Do you ever have those moments when on a faraway vacation you suddenly realize that you are doing the exact same thing for fun that you would have been doing were you still at home? This feeling was almost my constant companion during my 3 day 2 night Trek through the mountains of Northern Thailand.
One of my primary concerns when leaving the USA for Thailand was that I would miss out on the backpacking trips that I typically take every summer in the Blue Ridge Mountains, surrounding my hometown of Asheville, NC. When the aforementioned realization hit me while on my Thailand mountain trek, I was overcome with indescribable joy. So as the popular saying goes in Thailand, “Same Same, but Different”.
I suppose there is really no better way to tell you about the trek and all it’s details than a day to day account, so this post is simply the first days events. I will follow up with 2 additional posts to cover the full 3 day affair:
Day 1: I woke up early to pack the small pack I obtained at the Chiang Mai night market ($14 for a Lowe-Alpine knockoff). I was going minimalist, 2 shirts, 2 underwear, 2 pair of socks, 1 pair of pants that zip into shorts, swim trunks, raincoat, NB Minimus trail running shoes and my MSR quickdry towel. The rest of my bag was filled with cameras and toiletries.
My guesthouse (Sri-Pat) agreed to hold the rest of my belongings in storage as long as I stayed with them when I returned. I was picked up promptly (surprise) at 10am by the guide, who introduced himself only as, “Johnny Walker”, and spoke hardly any English. He directed me to the truck and judging from the lack of space it appeared I was the last to be picked up that morning. I grabbed a tight seat next to the tailgate and off we went. There were 11 of us: 2 French Canadians, 2 German lads, 2 young Cambridge girls, a couple from Liverpool ,1 UK-Indian, 1 Northern Irishman and me, the lone American.
As our hour long truck ride commenced I was seated next to 4 of my fellow companions that hailed from the UK. We chatted for quite a while and found that thankfully we were a group that at the very least wouldn’t strangle each other by the first night. Little did i know that i would become very good friends with these “chaps”. Our first stop was at a local market in Mae-Rim to gather food for the trip.
After the supplies were obtained, Johnny herded us back into the truck and shortly thereafter we turned onto dirt roads, before I knew it we had arrived at an elephant camp. Where elephants are cared for and trained to ferry around riders on their backs. There was seating for two aboard each elephants back, so we paired off and climbed atop a wooden platform to mount our elephants. I was paired with the Northen Irishman, whose name happened to be James, my middle name and also the first name of my father and grandfather. As we rode the elephants saunter made seatbelts seem a necessity. Since seatbelts were lacking we held on for dear life and tried out best to shoot some photos. The elephants trekked down to the river where they stopped to cool off by sucking the muddy water into their trunks and then spraying themselves (and us consequently). Soon after it started it was over and we dismounted on a bamboo platform and our elephant got a much needed rest.
Lunch was served, fried rice with tofu, bland but palatable with the accompanying hot chili sauce. After eating, trekking was to begin and Johnny led us on a fairly blistering pace up a steep incline. At first passing small huts and homes and then up into the mountain trails. We passed a few other elephants on the trail and were also followed from the elephant camp by 2 canine companions.
The trail continued to incline and combined with the humidity a few of my trek-mates were beginning to wonder what they had gotten themselves into. As for me, I beginning to realize just how familiar I was with this sort of activity, except back home we don’t call it trekking, this was simply a weekend hike in Pisgah National Forest in the summer (plus some elephants of course).
Up and up we went, the views getting more scenic along each rest we took. Finally we made it to our destination, a small cluster of bamboo huts atop the mountain where a local hill tribe hosts Trekkers almost nightly. The owners of the hut greeted us with cool water, Chang beer and snacks. There was a group hut for eating and socilizing and another group hut for sleeping. There were crude showers but they were refreshingly cold, as well as the typical “squatter” toilets.
After washing up the majority of us went to watch the sun set over the mountains. When I stepped to the ledge I was in floored in amazement; the green rolling mountains, the cool mist, the bluish hue…this was home. I tried exasperatingly to tell my fellow Trekkers how this georgeous scene in front of us was what I grew up with, but I really could not find the words. Most likely I just sounded like a rambling idiot, but I didn’t care, this de-ja-vu in front of me wasn’t taken for granted, it was appreciated in a whole new light to know that Thai hill tribe children were experiencing the same scene I was experiencing as a child, only on the opposite side of the planet.
After sunset we marched back to our hut in twilight, bellies rumbling for dinner. We were not disappointed; green beans with minced chicken in a spicy chili sauce and a curried pumpkin with veggies that tasted similar to butternut squash. All served over white rice and washed down with Chang lager. After dinner we were entertained by the village children who came wearing traditional hill tribe clothing and sang a wonderfully long traditional song. We were asked to return a song, and since we were so culturally diverse ourselves we chose the only tune we universally knew (except the Germans) “twinkle twinkle little star”.
After the children had left, we were to entertain ourselves. We played drinking card games and suprisingly almost everyone favored my rules for “circle of death”, a card game I played with my college buddies (I learned quickly that sitting next to a German who draws the Ace waterfall card is a dangerous thing).
Many of us got properly hammered and we each realized in turn that it was well past time for some much needed sleep. I climbed into a cot, enclosed by a pink mosquito net, inside a bamboo structure alongside my other Trekkers. Out of the slats in the wall next to me I could see the dark shapes of mountains and the faint lights of small villages in the valleys below. Although my Irish neighbor was snoring, I had my ear buds and the musical comfort of Active Child and Bon Iver to lull me to sleep. Lights out.
To be continued…