Trekking in Northern Thailand

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city, but it has a 20 times lower population than the capital Bangkok, giving it a small-town relaxed feeling.

Chiang Mai has many attractions including some beautiful temples and monasteries. We take some time to wander through the old city and enjoy the grandeur of these ornate buildings. Amongst these sites and through the streets we see throngs of western tourists and the occasional sleazy looking old white man with teenage Thai girl on his arm.

Thai's have fully embraced western culture and theres no shortage of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, pubs, entertainment, and endless shopping opportunities. With the ongoing Loi Kratong festival, Chang Mai seems to have a real buzz about it.

Despite the interesting nature of the city we decide to head into the wilds North West of Chang Mai for a couple of days trekking. We organise this through our guest house Eagle 1, who have a good reputation for running trips into these parts. The two day trek costs us 1600B (about GBP22) each which seems to be reasonable value for an all inclusive 2-day tour.

The night before we are due to leave we meet up with our fellow trekkers and guide. There are five lively Irish lasses, a couple from Germany, and our guide is a friendly chap from the Karen tribe, called Bon.

Bon tells us that we will be trekking through a couple of Karen villages, taking a dip in some waterfalls and hot springs, trying out elephant riding, and rafting down a river. It all sounds exciting enough and we look forward to not having to think too much about looking after ourselves for the next couple of days.

We get collected in a Songthaew from our hotel and Bon whisks us off to do the shopping at a local market for dinner that night. While he gets the stuff we laze about chatting in a cafe, sharing travel experiences.

En route to Pong Duet National park we stop off in a roadside cafe for a simple lunch of fried rice and vegetables, followed by fresh pineapple. At the park we follow a short path to find the massive Mok Fa waterfall and plunge pool which Rachel and I take the opportunity to dive in. Theres such a thick mist of water droplets in the air we are soaked before we even get into the bracing water. The 20 metre cascade crashes on our backs and stings like needles, and its impossible not to scream at the sensation of pummeling ice.

A short drive from the waterfall we find some bubbling hot Springs - however the water is 90-100 degrees C on the surface - so not really your classic bathing opportunity. Under the ground the high pressure water is is a 200 degrees C and it flashes off into billowing clouds of steam on the turbulent surface.

From here we set off through primary Thai Jungle to find the village of Mae Manai where we will stay for the night. In the afternoon heat the going is really tough, and I sweat too much as we climb up a ridge. We descend the other side and pass through a little Karen village where there are no roads - just mud tracks that seem to be passable by enthusiastic motorcyclists. We see lots of pigs, chicken, and a few children playing in the village of small wooden huts on stilts. An old man warns Bon that its going to start raining and we better get on our way. Soon enough his prophecy is fulfilled and we are subjected to our second icy shower of the day - this time though I've got my 'dry' clothes on. Although its really cold in the monsoon-like downpour, the rain does make it easier to walk faster. I wish that I had brought a change of clothes with me as I am soon completely soaked. From another high ridge I look our through the driving rain and see a jungle of ethereal pine trees and sparse tall hardwoods.

We arrive in Mae Menai at dusk just as the rain is going off and we clean the mud from our boots at a little stream beside the village. We find our hut which is very basic compared to the eco-lodge we stayed at in Laos, but its certainly fine for one night. The hut is made of wood, on stilts, with a corrugated iron roof and a large veranda. Our beds are raffia mats and a plentiful supply of blankets. Adjoining it is another little hut where there is a cooking hearth and an additional sleeping area.

I put on what dry clothes I have; my only pair of trousers are soaked so I decide to wear them that evening to coax them dry. Bon lights the cooking fires and starts preparing the food for dinner. He confesses that prior to being a kick boxing professional, he was also chef for 2 years before getting into trekking. On the open veranda we watch the moon peek through the clouds intermittently lighting the tree lined hills, and we enjoy a hearty dinner of potato coconut curry, fried vegetables with chillies, and fried spicy chicken.

After dinner Bon magically finds a guitar and songbook and cajoles us to sing songs with him. The Irish girls are quite good singers and belt out a fair few Westlife and Roland Keating songs with gusto. We light a campfire infront of the hut and sit around it in the mild evening air, chatting until midnight.

Despite the hard wooden floor, Rachel and I both sleep well and next morning after a breakfast of toast and eggs we are in top form for an hours walk. Enormous elephant dung piles on the track, and loud unseen noises in the forest give away what we'll see next. We arrive in Pang Mha Kha Elephant camp where there seem to be more than 30 adult Asiatic elephants; some are bathing in the river, others are loading up with passengers; and others are munching in the verdant bush.

I walk close by some that have just come out of the Mae Nam Taeng river and I am amazed by how huge they really are. From a distance they seem manageable, but up close they are truly frightening in scale. Prompted by Bon, Rachel and I climb up a high wooden platform and jump on to a wooden seat strapped to the elephant's back. The mahut jumps on to the elephants huge head and uses his feet on its ears to coax it along.

As we trudge down the riverbank I look behind me and see the most disconcerted look of horror on the German's faces as they struggle to contain the feeling of vertigo. The elephants plod down the river, occasionally crossing parts that must be 6ft deep in order to switch banks. The slow gait of the elephant in the hot morning sunshine is highly soporiphic, and after the initial shock wears off I struggle to keep my eyes open; I see our Mahut has fallen asleep, lying over our elephants broad head with his legs around its neck.

After a while we arrive at Sop Kai, a sleepy little village of wooden huts where we see Bon at work busily making two bamboo rafts with his brother and two hired helpers from the Shan people who live there. He informs us that these rafts will carry us down the river for a couple of hours to where lunch and our transport home is awaiting.

It takes the four lads about an hour to make the two rafts, which each consist of 15 long bamboo poles lashed together with tree bark, using about 5 cross pieces of bamboo to hold the longitudinal poles together. One raft looks muck weaker and less bouyant than the other, so the 5 Irish girls and Rachel get on the good one leaving me and the German couple on the 'non-preferred' one. The two local boys, who apparently know what they are doing when it comes to rafts, jump on the front, armed with a single bamboo pole for steering, whilst Bon and his brother take the aft positions.

Rafting preconceptions were that this would be a completely sedate experience akin to punting on the river Cam, the only inkling otherwise is the plastic bags that Bon has given our for putting belongings in, lifejackets, and advice that we should wear swimming gear.

We set off down the river feeling a little unsteady as we have to stand upright with water seeping through the bottom of the raft and nothing to hold onto above. The young lad on the front of our raft barks out steering orders to Bon's brother as we go through some mild rapids. We approach a really fast flowing part of the river where the stream divides left and right of a huge boulder, and our man at the fore yells indecipherable orders in excitment. Just at the worst possible moment, his pole snaps in half and our raft hits the big boulder hard. Somehow the front goes down the left branch and the rear ends up on the right branch of the fast moving flow. In slow motion, the raft starts to fold itself around the rock and we hear a lound creaking sound as the bamboo poles start to snap. We all scramble up to the safety of the rock. The German girl is struggling to climb up and we heave and haul her to safety. Her face tells me that this has gone beyond fun. Just as we are all climbing onto the rock, Rachel's raft comes round the corner and she is shocked to see we have wrecked our raft within about 15 minutes of starting. Fortunately their driver is able to drop the girls off on the bank, and brings his raft skillfully down the river to rescue us up from the back side of the island we are stranded on.

Surveying the shipwreck from the riverbank, the four boys dive in, find footholes, and start trying to heave the raft off the rock. Unfortunately the current is really strong and pushes the raft back, so reinforcements are requested. Mark (the German boy) and I nervously dive in upstream and grab hold of Bon's arm as we sweep past the wreck. With six of us now on the rock, I decide that we need to slide it round the rock rather than try to push it off the rock. After about 5 minutes the raft starts to move in the way we want and we all dive on as the current takes grip and pulls us safely round the right hand side.

Back on the bank there is congratulations from the girls for recovering the raft, and we decide that we can still use it, because even though it is folded, its still joined together - articulation of the bamboo will be perhaps a little less stable. It also means that some of the bamboo cells are burst so it will be less bouyant. Pushing further down the river we have a lot of fun as much of the time the raft appears to be completely submerged and it feels like it will capsize every time we enter rapids.

Soon our destination looms around the corner and with sadness we leave behind the little bamboo creation. Never has punting been such fun before. For about a week afterwards my shoulder aches from pushing the raft off the rocks.
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Comments

mike
mike on

Writing talent
You two are becoming quite the little author couple.
Bloody hell, I thought my vocabulary was reasonable
up-to-spec, but soporiphic is definitely a new
addition to said vocabulary. How do you find time
between all these near-death [;)] experiences to write
these lenghty (no negative connotation implied) essays.
Quite an enjoyable read, although I have to say I find
it hard to make time to read them (no internet at home,
and at work a certain feeling of guilt creeps up on me). Any thoughts on publishing it after you get back?

Half of Europe seems to be trekking down there with all the Swedes, Germans, Dutch and Irish you've been bumping into!!!

Anyways, John, I was quite impressed how you cleverly managed to convey that you are not an sleazy looking old white man [which, though true, doesn't quite mean
we can drop _all_ those adjectives ;)]. I'll leave
the problem of figuring which adjectives do or do not
apply as an exercise (and possible opening for a
lengthy discussion) to the reader.

Anyways, things in Bedford are as they always are:
birthdays, leaving-do's, games, etc.

Ok, back to work! Mike

mike
mike on

Re: Writing talent
He! Why can't I go back and edit my message?

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