Hill Tribe Trek

The day after Songkran finished, we set off on our Hill Tribe Trek. They had given us backpacks to use for trekking and we left the rest of our luggage in our hotel room. We decided it was easier just to keep the room for the night of the trek, and good thing we did because I’’d changed the dates!

When I originally booked this trip, I had been pretty undecided about whether to take Jessica trekking. I knew that we could simply take turns as we had done with the diving, but I really wanted her to experience this and looked high and low to find a trip suitable for children. Finally, I happened upon Wayfarer’s Travel – a small company who organized private trekking parties and had one trip that was geared to people who couldn’t physically do much trekking, but still wanted the experience. I thought -– perfect! We will have a gentle walk for a couple of hours and we’’ll be on our own so we won’’t be holding anyone up.

Thus far, the company had already impressed me with their professionalism. Their emails were prompt and they had no problems at all rearranging the dates of the tour at the last minute to accommodate my illness. Obviously it helped that we had a private trip, but I’’m still really pleased with the service. They sent our guide over for a briefing and to drop off our backpacks just before the festival.

This guide has become our tour guide gold standard! What a truly lovely man! His name was “Hey” (not sure of the spelling) which he joked about immediately. He was a wiry little man a head shorter than I am, with a lovely, and seemingly permanent, smile affixed to his face. Jessica delighted him and he talked about how she was his youngest customer thus far and now he could tell everyone about it. We left the tour briefing with the feeling that we’’d be very well taken care of and with Hey’’s contagious smile on our faces.

Hey arrived promptly on the morning of our tour, with no confusion about the change in our hotels as we had feared might happen. Unfortunately, it was also a Monday… so we were in the midst of coercing Jessica to take her Malaria meds when he arrived. (You have to take it with food and water and we were at the breakfast buffet) It was a bit of an ordeal getting Jessica to take hers, but nothing like the previous week where I had to force the issue. Still, we were all in a fairly grumpy mood as we set out trekking, thanks to the meds. We had yet to learn to take them at NIGHT!

We were grateful for the comfortable van as we drove out of the city, and the rock-star service of a private tour. Some of the cheaper trekking parties take tuk tuks out to the starting point of the trek, and people were still throwing water even after the festival. Hey laughed at them and said they’’d be soaked by the time they started trekking!

We stopped at a local market to pick up some drinks and snacks for the trek and I also bought some pencil crayons and workbooks for Jessica to share with the village children. She was a bit put out that they weren’t for her to keep, but she got the idea eventually. At the market we finally figured out what Durian is and why they don’’t allow it into the hotels. This stuff STINKS to high heaven and we could never bring ourselves to actually eat it -– although Jessica did have a candied version in Malaysia that was much less stinky!

The first stop on our tour was a local cave which had a temple built inside it. The air was foul inside and I couldn’t wait to get out. As far as caves go, this one wasn’t terribly spectacular and the highlight of the short tour was the hilarious signs with awkward English warning tourists not to venture off without lights or a guide:

“”Tourist foreigner, if you no have guide don’t go alone or by one self, because if to have happen dangerous by the temple and the committee will not responsible””

After the cave, we went to a nearby restaurant for lunch. It was pretty typical of most Thai restaurants with the seating area outside. There were so many flies on the food it was hard to eat and, of course, there was nothing Jessica would eat. Good thing I pack snacks for her everywhere we go! They brought tons of food to the table and most of it wasn’t bad. I ate a bit and then got tired of trying to keep the flies off the food. Grant had a beer and ate nothing. Hey was a bit dismayed at the amount of food left on the table and I had to reassure him that the lunch had been fine but we’’d all had a big breakfast… – mostly true anyway!

We carried on in our trusty van to the starting point of the trek which was a nearby village. Getting out of the van, we were mobbed by little kids selling cheap bracelets. I finally gave the most persistent of them some money because she’’d followed us for ages and was so polite and cute.

Our porter named Pong arrived to carry some of the food for our stay and we learned that we’’d be sleeping in one of his two houses once we arrived in the village. The driver left and we carried on from there on foot. It was still smoky from the fires in Northern Thailand and Laos, so the scenery wasn’t quite as spectacular as it could have been. Still, we were all alone in the relative wilderness with our guides, which was really cool.

When I had originally booked the tour, I had assumed that we’’d carry Jessica partway and she would walk some of the way. It was only a two hour walk maximum and there waasn’t much in the way of hills to climb. She liked to go for hikes and she walked a lot of the way when we were hiking in Australia, and it was super hot there too. Perfect, I thought. She lasted about six seconds on foot before begging to be carried. We were already both carrying daypacks stuffed with our personal drinking water and all our clothes and toiletries for overnight… – not to mention Jessica’s stuff and snacks for everyone. So, the last thing either of us wanted to do was carry a kid along with everything! We carried her a little way and then set her down again to walk for awhile; telling her to walk for a little while and then we’’d carry her again when she got tired.

Well. She was NOT impressed. She begged and cried to be picked up. Hey offered to carry her, but I wanted her to walk on her own and was sick of (Daddy) capitulating to her every whim to avoid a “scene” in public. Perfect, I thought, we’re in the middle of nowhere and only Hey and Pong are around to be annoyed by this kid… – and we’re paying them! Let her spaz all she wants, then! So, I figured let her walk a bit and she’’ll cry for awhile until she realized we won’t pick her up and then she’ll get over it. What I didn’t factor in was the effect of our malaria meds on everyone. Our tempers were unnaturally short and Jessica was in a truly foul mood.

Jessica threw a spaz like I have never before witnessed. She cried, she screamed, she threw herself on the ground and kicked. We tried to put her down several times and this happened every time her delicate little feet touched the ground. The more she screamed, the more determined I became that this child WILL walk and I will not give in to this!! At one point I just walked away and left her lying on the ground thinking she’’d get up and catch up. But, she was screaming and crying so hard she started choking and nearly threw up. Great -– a lovely family trip –- wonderful experience for everyone! Hey was a trooper and kept smiling through all of it, and showed Jessica cool things along the way like ant houses and different kinds of bugs. But eventually Daddy had just had enough of both our pigheadedness and carried her on his shoulders for the duration of the trek, where she fell asleep just before we entered the village.

The village was a small settlement of a few hundred people nestled in amongst the hills. People didn’t stare quite as much as I’’d expected, but I think this village sees a lot of foreign faces. In fact, there were a few other farang staying there that evening in a different part of the village. Jessica was still crashed out on Grant’’s head and all we wanted to do was lay her down somewhere and dump our stuff off. Pong led us through the village to “our” house for the night.

Upon arrival, Hey sprang into action and eagerly began showing us around our accommodations. The house was a one room affair that stood up off the ground on short stilts; presumably to keep out some of the marauding insects, snakes, and assorted livestock that seemed to roam though the village at will. It also functioned to cool the house somewhat in Thailand’’s hot climate. This latter was facilitated by the gaps between the floorboards and the cracks between the boards that formed the walls of the house. The roof was made of grass and there was a rather lot of sunlight shining through it for our liking… – we said a short prayer that there would be no rain that night!

There were a couple of old candle stubs for when it got dark, (Uh-oh, thinks Mommy – …a three year old in a wood and grass hut with candles stuck to the floor….) but at present, there was enough light coming in through the multitude of cracks to provide adequate illumination.

Hey eagerly showed us to our beds, which consisted of three narrow woven mats on the floor of the hut, and an old, but clean, blanket each. Hey added a sleeping bag to each of these and enthusiastically showed us how we could use these for extra padding provided that the night was not cool enough to require a blanket. I asked about insects and he explained that Pong would bring out a double mosquito net before it got dark and that we must tuck this firmly under our mats. Before he left us to our own devices, Hey made sure to show us in great detail the “security features” of the house. This consisted of a door (made of the same crack-riddled construction as the walls) that closed –- mostly -– and a tiny little sliding bar lock. He was so earnest and helpful that I managed to keep a straight face until he left before cracking up at the idea that this tiny bar lock would make us feel secure at night!

The bathroom facilities were far less luxurious than the sleeping quarters. It consisted of a small building made of rough cement with a dirt floor divided into two tiny rooms. One of them had a squat toilet inside, with a candle stuck in the corner for light. The other space had a big plastic rain barrel full of water (PERFECT for breeding mosquitoes thinks Mommy) and a narrow shelf along the back of the room holding another candle and a dipper. Hey demonstrated how we were supposed to “shower” using the dipper and cautioned us to try not to get any soap into the clean barrel of water… easier said than done given the size of the space! For obvious reasons, there were no windows, but the large cracks in and around the doors let in enough light that we wouldn’t need the candles until nightfall…… I said a short prayer that Jessica wouldn’t need the bathroom in the middle of the night. The last thing I wanted to do was leave the relative security of our mosquito netting, try to find my headlamp, and stumble down the rough wooden ladder with a sleepy three year old to use the ‘facilities.’

By this time, Jessica was comfortably sleeping on one of the mats and we’’d divested ourselves of our packs and assorted gear. Grant went off for a walk (read: smoke) and I decided to hang out at the table outside our house and take in the scenery where I’’d be close enough to hear Jessica if she woke up.

Hmmmm…… the nice ladies that had welcomed us upon our arrival were now setting up a market beside the house…… some actually UNDER the house. There was now nowhere to sit where I would not be inundated with appeals to purchase local handicraft. I had fully expected to visit a local market at some point during my visit, but I certainly hadn’t anticipated one set up purely for my benefit… – and on MY doorstep! I was tired and just wanted to sit down and have six quiet minutes to myself and maybe a coke from the rather promising looking cooler nearby. I could have handled friendly curiosity and maybe a visit from the locals, but the LAST thing I felt like doing was shopping, never mind friendly bargaining.

Not only that –- now I couldn’t have a “shower” without all the assembled women and children being able to see just about everything I was doing through those handy cracks in the door. The women were all gathered with their kids between the house and the bathroom, and it looked as though they were settling in nicely. I opted for a face wash, and as discreet as possible use of the toilet.

I went back inside figuring I would spray Jessica’s long pants and shirt with insect repellent in anticipation of a mosquito filled evening. The directions said “well ventilated area” and I figured the hut probably answered that description admirably! The clothes were filthy by the time I finished because the floor was so dirty and there was nowhere else to lay them flat to spray on the stuff. Oh well. Not looking to win any fashion awards and at least that should keep the mosquitoes at bay!

Grant returned from his wander through the village and Jessica woke up so we went outside to visit with the locals and –- whether we liked it or not -– shop for handicrafts! I halfheartedly looked at a few scarves and things that I didn’t really want just to be polite. We’’d just spent so much time in the night market in Chiang Mai that neither of us was much interested in buying anything. I thought I might as well pick up something small as a souvenir of the trek and sort of as a thank-you to the village…… and discovered that prices were WAAAAAYYYY more expensive than in the city. I was not in the mood for friendly bargaining and the starting price was way too high, so I decided to find out which one of these ladies was Pong’’s wife and buy from her later.

Meanwhile, I had brought out the pencil crayons and workbooks for Jessica to share with the kids. Soon the little square in front of our hut was filled with kids busily coloring and frustrated adults trying to sharpen the crayons with the cheap little sharpeners I’’d purchased. I actually got a blister from sharpening so many darn pencils! Jessica had fun playing with all the little ones even though they obviously didn’t speak the same language.

At one point, I went into the hut to get something or other and there on the sleeping mats was an ENORMOUS spider about the size of the palm of my hand. I called Grant in to check it out and Hey came in as well and helped me to chase it away. I didn’t want him to kill it if it wasn’t poisonous (though I’’m pretty sure Grant did!!) so we just chased it out a crack in the floor. Once again Hey assured me that the mosquito net that Pong was bringing later on would keep out the critters.

Pretty soon it was suppertime and, thankfully, the ladies packed up their impromptu market so we could have our meal. Whew. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable about not buying anything. We sat down at the rough wooden table outside the door of our hut, enjoying the relative quiet after the market had been packed up.

Hey had been busily preparing our meal in the nearby kitchen. (and I use the word loosely) I didn’t look too close at the kitchen knowing it would do bad things to my appetite later on, but Grant poked his head in earlier to chat with Hey and decided to skip dinner as well. Hey brought dish after dish out of the rudimentary kitchen and some were quite lovely. (although the fish with head and skin still intact was a bit creepy) They’’d even brought peanut butter for Jessica as I’’d requested!! Jess had a few bits of dinner and discovered a Thai fruit that I can’’t remember the name of but that we christened “hairy berries” from that point forward. Once again there was a LOT of flies. I ate a bit, but didn’t even make a dent in the massive amount of food they’’d brought us. Grant had another beer for dinner.

We’’d invited Hey to join us for our meal, but he’’d declined again as he had done at lunch and gone off to eat with Pong. So, we called him over to take the leftover food to someone who wanted it. He was quite upset that Grant wasn’t eating anything at all, so I told him that Grant just wasn’t feeling very well and that the food had been lovely. Which it had…… but the flies were just a bit too much. I felt I had done a pretty good job of keeping them out of the food amidst much hand waving and napkin covering, but Grant informed me later that the kitchen had been completely full of them, and none too clean either. Precisely why I didn’t look all that closely before dinner! Between the flies and the dirt, and the smells of the livestock running everywhere it’s no wonder we didn’t have much of an appetite!

After dinner we all had a wander through the village. I’’d had a brief walk before dinner, but Hey offered to show us around a bit more. I marveled at the rudimentary huts with satellite dishes sticking out the sides of them and the juxtaposition of the primitive toilet facilities and the teenagers taking pictures of each other with their cell phones! It was a weird mishmash of old and new…… emphasis on old, however. Lines of washing were strung everywhere, the roads were made of dirt, and cars were few and far between. Kids were playing with old bicycle tires and other home-made toys, although the odd professional soccer ball made an appearance.

This was not a wealthy village and most people looked as though they lived in quite simple wooden houses with minimal modern amenities. Animals shared living spaces with people and as I looked at the proximity of the many pigsties to the houses and the families of chickens running everywhere, I realized how difficult it would be for this part of the world to control a bird-flu epidemic… – if not completely impossible! Chickens were everywhere and I warned Jessica again not to touch them or pick up any feathers. This was hard because there were tiny chicks everywhere and it would have been really nice to let her cuddle some.

We wandered back to our hut and we sat outside for a while watching Jessica play with the local children. She was having a blast, and I’’d changed her into her somewhat grubby long pants and long sleeved shirt because it was starting to get dark, and I was worried about malaria-bearing mosquitoes. The little boy she was playing with found some charcoal from an old half-burned log nearby and they merrily decorated the fence and got completely filthy in the process. It was starting to get dark so I cleaned Jessica up to the best of my abilities and we headed in to bed.

Pong had been setting up the mosquito netting while we were outside visiting so I was feeling pretty confident about a bug-free evening. Until, of course, I actually SAW the net he’d set up! There were more holes in it than a swiss cheese… – some big enough to stick my hand through. (and, thus, let that big ass spider in!!) It was ancient and had obviously been mended many times over with varying degrees of success. There was tape stuck to it all over and some resourceful individual had even used band-aids to cover some of the holes. I was really upset and worried about mosquitoes and both Hey and Pong helped me “fix” the netting by gathering the material and tying twine around the holes. The net got smaller and smaller as I watched. Eventually I just told the guys to give up or we’’d end up with no net at all! It was going to be a tight enough squeeze with the three of us in a double netting as it was. I slathered everyone with repellent and made Jessica wear her long sleeves and pants to bed despite the warm evening, and how dirty they were!

It was NOT a comfortable night. Jessica was wired for sound because of her nap earlier. She was wiggly and squirmy and alternately hungry and thirsty and needing to pee and there wasn’t really much room for the three of us on those narrow mats. It wasn’t as hot as I’’d suspected it might be because the cracks in the ceiling and walls let in lots of breeze… – unfortunately they also let in random whiffs of the nearby pigsty and all the nocturnal noises of everyday village life. At one point some guy was shouting at his TV at the top of his lungs –- must have been some sporting event on or something. When we did finally sleep, our lovely malaria meds kicked in and gave us some brutal dreams! But, there didn’t seem to be any mosquitoes around and none of us woke up with mysterious bites, so I considered the night a grand success!

We were a bit groggy in the morning after our less than successful night’’s sleep and barely made in out in time to have breakfast and buy a few things (finally) from Pong’s wife. We got to meet the newest addition to Pong’s family, his little daughter who -– surprisingly -– was blonde!

After a hurried breakfast…… which Grant again did not eat – to Hey’’s great dismay, we had a quick wash and packed up our things to get ready for our elephant ride! We’’d ridden an elephant before in Cambodia, but that was only for about 15 minutes and this was meant to be a trek through the countryside for an hour and a half to two hours. I was pretty excited!!

We bought some bananas to feed to the ellie and Hey led us to where we were to mount. THIS ellie was a LOT bigger than the one we rode in Cambodia. We fed her the bananas and then climbed up the platform to get into the basket mounted on her back. Wow, were we up high! I can’’t imagine what riding an African elephant would be like if the Asian ones come this big! Once again, we were seated on a small platform with a low railing around it. This was perched rather precariously on the back of the elephant, while the mahout rode on her neck, using his feet behind her ears and a small switch to steer.

NOT a comfortable ride, I must say! It takes a while to get used to the elephant’s gait because we’re sitting on a platform that tilts quite dramatically every time the animal moves. It’’s not like riding a horse where you can anticipate the horse’s movements and move with them. Jessica was sandwiched in between us, but I was very worried she was going to fall out. I don’t let her ride a tricycle at home without a helmet on and here she is on back of an elephant with not even a seatbelt to hold her in! So, I’’ve got a death grip on Jess, while trying to maintain my own balance, AND hold her damn box of milk that she’’s finished but that I don’’t want to toss onto the ground! How, exactly, am I supposed to take photos?? The platform is nowhere near as cushy as the one in Cambodia had been, and the metal bar is banging our backs with every step. After a few minutes, though, we figure out the stride and start to relax a bit and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

About half an hour into the ride, the mahout asks if one of us would like to change places with him and ride on the neck. Grant looks horrified at the thought, but I’’m all over that!! Amazingly, we manage to change places without any major mishap and I’’m riding astride the elephant’s neck! Oh very very very cool! THIS is an entirely different experience than the silly old platform. She kept flapping her ears around my legs and they are way stronger than I anticipated. I think she could sense that I had no idea what I was doing and was helping me keep my balance. I was grinning ear to ear for the remainder of the trip, although it did a number on my inner thighs. I thought that the mahout would only let me ride a little while, or that Grant would take a turn, but I ended up riding up on the neck for the remainder of the trek. YAY!! Happy happy Tammy!!

When we arrived at the next village that was our destination, I looked around for the boarding platform that I –- as an “experienced” elephant rider –- had come to expect. We were on a narrow path in the middle of a forest, and Hey was standing (beaming, of course) waiting for us. Just as I was beginning to wonder how on earth we were going to get down, the mahout told the elephant to kneel. Now, I’’m sitting on the neck, which was precarious enough while she was walking, but I had no idea how I was going to dismount with any sort of grace at all. My legs were cramping and my bum was asleep by this point and I figured I’’d settle for not breaking my neck on the way down. There wasn’’t even a mane or a rope to grab onto and I wasn’’t sure she’’d take too kindly to me hanging off her ears to dismount!

Everyone hung on tightly as the elephant slowly kneeled on the ground and then the mahout helped Grant and Jessica off of the platform while I –- somehow – managed to slide off her neck without injuring myself, or (hopefully) annoying the elephant. We unloaded our bags from where they were tied on the back of the platform and headed off for a short tour of the village in which we had arrived.

This village was fairly similar in nature to the one we’’d experienced the night before and we wandered around for a little while. It was a bit more “modern” here, though, and I spotted several solar panels dotted here and there amongst the houses. We had another walk ahead of us before the van picked us up, but we were all in a much better mood than the previous day, if a bit sore from a night on those mats and a couple hours on an elephant!

We walked for maybe an hour and Jessica was cheerfully walking this time. (we promised her a foot massage if she walked enough to get sore feet) Grant did carry her some of the way, though, just to speed things up a bit. But, overall, a MUCH more pleasant experience than the previous days’ trekking had been. Pong made us all laugh by making himself a silly sunhat out of a big leaf, and we all had a nice walk through the countryside.

After our walk, we met up with the van and our driver in yet another small village. A quick tour of this village and we were on our way to the river for a ride on a traditional bamboo raft. I had bought along Jessica’s life jacket again but was completely amazed when Hey pulled a child-sized jacket out of the back of the van that looked as though it would actually fit. This company really did cater well for children –- peanut butter AND kids’ life jackets!

I didn’t get any photos, unfortunately, because I didn’t want to chance getting my camera wet. The raft was just a bunch of bamboo lashed together with some larger bits of bamboo tied on top to sit on. Again, not the most comfortable sort of transportation, and our legs and bums were numb by the time we finished our hour and a half ride. The scenery was lovely along the river, though, and we acquired a small hitchhiker along the route in the form of a local child. Another kid tried to sink us when we passed a group of them playing in the water and our river guide had to kick him off the raft. Jess had fun and we were all hungry and ready for lunch by the time we got back.

Hey brought some lovely western-style boxed lunches out and we all had a picnic lunch at some tables nearby. To my great amazement, Jessica actually ate an entire cheese sandwich. Guess she was hungry! Once again, Grant didn’t really eat much, and Hey was getting very concerned. After lunch, we headed back into the city and Hey told us funny stories about his experiences as a tour guide on the way back. We gave him a huge tip and were really sad to say goodbye to our lively little guide.

We were very happy to see our big comfy bed upon our return to the Novotel. A night in the village has certainly put an end to any of Grant’’s complaining about less than perfect hotel accommodation!

Our final day in Chiang Mai was spent primarily at UPS shipping all the stuff we bought in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand home. One thing I totally forgot to budget for on this trip was shipping fees…… and boy do we spend a lot of money on shipping!

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