Gary and Sarah Girotti/Jones|
Southeast Asia, here we come!
Trekking in Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai is an old walled city in northern Thailand, and the most popular jumping off point for trekking around the local mountains to visit the regions hilltribes people.. We made plans to meet up with two of Gary's friends, Steve (from MBA) and his wife Claudia for a trekking adventure of our own!
We were looking to find a tour that was a little more unique than the standard three day/two night look at the funny people in the villages and ride elephants package. We finally found a tour operator that promised us a "100 pecent non-touristic adventure", complete with a money-back guarantee if we ran into other westerners. The itinerary included a lot of trekking, visits to "hidden waterfalls and secret caves", and no less than six means of transportation (no one else offered tractor rides!) We signed on for four days--no turning back now!!
Day One--Hidden Falls and Rooster Calls
We spent most of the early morning figuring out how to get four days worth of clothes into one small backpack--mission accomplished by packing only one pair of pants (with zip-off legs) and two shirts each, plus hikers and tevas. We may live to regret this after four days of trekking!!
Our Suzuki Jeep was waiting for us--all four of us, plus our driver. For those of you who are unfamiliar, these vehicles are designed for four people, and we were picking up our guide on the way!! No bother, though--Gary and the driver sat in the front, and Sarah, Claudia, and Steve shared the two seats in the back. Perfect fit...at this point...
We drove about an hour to a small village, where we stopped to retrieve our guide. Mr. O is a small and wiry Thai, about 35 years old, wearing his village's traditional outfit--long, loose-fitting pants with the crotch extended to the knees, a white tank top (a "wife beater" for those of you who watch Married With Children), flip-flopps and a large colorful shoulder bag. That was all he had for 4 days, he knows how to pack!!. He speaks English fairly well, and is very quick to smile...seems like a good match!! It's a good thing that Mr. O is small--he rode behind the back seat of the jeep!
We arrived at a reservoir and boarded a long-tail boat with Mr. O, a boat driver, and two others--our cook and our porter. Mr. O said that our porter was there to "carry us", which we thought would be lovely, but he corrected himself to say that the porter would be carrying supplies for us. Bummer!
The long tail boat zipped across the reservoir, finally pulling alongside five floating bamboo huts, all tied together--home for the night. We piled out and explored our surroundings, which took about, hmmm...30 seconds. One porch/dock/dining room, four rooms with beds in them, and a bathroom in the back. Perfect!
Mission for the afternoon: hike to a "hidden cave" and a "secret waterfall". The cave was up a steep hill, nestled in and well-obscured. I'm not sure who was more startled when we arrived--the bats that live there, or us, when the bats scattered! We only made it as far as the second chamber--common sense (or irrational fear) prevailed, so we headed back down the trail, headed for the "secret waterfall".
Secret, indeed---so secret, in fact, that our guide couldn't even find it!! The trail disappeared about 1/2 hour into the hike, so one of the guides brandished a machete and started hacking away. An hour and a half and a lot of dead trees/bushes later, we turned back, figuring that we should try to make it back to the huts before dark, and in one piece. A great hike, and good comedy overall :o)
We taught Steve and Claudia to play crib, and the guys with the jet ski at the next hut supplied us with Tiger beers from across the lake. Almost perfect--away from it all--except for the blasted karaoke coming from a hut on the other side of the lake--is there no escape???? The good news is, however, that the karaoke drowned out the rooster that seems to have followed us from Vietnam :o)
Day Two--Weapons for hiking??
We awoke early (to the calling of a rooster, of course), and jumped in the lake for a quick rinse before a day of hiking. Our boat took us to a tractor (actually, a large roto-tiller with a 2 wheel tumbler attached to the back), and we piled in the back to begin our journey--destination: Akha Village before nightfall.
The tractor bounced down both farm paths and highways to one of the Lisu villages, where we shared lunch of noodles and pork. The children were very curious, and danced around us as we strolled through the village. Most of the people were in the traditional garb--brightly colored clothing that is made by the women in the village.
Our contingent is growing--two local men joined our group, hired by Mr. O to "carry the ladies' bags". Chivalry is not dead--no complaints here! So, then, we had our local guide, touting a machete, Mr. O, two local guys carrying our bags, our cook, and our porter, who was carrying a gun (a GUN??). Six of them, four of us...the odds seem good that we'll make it!!
Our hike took us down a well-trodden path for a few hours, past farmer's huts and orchards, as well as over streams (and through them at times). A dead bobcat on the side of the trail led justification to them carrying a shotgun!
The trail narrowed and got quite steep a few hours into the hike, and then disappeared (seems to be an ongoing pattern!) Not to worry, however--they fashioned us walking sticks out of bamboo, and started cutting away with the machete. [We are, at this point, recalling the "hike to nowhere" of the day before, and wondering whether we will make it to our destination, or have to turn back...]
The Akha people make their villages in the mountains, as evidenced by the 2500 vertical feet we climbed through the course of the day. The trail reappeared about an hour before we reached the village...well trodden by the cows that put themselves out to pasture each day. The views from the ridge we were hiking were spectacular (the best being the sight of the village after our long day, haha!)
We were greeted by the head of the village, who hustled us up to his "guesthouse". Unfortunately the guesthouse was already inhabited...by a huge swarm of bees (he raises them). Although Mr. O assured us that they are "nice bees that sleep at night", we gracefully asked for other sleeping quarters.
Mr. O asked around, and eventually showed us to one of the houses in the village--the occupants were quite willing to sleep with their neighbors and allow us to have their house for the night. The house was on stilts, with a full-fledged barn underneath (roosters, chickens, dogs, pigs...) There was one room, with bamboo floors and a cooking pot in the middle. No running water, no electicity, no other rooms. Our cooks set about making us dinner over the open flame (keep in mind this is an all-wooden house), which was delicious, and then left us to get some well-deserved sleep...easier said than done, of course, with pigs snarfing, dogs barking, and chickens clucking!
Day Three--Elephants and Spiders
We woke on day three, sore from sleeping on the bamboo floor and grumpy due to the early hour (the pigs outdid the rooster this time), but ready to tackle another adventure. After a delicious breakfast, cooked again in the house, we set out for a straight vertical hike, led by Mr. O, who has apparently decided that he's a sprinter. Up, up, up...down, down, down...up, down...isn't there a more direct route?? It was a great hike, but I'm sure we'll be feeling the effects of this one for a while!
We arrived at a very small village ("I recently had the whole place carpeted!"--Arthur), and boarded our elephants. Stephen and Claudia climbed aboard Carol, a juvenile that was quite fond of eating everything in sight. Juan, Gary and Sarah's elephant, was the largest elephant any of us had ever seen, and fond of (how to say delicately) getting rid of what he had eaten earlier in the day. Claudia and Steve were riding behind us, and were amazed!! Juan is also the work elephant, as evidenced by his tearing down large limbs off of trees at the driver's command. We're still not sure whether he was working or showing off, but it was impressive nonetheless.
Dismounting an elephant is not as easy as one might think. We arrived in one of the Karen villages for a late lunch. All the children (and most of the adults) gathered around to watch the show. We saw the elephant-dismounting platforms...no sweat, right?? We walked past the platform, however, and all of a sudden Juan listed to one side and headed for the ground. Visions of headlines flashed through our heads: "TOURISTS KILLED BY ELEPHANT ROLL-OVER"--what an unseemly ending that would be! We should have faith, though--Juan was simply lying down so that we could dismount over his ears...what a guy. Stephen and Claudia were killing themselves laughing at our faces--we must have looked horrified!
After lunch in a local home (with many children gawking), we set out for another village to sleep for the night. Mr. O warned us on our hike that this village never sees tourists, and they are not very progressive. Isn't that an understatement!! The Karen village that we stayed in has about 60 people, and is unique in that the villagers are Catholic (a missionary found his way there a few years back). It was like stepping back in time---no electricity (read: no karaoke!) and no running water (anywhere), and when we asked about the toilet, Mr. O laughed, pointed to the nearby stream and said "pick any tree you want". No shit! (pardon the pun). But the villagers were seemingly very happy and were very friendly people :o)
Dinner warrants special mention, but a warning: this is not for the squeamish (AKA Bethie). Upon arrival in the village, Mr. O shows us the local delicacy--tarantula. Apparently the locals know how much he likes them, so they catch a few for his eating pleasure when he comes by. He speared one, right through the guts, roasted it, and then...turn away...ate it--WHOLE!! Just insane. And to add to the madness, the cook was chowing on the egg sack and ant larvae. Fortunately for us, there wasn't enough to go around, so we were spared :o)
Day Four--Homeward Bound!
OK, we're not as young as we hoped we were...day four was a little on the painful side getting up...especially after sleeping on the floor of a hut for the night. Fortunately it was a short hike to our Suzuki Jeep. For those of you who aren't keeping track, we now number 8, and are about to cram into a jeep built for four. Again, agility is paramount: the cook and porter folded themselves up in the non-existent trunk, Mr. O, Stephen and Claudia shared the two-person back seat, and Gary and Sarah piled in the front with the driver (praying for no sudden stops!)
We went first to a cave, which was just amazing. A guide toting a kerosene lantern took us through the labyrinth of chambers, each more grandiose than the one before. Some tight squeezes between the chambers made for good laughs! We explored only about 800 meters in, but the cave actually extends for miles.
Bamboo rafting was the final item on our agenda before heading back to Chiang Mai. We had lunch near the rafting spot, and then clambored on a raft fashioned out of--what else--bamboo. We were really looking forward to hitting some rapids, perhaps swimming alongside the raft...until we realized that we were actually floating down a sewer! Now the priority shifted to doing everything humanly possible to avoid contact with the water. One and a half hours, precariously balanced on a bench of bamboo--next time I think we'll pass!
We parted company with Mr. O after the rafting, assuring him that we had a great time. Trekking with him was a great experience, one that we'd certainly repeat if given the opportunity!