Wednesday, October 19, 2005

October 21: Karen Hill-Tribe Village

(1) One of the most popular activities for travelers in the north is hill-tribe trekking through Thailand's lush jungles. Eagle House makes getting on board easy, as you can sign up for a single or multi-day package with Eagle House Trekking online or right at the front desk. I chose a two-day (one night) trip that began with a morning stop at a thriving market in Maemalai, where our guides gathered up fresh food for dinner. After about two hours of driving into the mountains, the first "activity" is riding an elephant. To be perfectly honest, this was sort of a touristy add-on that I could have done without. For starters, I'm fairly confident that the animals are treated rather inhumanely. In fact, I know they are... I saw the metal hook they use to dig into the elephant's ears to make it turn left or right. Sometimes they just whack it on the head, causing a hollow thok sound. It's horrible. But, besides that, you can't help but feel like a complete tourist jackass while being paraded around in a giant circle for an hour, stopping every ten minutes at a tree stand where some lady sells you bananas to feed Bobo. That being said, it's a great opportunity to get up close to these beautiful creatures. Here's me and the American couple from our three-person trekking group, starting out our adventure.

(2) After the elephants and a fried rice lunch in town, we set off on our trek through the jungle. The trails are easy to follow and only sporadically difficult to foot, for this is the beaten path off the beaten path. The foliage was lush and green, and the distant hills were impressive in the sunlight. Everything was quite peaceful and calm, actually, until we stumbled upon our first snake. It turned out to be a harmless green snake, but it still managed to scare the hell out of me when it slithered before our feet. Ban, our fearless leader, messed with it for a while before setting free into the bushes.

(3) Meet Ban and Somde. Ban, an English speaking Thai boxer who lived in Chiang Mai, was our guide and info man. Somde, his old friend from a neighboring village where he grew up, acted more like a sherpa, hauling in all of our food and supplies... which really wasn't much for such a short trip. Together, they were quite a pair. Constantly singing everywhere they went, Somde knew about three words to the chorus of popular English songs, but could mumble the rest rather well. "Welcome to the Hotel California! Mmmmppphphphph, mmmmhphphphphphpph!" At the midway point of our hike, we stopped for a swim at a waterfall... hence, the undies.

(4) We reached the Karen hill-tribe village, high on the mountain, late in the afternoon. Ban and Somde immediately began cooking our dinner while there was still sunlight, and I took some time to explore the web of dirt roads. I have to admit that it was rather strange and voyeuristic to be wandering around as just another westerner, paying to watch these simple people. Their lives were real, but my forced presence in their world seemed to detract from the authenticity of the experience. It was sort of like I could hear their thoughts. They were thinking, "Hello, rich tourist. Welcome to our a village. Feel free to take photos of me hanging my clothes and feeding the chickens. Hey, maybe someday I can visit your community and watch you mow the lawn." So, yes, it's a little bizarre to have paid money to observe people like they were in a human museum exhibit, but, at the same time, it was great having that chance to see a completely different way of life while standing in the middle of it.

(5) Takraw is sort of a fusion between soccer and volleyball, dating all the way back to the 15th century. Though it's recognized around the world, it's a game that is really only played in Asia. The rules are pretty basic. A hard, wicker ball is kicked (or headed) over a low net, as the player (three to a side) perform stunning, acrobatic moves to keep the ball in the air. We sat for a good half hour watching them play, mesmerized by the skill and creativity. We were also sort of stuck staring at this one guy's mangled leg... perhaps a takraw accident that never healed propperly.

(6) This simple, bamboo hut was our lodging for the night, and the family with whom we were staying provided us with heavy sheets, sleeping bags, hard pillows, and mosquito nets. We were in bed at some horribly early hour, but when you are in the middle of nowhere there isn't much reason to stay up late. Besides, for the villagers, work starts at sunrise. Despite the lack of any cushioning, we managed to sleep rather comfortably into the early hours of the morning. Fortunately, the bird-flu chickens outside kept their cock-a-doodle-doos to a minimum throughout the night.

(7) But, before sleep... after an amazing meal of curry tofu and sweet and sour veggies, we huddled around the campfire, kissing that mountain air we breathe. One of our hosts walked down into the main part of the village and grabbed us an old acoustic guitar so Ban and I could take turns playing songs for everybody. Somde was pleased that he could contribute the first two words from the chorus of Country Roads - which are "Country Roads..." - and we even attempted a little Bob Dylan with some flute accompaniment. Ban treated us to some traditional Thai songs that he learned growing up in his village.

(8) There was no electricity where we were staying, so the only light at night came from our fire. After all the commercialism of Samui, and the chaos of Thailand's two major cities, it was nice to finally be able to see the stars at night. Sometimes we forget how many great things we can observe in the sky until we have a chance to really look up and see it.

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At 10:56 AM, Anonymous west virginia native said...

An acoustic sing-along of "Take Me Home Country Roads" being played out in the-middle-of-nowhere Thailand. I find that quite bizzare!

At 12:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good mahouts (elephant controllers) do not need to dig the metal hook into their elephants. they just lightly tap the elephant on the left or right ear with the blunt end of the stick.


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