For those of you joining the party late, or if you just want to see more videos of wonderful ol’ me, here is a quick video I whipped up to showcase some of my favorite adventures so far. Including my backflip off the rocks during my deep water solo climb (sorry Mom). Please remember to comment on my posts and hit the “like” button on the blog page!
The final day of our trek I awoke a bit later than expected. I had fallen into a deep sleep I supposed, perhaps due to the previous two days of hyperactivity. I felt sticky and groggy, so first things first I headed to the creek shower for a quick splash of ice cold water to the face. Almost everyone had already risen and were gathered around the community table sipping instant coffee, tea, or sugar water (Imogen). I joined the group, but didn’t really contribute to any conversation until I’d had at least 2 cups of coffee. Soon breakfast was served; Eggs, omlette style, toast and fresh pinapple. We even brought out a few leftover lychees that hadn’t been taken over by the hoards of ants overnight. As we ate I happened to glance into the kitchen/sleeping area where the two local women and Johnny Walker slept and cooked. To my astonishment, one of the women was cleaning and picking the fur off what appeared to be a dead rat. She and I locked eyes for one nervous second and she shot me a smile to suggest, “yeah, it’s a rat I’m eating for breakfast, I can tell you are shocked white boy”. Growing up in a community where squirrels were regularly consumed, I really wasn’t all that surprised, just interested in how she was going to prepare her jungle rat. I watched her chop it up and throw it into a pot over the fire along with some shredded leafy greens. A rat stew perhaps?
After breakfast, Johnny gave us some personal time to mill around and let our food settle. I spent the majority of that time testing out the set of handmade slingshots the locals had set out for our entertainment. A few plastic water bottled tied to a distant tree limb provided the targets and the ammunition were simply the bounty of pebbles on the ground. I will proudly admit that I became fairly proficient, hitting the target a number of times, my personal best being 3 in a row. Johnny on the other hand, hit 7 in a row. Johnny also showed us about 3 pounds of local mushrooms he had dug up from underground and intended to sell that the famous Chiang Mai Sunday market.
Soon enough it was time to resume hiking. Johnny told us today’s hike would be a 49 minute jaunt down the creek until we hit the river (Johnny tended to end all his estimations with a 9, I believe because the current Thai King is King Rama the 9th? Just another Johnnyism). We hit the trail and had a pleasurably flat hike along the stream, coming across bamboo groves and some impressive hardwoods. Fairly soon we started seeing signs of civilization once again. A PVC pipe here, a motor bike there, soon enough were full blown riverside elephant camps and rafting put-ins. When we reached our designated put-in for rafting, we dumped our packs and valuables into the back of a pickup truck and walked down to the riverside.
Lifejackets and helmets were selected and a short tutorial was given by our eccentric river guide. We split up into two rafts, essentially youngsters and “experienced”, myself in the latter group. I was placed up in the front of the boat along with Ollie (one of the Brits) and behind me was Gabby (Ollie’s girlfriend), opposite James and finally Nimisha and the guide, who was quite the amateur comedian. Since this wasn’t my first rodeo when it came to whitewater rafting I was ready to roll and it wasn’t a long wait until we started hitting some whitewater. Apparently the water level was a little low, so there were many rocks and obstacles to avoid, but the rapids were quite akin to a longer version of the Natahala with the muddy consistency of the French Broad. Truth be told I felt safe the entire time but it was an exhilarating ride with a lot of great moments and of course the obligatory splash-fights with the raft full of youngsters. We even had a calm section where we took a swim (or float). Once the rapids had calmed down and the rivers slowed to a manageable pace, we transitioned to authentic bamboo rafts that were used in olden times by the Thai river people. I would liken the bamboo rafts to a bit of a gondola ride, wherein we sat two by two and a “driver” stood at the back with long pole to push and steer (minus he Italian crooning). The bamboo rafts are lashed together with more bamboo, a very versatile plant to be sure, although these rafts did acquire a more modern touch, for added safety strips of motorcycle tire were also used to secure the bamboo shafts together. So, keeping score, we used bamboo for huts, walking sticks, bowls, chopsticks and now rafts.
After our Huck Finn cruise we walked back up the riverbank to have our final lunch. Pad Thai was served and we were allowed a proper shower and change of clothes at a small picnic area near the river. Johnny Walker was able to meet up with a few of his fellow guide buddies where we were informed that they actually call him Johnny “Wanker”, the Thais and the Brits really got a kick out of this, hand gestures a-plenty.
We took a group picture and gave Johnny a sizable tip for all he had done for us over the course of 3 days. “Oh my Buddha” he proclaimed one last time before he then herded us back into a covered truckbed for transportation back home to our respective Guesthouses. Once back in civilization it was an immediate hot shower, promptly followed by a Thai massage and a good ol’ American style burger with a coconut shake, seemingly always more gratifying when following a camping trip.
I had a great time trekking in the mountains of Chiang Mai with many experiences I will never forget and making some friends that I believe will stay in touch and perhaps be valuable contacts when I travel to other countries. I highly recommend a trek of any length to anyone visiting northern Thailand, just make sure to pack smart, pack light and ensure that the trek you choose fits your experience, athletic ability and comfort level with the outdoors. As Shakespeare once wrote, “A rose by any other name still smells as sweet”, I find this to even be true with respect to Trekking in Thailand and Backpacking in my native homeland.
I awoke with a hangover (blame the German waterfalls) and stumbled out into the daylight for breakfast, but not before carefully shaking each of my shoes to check for scorpions, as I had been instructed to do the day before. Mexican showered then breakfast; Instant coffee (lots of it), a boiled egg, pineapple, and toast with butter and jam. Hangover fading, heat and humidity rising, we set off on our Trek for the day down the mountain to seek waterfalls. Early on in the trekking, Johnny Walker kept stopping and walking off into the bamboo thickets with his machete mumbling something about sticks. Many of us guessed chopsticks for lunch? No, he wanted to prepare each of us a walking stick. Myself, and some others included, thought this just a frivolous exercise by our guide as just a helpful gesture. “I don’t need a walking stick”, I thought to myself, I hike all the time. I soon realized why the walking stick was necessary; the trail proceeded straight down at more than a 45% decline on slick red mud. Have Thai trailblazers not heard of switchbacks?
Down and down we went, the foliage getting thicker and the heat/humidity rising as we descended into bamboo thickets and leafy underbrush. As we walked, we chatted amongst ourselves and found that many of us shared common interests in music, online entertainment and sports. At last, I began to hear the all too familiar faint sound of rushing water in the distance. Before we knew it we were crossing a small stream and the roar of a massive waterfall was rattling our eardrums. The waterfall was multi-tiered and ending in a waist deep pool perfect for cooling off after the hour-long steep hike we just finished. Several of my fellow trekkers shied away at the chilly water, but not me, as my upbringing in western North Carolina would suggest, my inner “hillbilly” came out and I jumped right in, being at home in ice cold mountain streams such as Sliding Rock or Deep Creek back in NC.
After everyone had sufficiently cooled off and rested, we were called over to a small bamboo hut for a lunch that Johnny had prepared. Noodles with egg and vegetables, but served in a unique fashion; Johnny had made each of us a trough from a large bamboo stalk he chopped down minutes before.
I finished my lunch rather quickly and began to wander around the waterfall area once again. Upon gazing upward to the trees I noticed that many were bearing small red clusters of red fruit, lychee! Along the entire journey so far I had noticed the remnants of crushed lychee underfoot and the common smell of rotting fruit from time to time, but I had yet to actually see the fruit sprouting fresh from the tree. My curiosity got the best of me and I tried to climb a tree to grab one of these little red balls. I managed to snag one and carried it over to show Johnny and ask if it was indeed OK to eat. He said yes and apparently I had started something, because at that point Johnny asked me to come along with him as we proceeded to harvest a butt-load of these delectable fruits. My method of leaping and grabbing the low hanging branches amused Johnny, so he showed me the more efficient way of crafting a bamboo pole with a fork at the end, which he used to then hook the thin branch at the end of the fruit and twist so that the entire cluster of fruits came down with ease. I tried on my own with great success and brought back many to share with my still lunching trek-mates. At that point, “it was on like Donkey Kong”, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. So much so that Johnny ended up climbing the lychee tree like a Gibbon to snap off full branches (but not before murmuring a quick prayer and uttering his favorite phrase – “Oh my Buddha”). Sweet lychee, fresh from the tree. I’d never had anything so delectably tasty In recent memory that I believe I ate myself sick from our bounty.
Bellies full once again and fingers sticky from lychee juice, we set off down the riverbed in search of waterfall number 2 of the day. At this point in the trek I tended to lag behind on purpose in order to separate myself from the group and enjoy a little personal time while hiking and enjoying my surroundings. This, solo hiking, was a little trick I learned on my first 50 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail as a boy scout and it has stuck with me as one of the best ways to enjoy nature and free your mind to wander. It was during this solo time that I realized once again that I was home. This creek-side trail, these waterfalls, the overhanging greenery and chirping of birds was all too familiar. Instead of pine, birch and rhododendron, it was banana, mango and lychee trees surrounding me but the feeling of being in nature and doing what I’ve always loved to do was the same. Indescribable joy, I felt like a kid again, hiking the ever familiar Graveyard Fields upper waterfall trail. I was skipping along from rock to rock, twirling my bamboo walking stick and singing my favorite songs aloud before I knew I had caught back up with my fellow Trekkers, all looking a bit concerned about me and asking me if I was OK, since I was lagging so far behind. I just said “yeah I’m fine”, with a smile (not bothering to tell them that this was just a normal weekend activity for me, at risk of sounding like the boastful American stereotype). My second realization was that we had all stopped to view and swim at the second waterfall. An even more stunning cascade of water stood before us and an enterprising local had set up a little bamboo hut selling beers, water and snacks. Swimming, relaxing and photo-shoots ensued.
Cooled and refreshed once again, our trek-weary group had only a short hike before we reached our camping spot for the night. After leaving the waterfall we arrived at a series of huts about 30 minutes downstream. We were shown around our accommodations for the night by the two Thai women who lived there and acted as our hosts. This was no hill-tribe village, this was much more basic and much less comfortable. “No worries”, I thought, normally I would be lugging around a 60 pound pack, setting up my own tent and building my own fire had I been home, so this was almost luxury for the wilderness. I can’t say that all my trek-mates shared the same sentiment.
After taking some time to wash up with the stream water shower and relax our tired feet, it was time for dinner. Another two tasty dishes were severed family style over rice; spicy chopped greens with minced chicken and a slow cooked cucumber and veggie curry, followed by some leftover lychee for desert.
After dinner, as it grew dark, we were all fairly pooped from the previous two days exercise, so we took it easy on the Chang beer and mainly sat around chatting about cultural differences in beer and similar tastes in music festivals. At one point, another Thai male entered the camp, carrying an impressive looking, but rather ancient muzzle-loader rifle. Johnny tried to explain that he was going out to hunt some sort of squirrel or rat, and the gentleman fired off a round from his rifle with a deafening blast, for demonstration. As we were all headed off to bed, we weren’t without our own animal encounters that night. First, was the typical cat that preferred to sleep inside our hut and nuzzle up to the French-Canadian couple. Second, and more surprising, was the 5 foot long snake that almost crawled across the feet of Leo (one of the German boys) as he was brushing his teeth just outside of our hut. Johnny heard our commotion and quickly jumped into action to bash the snake to death with a bamboo stick. He later told us that this was a very poisonous variety of snake.
All of us a bit more nervous, we headed into the hut, tucked the mosquito nets tightly around us and drifted off to sleep.
To be continued….
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…
Imagine Asheville, North Carolina in the summer (for those who can), the city of my birth and hometown for 18 formative years. Rolling green mountains, haunted by mists in the early and late in the day, a vibrantly diverse but quaint city center and a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and extreme sports addicts. Now add to that image: elephants, tigers, delectable Thai cusine and everything for one-thirtyith the price. Ladies and gentleman, this is no fantasy, this is Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.
Close to the borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand. With a population of around 160,000 but boasting close to one-million inhabitants in its sprawling low-profile urban area, the citys epicenter is still surrounded by remnants of square brick fortress walls and a moat (which is apparently good for fishing) since in the early centuries Chiang Mai was constantly at war with Burma and in the 1500s was temporarily occupied by the Burmese.
My Chiang Mai experience has been a good one, so there will most likely be several posts dedicated to my weeklong stay here. It all started with disembarking from the train and then deciding to walk from one end of town to the other (where my $30, 4 star, pre-booked hotel lie in wait). The climate was a few degrees cooler than Bangkok so walking and sightseeing seemed to be a suitable option, even though I was toting my 50lbs of luggage.
Much like Asheville, I crossed the muddy Ping river that lie adjacent to the city and I could see the misty green peaks in the distance that reminded me of mine own Blue Ridge Mountains. Soon I came upon the city center’s eastern gate, or what was left of it.
Perusing the streets and many Wats I came across, I was surprised at both the lack of tall buildings and apparent age of the structure that were still within the confines of the old walls.
It took me a good 30 mins to walk from east gate to west gate and then another 15 to make it to my hotel, The Furama Chiang Mai. First, a quick review of The Furama. Excellent overall, well deserving of the 4 stars. Huge room, panoramic view of the city, western bathroom, 2 separate pools (including a rooftop pool), decent fitness center and the coup de grace: free high speed WiFi. All for the neat price of $30 per night.
Over the course of the subsequent 3 day 2 night stay at The Furama, I spent most of my time catching up with online business, writing and hanging out with the Australian ladies I met on the train.
Each night consisted of a famed Chiang Mai, “Night Bazaar”. Saturday night was the standard nightly street market with local stalls set up outside the city gates east side. Most of the goods were the typical knock-off handbags, watches, shoes, jewelry and EPL jerseys. The difference in Chiang Mai is that there are serious deals to be had if you are an experienced haggler. I like to think I showed the Aussie girls a few good sales tactics and helped them get season 6 of Greys Anatomy for around $12. We soon tired of getting hassled by vendors (at least we weren’t being asked to go to Ping-Pong shows) so we headed off to a famed rooftop bar for some beverages and I had the privilege of buying the girls their first Thai bucket drink.
The real action comes around every Sunday night in Chiang Mai, when inside the walls of the city the center streets are shut down to traffic and a street market of mammoth proportions takes place.
There are vendors selling handmade goods and souvenirs as well as all the lovely northern Thai food, fruits, vegetables and meats. There is even a small carnival set up for children that includes a mini ferris wheel and a bounce house. There was a noticeable lack of the typical street vendors hocking the off-brand touristy goods, I think they relegate those schemesters to outside the city walls on this night. The Sunday night bazaar is obviously a big attraction for tourists to visit, but for the most part this is a celebration for the Thai locals of Chiang Mai and the surrounding areas to come together, sell their goods to one another and see and be seen about town. There are also a variety of street performers, singers, dancers and here is a video of a full band:
Around 10pm the night bazaar starts to close down and the people go home. Westerners (or party loving Thais) can then go to a number of bars operated by expats from around the globe. There is an American themed saloon (featuring last years NFL games), a UN Irish Pub, a Mikes Burgers, and a bar called The Wall, dedicated to Pink Floyd.
When Monday comes around all returns to normal and the people and tourists of Chiang Mai pick back up their hiking boots, mountain bikes, kayak paddles, climbing harnesses, etc., and go about enjoying the natural wonders of nature that Chiang Mai has to offer. I have been enjoying these wonders myself and I will be posting more about the adventures, jungles, cuisine and tigers of this beautiful area. Here is just a little teaser for you cat lovers