Goodbye civilisation, hello wilderness! Today is the day that the 3 day Northern Hill Tribe trek begins. We crammed into the back of a truck and firstly stopped off at some markets. The markets smell vile. It’s a stench so strong that you can taste the warm, rotting fish on your tongue. One stand sold placenta. Lovely. Another sold an array of salted insects. Sek encouraged us all to try some. I politely declined. I find it baffling that some are brave / silly enough to try the meat here. The ambiguous grey flesh has been sat out in the damp heat for hours on end, covered in flies and various bugs. As I look at it in disgust I feel like a fortune teller: diarrhoea and vomiting will be with you soon…
A couple more hours driving up steep, winding roads and we were ready to begin the adventure. The forest swallowed us up and saw us walk for about 2 and a half hours up some pretty steep hills. Me being me had a great time. Others (especially those who had not long come from England) struggled with the relentless heat and some of the climbs.
When we arrived at the first remote village we were greeted by an old lady with dainty limbs and thin lips. Can you believe that at 90 she still works on the farm? She has to. They are extremely poor. One man suffered very badly from diabetes but could get no treatment – his body was a frail skeleton. It was very shocking to see.
Piglets, chickens and wild dogs scuttle around our feet as we explore the Karen village. The Karen tribe have their own language, so even Sek can’t understand most of what they are saying. We learnt that thank you is pronounced “Tabruh.” Not to be confused with pronouncing it in a more separate way: “Ta Bruh,” because that means “you’re crazy.”
We slept all together in a hut made of sticks. We each had our own, thin mattress on the floor and a much needed mosquito net. The outdoor hole in the ground (toilet) is pretty filthy, but that’s all part of it. There is no flush so you throw a bucket of water down it when you’re done.
One of the locals, Aulala (pronounced Oo-la-la) made us a delicious feast for dinner. He’s an incredible chef. He said he learnt from watching his elders when he was younger. His yellow curry was mouth-wateringly good.
When the air cooled and the black sky covered the sun, his friend, Niki, taught us a few games that they like to play around the fire. Niki literally won every game. I’m convinced he was cheating.
I had a scary loo trip in the middle of the night but I live to tell the tale. I slept badly, but not awfully. Today we did an 8k trek in the morning. I loved it so much, but again, some others were a tad vocal regarding their hatred for walking. Last night I taught everyone some silly songs including, “I was saying goodbye to my horse” and “A Fireplace” (See Bulgaria Diary, 2007). Ah, my Dad would be proud. So yes, even when people were struggling with the uphill effort and the blazing sun, morale was lifted with the odd sing-song. Actually, the frequent sing-song (the songs are so stupid they’re the sort that get funnier the more you sing them). Whilst stretching our vocal chords, we trekked through both forests and rice fields and saw a vicious, jet black tarantula. I saw its skin pink mouth and fangs!
We arrived at hill tribe no.2 for lunch. Imagine having to walk 3 hours to see your mate in the next village? With no roads, it’s the only way. We were all sleepy after the food and had a brief nap on the floor. However, we were soon woken up…Time for bamboo rafting!
Of course, it wasn’t safe. But cruising along on the handmade wooden platforms was great fun. Sometimes the water was still, sometimes fast flowing. There was a group of naked village kids playing in the dirty water – laughing and splashing around. A true picture of kids being kids. When admiring their naive, angelic beauty, I let out a scream. A ginormous spider landed on my arm out of nowhere. I’m not usually afraid of spiders but this beast really took me by surprise. As the Thai would say, “Oh my Buddha!” (I found this expression hilarious when I first heard Aulala say it).
Standing up, barefoot on the raft for several hours was a little tiring on the knees, but so worth it. The scenery down the river was phenomenal. I feel privileged to have seen herds of wild buffalo. I didn’t expect to see elephants but we saw those too (life made).
After a few hours rafting, we arrive at our third hill tribe. This one is really off the beaten track. From the road we have walked for almost 6 hours and rafted for 3. There is no school for the kids. And if someone was to need urgent help from a hospital, they’re probably not going to make it. I think this tribe is even poorer than the first. It’s dirtier and there is no shower. There is only the brown river to wash, which to me just screams infection, virus, illness, death.
An adorable, tiny girl appeared from behind one of the huts. Now I’m not usually one to care too much about little kids but as soon as I clapped my eyes on her, in the least creepy way, “I want you” went through my head. My heart melted when she smiled at me and held my hand. She was climbing all over me, laughing with me, we ran around and chased each other and rolled about on the floor. Strangely, she wouldn’t go near anyone else, she just didn’t want to leave my side. For this, I felt very special and I want to take her home.
Aulala cooked up another storm. The cashew nut and ginger stir fry was on point. Surprise, surprise, pineapple for dessert (Just as Bali was obsessed with banana, for Thailand it’s all about the pineapple as we are served at least 3 portions of it a day).
Oh my Buddha that was a long night. No sleep. Sleeping on the hard floor was really painful on my back. Everything hurts and it feels like a hangover from hell. There were so many bugs, it was a clammy heat, dogs were fighting and I swear the cockerels are broken here – screeching every bloody minute.
We had another long, enjoyable rafting session. When we finally reached the 4th village for lunch (and our final stop) there was a great sense of achievement amongst the group. I was very excited to have my first Pad Thai in Thailand (their traditional noodle dish). In search of some zing-zing, I added some extra chilli flakes to give it a bit more of a kick. Silly me, not thinking, I then rub my eye a few moments later…
CHILLI IN MY EYE.
Oh Jesus Christ, the pain. I was half crying and half laughing at the hilarity of the situation. Everyone else stared at me, not really knowing how to react as I’m up, hopping around and grabbing bottles of drinking water from the table, chucking it at my face.
Suddenly, about 8 locals rush out of the kitchen to see what all the commotion is about. “I have chilli in my eye!” I scream.
“Chilli in eye!” / “She has chilli in the eye!” / “Oh my Buddha!” A chorus of Thai voices chanted back at me. They swarmed around me like wasps and frantically blabbed in Thai, waving their arms around in panic. My left eye felt like needles were piercing my eyeball and the whole left side of my face felt like it was on fire.
Suddenly, Niki was throwing buckets of water on my RIGHT FOOT. What the actual heck. Still half laughing, half crying, “What are you doing!?” I asked.
“Left eye chilli, right foot water!”
The room fell silent for a few moments as the locals all take a step back from me.
I catch my breath. “Wow… it’s working…” I’m not kidding, the pain eased when he drenched my foot.
“Ah, it’s starting to burn again.” He poured another bucket onto my right foot and sure enough, the pain eased once more. By the fifth bucket, I was fine.
“HOW!? WHY!?” I asked.
Niki laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “My Grandmuddah tell me. Her Grandmuddah, Muddah, ancestors… Yes? Oh but I don’t know. It just work. Left eye chilli – right foot water. Right eye chilli – left foot water. You understand?”
“Yes, but no.”
We laugh together. Oh Chiang Mai, I love you.
When arriving back to the city in the evening, it felt ever so luxurious to have a toilet and a shower. Shaving my legs also helped to peel off a nice thick layer of grease and dirt. Man, I was filthy.
What an incredible few days. I’m still in shock and overwhelmed at some of the beauty and some of the poverty and filthiness. Bold statement, but that was well up there with the highlights of my whole trip. The excitement continues with having a bed tonight. YAY