"There is an intense but simple thrill in setting off in the morning on a mountain trail, knowing that everything you need is on your back. It is a confidence in having left the inessentials behind and of entering a world of natural beauty that has not been violated, where money has no value, and possessions are a dead weight. The person with the fewest possessions is the freest. Thoreau was right."
- Paul Theroux, The Happy Isles of Oceania
We are well rested and we set off in the morning in great anticipation of the challenges that lie ahead on Day 2 of our Hill Tribe Trek. The track is very steep and awfully narrow in parts and is still slippery from the recent rains. Sometimes I wonder if there is a track at all or if our guides are just making this up as we go along. They both love to have us on, and often our questions of how hard..how much farther.. are met with ambiguous answers that tell us nothing except that you have to learn to just go with the flow in Asia. Sanit and Yge clamber down the hill slide in flip flops but boy,, are we glad of our bamboo walking sticks and our hiking boots. I find the downhill bits the hardest because my knees are not what they used to be. I’ve bandaged up my ankles and knees for Day 2 and I am really glad I did. Sanjit picks mushrooms along the way that he will cook for dinner and glimpses of beautiful views helps take our minds away from the difficulty of this walk.The guides regale us with tales of previous trips. Of young 18 year olds who have cried when they get to the steep bits, in tears because they have never encountered such a difficult hike previously, and of their oldest trekker, a man in his 70’s who just takes it in his stride. Just proving the saying – you are only as old as you feel! (So what are u waiting for..??)
We are all coping OK but are thankful as we approach this little hut which serves as our lunch stop.We realise we have company as we see the puff of smoke rising past the roof of the hut. A man with an incredibly interesting face full of character greets us and beckons us toward the fire he has started in anticipation of our arrival.
I wonder if he is flattered at the attention or just wishes we would leave him along to have his mid afternoon smoko! I wish I could get him to look my way for long enough to shoot a dozen pictures..
I think it was Helen (or was it Em) who first noticed the fat leech sucking on my leg. Yikes, I don’t really like the pesky things..and wonder how I’ve been so oblivious to it crawling so far up my leg. We spray it with a good dose of DEET and it gives up the fight in disgust. The bleeding however continues for too long, so Helen (our nurse) pulls out her first aid kit and proceeds to dress my leg!! I’ve been lucky on this trip. My previous injury was treated by a physio and now I’ve got my own resident nurse looking after me. You’d have to pay good money for this kind of treatment in Australia! Thank you Helen…I live to walk another day!
Meanwhile our guides are busy fashioning chopsticks and cups from the bamboo stick they have just cut from the forest. They brew us some coffee, heating up the water in the middle of a piece of bamboo (ingenious) and we feast on fried noodles and juicy pineapple. Food just tastes so much better outdoors after a long hard hike! We tuck in feeling such a great sense of satisfaction and achievement already.
There are two more uphill and downhill bits to negotiate before we reach Elephant Camp. The afternoon hike is not as challenging as this mornings effort and I pause often to marvel and capture the hidden beauty and glorious colour of this jungle.
Occasionally we see snakes slithering away and we are reminded that surface beauty, so quick to capture our attention and distract us in life, is often also deceptive, and lurking underneath the splendours are hidden dangers that may be life threatening and could potentially destroy our dreams and hopes for the future! Nature so closely parallels the lessons life has taught me…
Time passes quickly and as we descend down the last bits of the hill, we approach a tranquil stream with lazy cows chewing grass and we realise we have reached Elephant Camp, where a new adventure awaits…
After a rest, a coke, posing for pictures with the elephant and Helen checking out and passing up the option of using the happy house :) we are ready to mount the beasts! Getting on top of this elephant is easier said than done. They don’t bend down, like their more obliging cousins in Nepal, whose acquaintance I was fortunate to make on my first elephant ride in Chitwan National Park.
I am balanced rather precariously on the wooden platform and with the aid of my guide, I step on my elephants head and sit down on the makeshift seat. I’m sharing this elephant with Em and we are off almost before we’ve settled in. Where’s the mahout..? I didn’t realise we were driving…! Fortunately I think this elephant is on auto pilot and all we really have to do, is hold on for dear life!
We have an absolute blast on the elephant and have the sensation of being on a roller coaster with the difference being that the only security we have is a silly bit of rope that really isn’t doing anything. We both scream as the elephant goes down a steep slope..holding on to the sides of our seat…knowing there are no guarantees on this ride! It’s too late to get our money back!
Time passes too quickly. Em and I chat about our lives and what our respective journeys have taught us so far. I have never met a Texan before and she shatters all my pre conceived notions of conservative Southerners! She has just finished a year in Korea and is travelling through South East Asia before she heads back home to Texas! All too soon, it is time to dismount our elephant. He has done us proud…
This village is very different to our first hill tribe village. It is almost a bustling metropolis in comparison and I am a little disappointed. Ed enquires if there is a local pub..no…they are not that civilized yet! :)
After our bucket shower in cold water we are ready to explore. As we walk, the kids who are busily playing catch, pose for pictures. They are so great at this lark and are certainly aware of their cuteness factor. They climb up to a fence making faces for Helen and she just snaps her shot before the pole breaks and they end up in a heap! Squeals of laughter follow…no damage done here…these kids are robust and used to a few bruises…!
Our guide, Sanit is all decked out in his tribal clothes and is also quite happy to pose for us. He grew up in a hill tribe but has since been lured by the big city lights of Chiang Mai. We ask if he was still eligible to date a hill tribe chick…the answer is no…! They don’t take kindly to deserters.
We stop to chat to a farmer who has slaughtered one of his pigs for dinner and we learn the finer points of hill tribe cuisine. I wish I could be joining them for what will obviously be a feast tonight..
We visit the local school, a project of the Royal Family. Children from the surrounding villages board here during the week and go back home on Friday night. They are mostly kids from the Karen Tribe but there are other tribes and dialects represented here. However, lesson are in Thai so they grow up at least bi-lingual. They don’t balk at doing the washing up either.
We tuck in to another great dinner that night by candle light. There is no electricity here at all, and we decide to turn in a bit earlier than the previous night. We have shared quarters tonight and Ed gets to listen and join in the antics of girl camp! He is the first to crash though and as we blow off the candles on another amazing day in the jungle there is a collective sigh of satisfaction. We’ve survived the trek and elephant ride and tomorrow another new challenge awaits..
"I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read and all the friends I want to see."
- John Burroughs