Journey to the Jungle
Trip Start Jan 29, 2007
50Trip End Feb 28, 2007
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Neither of us were really sure what to expect, but being picked up in a sawngthaew (covered pick up with open-air sides and benches along each side of the bed) and shoved in with 9 other people, was not really it. We vaguely remembered our trek info saying something about an "air-conditioned van". Ah well, off we go.
And believe it or not, neither of us were really sure where we were going or what we would be doing. We thought there were going to be hill tribes, waterfalls, bamboo rafting, and elephant rides but we weren't sure in which order or where, exactly, we would be taken. Every once in a while we would glance at each other nervously, crammed as we were with a bunch of other people we didn't know. Nikki at one point mentioned to me that she was the oldest in the group by a long way and that was later confirmed, along with the fact that I was second oldest. She was worried about whether she could keep up!
We bounced along for an hour or so in the motion-sickness-inducing truck as I attempted to keep my head near the fresh air and my eyes on the road. Our first stop was a village called Mae Wong with a fruit/veggies/meat market and a special store that caters to loads of tourists on treks. You can buy flashlights and special water carriers and western and Thai snacks. This first stop made me dubious because besides the 11 of us and our driver and 2 guides, there were 3 or 4 other truckloads of tourists -- one with a big group of Australian guys in their early 20s. You can always tell them because they travel in packs of 5 or 6 and -- besides Americans -- are the only travellers who wear baseball caps. No offense against Australians, but my experience in Europe with these groups of guys was not always pleasant. I was worried we'd be trekking with 50 or 60 other farong! But we were committed so we bought some water and misc snacks and climbed back in the cramped truck.
We continued along first a paved and then a non-paved road, sliding around corners and passing all sorts of vehicles (trucks, scooters, pedal bikes, etc.), honking if one should dare move into our path. The terrain was increasingly more rural and the houses and stands along the roadside increasingly less modern. At one point we stopped at a village and dropped off two huge bags of red and green peppers. That was $40 worth of organic peppers and our guide traded them for a beer and a coke! We also stopped at another village and picked up a bunch of little styrofoam containers that turned out to be our lunch.
We bumped along for a while longer, turning up a narrow steep road and decending carefully (I swear I thought we were going to tip over at one point!) into a small village comprised of bamboo huts and fences with rice paddies and soybean fields in the background. "Lunchtime!" our guide, Nat, called out. We wobbily crawled out of the back of the truck and filed along to a hand-hewn table under a bamboo awning and sat looking at our styrofoam boxes until eventually one of us (probably me) opened it up and started eating the still-warm rice with veggies. Nat and Cort (the "helper" guide) brought us some fresh pineapple and told us we could walk around the village once we finished lunch. Little puppies and scrawny dogs came and lolled about under our table, hoping for some scraps. I teased a young Israeli man that they were all congregating under his feet and they must know he was an easy mark. We laughed but he did seem to have a Dr. Doolittle-like effect on all the animals we encountered! But more on that later.
After lunch we walked around the village a little. The village is a Mong village, the people descended from Chinese immigrants, and has about 10 families living in it. In the rainy season they work in the rice fields and currently they are growing soybeans. The Mong are a polygamist tribe and one man could historically have up to 10 wives -- that many and their children being needed to work the rice fields. We didn't stay long in this village, but there was a long bamboo structure up on stilts about 3 feet high with several other similar but smaller structures around it. The animals (pigs, chickens) live on the ground floor underneath and the people live in a series of rooms above. It felt a little weird to be walking around where people were living, but we didn't have long to think about it because we needed to start our hike to the first of two waterfalls we were to see on our journey.
Nat led us along a well-worn path as we ascended slightly for a while, passing several groups of people returning from the falls. Nat and I chatted and he told me that he lived in Chiang Mai but was originally from the area where we were hiking and that he had worked at this job for five years. He really likes it because he gets to meet a lot of people (he said he's probably taken 3000 people to this waterfall during his employment) and gets to be outside and show people his homeland. "Much better than behind a desk," he said. I had to agree as I looked around at the lush landscape and listened to the birds! Even with lots of tourists it was still pretty cool.
I asked him what the local people thought of all the tourists coming and he said he thought they liked it. In the dry season (which is now), there isn't a lot of work for the hill tribes and they are able to make money from the tourists. And there were lots of tourists at this waterfall! I worried this would be the same for our entire adventure.
Many many tour groups take people on treks into the hill tribe villages and everywhere you walk in Chiang Mai there are signs for different treks you can take. These villagers lead largely insular lives and tourists can have profound negative and positive effects. Westerners introduce many cultural items and ideas from outside the tribe and that may erode tribal customs to some degree. However, because they have become so important to tourism (a huge industry in Thailand), the government has started reviewing and sometimes improving their policies toward these peoples. I definitely approached our trip with mixed feelings, so Nat's comments alleviated some of my concerns. And it was true that almost all the people we met along our journey seemed honored and proud that we were visiting them. More on that later.
We climbed up a steep but short hill and directly down an equally steep section (as Nikki mentioned to me later, they don't really believe in switchbacks here) to the waterfall. It was a medium-sized fall with a large pool at the base and a couple of bamboo shacks for resting and buying snacks along the far bank. A couple of people from our group swam along with a large group of Germans and Nikki dunked her feet and looked for orchids and rested near the water. One of our group even jumped off the rock wall into the pond with Nat's watchful eye on him. Nat said the water used to be much deeper (3 meters) but they built a dam upstream and now that water is only 1 1/2 meters or so at the deepest part. After 30 minutes or so we gathered up our group and headed up some steep steps to a road where our pick up was waiting for us. Nikki was out of breath by the time we arrived at the truck -- keep in mind that only the day before her biggest ambition had been a massage because she felt so poorly! But this was only a small prelude of what was to come...
But for that you'll have to wait! It's a beautiful sunny day and I've been at the net cafe for too long. I'm going to explore the inner city and will report more later. Don't forget to write a comment or send me a note if you're reading this. It's been pretty silent so I don't know if you're enjoying my ramblings or not! :)