The Hill-Tribes of Northern Thailand
First thing, supplies. They would supply food and blankets. What I needed was a poncho for the rain, mosquito repelent, malaria tablets, and the all important item…toilet paper (In this country, toilet paper is not often found in bathrooms, so Westerners place great value on it. I carry a roll in a holster on my belt, like a cowboy in the old west.)
It was a two hour drive into the mountains to where our trail began. Our guide’s name was Cobp. He was a Thai native who spoke broken English, French, and the hill-tribe languages we would need. While we had the latest hiking boots and tennis shoes, he did his hiking barefoot, carrying his thongs for the rocky sections. Cobp was as agile and surefooted as a mountain goat and knew the trails of the area like a cab driver in Littletown, Montana. The terrain was rugged. We would climb then descend, climb then descend, and so on. It was not an easy trek. Rain from the night before had created lots of mud and there was little traction. At one point I slipped and slid head first down the trail, “Romancing the Stone” meets Pete Rose. What a way to start the trek!
After three hours of hiking we reached the Hmong (or Meo) tribe. Colorful garments, laughing children, dogs, and pigs greeted us. All fell silent as the village elder made his way through the people to our location. The village elder needed to accept our party before we had permission to stay. His appearance and eighty years of wisdom reminded me of Gandolf the Wizard from “The Hobbit”. His approval was swift. We would stay the night with his tribe. The village seemed quite small. 7 or 8 huts, built on stilts. There was a well for water and a stream nearby, which navigated an intricate series of irrigation canals that fed the rice paddies. The tribe was almost self- sufficient. The married women of the tribe wore colorful hand-woven garments. Most carried small children in knapsacks on their backs. White and plain color garments indicated unmarried tribefolk, mostly children. Young boys showed us their skills with a sling-shot, consistently hitting a small target more than 50 meters away.
Dinner was cooked in a large kettle over an open fire. Rice, spices, and mixed veggies. It was a simple meal, but while the tribe may not be monetarily wealthy, their cuisine is rich with flavor. We slept in a large wooden hut on cots supported by stilts a few feet off the ground. Thai whiskey and a song before bed.
I was first to wake at the sound of a villager cutting wood for the breakfast fire. I sat outside the hut and watched the morning fog lift from the valley floor. The night before, our guide had told us of Gibbon monkeys singing in the early morning. An Irish girl came out of the hut and asked if the sound we were hearing was the monkeys. I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a rooster. Breakfast was eggs with onions and tomatoes, toast, and instant coffee. They like to keep the tourists happy with some of the comforts of home.
We set out on the day’s hike and waved goodbye to the villagers. I was in the front of the group and held my walking stick in front of me to break the spider webs and keep them out of my face. After the first hour, we came to a footbridge straight out of an Indiana Jones Movie. We had to cross one at a time as to not put too much strain on the primative structure. An hour later we encountered a four foot long, purple snake on the trail. Our guide said it was one of the most poisonous snakes in Thailand (ONE of? We don’t have ANY poisonous snakes in Washington.) The hike lasted three hours that morning.
Our effort was rewarded when we reached the elephant camp. These beasts of burden would take us the next hour of our journey. Elephants have a skin tougher than kevlar and hair as coarse as the hair on a European girl’s legs. I straddled the elephants neck, my knees tucked in behind its ears for steering. Their movement was slow but deliberate. The elephants careful calculated each step (now imagine the size of an elephant’s brain and you can figure out how fast we were moving). I had to pinch myself. I was in the middle of Thailand, in the middle of the rainforest, on the back of an elephant. An hour of elephanting makes a sore bottom, so we continued on foot. That was when we noticed the leech on our guide’s leg (bet he wished he had the hiking boots now). We crossed a magical ridge. Endless mountain peaks on both sides of us. On the left, Burma, on the right, Laos. We crossed streams and waded through rice paddies.
After another three hours of hiking we came to a corn field. The stalks were taller than an NBA player. We cut the through the corn field only to appear in front of the next tribal village. This was a Karen tribe. 25-30 huts, this village was much larger than the one we had encountered so far. Three young girls met us at the edge of the river we waded through. “Hello…What your name?”, they said in broken English. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, tourists had been here before. Heads peered out of windows, working paused for a moment as the farang (Westerners) made their way through the village to the tourist hut. Walking through the village was a time- warp back hundreds of years. Michael J. Fox had nothing on us. I can’t even begin to explain the impression and pure amazement that we all felt…it was genuinely hundreds of years back in time. Pigs, chickens, and cattle roamed freely through the village. Women churned the husks from the grains of rice then used baskets to sift out the edible portions. In the rice paddies, people planted symmetrical row after row. The Chiang Mai province is known as “The Million Rice Paddie Kingdom”. The beauty of rice paddie plots rising up the sides of mountains is a sight to behold and a farming wonder. Opium used to be their number one crop, but the Queen of Thailand has put great effort in helping the hill-tribes change. Because opium can grow in almost any soil and on small plots of land, this task of conversion has been difficult. Slowly though, corn, lettuce, and of course rice have become the main crops.
The Fall of the Hill-Tribes…
Green curry for dinner, no spice. The tourist way. Night fell quickly on the village and it was dark and silent, except for the tourist hut. It was a simple rule of life in the village…when it is dark, you sleep, light, you work. The tourists payed no attention. Some of the younger blokes had just opened fresh beers and the roar of conversation echoed throughout the village. It was the tourists’ last night on the trek and they were oblivious to the customs of the tribe people. A short distance away, babies started to cry and dogs began to bark. They were not used to such noise after dark. Bottles clanged, voices rang. The tourists seemed to have little or no respect for the people of the village. Tomorrow they would leave…but the day after another group would come. Things would never be the same again.
Before light, morning could be heard from the roosters’ mouths. The tribe’s people were already at work. Many were heading to the rice paddies to plant and maintain. Others began the process of removing the husks from the grains of rice. Children went to the river to wash clothes and gets buckets of water. Grain was fed to the cattle and chickens. Only one hut was silent during these most important morning activities. The tourists were sleeping off the conversation from the night before. I slipped out of the hut and savored the experience I was witnessing (the highlight of my trip so far).
The others awoke an hour later. A quick breakfast and we were off on an hour hike to the rafting portion of the river. The water rafting would be done on bamboo rafts three feet wide and 15 feet long. Bamboo is incredibly boyant. “Lifejackets, we don’t need no stinking lifejackets!”, the guide replied to the young tourist girl. Whitewater rafting standing on bamboo rafts. I never thought that surfing would become a lifeskill. But boy, it sure was at this moment. Using bamboo cane-poles to steer, we navigated the white water. We had survived, at least physically. At the bottom of the rapids, we were met by the return vehicle. NO MORE WALKING. 20 kilometers over rugged terrain had been enough.
As we were driven back to the city of Chiang Mai, I couldn’t help but smile at our amazing journey through time. An experience none of us would ever forget.
Once in Chiang Mai, I went straight to the massage parlor for a $5, 2 hour full body massage. Life was good.