Saturday, February 14, 2009

Highlands or bust (Feb. 10/09 - somewhere in the mountains of northern Thailand)

This morning we piled into a truck with two benches in the covered box, tied our packs to the roof, and set off to pick up the people who would be joining us on our three day trek into the highlands north of Chiang Mai. The first people to climb in were a mother, daughter, and uncle from - believe it or not - West Vancouver. The daughter even used to work at the Big Sky Golf Club in Pemberton! Then came a threesome from Spain, a couple from Germany, and a couple from Belgium. The truck was crammed full, and thankfully we didn't stop for anyone else! We drove for about an hour north on the highway and then stopped at a market for the guide to stock up on food for the trip. From there, it was an hour or so on the highway and then another hour on a bumpy, winding, rough dirt road up into the hills. It seemed like a long ride since we couldn't see out, as the windows were so low that all you could see was the ditch zooming by. A pretty river ran along below the road for a long time, and occasionally we spotted people white water rafting on the rough sections. Finally we pulled over at a bamboo hut overlooking the river, and the guide came out a few minutes later with fried rice and fresh fruit for lunch. Twenty minutes later down the road, we stopped and threw on our packs, then hit the trail. We followed a ridge up through a scrubby bamboo forest until we had a nice view down over the hills and small villages below. It almost felt like autumn since the leaves were somewhere between green and gold, many on the ground, and some falling through the air. This area hasn't seen rain since November, so mid winter often looks like fall around here. It was admittedly a tough slog, as the heat and humidity were in full force and we haven't done a whole lot of vigorous exercize in three months!

After two hours of hiking way up and then way down, we finally heard the sounds of roosters and children that indicated a village ahead. This was a village of the Lahu tribe - one of the dozen or so groups of people that have migrated from surrounding countries (Burma, China, Tibet, Laos) and now inhabit the highlands of northern Thailand. People have been running treks into these areas for decades, and agreements have been made to allow visitors into these villages in exchange for assistance in developing water sources, construction projects, etc. It was pretty obvious that these people are used to seeing foreigners, as the ladies and kids all had baskets of beaded jewellry for sale, and women went around constantly asking if we wanted a massage. The main part of the village was built up above the river, consisting of not much more than a few bamboo houses and a water cistern. Down along the river were four or five big bamboo houses that each had a communal sleeping area and an outdoor deck looking over the river. We would sleep on the floor on bamboo mats under mosquito nets and hope that nobody snores too loud!

We dodged pigs, chickens, and dogs to pick a trail down to the river, which was perfectly refreshing after our sweaty hike and flowing fast enough that you had to brace yourself to avoid getting swept away. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging on the deck and chatting with everybody until dinner was served. The local ladies cooked up some awesome fresh veggies and chicken, then built a campfire on the deck to hang out beside as the temperature dropped and the stars came out. Our guide Tim and whoever else had the talent strummed songs on a guitar for hours as we listened to the frogs in the background and watched the flames flicker until we could barely keep our eyes open...

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