People / Thailand

The Hills Are Alive

Northern Thailand is a jungle trekking dream, stunningly scenic and famed for its many marginalised hill tribes living in remote (and, thanks to tourism, sometimes not so remote) villages. According to the Thai government, there are some 10 officially recognised tribal groups living in the north of the country, though technically there are dozens more, both here and in Burma and Laos, none of them tied to nation. Largely denied citizenship, education and accompanying rights, their plight is somewhat shocking- exacerbated by the fact that the Thai government capitalises on their tourism value while simultaneously denying them the right to work in the industry and access its rewards. (Some groups, like the most famous Karen tribes, have received international recognition and also managed to play the tourism game- at a cultural cost, perhaps- but have more self-determination…)

Wandering the hills of northern Thailand

Wandering the hills of northern Thailand

As a sometime anthropologist, I was intrigued to take on a hill tribe trek and experience village life, though conscious to avoid the many ‘human zoo’ type trips on offer- “come and ogle at the long neck villagers!”/ “watch the Hmong dance!”… Since it’s rare that the villagers themselves have working rights, it is hard to find a trip with a bona fide local guide, but after some intensive research I discovered a small tour company that could offer a reasonably authentic two day trip.

The experience was eventful from the outset, since I was plagued all of the first day with the nausea and fever of food poisoning- a proper test of endurance- and the rains were at some points torrential. Added a satisfying tinge of epicness to the experience, in retrospect… We set off from Chiang Mai early in a battered army truck, a group of 10 of us in total, and drove a couple of hours out of the city to Doi Suthep-Pui national park,  stopping at a local market en route for food supplies. Before reaching the park proper, we were brought for a session of ‘elephant trekking’, a fairly strange experience- the elephant camp was at the side of a road near a village, where groups of tourists were herded onto the backs of a small group of elephants, riding them around a 20 minute loop as their mahouts hit them with pickaxe-type sticks. Apparently they have hard skulls and it’s all in the name of discipline, but it was a novelty outing which I won’t be hurriedly repeating.

Tourist-herding

Tourist-herding

The real trip began when we were dropped off in the jungle to start hiking. For the mostpart of the day, we made our way at a solid pace uphill in what felt like 100% humidity, wading through rivers, swimming at waterfalls, and stopping at ‘jungle 7/11s’ as we went…

Valley climbing as the rains abated...

Valley climbing as the rains abated

These sporadic convenience stores were wooden huts with woven leaf rooves, shelting coolboxes of drink surreptitiously stocked by villagers, who stop by to collect the offerings when the hikes have all passed through. One contained a catapult ‘stadium’, where Pué, our soft spoken local guide, demonstrated his Olympic standard aim and put us all to shame… A true font of survival skill and jungle savoir-faire, he regularly interrupted our walking to point out the marvels of the jungle- gigantic spiders in webs, termite nests, stick insects, special herbs and fruits, leaves that curled on touching, as well as the stunning views- since we were all so focused on navigating the muddy terrain below. He even caught us a tarantula to barbeque for dinner…

Termites in towers

Termites in towers

Pué, tarantula bating

Pué, tarantula bating

Wild cattle- a quick shot before a fast reproach

Wild cattle- a quick shot before a fast reproach

After a narrow escape from a run-in with wild bulls, we made it to the village where we were due to spend the night- a small White Karen settlement named Ba Mai (‘new village’), home to about 35 families. Exhausted, we settled into our hut on the outskirts, and while Pué set to the slow task of cooking the group dinner, the others rested and showered and I set out to explore. All houses were raised on stilts and set off a long and undulating main street, with the village primary school (comprising a hall and a set of quaint, rusted playground furniture) sitting centrally at the top of the hill. As I walked around, I was greeted by intrigued babies and children, calling hello and waving, while their shyer parents encouraged them… Little old ladies in long skirts and elaborate tribal garb (embroidered jackets, headdresses, and copious beads and bracelets) nodded at me as they shuffled between houses, and young lads with hunting guns rode by on motorbikes. The atmosphere in the evening was almost cliché to describe- mist moving on the surrounding hills, the sounds and smells of family dinners cooking, and the calm of the general winding up of the day.  There were chickens roaming loose, cows and pigs tethered to houses, copious laundry drying outside, and incongruously enough, the odd hint of mobile phone activity (powered by solar panels stood outside some of the huts) but otherwise all was quiet, and a world away from Chiang Mai. I think this was as authentic a snapshot as I could have got of today’s tribal village life, all things considered, and it was certainly a memorable one…

A hunter returns to Ba Mai

A hunter returns to Ba Mai

An old woman, making her rounds

The evening rounds

Making friends with the village youth...

Making friends with the village youth…

Back at our camp, I arrived in time for dinner to be served by candlelight- a wholesome pumpkin curry, which I had finally built up an appetite for. However still a little delicate of stomach, and still holding fast to vegetarianism, I passed on the offer of barbequed tarantula- which tastes like chicken, according to the brave among us. After a couple of hours of camp chatter, and the beginning of a torrential rainstorm, we snuffed out the candles and headed to bed, for a surprisingly comfy sleep- the shelter held out, fortunately… On rising early (the cockerels were going from about 3am, in true village style), we were fed bananas and toast for breakfast, and set out again in the bright sunshine for a half day of hiking onwards, mostly downhill, passing a string of other villages as we went. The trip wound up as we reached the rice farms at the bottom of the valley- Pué knocked up a fantastic Pad Thai (sans wildlife, this time), said his farewells, and we were piled back in the army truck for the scenic ride back to the city. Despite my fondness for Chiang Mai, it felt claustrophobic to be back- I could definitely live village life a while longer…

City bound, again

From the sticks to the city

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