I have returned from the mountains of the north, with a sprained ankle and a boyfriend with a head cold, new friends and excellent memories. Leave it to me to skid down a hillside and twist my ankle painfully only 15 minutes from our first night’s host village – I have decided that I’m still all good on water, but total crap on land. The mountains of Northern Thailand are spectacular, though, and I was able to enjoy (in lieu of Day 2’s 4 hour hike) an exhilarating 90 minute motorcycle ride through what I would have been certain was unpassable terrain for any motor vehicle. The kid driving me must have been using some kind of magic jungle force, swerving around rocks and ravines, roaring up 60 degree inclines and twisting through even steeper downhills, crossing streams and dodging rocks, negotiating hairpin curves without skidding fatally into ravines. It was like the best rollercoaster ride ever, complete with impending doom at every turn. Most of all, it was a real challenge to my newfound philosophy of not worrying about things I can’t help. I actually found myself looking around at the gorgeousness of the land as we rode (while hanging on for dear life, mind you), and I got off the bike with a grin on my face. Might be the best 200 baht I’ve spent yet (around $4.50)
Anyway, a few other things about trekking: first, if you’re going in the winter and they tell you it’s going to be cold, do not scoff (as we did), think “how cold can it be?” and just bring a long-sleeved t-shirt. They are not kidding. Since our group was very small (only 6 people) we were able to use the extra blankets provided by the villagers (Lahu) at our first stop for the usual group of 10-12. This meant 5 blankets apiece instead of the usual 2, and we all went to bed wearing at least 2 layers of clothing. Most of us still didn’t sleep, and those who did woke up far too soon, shivering and wishing for down duvets.
By the end of the second day, we were at a lower elevation and when we arrived at our second (Lisu) village, it was hot and sunny and pleasant. We dried off from our rafting adventure (over a waterfall!) in no time and happily speculated that it probably wouln’t be as cold that night. We were sorely mistaken. After a high of 30 degrees Celcius, the temperature dropped to an overnight low of 5. That’s right, only 5 degrees from freezing. We each had 6 blankets this time, and I think everyone got at least a few hours of sleep. I woke up around 2:30 in the morning needing to pee, and after waking Stephen and rooting around for flashlight and paper, I started limping toward the door. On the way, I lost my footing and staggered crazily, almost falling on top of poor Shelly, who had the mat closest to the door. When we discussed the event the following day, we decided it was really a good thing I hadn’t, since we all would have been laughing too hard to get me off of her before she suffocated and died.
When I got back from the toilet, I found my blankets in a tangled mess on my sleeping mat, and was for some time totally unable to figure out how to get them all on straight again. True to form, cold and cranky and with a throbbing ankle, I started bitching at Stephen. “I can’t get my blankets on!” I hissed, as if he could do anything about it. “I’m going to freeze to death in fucking Thailand!”
Another thing to keep in mind about trekking is the noise at night – you might want to think about earplugs. Sure, there are drunken farang to contend with in Bangkok and there were some roosters crowing in Luang Prabang, but this takes it to a whole new level. First off, I don’t think I ever realized how loud roosters are until one started crowing on the ground directly under my head – the houses in the villages are built on stilts, keeping them dry in the rainy season and generally allowing animals to wander around underneath. Secondly, pigs aren’t all that quiet either, especially when they’re fighting for warmth under your bedroom. Finally, I don’t know what it was really, but it sounded like a wild boar and a rabid dog were going at each other’s throats for several hours between midnight and 1a.m. The good news is that we weren’t asleep anyway, because we were too cold. The other news is that none of us can resist eating chicken anymore – we want to eat all the chickens in the whole wide world if it means not being wakened by them in the middle of the night. Whoever said that the cock crows at dawn was on crack – the cock crows all night long, whenever he feels like it. If he happens to be crowing at dawn, it’s just by sheer coincidence.
Before you all think that I’m just griping, though, please understand that it was an awesome experience and that I would (and probably will) do it all again. Seeing the land, rafting on a few stalks of bamboo (over a waterfall! woohoo!), riding an elephant (did I mention?), and the moonshine were all more than worth it.
The only thing that was a little disappointing was the actual contact with the villagers. We stopped at two different Hill Tribes and the extent of our contact with them was commercial. They pretty much stayed away until after dinner, when they came over with piles of local crafts to sell and tugged at our sleeves until we bought something. The kids were around at other times, too, and always happy to get a piece of candy. It’s odd – I’ve heard from a lot of people how they think all the visits from tourists are ruining the tribal cultures, making the people dependent on our money and our ways. I think that’s frankly just Western conceit. I don’t think we have much of an effect at all on their traditions or their ways – we just provide a source of revenue that they can then use to trade for the things they need. Their religions, rituals and dress are still their own, and I don’t think that trekkers really have enough contact with them to change that. I was hoping to learn more than I did about these cultures, but there wasn’t really anyone to ask. It’s an interesting paradox – they’re so used to us that they don’t even bat an eye when we come up the road, and yet we are still unable to penetrate, to really experience their cultures and way of life. It’s a good thing, probably. I’ll have to think on it some more.
So that’s the trekking story, or at least some of it. And now it’s back to the City of Angels (Bangkok, not LA).
Only one day til Christmas!