Chapter 36: Hoofing it and puffing it

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Where I stayed
Nylon Hotel

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Monday, April 26, 2004

The Pai-bound minibus picked me up at 10am on Friday the 16th from Kristi guesthouse, and the twisty/turny 3-hour ride was scenic (mountains, jungles, villages) and fun. During the drive I met Jonas, a super-friendly and laid-back 23 year old guy from Stuttgart (Germany), and Christian, a similarly cool 56 year old from Switzerland. Pai is a chill hill town that's well-known as a backpackers' retreat of sorts, and it's full of guest houses and restaurants and tour companies, but it was obvious from the lack of other tourists that we were in the low season. Jonas and I found a room to share in central Pai at Charlie's Guesthouse; the room was in the "Romantic House" - ironic given that he's straight.

Christian and Jonas were both interested in doing a 3-day/2-night trek into the hills, and I was willing to be persuaded, so that afternoon and evening we asked around for information at a few operations. We also needed to figure out how Christian and I would obtain our Laos Visas in time to cross the border in a few days, so we spent considerable time questioning various "travel agencies." That evening we met a solo 27 year old English traveller named Gavin, and he was keen on trekking as well, so we had a group of four (the usual minimum for a trip), and the next day our little group signed up with a small independent company for a 3-day hike in the hills starting Sunday morning. The trip included sleeping bags and backpacks, places to sleep at night (one night in a village, and one night in the jungle), and all of our food. We'd hopefully see exciting wildlife and interact with hill-tribe villagers, and I was promised that any snakes we came across would be left alive.

Saturday was a pretty quiet day. Jonas and I walked around the outskirts of Pai for a few hours, and during the course of conversation we realized we'd seen each other in Myanmar! We both stayed at the Nylon Hotel in Mandalay and had crossed paths in the lobby but not spoken. Anyway, it was nice to be able to compare stories and impressions of Myanmar; we both concluded that it was an amazing (if quirky) place.

That afternoon we all took care of business. We sorted out the trekking plan, packed our Thai military-issue rucksacks (with some clothes, first aid stuff, and toiletries), tried to get stuff done online, and Kristian and I sent our passports to Bangkok with the PM Travel Agency to get 30-day visas from the Laos Embassy. In theory the company would send our passports to Chiang Khong on the Thai/Laos border, where we could pick them up in a few days. After dinner at a nice French(-ish) restaurant called Swan, the four of us hung out on Christian's bungalow's porch drinking beer and listening to tunes from my i-Pod. I was more relaxed than I'd been in a while, because I had a good feeling about the trek and my new friends, and it was nice to have a plan for once.

On Sunday morning we ran around buying last minute supplies (like pens and pads to give to village kids), and then we stashed our backpacks with the trekking company. Next we met up with Chart, our guide for the next three days. He was a 30 year old from the area who knew the villages and terrain very well, and he seemed like a cool guy. We all piled into the company's sawngthaew and drove for about 1/2 hour into the hills, and then the truck dropped us off at the side of the road in (or near) a National Park. We divided the food that needed to be carried, strapped on our packs, and set off into the woods. At first the going was easy - thin, dry forest without too much heat. After 1/2 hour, though, the walk quickly became grueling as the track became steep and treacherous due to the loose soil and leaves, and the sun rose higher.

One hour in we rested in a small Black Lahu village for a few minutes, but there was no one home except an old lady who hid in her hut. After another hour of up & down hiking we reached our lunch spot at a Red Lahu village which was larger and livelier. While Chart prepared our food (pork & veggies with rice), two village children led us down a path to a nearby swimming hole. Parts of the forest are cleared annually via fire prior to the rainy season, so throughout our trek there were intermittent patches of smoking ash to walk around or over or next to. This path led over one such smouldering pile on a precarious series of logs and planks; the kids just ran through the ash in flip-flops without a care, but I missed one step, ended up with a shoe full of (thankfully cool) ash, and learned to be more careful. The swimming hole was pretty idyllic, with a nice little waterfall, but it was packed with village kids, so Jonas and I just sat on the rocks and cooled our feet in the water. Gavin (who'd been having a particularly hard time adjusting to the hiking) and Christian jumped right in and splashed around.

Our walk resumed after lunch, and after 5 minutes I found my first snake: a moderately poisonous (Chart said: "sick one week") green keelback snake that darted around a tree and disappeared. The next few hours were sweaty and rough in the afternoon heat. Much of our hiking was on the steep slope leading up from a stream, so balancing with the packs was difficult. Gavin fell on his ass a few times, and I managed to take the skin off my right knee twice.

Sometime after 5 we arrived at a Lisu tribe village of about 300 people. The village was rustic but pretty - mostly bamboo/thatch huts on stilts nestled into the hillside amongst vegetable crops... and presumably opium. Did I mention that this whole "Golden Triangle" region of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar is responsible for a big chunk of the world's opium supply? In most of the countries here it's semi-legal for hill tribes to grow and harvest poppies for their own use. Of course, opium is a great fundraiser for the governments; in Laos, for example, the opium pushers are rarely punished, but the tourists caught buying from them must pay large fines (bribes?) to avoid jail time. Supposedly the situation is much more corrupt than that in Myanmar. Anyway, back to the village:

There was a large hut set aside for visitors, so we each found a spot on the bamboo and grabbed mattresses (of sorts) and pillows (ditto). Chart cooked up a delicious tom yam chicken soup with rice and veggies for dinner, and we all hung out at a picnic table between the guesthouse and the bathroom (squat toilet in a hut, of course). One deaf old lady hung around making grunting noises and eyeing Gavin's sunglasses, and several children had fun batting around the balloons that Gavin had brought for them. Chart then retired to a curtained off corner of the guest hut with his friend "Dr. O," who had joined us in the Red Lahu village. Most of the evening they remained out of sight, but given the scents wafting through the curtains, it wasn't difficult to figure out what the "O" in "Dr. O" meant. For our part, we foreigners hung around the table drinking rum, chatting, and gazing at the stars. We went to bed relatively early, but were woken up around 1am by a fierce thunderstorm. I thought our tin-roofed shack was going to fall apart, but it miraculously held AND kept the water out.

Somehow I was the only one of the group who got a really good night's sleep, despite my initial reservations about camping (and trekking in general). After washing my face, shaving, and brushing my teeth, I was happy and good to go. We left the village by 9:30, and at 10 we stopped at an orchard (natural?) to pick dozens of tiny, ripe peaches to carry along for the trek. Sunglass disaster struck twice on the walk - first when Gavin realized he'd left his glasses in the village (or the old lady had snagged them), and then when Jonas' broke. Mine are alive and well, thanks for asking.

We stopped for lunch at a Black Lahu village... and stayed there for like 3 hours. I wandered around in the brush for the first 90 minutes or so while Chart and Dr. O napped, and the other 3 relaxed in the shade. There were lots of cute kids around who were happy to receive our gifts of pens & pads. Lunch was a delicious pumpkin & pork dish with some rice & vegetables on the side. After lunch Chart & Dr. O went into a back room in the lunch hut for another round, while we sat waiting impatiently outside. After a while Chart's voice came whispering through the wall: "Tim? Gavin? Anyone want to try?" Being completely incapable of saying "no" to anything vaguely tempting, I thought "what the hell?" and went in and had a few puffs. When in Rome, no? The whole opium set up is pretty cool to witness, actually, as the preparation and smoking process is rather complicated. It was also probably my most authentic cultural experience on my trek, as most of my communication with the hill tribe villagers thus far had been nodding and smiling. I had fun bonding with Chart and learning about his life. As for the drug itself, I didn't try too much for fear of not being able to walk, but I felt pleasantly dreamy when we started out a few minutes later, and the effects maybe lasted an hour.

The hike that afternoon was demanding - more loose soil & leaves on steep slopes - and Christian suffered a sprained (or twisted) ankle. I avoided any injuries but sweated a lot, and we all were happy to have the sweet, juicy, refreshing peaches on hand. The scenery was incredible, though: pretty creeks, not-too-dense forests, views out over the hills... it was just what I'd hoped a trek would be like. We were exhausted by the time we reached our secluded 3/4-enclosed bamboo shelter alongside a stream in a valley. There was a waterfall nearby with a small pool at the bottom, so Gavin, Jonas, and I had much-needed baths. We collected bamboo for a big fire, ate fish & rice for dinner, had some SangSom, and enjoyed the ambience of the jungle. There were occasional bug scares, of course, like the giant praying mantis that stalked Jonas, but mostly it was an ideal night. At 11:30 on a toilet run with my flashlight I found my second snake: a white spotted slug snake, which was tiny & slow-moving & adorable (looked kind of like a U.S. ring-neck snake).

We slept in the next morning, and didn't break camp until 11 or so. The walk back to civilization was much less taxing than the previous days had been. Mostly we ambled along the banks of a stream littered with rocks that we skipped across multiple times. At one break, Chart found the prize snake of the trip: a juvenile banded krait resting in some branches in the water. Kraits are beautiful black & yellow banded snakes that are related to cobras (and are therefore pretty venomous), and I'd been hoping to see one. Dr. O left to head back to his village soon after the snake encounter, and the rest of us walked for another few hours through some great forest. When we reached the road, a sawngthaew was waiting with some watermelon and cold Coke, and we were a happy group! That afternoon, once we'd settled back into our hotel rooms, Jonas, Christian, and I booked a minibus to Chiang Khong, and then the four of us met up for a final dinner at Swan. Gavin drank us all under the table, and then we retired for a much-deserved long sleep in real beds.

Wednesday was a travel day, but at least the minibus to Chiang Mai (part one of the trip) was fun. I plugged Christian and myself into my i-Pod and then selected a bunch of songs I thought he might like and/or recognize. Talking Heads' "Wild Wild Life" and The Divine Comedy's "Gin-Soaked Boy" were surprise faves. We stopped in Chiang Mai for 1/2 hour, which was just long enough for me to trade my Myanmar LP in for a Laos book. The 6-hour ride further north to the border was sleepy and uneventful, but pleasant enough.

Chiang Khong is a typically boring border town: dusty and full of under-used guesthouses and businesses catering to border town-type trade. The three of us had a good dinner at a place called Bamboo House, though... they cooked up a mean chicken & cheese burrito with refried beans. It was also cool finally seeing the Mekong River - and Laos on the other side. We stayed at the PM Guesthouse, which was conveniently located above the travel agency that had our documents (we hoped). In the morning we picked up our passports (which were intact AND included Loas visas!), and after Jonas and I made a few unsuccessful attempts to call Bangkok and push back our June flights, we headed for the immigration office. Stamp, stamp, "kawb khun krab," and a 20Bt/5minute ferry ride... and we were in Laos!
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