Friday morning I embarked on my two day, one night jungle trek adventure. The tuk-tuk ride to pick everyone up was, as usual, an adventure unto itself. When I was picked up for zip-lining on Wednesday, only two others were already in the van and we had at least five more to track down, which shouldn’t be too hard considering they have a list of the guest houses, right? Wrong. For starters, half the hostels and guest houses here have similar names and/or multiple locations, so that slows things down a bit. Then there’s always the confusion of whether people are getting picked up at their guest house or booking agency, and of course everyone is confused about what time this is all supposed to happen. So, after I got picked up on Wednesday, we drove around for no less than an hour, making half a dozen stops at random locales where nothing was accomplished. Thursday was more efficient, but everyone had been told to be ready at least a half an hour before the company planned on picking anyone up so there was just a lot of waiting involved. Friday proved to be no different than any other day; after driving around the city for an hour and picking up a few more passengers, we eventually ended up a block away from my guest house to pick up the last few passengers. I would think it would be most efficient to pick up people in the same area all at once rather than drive back and forth across the city a dozen times, but hey, what do I know; I’m just the tired tourist who would have appreciated an extra hour of sleep every morning. Meh.
Once we finally tracked everyone down, we started to head north toward Mae Tang. We made a quick stop at the Orchid and Butterfly Farm, which was cute, but 20 minutes there was more than enough. Next stop was at the Karen Longneck Hilltribe Village, where we walked through a market of their handicrafts and saw the girls and women with the stacked rings around their necks. A girl gets her first five rings on her fifth birthday and continues to get one per year until she’s 21-25 years old. Some of the women look comfortable, but particularly among some of the younger girls, some look very uncomfortable and look like they would have difficulty swallowing because of the position of their heads. Oddly, the strangest thing I saw in the village had nothing to do with the people; there was one lone monkey chained at the side of the pathway, seemly serving no purpose apart from being something for the tourists to look at. I’ve actually been surprised that I haven’t heard or seen any sign of monkeys during the different activities in the jungle, but I didn’t need to have one chained up in this village to appease my desire to see one, either. Not particularly humane or necessary to trap the thing in the sun with little to play with.
After leaving the village, we went to a local market where the New Zealanders and I discovered a little coffee stand that was selling huge blended Gloria Jeans-style coffees for about 60 cents, so that was a nice little treat. Everything was in Thai, but through a lot pointing, gestures, and references to the writing on a candy bar, I managed to get myself a caramel coffee with oreos. mmm. From there we finally headed into the mountains, where we stopped at the head of the trail for our lunch of fried rice.
After lunch, we started our hike through the mountainous jungle. The scenery was incredible, and the walk was enjoyable when we were in the shade and getting some breeze, but of course, that wasn’t constant. We were hiking in nearly 100 degree temperatures, and there were some patches where there was no air circulation and it felt like we were in an oven. Hiking up and down the mountainside in that weather proved to be rough at times, but stretches of shade and cool breezes helped us all recover between the more difficult parts. Despite the heat, we still kept moving at a good pace all afternoon, so we all thought we would get to the village earlier than expected since even the guide said we were making good time. Surprise! The two and a half hour hike advertised by the tour companies is utter rubbish; we hiked for a solid four hours that afternoon. Fortunately, we did stop for breaks on a regular basis, once at a cave, another time for tea in a different village, and a few times along the trail itself. Still, four hours of hiking in that heat was a long time, and we were all happy to reach the village where we were spending the night.
As it turns out, we actually spent the night in another Karen Longneck Hilltribe Village, though this one was far more remote than the one we stopped at near Chiang Mai. Staying in the village was such a great experience, it was nice to spend time in traditional culture and away from the tourist areas. We ate a traditional Thai meal, several dishes of potato curry, soup, and rice served family style, by candle light and then played cards while one of the older men played traditional music on a sort of mouth organ made from several bamboo pipes. As it was pitch black outside and he was still wearing his black Ray Bans, our guide kept referring to him as Ray Charles. Some of the women were going to dance, too, but there was pouring rain all night so that plan, along with the intentions of a campfire, were scratched. We were all pretty exhausted any way, so most of us crashed onto our mats on the bamboo flooring of our huts pretty early that night. Despite the hard bamboo floor that rattled around every time someone shifted their weight and the roosters that had a vocal battle to the death at 5am, I actually slept fairly well.
Saturday morning started with surprisingly good instant coffee and a little spa treatment from one of the cute little girls in the village. It started with a water balloon that she kept twisting into small compartments and then biting them open to squirt at us. From there she progressed to rubbing my legs down with super-fine sawdust, sometimes drawing pictures across my skin before rubbing it in. The final step was a mud pack, which was also performed by starting with a drawing before the final rub down. The whole process was pretty comical to watch as she worked down the line and did the same thing to three of us before our breakfast materialized and she retreated.
After a breakfast of toast and a hard boiled egg, our guide decided we needed to perk up and play a game. A few of us had already had a go at “Thai football”, which was essentially hacky sack with a bigger ball woven from some tough reed-like material. I was horrible at it, surprise surprise, but at least the locals were amused. The next game was even more entertaining for everyone involved, and all the villagers came out to watch us make fools of ourselves. We each tied a balloon to each of our ankles and then chased each other around, trying to pop the other peoples’ balloons while protecting our own. The whole thing was ridiculously comical, and the two left standing were quite the match: the big, burly rugby player vs. an agile little Korean girl. After dancing around for a good 10 minutes, they finally called it a draw. Now that we were appropriately perky, we set off on our last leg of trekking. It took us less than an hour to reach the truck that shuttled us the rest of the way to the elephant camp, so it wasn’t bad at all.
As soon as the truck stopped, I hopped out and headed straight for the elephants, not about to waste any time. There were a couple of baby elephants with their moms on our side of the river, so of course they were the destination. I immediately started to play with one of the babies, but if we’re being perfectly honest, it was really the baby that was playing with me. After sniffing my hand, he wrapped his trunk around my forearm and started pulling me around with him. Once I got my arm free, he decided that my leg would be a far better limb to have for his own. It took all I had to stay upright on my one foot while he tried to pull my other leg out from under me, and of course I couldn’t stop laughing through the whole thing.
Eventually the guide herded us across the river where we mounted our elephants for a bit of trekking. We rode around on the elephants for over an hour, stopping to feed them some bananas before we sloshed through the river and jungle. Each of us even had the chance to sit right behind its head and be the mahout, or driver; in reality, the elephant was still being directed by the actual mahout who had slid to the ground, but still, it was awesome.
After dismounting from our elephants, we climbed aboard bamboo rafts for leisurely journey further down the river. The rafts were maneuvered by two Thai men, one in front and the other in back, both wielding long bamboo poles that they pushed against the river bottom to direct and propel the boat. It was a very relaxing way to see the riverside jungle, if not the most comfortable; we were perched on low blocks in the middle of raft that didn’t offer any good positions, but we were only on them for about an hour, so it wasn’t too bad. All things were flowing smoothly until it was time to get back on shore. I was the last person off either raft, and everyone else had used the bamboo stairs to climb up the river bank just fine; of course, the minute I step foot on the bottom step the thing gives out and I plunge into the river. Luckily I was able to keep my camera above the water, so all was well apart from my soaking shorts. Since it was super hot again it actually felt nice to cool off a bit, but parading around with wet bottoms was not exactly at the top of my to do list.
Once we were all safely on land, it was back to the elephant camp for another Thai lunch of pad thai, sweet and sour, fried veggies and rice before heading for a nearby waterfall. The waterfall was actually quite nice an had a couple of natural pools to go swimming in, but I was content with just dangling my legs in the perpetually brown water. The best attraction at the waterfall was actually the litter of kittens; all of the kittens and cats were ridiculously cute and cuddly, happy to sprawl in our laps as long as we let them. After trying to get us to leave for at least ten minutes, the guide finally came over and literally tried to push us to our feet because four of us refused to stop playing with the kittens. We finally obliged, only because we knew white water rafting was next on the docket.
The white water rafting turned out to be great! I’d been told the rapids would be good this time of year, but I wasn’t sure. We hit some great rapids along the river; in comparison to other rapids I’ve been on, I would guess that these might have been rated class 3, but I’m not sure. There were a few times where we were nearly launched from the raft as we plunged over huge rapids, getting soaked in the process. Very fun! It was perfect to have this at the end of the day because we were on the river when the daily drenching rain opened from the skies, so everyone was already wet anyway. Once we reached the end of the route, we all changed back into a pair of dry clothes and we headed back to Chiang Mai.
After checking back into my guest house, I decided that the perfect end to two days of trekking and busy weeks of travel and activities was to get a Traditional Thai Massage, which was quite the experience. For about $3, a little Thai lady crawls across your body and twists it into all sorts of crazy contortions for an hour. Some of them tickled and some of them were just hilarious, so I was trying not to laugh half the time. Other times the intense pressure was almost painful as she put all of her weight behind her elbow, forearm, heel of her hand, or thumb and rubbed into my muscles. In the end it was all worth it, I felt great afterwards. Next time I might just opt for a shoulders, back and neck combo rather than the full body since that was the part I enjoyed most and felt needed the most work, but especially after all the traveling and hiking I’ve been doing, the whole body massage was great. For as good as it was and as much work as it requires, $3 practically felt like stealing considering they charge more than ten times that at home, but that’s the going rate here, and with a massage parlor every 50 feet no one can really charge much more.
I ended my night of relaxation by collapsing on my bed with a bag of cheap snacks from the 7/11 (they tried to overcharge me for all my sale snacks, but after a little group math session, we worked it out) and some cable tv. Two hours of Law and Order (SVU and Criminal Intent) followed by The Breakfast Club were the perfect end to the night.