Trekking in Northern Thailand

Trekking in Northern Thailand
Trekking in Northern Thailand

My next challenge was a three day trek into the Thai forest and mountains with a local young guide from the Karen tribe called Mr Quick, who lived up to his name and a small but adventurous group of tourists.

The Karen people are beautiful in spirit and in appearance and we were privileged to visit their small village community in the mountains.

Fellow adventurers
Fellow adventurers

We started out on the back of a pick up truck winding up mountain roads. The group I had joined were an eclectic mix of people, many of whom had met each other on the buses or trains up to Chiang Mai. There was an Irish carpenter,  an Indian medical researcher from Texas, a hairdresser from France, a nurse from Scandinavia and a lorry driver from Holland. Our common interest was a sense of adventure and curiosity.

First stop of the trip was elephant riding.

I hadn’t realised this was included in the tour. Elephant riding appears on the surface to be great fun.  Who wouldn’t want to be close to such a wonderful animal? But there is a dark side to this practice that tourism is fuelling.

I had until the day before been totally uneducated about this practice until I glanced at a website about this and began to learn more. Everyone in our group bar myself rode the elephants because they are beautiful animals. However, after the ride they came away questioning what they had done having seen them hit repeatedly with sharp metal hooks.

Elephant spines are not designed to carry the weight of humans and can be seriously damaged especially by the numbers taken on a daily basis. The Asian elephant is also now becoming endangered in the wild due to the illegal capture for tourists. A wild elephant will not allow people to sit on its back. So as a young elephants they have to be forced into submission. Often this is through pain.

This emphasised to me how the decisions we make affect the world for better or worse. It made me question where I spend my money, because it does make a difference.

The site we were heading to was a small village community in the forest. After escaping over the border from Myanmar (formerly Burma) due to fighting with the Burmese army many Karen people settled where they could in the among the trees.

This emphasised to me how the decisions we make affect the world for better or worse. It made me question where I spend my money, because it does make a difference.

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The journey through the forest was eerily quiet. There was no bird song. I asked our guide why. He said the birds and monkeys that used to be there were all gone. Hunted, shot and eaten. This is the tragic reality of much of Asia. Any insect, bird, fish and mammal is seen first and foremost as a potential food source. To demonstrate this, Mr Quick pointed out some large ants. He plucked one off a leaf, pulled off its head between his teeth, ate it and offered us the chance to do the same. A couple of brave trekkers did and said it tasted of lemon. The only other creature we saw was demonstrated by our guide. Pointing out a small hole in the ground, he stuck a stick down and pulled out a huge tarantula-style spider. Holding the arachnid from behind we were told this was a deadly spider. One bite would be enough to kill a person. Everyone in the group at that moment took a large step backwards.

Deadly spider in the Northern Thai forests
Deadly spider in the Northern Thai forests

One bite would be enough to kill a person. Everyone in the group at that moment took a large step backwards.

We arrived at the village at dusk and were provided a with a long, covered wooden platform overlooking the tree tops that had mattresses and mosquito nets. I wanted to get a sense of my surroundings so wandered through the dirt track to see more.

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Karen Village, Northern Thailand

I watched a lady herding mother hens and their chicks into woven basket chicken coops. I saw a man chopping wood. Houses were made of natural materials, often raised up on stilts off the ground. The space beneath had an old pig or a cow tied to the posts.  I wondered how the villagers must feel about our presence there. Due to its remoteness the place had not become commercialised, although when we first arrived we were offered hand made bracelets to buy by the ladies of the community. I also discovered they had just received electricity the previous month, which was already changing people’s habits, they could now get and watch t.v!

Getting the chickens to bed
Evening chicken herding
Curry cooked by fire
Curry cooked by fire

After a delicious meal of curry and rice cooked on a fire, we were treated to the local children singing together around a camp fire. One of our travelling party had also brought some fireworks. After I suggested that setting them up near the fire and a flammable wooden building wasn’t the best idea, the whole village were treated to a sparkling display that they had never seen before and really enjoyed. Luckily I am a good sleeper and I drifted off to the buzz of forest crickets, a spluttering candle and plenty of snoring.

Jungle accomodation
Jungle accommodation

Early morning rays of light woke me before the rest of my fellow trekkers, so I decided to explore village life at the start of the day. I stumbled along, bleary eyed taking in lung fulls of fresh mountain air and blinking at amazing views overlooking the spreading forest. As I wandered through the village I came across a group of South Korean teachers staying with another local family down the road. It didn’t surprise me. Having met so many Koreans on the Camino long distance path in Spain, I knew this nation has a passion for walking, so where else to find them enjoying their time off than in a remote tribal village in Thailand!

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I watched as a Karen household respectfully came out of their home, bowed to an orange-robed monk passing along the dirt track and discretely placed food in a metal bowl he was carrying. This is a tradition across Asia for the Theravada form of Buddhists. Every morning before midday they collect food from the generosity of people and this alone is what they eat for the day.

Bamboo carved hair pins
Bamboo carved hair pins

Our trek for the day took us further into the forest past a waterfall where we cooled our legs and whilst relaxing Mr Quick carved me a bamboo hair pin, a real treasure. We passed a water buffalo and its young calf grazing in a man-made paddy field and saw home made trellises ladden with passion fruit vines.

Passion fruit vines
Passion fruit vines
Water buffalo and its young
Water buffalo and its young

One of our group, a nurse, had been bitten from head to food by some kind of bug during the night and for the whole walk she was scratching and itching. I felt so sorry for her and realised I had a lucky escape as I was on the mattress next to her.

For dinner I learnt how to catch and cook eels dug fresh out from the muddy rice fields. Boiled first, then barbequed.

Catching eels in the rice fields
Catching eels in the rice fields

My job was to catch them as they were thrown through the air still wriggling and place them into a plastic bottle, easier than it looks. The most unusual food item I think I tried on my travels also turned up on the dinner menu in the evening – char-grilled rat! I have to say it tasted pretty unpleasant. I did, however, admire the self-sufficiency of our guide who could survive so well in what would be a hostile environment to most.

BBQ rat for dinner
BBQ rat for dinner

Our home for the night was a simple jungle camp, much cooler than the previous location due to a nearby river. Mr Quick’s Uncle demonstrated his hunting skills by pulling out a musket that they use, complete with gunpowder. He fired a shot which rang through the trees and made me jump.

Gunpowder, treason and plot - the hunting rifle used by in the jungle

The campfire was really welcome in the cold, inky darkness and we all drew together for warmth, laughter and safety and played “guess the band” to music playing on the Texan’s i-pod.

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Our trek sadly ended the following day by balancing on a bamboo raft and being punted down the river, avoiding the river snakes, to the start of our journey. It was an unforgettable experience and an epic adventure.

The end of an unforgettable journey
The end of an unforgettable journey

 

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Thailand – Night train to the North

Train to Chiang Mai
Train to Chiang Mai

I had a week of no plans and complete freedom to decide where to go. Northern Thailand had caught my imagination. I heard it was a place of mountains and forests and trekking. That was enough to inspire me to find a way to get there. Being a true romantic the discovery of a journey by night train to Chiang Mai finalised my decision – I had to go.

I headed to Bangkok railway station the day before I was due to travel with hope but caution. I had been told by my Thai family that it would be very busy as it was the National holiday and everyone was going North to escape the city. I turned up at the counter and asked for a single, top bunk and was given a place straight away. I was amazed, grateful and excited for the next adventure.

I had nowhere to stay and no idea really of what I would do when I got there, but I had set things in motion. Just as I was pondering these questions my eyes caught sight of a tourist office on the upper level of the station. I thought it might be worth asking for suggestions in there. Sure enough I got my answers. The staff were brilliant and I sorted out a hotel for the first night and a 3 day trekking tour into the forest away from the main tourist trail. They were quite astonished that I had managed to get a train ticket as minutes earlier a couple of tourists had been told the train was full!

“I had nowhere to stay and no idea really of what I would do when I got there, but I had set things in motion.”

Forests and waterfalls, Chiang Mai
Forests and waterfalls, Chiang Mai

I love to travel by train and this was no let down. It was well organised and a great way to meet people. I met a lovely couple just down the road from me, who were studying for PHD’s and we had a long and interesting conversation about the scams they had experienced in their first few days of arriving in Thailand. I was soon rocked to sleep. The only downfall of the carriage was the air conditioning which was on maximum. I slept in full clothes and fleece and was still cold.

“I love to travel by train and this was no let down.”

Early morning arrived and I enjoyed watching the beauty of dawn on the hills and rice fields as we shunted into our final destination, Chiang Mai. I was greeted at the station by a friendly lady who drove me to my hotel and confirmed my tours. I decided on the spur of the moment to book a trip to visit a mountain temple and the King of Thailand’s gardens later that afternoon. This turned out to be a good choice.

Bhuping Palace, Chiang Mai
Bhuping Palace, Chiang Mai

Bhuping (or Phuping) Palace is the King of Thailand’s winter residence and the open gardens are a real gem. I had done no research and so had no expectations, but I was amazed at the attention to detail and beauty. Roses of every variety and perfume flourish here in the cool mountain air, tree ferns adorn the forest garden, orchids fill the glass houses and it costs only pence to enter.

“Roses of every variety and perfume flourish here in the cool mountain air”

Rose garden, Bhuping Palace
Rose garden, Bhuping Palace
Bhuping Palace, Chiang Mai
Bhuping Palace, Chiang Mai
Cyclamen, Bhuping Palace
Cyclamen, Bhuping Palace
Orchids, Bhuping Palace
Orchids, Bhuping Palace

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or The temple of the White elephant is the holiest temple in Northern Thailand.  White elephants exist and are considered sacred across Asia. Legend in Thailand says a white elephant carrying a relic of Buddha on his back wandered up the mountain near Chiang Mai, trumpeted three times and then fell down dead. The local people took this to be a sign and a temple was built on the spot the elephant died.

Wat Ph
Buddha’s, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple

Wandering through the temple was a real sensory experience. Outside rows of bells were being rung by visitors, flames and incense smoke was rising, people were processing around  a central point, the sunlight shone through a statue that glowed yellow and all around were the views over the mountains, forest and town below. The creativity, the beauty, the interactivity of the site is something I will take away as a great memory and something to incorporate into my own faith.

Evening sun, Wat tha doi suthep temple
Evening sun, Wat Phra Doi Suthep temple