Slowly smiling, thus went the chant of our trekking guide as we made our way up each of the three mountains on our trek through the Karen hill tribe villages north of Chiang Mai. Yuth our guide was part confuscian, with his long locks and goatee whiskers, part mountain goat and an all round chilled out soul. We had made our way from the city on the back of a pick up truck, stopping to pick up provisions at a local market. We are almost nonchalent now at the sight of fried bugs, ant larvae and chicken’s feet on the market stalls, although a more recent encounter with fried rodent was a slight shock to the system.
After an early lunch of fried chicken and egg fried rice, eaten from banana leaves we began our trek. The path was mostly under cover of trees which was a blessed relief from the hot midday sun. Yuth gave us the 101 forest survival guide, whittling walking poles, drinking cups and forks from bamboo as we went, teaching us the local dialect and pointing out interesting plants and trees. Our first village of the day was a welome break, where we sat awhile and chatted with the only lady in the village, the others were all working in the rice fields. Cows and pigs seemed to be the lifestock of choice and aswell as rice they grew coffee. The nearest big town was 17km away and the nearest road 3km, the only access was by a narrow path only fractionally wider than the one we had walked. In the dry season the journey can be made by motorbike, otherwise it was on foot. The children of the village attended boarding school in the town and got a bus to the head of the trail and walk the rest of the journey at weekends.
So it was onward and upward. Through similar terrain we trekked. At the peaks we got views of the surrounding mountains laid out before us all the way to the Myanmar (Burmese) border. Two hours later we came to the next village, a slightly bigger affair, it was happily situated by a pretty river. By now the villagers were returning from the fields and there was a buzz around the place. We had some welcome cold drinks from an ice chest and played with the little 8 month old son of the ‘shopkeeper’, while his three year old sister was sleeping in a makeshift hammock strung from the underside beams of their house on stilts. Most household activites seem to happen under the house, out of the heat of the day.
Yuth had made the decision to push on to our final stop for the night, the elephant camp. We arrived in the late afternoon, tired but happy. The camp situated by a river, was home to two young families each with a toddler. It never ceases to amaze me how up to a certain age, childern everywhere play and react the same, it is like a universal language. The older of the two children a boy of about 16 months was into all sorts of mischief, throwing things off the deck to have someone pick it up, chasing the chickens and pigs, finding the nearest water to get wet in. I will point out one major difference though, children both in Thailand and Laos, are independent at a very early age, you will see the smallest of toddlers walking along the side of busy roads unattended, or on the edge of unprotected drops, near open fires, as a westerner my heart is in my mouth when I see them surrounded by harms western children wouldn’t be allowed within a mile of.
After a hearty meal cooked by our guides we retired early another big day awaited us tomorrow. Our bed for the night was a mattress on the floor in a sleeping hut. It was basic but tired from the day we slept like logs. Early the next morning there was a heavy mist and the camp had a almost magical feel to it. We had breakfast and waited for our lift. By the time the sun came up you could see the arrival of our transportation in the form of a rather large elephant. From the ground it is difficult to image how high up you are on the back of an elephant and downhills proved to be rather perilous as without anything to brace against, we kept slipping forward in our seat. After a while we found the elephants lumbering rythm and we were able to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenary as we made our way down river.
The next stage of our journey was somewhat more adrenaline filled as we swopped our elephant transport for a bamboo raft. Everything, except ourselves was lashed down to the, rather flimsy looking, raft which was made of seven long bamboo poles lashed together with bamboo twine and steered front and back with, you guessed it, more (lighter) bamboo poles. Our guides did the heavy work of propelling us down the river and navigating the rapids, however one small miscalculation in one of the bigger rapids had both hubby and I taking an early bath. Back onboard the next task was to free the raft from the rather large rock we had hit. After a lot of heaving, pushing and pulling we eventually loosed ourselves and luckily unscathe we completed the journey, drying out the lovely hot sun.
It has been by far the most exciting and tiring two days we have spent thus far and through it all we took Yuth’s sound advice and went slowly smiling.