing brothers. They invite us over to try the squirrel stew and of course we accept. My first bite is weird because it is full of bones and not a lot of meat. I don’t even want to think about what part of the squirrel that was. But then the mother gets a leg and starts ripping off the meat and handing it to us. That part is good, tasting like a sweeter, more flavorful chicken. After dinner, the family starts a fire in the cooking pit and we all sit around it, drinking moonshine and smoking banana leaf cigarettes. The mother puts something in her mouth that turns her teeth brown – called betel nut, which is a natural stimulant. Many village women have stained teeth from years of chewing betel nut. One look at her teeth and I decide that betel nut is not something I will be trying! Anyways, Tom (our guide) stumbles in around 8pm, drunk and carrying a dead chicken in a plastic bag with the feet sticking out the top. “Let’s bbq!” he says. So the father of the house chops up the chicken and grills it up and we eat yet again. We sit around the fire for a couple more hours drinking and laughing and then go to bed.

Day 4: We wake up to the familiar sound of roosters, pigs, dogs, and children. After another western breakfast, Tom tells us he wants to take us to “highest mountain” but “walking no good” so we hop on two motor bikes. I am on Tom’s and Greg is on the father’s. And Mom, you’ll be happy to know that I demanded a helmet! We drive for about an hour through the mountains, with breathtaking views of the whole mountain range, and arrive at the “highest mountain”, which houses two gold stupas built for the king and queen, in 1987 and 1992 respectively. They are beautiful and surrounded by gardens filled with ponds, flowers, and statues. Afterwards, we take the motor bikes into the jungle, driving on hiking paths! To keep my mind from getting scared, I start singing “Everybody was jungle driving (~kung fu fighting~)!” Then we hop on some elephants and ride the elephants for a little while until our butts hurt and we ask to get off. We meet back up with Tom, who is busy drinking of course and then hop back on the motor bikes in the middle of the jungle. Tom turns to me and says “whiskey driving!” and takes off. Uh oh I think, this should be interesting. But alas, he gets me back to the village safe and sound. We tell him we are filthy and want to go swimming, so he takes us to a waterfall and we shower there. Then we head to another village, where we run into the first tourists we have seen the entire time in the jungle. There are two Swiss guys, a French couple, and a British couple, between 18 and 30 years old. A couple of them are playing volleyball with the local kids and the rest are just hanging out in our “hotel”. Our hotel is a wooden hut with one room and mattresses scattering the floor. The villagers there prepare us a delicious meal of a pumpkin dish and a chicken green bean dish. They, of course, made something different for themselves which Tom tells me to come over and try. It is absolutely delicious. A spicy eggplant concoction. After dinner, we drink, sing, dance, and play games around the fire (they have cold beer here). Then we sleep.

Day 5: When we wake up Tom is nowhere to be found. He ditched us again! So we take off with the other tourists’ guide and hike for only about thirty minutes to hang out at a massive waterfall for about an hour. Then Tom comes back with a truck and we all hop in and head to the place where we will be bamboo rafting. We hop on, four to a raft and take off for a leisurely ride down the river. After about an hour we get off the rafts, back in the truck, and head back to Chiang Mai. Tom, who no longer has any obligation to us whatsoever, invites me and Greg to dinner. He picks us up at Greg’s hotel and all three of us pile on his motor bike and head to an authentic Thai buffet. We are the only white people there. In the center of each table is a hot pot type of thing, where you make soup around the outside and grill stuff in the center. The buffet has a plethora of raw meat and seafood and veggies. I happily gorged myself with this tasty food. After dinner, we head to a bar, where I beat Tom at pool several times and then we head back to the live reggae bar I went to my first night in Chiang Mai. There we dance the night away!  It was a blast!! At the end of the night I hand Tom 1000 baht (about $30) as a tip and he tries to give it back. “No no this too much!  This no make me happy in my heart. We are family now!” After some prodding I get him to accept the money with the stipulation that he buys my beer for the rest of the night. Okay deal! He tells me tomorrow is his day off and he wants to take me around Chiang Mai. I agree to call him tomorrow and head back to my hostel for some much needed sleep! What an incredible adventure!
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Comments

Jeff on

Recipe for Kim's jungle adventure:
- 1 part awesomeness
- 2 more parts awesomeness

Melinda on

Oh my goodness it sounds like you are having the time of your life! I will have to try a banana leaf cigarette at some point in my life. Kim, you are a rock star - keep on keeping on!

Melinda on

Also, I am super jealous of your dance parties - I should have been there!!! :)

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