Werlins and the King of Siam Part Two
Chiang-mai has become a hub for travelers in and out of Thailand. It is on the southern edge of the Thailand mountainous area and the southern end of the Golden Triangle. For those non-thriller readers, that is the world’s #1 opium area covering Eastern Burma, Southern Laos and Northern Thailand. The hill tribes are a combination of Thai people and various refugee tribes from Burma and other surrounding countries. There is a rather severe disagreement between the Burmese and the Thais right now, exacerbated by the fact that a major newspaper in Burma had some fairly derogatory things to say about the King of Thailand. One of the first things you learn in Thailand is to make no disparaging remarks about the King or the Royal Family. Such a transgression will at best give you a one-way ticket out of the country and on the ugly side, a stay in a Thailand pokey. Our guide said simply the Thais want to go to war with the Burmese. A comforting thought for me during the long slogs through the jungle.
Chiang-mai is the second largest city in Thailand, now around 1.5 million people. The old city, surrounded by a moat and crumbling brick fortress wall, is now home to dozens of small inns and hotels catering to foreign trekkers/hikers/backpackers/tourists et al. Most of the reception areas/hotel dining areas are open air with slowly rotating fans and accessible one step off the street.
We arrived and had our trek information meeting with “Jackie”, our main guide for the next couple of days. He was a Thai boxer in his youth but had to give that up when his motorcycle hit a car at about 150 kilometers an hour. He mentioned he doesn’t speak quite as well as he used to and the scars are relatively scary. He actually was a member of the third hill tribe we visited although his actual family lived south of Chiang-mai.
We piled into the most common form of taxi, the pick-up with canvas top again and drove northeast for just about two hours toward the Laos border. Off the paved road onto a very rutted dirt road for half hour or so and into a small village at the base of some very green and relatively large mountains. A quick lunch and onto the small one-person track leading toward the “big green”. Day 1 had us trekking for 2.5 hours, day 2 for almost 5 hours and a mere 1.5 hours on day 3. Piece of cake. The trekking however was not a walk through Tilden park or over to Silver Dollar Lake. This was through true jungle. Barely distinguishable paths, vines and creepers; think of an irradiated greenhouse with all the plants growing wildly and massively and you’re close. The air was extremely humid and heavy and as we were on the jungle floor, no wind was present to stir the air. I, for one, broke out in instant sweat and pretty much stayed that way for 3 days. Not a pretty thought is it?
Each night we bunked at a different hill tribe village. These grass-roofed, bamboo-sided lodges are up on stilts to provide airflow underneath for ventilation and cooling. Also I think to help keep undesirable creatures from sharing your pillow. All of us stayed in the same hut. Our actual trekking group was two UNESCO ladies from the Basque area of Spain, a young lady from Italy, Olivier from la belle France and Kerin, a photographer from Australia. Quite an international group!
We slept on the floor of the lodge which was bamboo matting laid over boards. We did get a cotton bale the shape and consistency of a large, full Kleenex box for a pillow so it wasn’t entirely roughing it. Oddly enough, you got used to it. I never quite jumped up in the morning; more like an air mattress slowing filling up. But no real backaches or long-lasting muscle pains.
The earth is primarily reddish-brown in color. But it made for an interesting color contrast with all the shades of green. And when it gets wet, it’s about like trying to hold a grip on a slope covered in 90-weight gear oil. I believe Jessie and I hold the individual records for most butt-checks on the down-slopes. You are literally walking through dense jungle. As we reached the top of the mountains, there would be the occasional big fir/pine. But for the most part, it is a National Geographic jungle.
The tribes live in exactly the same type lodges. Except the men and women have segregated rooms. Polygamy is the order of the day. Men live to an average age of 75; women 65. Mostly because the women do all the hard work while the men occasionally hunt and frequently smoke opium. Interesting social theory. The animals live in pens below the house; cows, pigs and chickens were the favorites. Absolutely no electricity, running water other than the local stream or any other amenities.
After the big trek on Day 2, we jumped on our second elephant and pounded off through the jungle for another hour or so to the last village of the trip. After we reached the village, had a few beers and had a dunk in the small creek, Jackie felt it was OK to mention that the elephant Jake and I rode had killed a couple of people several years ago. Some sort of non-verbal disagreement twixt man and beast I guess. At that point I felt no need to protest or otherwise. Life and death among the hill people is taken a bit more practically and matter-of-factly than other places we’ve been.
Day 3 ended with a float on bamboo rafts. 10-12 four-inch diameter bamboo shafts, each one maybe 15 ft. long and lashed together with rattan. We had one boatman per raft who poled us down the river. Jake, Jessie and I took turns providing additional poling power through a pretty good rainstorm and in spite of our companions trying to swamp us. We jumped in our favorite pickup-surrey, hustled back to Chiang-mai, showered and man did that feel great, and caught a flight back to Bangkok.
Jake and Jessie both had the same fifth grade teacher, the erstwhile Mr. Weekes, who met us in Bangkok for dinner that night. He’s a classic traveling Brit who bums around every summer vacation exploring new lands and peoples. Really quite an interesting guy and the kids think he’s great.
It was a fantastic trip. Certainly not a standard beach vacation. I can easily say I came back more tired than when I left but it was well worth the wet, humidity, leeches, bugs and so on. Thailand is a wonderful place. Put it on your list, top 5 for sure.