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.