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

 

North Wales day 1

My travels took me into wilder country, into North Wales, with stunning views along the coast road driving in.

The wide openness of Llandudno, the sun setting and its beaches is set right next to hills that almost drop into the sea. It has to be one of the most spectacular entrances to a country.

My first night in North Wales involved camping alongside llamas and pigs at Manorfan. I settled into my tent, just about got used to using my new camping stove and had dinner when the weather broke. It was my welcome into Wales – rain.

Manor fan in Abergele
Manor fan in Abergele
I love camping
I love camping

Luckily my tent survived a full night of heavy rain. By morning it stopped and I could pack up in ease which was a relief.

The sun emerged and I set off to a tiny place called St Asaph, which turned out to be the second smallest city in the UK. I popped into the cathedral and arrived just as a guided tour started, so I joined in. It is a brilliant way to learn about the history of a place. I discovered some of the Spanish Armadas ships were wrecked nearby, and descendants from the survivors still live in the area today.

St Asaph Cathedral
St Asaph Cathedral

I then set off to find The Oriel Hotel. Many years ago this was a school where my grandad went as a young boy. I arrived and chatted to the owner in the reception and explained why I was there. “A ha” she said, “you’re in luck” and she disappeared for a minute before returning and producing an ageing document and handing it to me. It turned out to be an original school prospectus from the 1930’s complete with photos and details of daily life. She was really kind and said I was welcome to take a look around the hotel and sit in the conservatory to read it, which I did with great delight.

Oriel School prospectus
Oriel School prospectus

It was really eye opening read of what school was like back in the 1920’s and 30’s. What struck me most was a photo of the dormitory. There was no privacy with about 7 beds in a room and really basic furniture.

Bodnant NT Gardens
Bodnant NT Gardens

I hit the road again and enjoyed an afternoon wandering around Bodnant Gardens which were stunningly beautiful, packed with roses and set against a backdrop of hills. Followed  by a visit to the Welsh food centre where I stocked up on Welsh cakes, cheese and a new discovery – chorizo dip (very welsh, I’m sure). I cooked up a delicious meal with these ingredients overlooking the river flowing into Conway. Perfect!

Outdoor cooking rocks!
Outdoor cooking, rocks!

 

 

 

Friends and Family

An important part of my sabbatical in the UK has been about spending time with friends and family. This has been a major factor in planning my route and has made the journey so special.

Family in the fields
Family in the fields

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I have been privaledged to be part of some important life events including going to a friends hen do at Longleat, seeing my cousins new baby and visiting another cousins new house. It’s amazing how much is happening in people’s lives and how easy it is to miss things.Black Horse pub with a Black Horse

One of many delicious meals
One of many delicious meals

Sharing in the everyday adventures of life have also been great. Watching my friends children play football, helping move wood for the winter, collecting blackberries, visiting where a friend works and eating meals together. These are all memories  to treasure. I’ve sampled haggis in Scotland, homemade sticky chicken, sushi, roasts, vegan milkshake and an amazing Indian curry experience in at the Feast India in Leicester – the home of the British curry. The kindness and great hospitality I have been shown has really blown me away.

Leicester Curry
Leicester Curry
Feast India in Leicester
Feast India in Leicester
Ready to play football
Ready to play football

Forest Schools in Leicester

“Thank you” is not a big enough word.