Thursday, November 15, 2007

Trekking to the Hill Tribes

By Mia
We returned to Chang Mai yesterday evening, crammed in the back of a pickup truck, filthy and exhausted, holding our sweaters over our mouths as protective air filters against the intoxicating exhaust fumes of the city. We'd been on a 3 day trek through the jungle, accompanied by 3 guides and 3 American girls, one of which I know through Becca, my old collegiate roommate from the TAB.

I'd been pretty far under the weather during the days leading up to our scheduled trek. However, we couldn't negotiate a refund, and I'd be damned if I'd pay 3,500 baht for a trek I wasn't taking. Despite Joe's well-advised urgings that I stay in town and rest, I climbed into the truck on Monday morning and set off with the rest of the group in search of high altitude adventure.

We'd opted for the walking-intensive trekking option, a choice our primary guide resented wholeheartedly. "Mr. Good" was both baffled and irritated by the European love of walking, and didn't hesitate to express his annoyance, especially during uphill climbs. Fortunately the Karen and Lahu peoples with whom we stayed each night supplied him with plenty of moonshine rice whisky in which to drown his sorrows. Joe aptly likened Mr. Good to a Ben Foster (for those of you who have had the pleasure) who had seen 2 quotable movies instead of thousands. Questions and statements directed at Good invariably got one of two responses. Either a long nasal "Ooooooh" sound, or "Why Nooooot?" in the same drawn-out, whine. "Good, what time do we need to get up in the morning?" "Oooooooh." "Are there leaches in this waterfall?" "Why noooooot?"

The two villages in which we stayed were fabulous, generous, friendly hosts, and quite tolerant of our chasing around their children and pigs with digital cameras. We all slept on the floor of a bamboo hut on stilts, curled up alongside the dried corn, chili peppers, and enormous spiders. Contrary to popular belief, it seems that roosters crow all through the night, not just at dawn, and with gusto! One rooster would start up, igniting a chorus that spread not just through the village but into the surrounding mountains and valleys, eliciting identical but ever-fainter cries in return. The cows of Thailand don't moo, rather they growl, squeal, and shriek from dusk till dawn. The village dogs also joined the nightly symphony. I can sleep through anything, but Joe swears he heard them being attacked by a half man, half monkey our first night of the trek.

Both the tribes we visited practice subsistence agriculture, living off their small-scale farming and livestock, sharing everything communally within the village (both with a population of about 150 people). They both raised chickens, pigs, and cattle, and farmed rice, corn, and "jungle berries" (tiny peppers that burned my tongue for half an hour after licking the tip of one, and that made a steady stream of sweat drip from our guides' chins as they ate their separate spicy meals). They also had Cinderella-esque pumpkin patches growing on the roofs of their homes and barns, the vines lining the dirt paths trough the villages (here in the city they sell pumpkins stuffed with thick creamy custard as a desert. I haven't gotten a chance to try it yet, but it looks delicious!). When they have "too much" food, they take it into town to sell, but don't raise any cash crops. While we read that many of the tribes people still raise opium as a cash crop, we didn't see any evidence. Joe stayed up later than me partying and playing guitar with the men of the village the first night, and claims that a few of the locals appeared heavily drugged, but knowing basically nothing about opium, we can't speculate with any authority whatsoever.

The morning of our departure from the second village, the men finished up the bamboo rafts they'd been building in preparation for our departure, and we set sail. The villagers gathered to see us off along the same bank where they all (including Joe) had bathed the previous afternoon, in the cold, muddy water. The boat trip was like a fantasy for me, the river snaking along, disappearing around sharp curves, covered by a canopy of vines, water buffalo lounging along the shore. It was less dreamlike for Joe, who was knocked from the boat by a stray tree branch, up up up into the air, landing on his back in about six inches of water. The look of adventure on his face that you see in the photographs was gone after that, and he spent the rest of the boat trip huddled in a wet and shivering ball at the rear of the raft. Since our return he's been nursing himself back to health eating 4 meals/day at a British-owned Mexican food restaurant he discovered, and appears to be on the road to a speedy recovery.

Trekking pictures

Mia keeps things sunny on our hill tribe trek.

Crossing a raging river with the grace of a tightrope walker.

Poo and Good prep us a Thai green curry from scratch our first night of the trek.

Oink oink.

Our hardcore guide, Gate, leads the way up an extremely steep mountain trail.

Good fans Mia like the princess she is.

A bamboo rope bridge.

The deep jungle.

Mia captains our bamboo boat through a maze of crocodiles and hippos.

Joe pretends to see something in one direction while Poo actually does see something in the other direction. It is a branch that is about to seriously injure both of them due to Poo's inexperience as a bamboo raft steerer.

Hill tribe pictures

This is the cutest kid EVER. He is one of the children of the Lahu tribe we visited.

Mia practices her Pig Latin.

The girls. Mia, Kate, Andrea and Kelly.

The following are examples of how young kids react to Mia and Joe.
Ex 1. Mia enjoys an early morning breakfast with a group of hilltribe children.

Ex 2. A child tries to escape from amature photographer Joe, and, finding himself unable to make it all the way up the stairs on his own, cries.

Ex 3. A family of hilltribe children crowd toward Mia to be the closest too her when she snaps a shot.

Ex 4. A group of children run as fast as they can when Joe approaches with the camera. (I still love this picture).

Hill tribe women and their babies.

This young man tells his business associate, "Call me when I have some pants on."

A pair of old tribal women prep a beetlenut ball for Joe to chew. It turns your teeth black but protects them from decay.

Two cute kids.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pictures of caves and climbs

People look like ants from this high up. Thai ants.

Mia looks down from a cliff. 'Those people look like ants,' she thinks.

Our climbing guide, Guy, straps Mia in for a full morning of thrills.

A cliffs eye view of Railey East, courtesy of Mia.

This is how high we climbed. Notice the tiny red spot half way up is a person. Click any of these to enlarge.

Just before going over the first of the three falls on our way down to the lagoon.

Thai churros are Gigantic! In this photo Joe tries to wrestle one from the grasp of a Godzilla!

Notice the handprints on the tree roots behind me. See the following blog for details.

Inside the lagoon we watched as the tiny circle of blue light above us faded to an inky, starless black.

Climbing the mudfalls to get out of the lagoon and the cree-eepy jungle after dark.

This is one of the bungalows we stayed in. See through walls come standard.

This was also one of our bungalows. It was the same price as the one pictured above but far, far nicer. We spent a few days in here hiding from the rain.

Boating our way to Reilay. Notice the jade colored water.

Sunset in Ao-nang.

Nothing says a day at the beach like a CORNCOB. Crazy brits.

Sea Kayaking.

This is the very beach where David Beckham and Posh Spice fell in love (all over again). This is also where we had a tunafish picnic.

Sunset beach walk and boat viewing.

All aboard the polar express.

Open air taxi's are the standard here. Often the drivers pimp them out X-Zibit style.

A boy on a boat.

Exploring around Reilay.

This is a mouth (rear) of a cave that opens 200 feet in the air on the face of a cliff over looking Reilay west.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Railay beach, caves and kayaks

(By Joe)

Hey Everyone.

We have just arrived in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand after what can only be considered an adventurous train ride. The first leg of our journey was done in total luxury. A conductor made and unmade our beds for us and even tucked us in and kissed us goodnight. He was dressed in a very fancy tailored uniform that looked more like that of a high ranking military official than a trainsperson we so often picture in the West. Covered in gold medals and with a very smart looking cap. The second leg was done in an all 2nd class 'Rapid' Transit train which took 16 hours. We were completely unprepared for the drop in temperature during the night from about 80 degrees to about 40 degrees. With no windows, the train quickly became a wind tunnel designed to test the limits of a man. The cold, damp air was punctuated only by brief intervals of hot, smoky air that smelled of the finest barbecue as our train chugged through burning rice fields. This welcome relief was always accompanied by a flurry of airborne ashes and dead bugs, which breezed in and settled on us like the finest Christmas snow. I thrilled at the opportunity to brush up on my Entomology studies and Mia was hardcore enough to give herself an occasional brushing off without even glancing up from her book.

Chiang Mai is not what I am here to tell you about. I am here to tell you about Railay. We rolled into this little village about a week ago. Or, I should say, we boated in. It is on a peninsula that is unreachable by car because of the cliffs that separate it from the mainland. It is more like a fairytale than anything else. The scenery is breathtaking. I often complain that so much of the time you look at a landscape that captivates you, but then you feel somehow empty because you can't interact with it. It is almost like looking at a photo. This was the opposite. It was a buffet of interactability. Anything you saw you could touch, climb, enter, roll on, swim in, etc. See the mouth of that cave that opens 200 feet in the air on the face of that cliff? You can get to it through the backside of the mountain! (We did this, and we acted as guides for two foreign girls who had no flashlights). See those islands that look like someone snuffed out melty, brown candles by topping them with wet green moss? You can kayak to them and through them, looking for pirate treasure in their interior caves. Tired, picnic on their tiny, secluded beaches.

When we first showed up we didn't much care for the place. It seemed junkier than other places we had been, and the cheap accommodations were nestled in against a mangrove bog. However, tired of almost daily travelling, we settled in and explored. Our first reward was a ridiculously cheap, insanely nice bungalow nestled in a valley above the town. Feeling better we ventured out to explore. We rented a two person kayak one day and rowed all around the peninsula in the crystal clear sea, looking down at neon fish and up at cave walls covered in purple and green stone crabs. As we cruised along I noticed a rope hanging down from the overhanging ceiling at the mouth of a cave and jumped for it! Success! I was hanging there with my feet dangling 2 feet above the water watching Mia shrink into the distance in the kayak! "Check ME out!" I yelled, laughing and kicking my legs in the air. This initial joy was almost instantly overcome by thoughts of what types of animals lurk in sea caves, as well as the realization that it is much harder to hang onto the end of a rope for a long time than I had imagined. "Help ME!" I shrieked! "AHHHHH!" I tried climbing up the rope but decided this was only taking me further from the spot where the kayak would return to and, if I fell, would mean plunging deeper into the water full of sharks and sea cave crocodiles. Mia, stunned and now trying to stop and maneuver a two person kayak by herself, was unable to make a fast return. I couldn't hold on. It was taking too long. With a sinking feeling, I let go of the rope and plunged into the clear, blue tropical water and swam as fast as I could to the boat. I LIVED!

We also went rock climbing as Railay world renown for this activity. Again, you hop on the cliffs which look like a cave turned inside out, covered with stalactites and curtain rock formations, stained red and black with mineral deposits. We started with a basic climb of about 20 feet which was more or less like climbing a ladder and then quickly advanced to climbs of over 100 feet up these sheer cliffs. The reward was a series of breathtaking views that looked out over the whole bay and jungle as well as the town. We were treated to a bonus challenge due to the number of other climbers sharing the walls. "Ok, now... go under that guy's rope... ok, now... over that guys rope.... ok..." was common to hear during the climb as our instructors worked to keep us all tangle free as we zig-zagged up the wall. All the instructors had an especially good time when Mia was climbing because "Mia" means "wife" in Thai. "MIA! Put your right foot by your left knee!" one would yell. "MIA!! Put your...", another would join in. "MIA, now put your right hand hand...", a third would yell. Then they would all join in and give their own instructions, laughing amongst themselves." Wife.

Perhaps our greatest adventure in Railay was a self guided climb to a hidden lagoon. We had been talking earlier to a man who works in Railay. We will just call him John. A very nice man. After befriending him he admitted to us that he was, in fact, only working here to supplement his main source of income, which is human smuggling. Not for slavery, but for immigration purposes. He explained the whole process to us. It was far more complicated and well thought out than I had imagined. I will happily share the details with anyone, but not via email. Anyway, he told us about this Lagoon that is completely surrounded by cliffs and hidden from the world. At high tide it fills up with 12 feet of sea water and on rare occasions Brooke Shields can be spotted there. Only problem is, it's not too easy to get too. He prepped us for the three stages of increasingly difficult obstacles which must be overcome to get to our destination (just like Sean Connery does for Harrison Ford in the Last Crusade) and sent us on our way. I imagine him sitting in the restaurant that we left him in, holding his belly and sweating from some spicy curry that isn't sitting well, and repeating his instructions over and over as we are off climbing. "You have to go AROUND the ROCK... you have to go AROUND the ROCK, AROUND THE ROCK UNNhhhh...!" and his wife gently rests her hand on his shoulder. "Rest." she says.

There is no trail head, no sign. "You just walk along the sidewalk until you see a patch of red mud on the ground. Look left, start climbing." The first half of the journey was up a steep cliff that was in the thickest, greenest jungle I have ever seen. The path is a vertical climb up what seems to be a jumble of dinosaur bones, meteors, and mastodon teeth, held together by ropes, vines and roots. All of this is covered with a thin layer of terracotta red mud the consistency of oil based clay. You can tell where your next hand or foot should go by looking for roots and rocks that have been worn smooth and polished clean by thousands of years of adventurous types seeking the magical, healing powers of the lagoon. At the top we encountered a few people coming the opposite direction. "How was the Lagoon?" we asked. "DooOOoon't gOOOooo theeerree!" the said. "It's tooooOO haaAAArd!" Turns out none of them had made it, or even attempted to make it. They had taken one look at the three tests and turned to head home. We rounded a tree that had a root system which formed white walls ten feet high which arced out from the trunk in a star pattern. Each wall was covered in red hand prints of those who had come this far. It was perfect.

We stood looking over a blood red water/mudfall. The next piece of flat ground lay 30 feet below. Canyon walls rose to meet the overcast sky on either side of us, which showed a deep blueish grey through the dense canopy of trees. It was a leap of faith. It was THREE leaps of faith. From the top of each set of falls you can't see the falls themselves because they are overhangs. You can only see the ropes hanging off into space and then disappearing. We agreed to do it. This trip is not about pussing out. I grabbed the rope, swung my legs around into open space, and began feeling for footholds through the water with my feet while my arms supported my weight thirty feet above the broken rocks below.

The third stage, normally thought of as the hardest, is actually the easiest if you go around a rock that looks like it is leaning flush against the cliff. Behind the rock you find a small, vertical cave with ropes in it, which is more easily traversed than the 3rd waterfall which jets out at such an angle it seems nearly impossible to do it with out slipping. We made it just as the sky was giving up it's last light, painting everything in shades of blue and black. It was incredible to behold. The lagoon, more of a small lake, rested in the bottom of a cylindrical pipe that rose all the way to the top of the cliffs, which were undercut on all sides by millions of years of erosion. It was not unlike being inside an upside-down funnel. One enormous palm tree hugged the far bank. Its fronds were the size of city buses. We marveled. Then we started the slow climb back in the dark. Mia and I make a great team. Holding lights for each other, guiding each other, feeding off each others bravery. There is nobody I would rather be alone in the jungle at night with.

We finished the night off with a picnic on the beach. Tuna fish, whole wheat crackers, apples and yogurt. An army of crabs marched along the sand and we watched them in the lights of a nearby resort (where David Beckam once romanced Posh Spice). One side of the beach stretched off into a field of purple flowers and the side we were on was overhung by a 300 foot cliff whose tiny waterfalls plinked into the ocean and sand all around us. I fed some of my tuna to the crabs, as watching them eat reminds me of eating them. 'Fatten up little crabs... yes... that's it...' Then I got carried away and put an empty tuna lid down by their social get together and one of them grabbed it and ran off with it. Sorry mother nature. Other than that our trip has been low impact, environmentally speaking.