. Despite this we didn’t want to miss the chance of going trekking in the jungle so we booked ourselves on an overnight tour which visited a Shan village and stayed the night at a Meo village. We were really excited because we also got to do some bamboo rafting and elephant trekking, as well as swimming in some waterfalls.
We got collected from our accommodation at about 9am and met the first 2 other people on the tour with us: they were 2 girls from the Faroe Islands. It turns out that you do indeed learn something new everyday because we didn’t even know that the Faroe Islands existed; they are a tiny collection of islands between the Shetlands, Iceland and Norway. The 2 girls were so lovely and had us laughing during the entire tour. Next we collected the rest of our tour group, a couple from Holland and 2 professors from India, and we were on our way. Our first stop of the day was at a local market where we needed to pick up some supplies. There were dozens of other tour buses there and we were starting to get worried that we would be bumping into other tourists while we were in the middle of the jungle: but we needn’t have worried, once we left the market we never saw another tourist until we returned to Chiang Mai the following day.
From here we started our drive up into the jungle: the roads were so windy that I felt really sick by the time the truck stopped. We really were in the middle of nowhere! We found ourselves on the side of a mountain surrounded on all sides by thick jungle and palm trees. The colours were so amazingly vivid, huge dragonflies fluttered around our ankles, all you could hear was the buzzing of mosquitoes in your ears. Our guide had bought along some lunch boxes filled with, yep you guessed it, fried rice so we settled down for lunch before we started a short trek through the jungle to a nearby waterfall
. I couldn’t eat my rice because I felt so ill from the ride up, so I hid it away in the truck where the ants and animals hopefully wouldn’t find it. As soon as we started walking I couldn’t believe how unfit I have got: I was anxious about falling on the muddy paths or slipping down the embankments and climbing over the rocks was really difficult. But I have learnt that the best way to deal with these things is to throw yourself at it full pelt and before long we could hear the roar of a waterfall in the distance. After clambering over rocks and traipsing through the mud we arrived at a beautiful waterfall. Already dripping in sweat we all stripped off to our swimwear and jumped in for a swim. The water was freezing and the current was so strong I could hardly fight against it to get close to the waterfall. We had only been in the water for a few minutes when one of the Indian guys placed something in the hand of the guy from Holland: he opened his hand and in his palm sat a huge black slimy leech. I absolutely crapped myself. Whenever I think of leeches all I can think of is the scene in Stand By Me when they come out of the pond and are covered in leeches: that used to scare the life out of me when I was young. So seeing this thing squirming about on his hand nearly gave me a coronary. Before you could blink I was out of the water and searching my whole body for leeches. The other girls did exactly the same and we ended up checking each other’s backs and legs for any little blood-suckers. The Indian guy started laughing and telling us that it wasn’t a leech…it was just a fish that looked like a leech. I don’t know much about marine life but if that thing in his hand was fish then it was doing a bloody good job of impersonating a leech! Despite being assured that it wasn’t a leech everyone made their way out of the water within a few minutes and we got dry and made our way back to the truck.
Tom and I didn’t even know about the next part of the tour: we were going to visit of temple up in the mountains
. This happens all the time in Asia, you sign-up for one thing and then it turns out to be totally different to what you expected: but you soon learn to overlook things like that, if you didn’t you would have a breakdown 10 minutes after arriving here! We drove up higher into the jungle until we were looking down over the top of the jungle canopy. It was blessed relief to find it much cooler up here, but it was also drizzling with rain which soaked us to the skin because we hadn’t bought our rain-macs. Weaving up and down and around and around the dirt-tracks had left me feeling really nauseous again and I still had absolutely no appetite for my lunch, but Tom made me eat it so I didn’t feel too flaky. The temple on the mountainside was amazing. There was a huge dragon-shaped staircase that led up to it and as we were climbing it felt like a mini version of the Great Wall of China! The view from the top was worth the hike: the canopy and palm trees below were incredible, the enormous, wet, rubbery leaves shone in the rain. In the rocks surrounding the temple different faces and images of Buddha had been carved out and decorated with orange sashes. The sashes were muddy and dirty from the rain but that only made the carvings seem more magical. There were caves and grottos filled with hundreds statues and images carved out of the rock and stone, each one of them was so individual and had a personality of their own. The rain was finally beginning to lift and, as we looked out over the valley, wisps of steam were starting to rise from the jungle below: the sun was heating the canopy and we could tell it would be very humid and sweaty down there in the trees
. The air seemed to be thick with haze: my glasses were steaming up so badly and every time you took a breath it felt like you were taking a gulp of water. It reminded me of being in Hong Kong.
From here it was a quick drive to the starting point of our trek to the Meo village. Before we started we all covered ourselves in mosquito spray, ate some bananas for energy and got ready for the 3 hour walk into the jungle. The first 20 minutes or so weren’t too bad at all: there was a nice flat path to follow and we all walked along chatting away to each other. But it didn’t take too long before the trek got harder. Pretty soon there was no path to follow and our guide was leading us deeper and deeper into the jungle: we seemed to spend all our time clambering up the side of muddy hills only to then come back down the other side of them 2 seconds later. Tom was convinced that our guide was just leading us around in big circles and making us climb up and down for the hell of it. The downward parts were the hardest because the ground was so slippery and muddy and there was no path to follow so we ended up clinging onto to trees and trying to jump between one tree and another for grip. Some parts of the walk were very steep and I think we would have done better sitting on our bums and sliding down to the bottom. It was still really muggy from the rain earlier and everyone was covered in sweat and grime, everyone apart from the Indian guys though: they looked so calm and serene and one of them had even come trekking in a shirt and work trousers, he hadn’t even broke a drop of sweat
. We made a couple of stops along the way to look at big spiders or learn about different plants and trees but in all it was pretty hard trek and our legs were aching so badly by the end.
After a couple of hours we saw the start of a wooden fence cutting through the trees and we figured we must be pretty close to the village by now. Before too long we were descending down a path into the village: it truly was in the middle of nowhere, there was nothing but jungle and more jungle for miles around. The village was made up of a small collection of wooden huts with roofs made from dried leaves. There was a screen of smoke billowing out the top of one of the huts (we later learnt that was our tea being cooked), a small stream running along the edge of the village which we had to use for washing and bathing and on the side of the hill there was a beautiful green rice paddy layering up into the mountains. We were met by a member of the Meo village who never stopped laughing and giggling all night: our guide wasn’t too great at translating for us so we never learnt his name but he spent the rest of the night with us. We soon realized that this part of the village had been specially constructed for trekkers to come and stay in so they didn’t disturb the real villagers. I was pretty disappointed to learn that the real village was a couple of kilometers further into the jungle but I understand that they can’t have foreigners rolling up into their village everyday taking photos and eating their food
. The place we were staying in was kind of like an outpost of the main village and there were a couple of tribe’s people about but the only one we met properly was the giggly guy. Considering that there is no electricity here it takes quite a while to cook anything so our guide set to work cooking our dinner for us straight away. We spent the next few hours looking around the village, getting settled into our room and chatting to each other. Our room was built in one of the wooden huts and inside there was a long shelf which ran the entire length of the building. On the shelf were some blankets and mozzie nets: this long shelf was the bed that everyone had to share. We had to roll out our blankets and separate off our individual beds using the mozzie nets. There were no mattresses and all we had to sleep on top of were our sheets, plus the pillows were only about 15 centimeters long so none of us expected to get any sleep that night.
Before too long it was time for our tea: rice, curry and stir-fry. There is no electricity so we used candles to eat by and then afterwards went to sit around the camp-fire to tell stories and get to know each other. As I said before our guide didn’t do a great job at translating for us when we wanted to speak to the tribe’s man but we did okay just smiling, pointing at things and drawing things in the ground. We soon found out why he was so giggly: he pulled out a tin of chewing tobabbco which apparently ‘made his head feel dizzy’ so that explained the constant smiles and laughter we were getting from him. He was so lovely and even though we couldn’t understand each other he stayed with us all night giggling away to himself and chewing tobacco. At about 9pm we were all sitting around the fire when we heard some rustling noises in the jungle. A few moments later there was an almighty banging noise was someone shot a gun
. Just then a group of about 5 other tribe’s men came into our village carrying old musket guns and knives. Looking back on it now I probably should have been terrified but our guide told us that the men were hunting squirrels which they eat raw for their breakfast (like you do). These men didn’t even bat an eyelid at us sitting around the campfire and none of them spoke to us because they were so busy watching the trees and reloading their guns: their guns were really long and they had to put gun-powder in the top before pushing it down to the bottom with a big stick and then putting a bullet in the top (they looked like the guns out of Pocahontas). Before too long the men had shot a couple of squirrels for breakfast and our guide brought one over for us to look at: he also bought us a bloody big toad to see as well, which I wasn’t too happy about because I hate frogs and toads. Once the men had left to continue their hunt some of our tour group headed to bed. We stayed up for a while chatting but we went to bed not much later: it would have been nice to have had something to do, but our guides had gone to bed and there was only the 2 Faroe girls left so we called it a night. The beds were incredibly uncomfortable and we could hear the 2 girls trying to teach the tribe’s man to sing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" but before too long we drifted off into our first nights sleep in the jungle.
Chiang Mai is one of the best places in Thailand to do adventure and adrenalin activities: you can do literally anything here from abseiling down a waterfall to driving a quad-bike through the rainforest. Despite all this though Chiang Mai is famous for one particular activity: going trekking into the jungle to visit hill-tribes. So we couldn't come all this way and not have a go ourselves. In the mountains and jungles around northern Thailand there are some remaining hill-tribes which live with a minimal influence from Western or modern life. There are lots of different hill-tribes around Chiang Mai but most come from the Mon region of Southern China, the Meo mountain ranges around the Golden Triangle, and the Karen and Shan regions of Burma. In all honesty the treks which go to visit the hill-tribes haven’t done these people any favours: they might be 'hill-tribes’ but many of the people in the jungle wear adidas t-shirts and have i-pods. It is practically impossible now to find an authentic tribe so unless you are some kind of mountain-climbing anthropological expert the chances of you finding a tribe which hasn’t been influenced by modern life is very small