My mid-twenties birthday found me in the middle of a jungle at the border of Burma and Thailand. I did have a celebratory party with native monkeys and various vermin – just a girl and a backpack trying to forget about passing birthdays. Gning and Gnung, my two Thai tour guides, warned me about the "tiny buffalo", or what the hill tribes termed the tiny beasts one must grapple with in order to get from place to place; the masses of slimy black jungle leeches. “I’ve done worse”, I thought, packing my bag without concern. I had arrived in town by bus, only an hour later had signed my life over to a hefty fifteen-hour jungle trek to a Karen hill tribe settlement at the next crack of dawn. For two nights, we would be sleeping in bamboo huts, walking with bamboo sticks, and eating, you guessed it – bamboo. There would even be a chance of monkey-spotting! All of that must surely make up for a small parasite problem, right?
The slippery mud paths on which we walked (or rather slid), were forged by the Karen hill tribes of northern Thailand; the only mode of transport for these people to the nearest town. Walking was tedious. We could spot the tiny buffalo in the path, heads stuck in the mud, tails waggling out in wait for the next sandal to snag onto. We were forced to stop every two minutes to pick them out of our shoes and fling them off into the jungle. Dousing my feet heavily with Deet spray, I hoped the beasts would be inclined to move on to a tastier tourist, but nothing helped, not even boots, which only make it harder to spot the buggers. The only solution is to perpetually pick and fling before they settle in your sole and "make party in shoe" exclaimed Gnung the tour guide, who thought the screaming and cussing tourists were really hilarious.
Hours later, we were in the Karen village, taking in two of the many forms of jungle entertainment; watching the arduous process of rice grinding for our dinner, and gathering around a makeshift stove unwinding to a villager playing Thai songs with an old beat up guitar.
If you scan a newspaper, you might find a tiny section about the current situation in Burma (Myanmar). I assure you, it is front page news in the Bangkok Post. The interesting story about the Karen people is that this isn't their original home. They are refugees from Burma (this settlement was in Mae Hong Son, a few miles from the border). Growing meager rice paddies on a jungle mountaintop was their only hope of escape from the Burmese Government, who was killing them and stealing their land.
The Thai Government is tolerant of the refugees for now, as long as they stick to their mountaintops and do not leave without permission. Indeed, every bus I rode had police checkpoints for the military to ensure that each passenger was legal. My Ohio Driver's License was enough to show them that I was not a Burmese refugee. "Welcome to five-star hotel" exclaimed Gnung, laughing again. The amenities of the “home” included one water spout, a shower (a rubber hose running from said spout into a straw covered outhouse), complete with swampy mud floor and squatter toilet. For sleeping, there were straw mats with mosquito nets that are brought out only for tourists. At night, if you find that sleep doesn’t come, you can stay up and be serenaded by a chorus of monkeys singing and swinging in the treetops. And if sleep STILL doesn't come, you can always wait until dawn when the roosters insist upon squawking their rooster heads off every two minutes until everyone in the house is tossing about, scratching their heads and wondering why the heck they signed up for this.
And now, safely out of the jungle, I realize why I signed up – it makes for great storytelling. And that's what it's all about.