I'm back in Chiang Mai and preparing to fly to Cambodia tomorrow, while fighting a weird cough/cold. It has not dampened my enjoyment and its been a full week here in Thailand.
So I last left you on my last evening in Chiang Mai before heading out on a 3 day/2 night trek into the rural hills north of the city to visit the indigenous Karen tribe villages. We spent that last evening travelling up to Doi Sudathep, a temple perched on a mountain about 20 mins outside the city which boasted incredible views of the sunset. After taking in the views, the five of us headed out for dinner and drinks to bid farewell (only Raizel was joining me on the trek) to our group of five. It was a memorable evening punctuated by the obligatory Irish pub for another St. Patrick's day spent away from home. (and of course, there isn't a city in the world that doesn't have an Irish pub!)
After a quick breakfast and picking up my airline tickets for Cambodia the following Monday, we piled into a van to head out to the start of our trek. There were seven of us in the initial group, with only four who stayed for the full 2 nights of the excursion. We began our adventure with an elephant ride through the jungle. Now, I've been on elephants before, so I wasn't initially that terribly enthused to give it a try, but decided that it was included and the elephants looked pretty happy and well treated. So up we went, Raizel and I.
Whoops of excitement from both of us prompted Raizel to point out that we were being rather "loud American tourists", and we both vowed to tone it down a little. The scenery was beautiful and the elephants trotted along nicely with the weight on their backs. Then came time to feed the elephants, including the two baby elephants who came along sans riders to partake in the fun. We were given bananas to place gingerly into the elephants' trunks which kept "snaking" into our laps hungrily almost immediately after a banana had been swallowed. It was once we were out of bananas that all hell broke loose. The elephants started to snort in discontent, flinging a mucous banana-filled spit all over us, and causing Raizel to begin shrieking at the top of her lungs. Add to that the fact that the baby elephant was ever more persistent in snottily rummaging through our legs, arms and laps with his hungry and snotty trunk, and you have two very loud "American tourists" screaming. To make matters even worse, our guide, who up to that point had been sitting on the elephant's head navigating for us, decided to just jump off and let the elephant we were riding just do its own thing. That got Raizel into a complete frenzy as she recalled frightening memories of being thrown from a horse. The elephant sometimes would break out into a little run that made Raizel scream so hard it hurt my eardrums as I tried to soothe her by saying all was well (which of course I didn't know for sure). One couldn't help but notice as well that the snotty trunks very closely resembled the male sex organ which made their pursuit of our scared beings more...tasteless, shall we say? It all became even more entertaining when the whole group of us headed into the river and then the banana snot became fountains of muddy water, rocks and no doubt elephant poop all raining down over us. We should have worn plastic parkas!
It was all easily forgotten as we witnessed the baby elephants playing in the water and whooping for joy with their mom's. It was wonderful to observe.
Filthy and covered in banana mucous, we headed to the trail head and happily hiked our gear ten minutes in to a raging waterfall. It was idyllic. We ate fried rice from little plastic bags and then ecstatically cooled and bathed ourselves in the turbulent water which was just cold enough to be bitingly refreshing.
After our swim, we hiked for a couple of hours to the location of our first night's camp: a Karen village complete with a bamboo "hut" made for our shelter. It was delightfully devoid of tourists (which I had feared would be lining up to buy knick-knacks at souvenir stalls) and actually quite authentic from what I could tell. The village held about 10 different "homes" and we witnessed families returning from the rice fields' and a days' work, children running barefoot and playing with the chickens and the colorful outfits that adorned the married women (single women in Karen tribes wear only white to make it easier for the men to court them!)
Settling down to our outdoor table for a deserved chilled beer, I noticed that there were some pretty dark grey clouds looming towards us over the horizon. Our guide, Det (spelling??), said that he had heard on the news that a storm was coming tonight. This was very rare because we were slap bang in the middle of the dry season. Hmmmm. We waited, anxiously, as the "atmosphere" created by the dark clouds, the sticky heavy air, and the gathering winds spelled weather to come. Before we could start dinner, the first raindrops began to fall. And then, the heavens opened and unleashed their fury for the next several hours. It was one of the most violent downpours I've ever witnessed, churning the ground into a sea of red gushing mud, furiously plummeting down the hillsides. Needing to pee required running through a small exposed area between our shack and the outhouse, and we were soaked by the brief exposure to the elements. Safely inside our bamboo hut, we were incredulous as we began to hear the sound of giant hail pounding on the roof together with the rain. Hail? In Thailand? In this heat?
We ended up dining inside our sleeping quarters, a wonderful red curry with rice, and then shared songs and stories to the sound of the storm outside.
We slept on little mattresses spread out on the bamboo floor, and I cursed myself for not bringing my cotton "mummy" liner as I looked on at the filthy pillow covers and sheet less beds with blankets that may not have seen the inside of a washing machine this past decade. Not expecting the rain was one thing, but none of us expected the temperature to plummet the way it did. It was so cold during the night, that all regard for sanitation vanished and I pulled four blankets tightly around every exposed piece of skin, shivering away. Brrr.
The next morning we awoke to a fresh air that had been cleaned from the smoke of the last 3 days (all the crops are being burned at present, creating horrendous smog in the area and difficult respiratory conditions) and no signs of damage from the storm, except for our chilled bodies which responded well to a fresh cup of hot coffee. After scrambled eggs and toast, we strapped on our backpacks and headed out on the trail.
We past several more villages this day, witnessing farmers at work in the fields, women gathering frogs to eat for dinner, a tarantula which our guide "poked" out of its nest with a stick (it emerged with such speed that the guide had to take a leap backwards to get out of its way...it was epic!), and lots of farm animals such as water buffalo, pigs, and chickens. It was beautiful countryside and only the heat kept us rambling at a comfortable pace. We said goodbye to our 3 "2night" friends and continued on our way to our lunch spot.
This was taken in a villager's little bamboo home and it was a very memorable part of the trip as we watched four of the Karen people prepare their own authentic lunch of frogs, a BBQ bird which resembled a small chicken but clearly wasn't, and a grilled concoction of red ants and larvae! Our Dutch companion, Dave, was brave enough to try all 3... including the bird's brain and liver. We happily took pictures of him doing this and smiled at the offers to try for ourselves as we ate our safe noodles in broth.
Our guide, Det, was a fey little man, and he told us that he was in "training" to lead this tour himself. It was difficult to form an opinion of him because his English was so terrible. Whenever you asked a question, rather than admit that he didn't understand a word you were saying, he would do the classic Thai "saving face" move of giggling lightly and then responding with the last word in your question, an incomprehensible word that was not English, OR, my personal favorite: just "yes" or "no". On several occasions, he hit on Raizel and suggested that the "bunk" together...so after that, I didn't trust him at all and he really got on my nerves.
After lunch he offered our group more noodles and then laughed at me implying I shouldn't have a second helping because I was "fat", at which point he poked me in the tummy. Irritating little man.
Things got a little amusing, albeit embarrassing, when we were offered chocolate bars for dessert which we happily agreed to pay 10 baht for. The bars were called "Beng Beng", and when it came time to pay, each of us offered up information on how many "Beng Bengs" we were responsible for payment for. Our guide kept giggling at us, and it was difficult at first to determine if this was just his regular giggle that he did constantly, or if there was some unknown reason for his amusement. Eventually, he started telling us that "Beng Beng" was a bad word in the Karen language. "What does it mean?" we asked, shocked at our innocent mistake, realizing that since the Thai don't have the same alphabet, they would have no idea what the name of the chocolate bars would sound like in the English language. He literally took out his dictionary and drew a little diagram of a vagina and said "it means middle of woman". I couldn't believe it! We didn't know how to say hello, thank you, please, or goodbye, but we managed to repeatedly say "vagina" to the Karen people who hosted our lunch! Unbelievable.
We walked on another couple of hours and found ourselves in a rather muddy section of agricultural land. I gingerly took steps to avoid sinking into the mud, and heard Raizel mockingly comment "Is it a little muddy, Anita??" at which moment I heard her shriek as she herself stepped knee deep into the bog. I smiled broadly and said "Be slow to point out other people's shit for you will soon step in your own!"
That evening brought us to another waterfall where we happily dragged on our swimsuits and jumped in the cool water. Marley and Dave (from the Netherlands) happily made out in front of us under the cascading water, so in love that they were oblivious to our onlooking stares. Its always so lovely to see people madly in love...except when you yourself are so very single.... I gave them both a hard time which they took extremely well ;-)
Filing into our jungle camp for the evening, we came across a lone Korean man whom I fondly named Mr. Bath, because of his fascination with asking nonsensical questions about showers/baths/spas the following day. Apparently, he had been with a large Korean group, forgotten his towel in camp, dropped his bag to go fetch it, and then gotten horribly lost. He was very sweet, but communicating with him made communicating with Det seem easy as pie. It was painful even trying to convey agreement or refusal. After choosing a bamboo bungalow as far away from the "lovers" (who no doubt were going to make the most of having a private room) as possible, we all sat down to enjoy a cold beer before dinner. We noticed, to our chagrin, that storm clouds were gathering AGAIN, and this time...with two beers muddling my brain and lowering my defenses, I gave up some raucous entertainment singing my heart out as the clouds rolled in and my new onlooking fans (including ardent audience member Mr. Bath who kept saying "encore") played the drums with their hands. It was an evening I will not soon forget. The rain started pounding down shortly after our dinner of yummy spiced vegetables and rice, and we had no choice but to retire to the storm safety of our huts as early as 8pm.
The storm was not quite as violent as the night before but it did provide some wonderful lightning and thunder claps. It was extremely engaging and I thoroughly enjoyed laying in my hut and listening to the sounds of the sky and watching as the river and camp light up with each strike of electricity.
Our last day involved a relatively short hike out to our waiting truck, which was colored by Mr. Bath's insatiable questions about our hotel, whether they had showers, baths, or air conditioning. Mr. Bath was apparently very particular and after answering Raizel's pleading glares to come and "save her" from her constant 'I'm sorry...I've no idea what you are talking about" pleas, we together managed to ascertain that he was actually enquiring as to whether we knew of a public bath house available in Chiang Mai? We suggested he ask for a "spa" and hoped he'd give up with his ceaseless questions. Mr. Bath really was very sweet and I'll not soon forget him. He was "picked up" by his lost group at the place we stopped at for lunch and we waved fond goodbyes.
Our truck took us safely (standing in the truck bed holding on for dear life) to a lunch stop before our Bamboo Rafting experience. Another first, which I love! We ate Pad Thai noodles, fried rice, and melon greedily.
The rafting experience was definitely improved by the fact that there had been such a significant down pouring of water the previous two evenings...the river was rather swollen. We imagined calmly sitting on this pontoon-like structure whilst being gently glided down the river, but the reality was rather different. We were soaked to the skin almost immediately by a combination of waves lapping over the rafts and our laughing river guide slapping down his oar on the water sending a wave of water over our heads. It was very good fun, especially when we navigated over the albeit mild rapid sections, because the raft itself was so flimsy. We watched as other groups capsized, and cheered ourselves as we managed to stay afloat through the last series of turbulent water.
I was very happy to get back to our guest house after the 2 hour drive home in a bumpy truck, though the ride was definitely aided by our hilarious recollections of Det, "Beng Bengs", Mr. Bath, and the amorous forays of our Dutch friends.
We showered, re-humanized, and had an amazing organic salad dinner before heading out to the "Silver Temple" for "Monk Chat", an opportunity to talk to a Buddhist Monk and ask random questions about his studies/life/Buddhism, and a free two hour class on meditation. Our "Tuk Tuk" driver dropped us a short walk from the temple and we navigated what turned out to be a wonderful Saturday street market full of Thai vendors selling everything from waffles to leather handbags. On arrival at the temple, which was a glorious aluminium/silver building, we were informed that the meditation teacher was away in Quebec, and that only the monk chat was available that evening. Slightly disappointed we sat down with the eager young monk to try out our questions.
His name was Thuy, which he told us meant "Fat", but that after his nephew was given the same name, his parents added "Big", so his name was "Fat Big"....which I thought was very sweet. We asked lots of questions like, "How old were you when you became a monk?", "why did you choose this for yourself?", "what's a typical day like?", and "Why can't you be touched by a woman?". He calmly and in his rather good English explained that in Thailand, it is a matter of cultural pride for every family to have at least one boy enter the Buddhist monastery..so he wanted to do that for his family. He entered at 18 and had been there for 3 years as a novice, sleeping on the ground while the monks each had an assigned bed. He said that his monastery focused on studying Buddhism, as opposed to studying meditation, which was interesting to learn. He also explained that he can't be touched by a woman because it may lead to "Sexual Misconduct". He was earnest, endearing and very encouraging of our exploration of his faith and beliefs.
After navigating the market back home, and guiltily stopping for a banana waffle filled with chocolate sauce which was so good it brought tears to our eyes, we happily crashed in our beds, ecstatic to be between clean sheets tonight.
Today brought a wonderful new experience of a Thai cooking class, which I was determined not to miss despite waking up with a horrible cough and stuffy nose. It lasted all day, and began with an informative tour of the local market where spices, vegetables and fruits were classified for us, and we all went back to the school laden with baskets straight out of "The Sound of Music".
I really enjoyed the style of learning and the hands-on attentive teachers. I learned how to make Pad Thai, Chiang Mai Curry, Red Curry Paste, Mango with sticky rice, Seafood coconut soup, and Green Papaya salad. The group was lively and happily shared travel stories in between dishes, which we individually happily consumed as reward for our tested skills. By the end of the day, my tummy was so full I could barely move, and needed to take the rest of the day to "recover" and take it easy before my flights tomorrow to Cambodia. So, I've been writing this, and uploading my pics, which I hope that you enjoy!
SO ....that's all for now, the next installment will no doubt be from the Khmer capital of Phnom Penh. I bid goodbye to Raziel sadly, happy that she will not be far away for me to visit when I get back to Seattle. I await further adventures!!