The last couple of days have to be the highlight of my trip to date. The trek was everything i’d hoped it would be : amazing experiences, beautiful scenery and not another tourist in sight – apart from James!
We caught a Songtaew to Maewa where we started our trek. We shared the back of an elephant to travel 5km through the Mae Sariang outback. The terrain was so unexplored that our elephant guide had to chop back the trees and foliage, as we encountered it, with his machetti. This was not always a successful exploit, as we often ended up with our hair and laps full of various leaves and creatures from the trees (including several furry caterpillers, spiders & ants of all shapes and sizes, and a rather disturbing brown and wrinkled leaf that sprouted legs and walked across my arm!)
However, on the flip side, this was, on one occasion, a little too successful, as the entire upper part of one of the resident trees came tumbling down towards us, the bulk of it narrowly missing us as we sat precariously on top of our forever hungry, and amazingly sure-footed elephant!
The scenery was awesome : huge towering coconut palms and bamboo, banana, jackfruit, mango and papaya trees, huge ferns, and various other native trees whose name now escapes me, disappearing into the mist sitting on top of the faraway hills, and reaching towards the beautiful warmth of the blue sky above them.
At the end of our elephant experience, we walked the remainder of the way on foot, to the Karen village (which consisted of one house – a bamboo hut built on stilts – and 4 inhabitants) where we stopped for lunch. the village was surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of chillis growing in the fields. The flashes of bright scarlet red on a landscape of green was a truly wonderful sight.
After lunch was the hardest part of the trek. I have never trekked over such varied and difficult terrain before in my life . We covered 10km of ground varying from trudging through wet and muddy river beds, to treading carefully over slippery stones on the base of a rushing stream, to walking through waterfalls, to struggling up the steep gradient of a hill on an unformed path, to climbing rocks, to making the journey down a steep hill where the topsoil is eroding because it hasn’t sen a drop of rain for months.
We were given sturdy but lightweight lengths of bamboo to use as sticks to aid our climbs and our decents, but at one point me and my bamboo lost all grip on the loose soil and came hurtling down a hill at top speed towards a rather dangerous looking tree! Fortunately James had already succesfully made the journey to the bottom, so he caught me before the tree did!
After about 3 or 4 hours Nigorn (our English speaking Karen guide), his Karen assistant and friend (who knew the forests like one would know their home town) and a very sweaty and tired James and I reached our final destination : Mae Luey, the Karen village where we would sleep for the night.
Bitternut – the small round fruit a lot of Karen people chew on, which over time, stains their teeth red and rots them. The actual fruit of the bitternut (as long as it’s ripe) tastes like a combination of a passionfruit and a lemon.
As soon as we entered the village we both felt like we’d stepped back in time; like we’d walked into a working museum. All the houses built on stilts were made only of bamboo and teak, and leaves from hardwood trees to simulate the tiles on a roof. the toilet was a nearby hut with a hole in the floor and a bucket of water for washing your hands. If you wanted a shower or bath, the closest you were going to get to that was a swim in the nearby river (which, incidently, was very refreshing, and the water was so clean you could see right to the bottom of the river bed). Their economy consists of cultivating corn and rice and farming livestock, so there are pigs and chickens roaming wild, and they still use the traditional wooden contraptions for grinding the rice, which we were able to witness when we first arrived at the village. They cook over an open fire and once they’ve washed the dishes the dirty water is tossed out on to the ground for the pigs to bathe in, or for me to slide on ad nearly fall on my arse when i tried to find the toilet in the dark! The small amount of electricity they do have is all solar powered and simply consists of a small strip light in each house, which is turned on for a few hours after sundown.
James and i had a wander through the village before dinner, marvelling at the stark differences in these people’s way of life. Yet they are a hugely friendly and welcoming bunch of people. We were invited to join in with the children’s Karen lessons (A missionary from the village teaches them songs in Karen (they are only taught Thai at school) and accompanies their singing on his guitar) and given some boiled water to drink, although at that point it was both boiled and boiling! We watched a Karen woman weaving a shawl whilst tapping our feet to the cheerful voices of the children as they sang.
We then tried (very unsuccessfully!) to take photographs of the sky (which was so clear you could see thousands upon thousands of beautiful stars) before retiring to our beds (which consisted of a wicker mat on the floor, some blankets and a very small pillow each!) and trying to sleep through the sounds of the cows, pigs and chickens, the rushing water on the river, and a very annoying meowing cat!
Karen words we learnt (phonetically spelt) :
O-chew-a : Hello Da-bloo : Thank you
Well before we eventually managed to drag ourselves out of our very uncomfortable beds, the villagers were all up and about and completing their various tasks within the village. Nigorn cooked us a breakfast fit for a king (there was so much food we could barely finish half of it!) and then we set off on our raft just before 9am. Convinced it may sink, James and i were desperately trying to waterproof our bags and cameras, but we had absolutely nothing to worry about. The Karen guy steering the raft at the front knew the river so incredibly well that save for a couple of times we hit some rapids, it was a very smooth and danger-free spectacular journey down the Ngao river.
It takes approximately 2-3 hours for a Karen person to build a raft like ours, and it successfully travelled 20km to its destination of Ban Mae Ngao.
After the trek
James and i were completely speechless after the trip : it was exactly the sort of trek we both wanted to do. Nigorn was an excellent guide : knowledgable enough to be able to answer all our questions and young enough to still have the enthusiasm and eagerness to please. He’d not done the route we undertook for approximately a year and had never steered a bamboo raft before, so it was all as new for him as it was for us.
When we returned to mae Sariang James and I talked about our experiences over dinner at Renu Restaurant (where i had the spiciest green curry since my arrival in Thailand!) and a bottle of samsong whisky. As James says, “sometimes you meet the best people in the most unlikely places.” Mae Sariang is very much like a ghost town in terms of the number of people there who don’t actually live in the village, yet i met the most fantastic person on my trip so far in Mae Sariang. Yes, travelling does put you in touch with people whose paths would never otherwise cross yours, but equally you spend enough time together to develop a bond and the basis of a wonderful friendship, before your own schedules and time pressures separate your paths once again.
James only has less than 3 weeks left of his 6 week trip and wants to go to Chiang Mai, over into Luang Prabang and then out to Hanoi. I’ve just come from Chaing Mai, and i’m not going to make it to Luang Prabang (and certainly not to Hanoi) in the sames timescales that he is. We have however, exchanged contact details, he’s promised to send me a salmon when he returns to Canada, and he’s invited me out to visit him. I hope very much that we’ll stay in touch.
Photo is of our bamboo rafting experience down the Ngao river, Mae Sariang province.