Song of the past three days: White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane
Today we have done absolutely nowt. Currently I’m sat here by the swimming pool outside our hostel, tapping away at the keyboard with the sound of an artificial waterfall and moped engines as the soundtrack to the afternoon. Oh, and I have a beerlao on the go, whilst Hollie is sat by my side reading a book and quaffing a bacardi breezer flavoured “Apple Envy”. I am not envious – it is the same luminous green colouring that the Incredible Hulk turns when you make him angry.
The last two days have been hard work. When I say hard work, I mean relative to the travelling situation that we find ourselves in, and not in comparison with real work, which is a lot harder.
We were picked up at 9:30 on Tuesday by a songtheaw, which did the rounds in picking people up from various hostels around the old city of Chiang Mai. By the time we left Chiang Mai and headed for the hills we were ten in number, including Hollie and myself. Our party included four Poles, two Americans, one Dane and a Swiss – it was a bit like a NATO conference, only friendlier. Over the next 36 hours or so we would come to form a bond of shared experience with all of our fellow tour participants and although we won’t see any of them again, I reckon I’ll remember them all for a very long time.
For those who haven’t read my previous blog entries I’ll briefly recap. We signed up for a two days, one night trip in which we would be taken up into the mountains to the west of Chiang Mai to do a few activities, either side of a night’s stay in a traditional hilltribe village.
In the mountains of Northern Thailand there live a significant number of people who are described as the “hilltribes”. There are several different groups of these people with different ethnic and cultural origins. By far and away the largest group are called the “Karen” tribe. The ancient origin of the Karen is something of a mystery, but it seems that they are a nomadic people who over the centuries have migrated down from Tibet into the more easterly Asian countries. 8 million people of Karen origin live in Myanmar, and have been subject to extreme prejudice and at times genocide at the hands of the Burmese and before that, us Brits. Over the last hundred years or so this has caused around 400,000 Karen to flee Myanmar and make their homes in the Thai mountains just across the border.
The Karen are farmers, and until the last thirty years made a pretty penny out of growing and selling opium. Under pressure from the Thai authorities they have been forced to start growing legal crops, which has futher worsened their economic plight. The worst issue affecting all of the hilltribes though, is the fact that most of them don’t officially exist. There was a law brought in in the sixties which means that you can apply for citizenship if you can provide evidence of your Father’s birth. The first national census in Thailand was in 1956, and because many hilltribe members weren’t on it – either because they hadn’t arrived in Thailand yet or because they were too remote to register – they were not granted citizenship. As a consequence of this, successive generations have continued to remain invisible to the authorities and are denied access to education, healthcare and official employment. Like the native Americans, aboriginees and just about any other tribal group, the Karen seem destined to suffer from prejudice and a lack of understanding on the part of more dominant cultures. Cashing in on curiosity, a lot of tour companies offer excursions to visit various tribal villages that have been created by artificial means. There was even a case of human trafficking in which a tour company kidnapped a group of Karen people from Myanmar under the pretence that they were taking them to visit family members in Thailand. Instead of being taken to see their families, they were forced to live in a purpose-built “village”, where every day busloads of tourists were ferried in to this human zoo to gawp at the “locals”. Because of this we were extremely picky about which tour company we went with, as there appears to be no official standards for right and wrong in this industry. In the end we went with a tour company called Eagle House who were pretty good, despite a slow start.
As we ascended into the mountains the roads got narrower and windier, and the driver’s insistence on taking hairpins at full throttle made for an uncomfortable ride. The views were spectacular and although the whole of Thailand is locked in the middle of the dry season, the landscapes retain a remarkably healthy green hue. We stopped off at a market so that the driver could buy fresh ingredients, which would be given to the hill tribe so that they could cook dinner for us. We then motored futher into the unknown, climbing for about an hour before reaching a wide valley. We got out and those of us that wanted to went on a short elephant ride. Hollie and I sat in the shade and laughed at one of the male elephants that was bearing our American friends. Unbeknownst to them his four foot long schlong was out, dragging slightly on the ground as he walked, competing with his trunk for the title of “longest appendage”. I have a newfound appreciation for the phrase “hung like an elephant”.
We got back on the songtheaw and stopped briefly at a roadside hut where our two guides hopped onboard. As there was no room in the vehicle they stood on the back bumper and clung on to the roof rack. One of the two of them had a long spliff wrapped in banana-leaf. Curiosity got the better of me and when I asked what it was, he replied “opium”. The assembled westerners chuckled but his face remained impassive – old habits die hard and I think he was probably just being honest, unaware or uncaring of the stigmas attached to such a drug. Whatever it was, for the next twenty-four hours he continued to smoke like a chimney and apart from a laid-back demeanour which is prevalent anyway in these parts, he didn’t appear to be unduly affected.
We got out of the songtheaw on the steep bend of a mountain road. We waved goodbye to the driver and then followed the guides into a steep gorge. We crossed our first stereotypical dodgy bamboo bridge over a shallow ravine. We found that walking sideways like a crab is the best way to avoid slipping off the narrow logs of bamboo which no longer seemed to be lashed together – this would be Tommy’s first top tip for living in the jungle. After a few minutes we came upon a waterfall surrounded by steep cliffs. We had a lunch of egg-fried rice which the guides had brought up in backpacks for us, before spending half an hour or so in the icy waters of the falls. The channel of water was too narrow to swim in so we weren’t able to warm up by exercising, so instead we just stood there freezing our proverbials off. Had we known what was in store for us for the next five hours we’d have probably stayed in the water a little longer.
We began to trek up the forested hillsides in single file, and soon the roar of the waterfall was a distant memory. Though it was shady, the exertion of walking at the guide’s pace got us very hot very quickly. Most Thais are of a very slight build and they seem to have a natural fitness far superior to our own. These Karen, who spend much of their lives forging jungle trails running one errand or another, were no exception. The rest breaks were regular but we were still knackered about an hour into the trek.
On one of these breaks our guide beckoned us over to a plant which was crawling with ants. He scooped a handful off the plant and put them in his mouth, saying “You try, it’s like lemon”. Myself and an American lad, John-Mark, followed suit and ate some live ants. The flavour was very sour, but really pleasant – very much like those sour dummy sweets you get with sugar all over them. This was an amazing moment for me – as I chewed thoughtfully on the ants, I thought to myself – “You are Tommy, the jungle man. Ray Mears has nothing on you.” I turned round to look at Hollie, who has a dreadful phobia of insects. She gave me a look which seemed to say “You will never kiss me again”. On another break the guide took a bamboo sling shot out of his pocket and impressed us with his ability to hit a tree about thirty yards away with rocks off the ground. I then competed with a middle-aged Polish bloke called Roman to do the same, and found that I couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. The Karen sometimes hunt using sling shots and bows and arrows to catch small forest animals. If I was called upon to provide for the tribe I think they’d starve to death within a few weeks.
The jungle at this time of year is extremely dry, and doesn’t really resemble the Hollywood portrayals in films like Tarzan. There are plenty of rare and exotic sights, but the forest floor is littered with dying leaves and the beds of dry streams – in places it smells similar to a European forest, and in amongst the bamboo and teak trees you can find the odd pine.
Fascinating as it was, we began to tire, and then to get knackered. We trudged on for nearly five hours, up one hillside and down another before we finally arrived at the village, hungry and moody. A menagerie of animals scuttled about the dusty yard between a dozen or so stilted houses that were spread over a wide area. There were various mongrel dogs, two black pigs, cockerels and chickens that got under our feet as we walked towards our accomodation – a large stilted shed. I noted the truck and moped that was housed underneath our quarters and wished we could have made it to a road so that we could have been picked up halfway along our trek.
We were greeted by a few Karen women in their traditional regalia who were trying to sell us jewellry that they’d made. For the first half hour I was worried that we’d made the wrong decision. Though the village was obviously authentic, I was worried we’d been caught in a tourist trap where we were just going to end up buying tat off people who had us in a corner. For what seems like the millionth time since we arrived in Thailand, my initial perception couldn’t have been more wrong and I felt guilty for thinking so negatively of these people. Though there were quite a few houses in the village, they were a few hundred yards apart from each other. We did not visit any of the other houses in the village while we were there, although their residents occasionally popped down to see us and help prepare dinner. We were invited by our guide to come into his family’s house. Four Karen blokes and an elderly lady in Karen dress sat around an open fire, whilst various bowls of vegetables were on the floor. This first meeting was awkward and a bit painful, and I think that everyone in the group felt that we were intruding.
Dinner was excellent – a kind of very mild green and red curry with vegetables and rice. Whilst we sat chatting after dinner the guide lit a fire for us. There were several logs, about ten foot long which he set light to in the middle. As the evening progressed, we kept pushing the remainder of the logs into the middle of the fire until they were finished – it felt like a natural kind of clock. When the logs were gone and the embers were dying, we would know it was time for bed. There was a large dustbin full of ice and beers which were left out for us, and we were trusted to take our own booze out of it and write what we’d taken in a book, to be paid for the following morning. For a while we were left to our own devices whilst the Karen family went to their own house to eat. We sat round the campfire and exchanged stories whilst swigging little cans of Chang.
The conversations were long and detailed and there’s no point me trying to capture them here, but there was one interesting snippet that I’ll share with you. We naturally gravitated towards the two Americans – John-Mark and Anika who were the son and daughter of a preacher-man. When the smoke from the fire changed direction and blew into somebody’s face, John told us that in North Carolina where they came from, there was an old Indian tradition. If the smoke from the fire blew in your direction, they believed it to be the spirit of a white rabbit from the forest, testing your resolve. To get rid of the fire out your eyes, you should stare into the smoke and say “White rabbit”, firmly. If you say it with conviction, the white rabbit spirit will change direction and the smoke will blow in a different direction. I thought this was a cool story and very in keeping with the vibe of the evening, and it’s funny because I’ve always felt that the smoke round a fire seems to follow me around.
After a while our guide came out to us and said “You want some whiskey?” After seeing our enthusiastic nods he beckoned us to join him in his home. Sat on the floor around the hut were various members of the family. Our guide poured out some glasses of a cloudy grey liquid into bamboo cups and handed them to us. I was apprehensive about this whiskey – I’d heard all sorts of tales about home brews in Thailand, topped up with gasoline and all sorts of other crap to make it more potent. I took a tiny sip and was pleasantly surpised – it was a nice, natural tasting drink, more akin to wine in taste and potency. I don’t know if they call it whiskey because of the way it’s distilled, but it was definately more of a rice wine. We finished our glasses and they filled them again. And again, and again. Sat across from us was what we thought to be Grandma, with her tiny baby grandaughter cradled in her arms. I was sat next to Grandpa, and two uncles. These three chaps had dark, wrinkled skin and a look of mischief in their eyes. I asked to take their picture and they were fascinated when I showed them the photo I had taken of them – I’m sure they have tourists come to stay and photograph them quite regularly, but from their curiosity I’d say they don’t have a camera of their own. My interaction with them was rewarded with more whiskey, and over the course of an hour we partook in the internationally recognised pastime of getting arseholed together. We tried and failed to ask them all sorts of things, but the comedy of our failed attempts brought everyone closer. Grandma asked our guide (who we think was also her son) to ask us in English what our names were. We each told her our European names and she attempted to repeat them. She then went round the room pointing to each of us and asking what our jobs are. Each person was able to explain their job with relative ease – Hollie mimed working with animals and they seemed to get what she was on about. Our guide was able to translate that John and Anika were teachers. When it got to me I had been thinking for a good while how I could explain to a tribe member what “mental health” is. Now, I’m not proud of this, but the only way I thought I could explain was wiggling my finger round my ear, in that very un-PC that people do to indicate a mad person. After making various gestures in this vein and failing to get my message across, John piped up in his American drawl and said “Dude, I think she thinks that you’re saying you’re a retard.” The whole room erupted at my expense but I’ve racked my brains since and still can’t think how I could have explained myself!
After a couple a couple of hours of this drunken attempt to bridge the language barrier we decided that we’d intruded upon the family’s time long enough. After a slow and awkward start, our evening with the tribe had been an amazing experience and another that I’ll take with me to the grave. These were people who we could not have had less in common with, but somehow both parties had found a way to interact and – I think – the family we met enjoyed it almost as much as we did. We stood in the yard for a while looking up at the stars – far from the light pollution of the city the vista was clearer than anything I’ve ever seen before. There were perhaps double the stars visible that we can normally see out the window back home in Belper. The whiskey and the thought of the infinite nature of the galaxy made our heads spin and we resolved to go to bed immediately. We climbed the wooden ladder and lay down on mats under mosquito nets in our hut. It drops cold at night here and we smothered ourselves in blankets. I remember sleepily wondering whether a tiger could climb the ladder into our open hut as I dropped off to sleep.
We woke early-very early. The cockerels decided to start cock-a-doodle-doing about an hour before dawn. Various other animals could be heard all over the place including what we suspected to be one of those elusive monkeys which we are yet to see. At one point a cow mooed very loudly and I peered through the cracks in the floorboards to see the big girl directly below me, fanning the morning mosquitoes away with her tail. I climbed down the ladder around eight to find that our guide had re-ignited last night’s fire, and he was boiling kettles of tea and coffee whilst holding long strips of bamboo, split down the middle, trapping bits of bread in the middle which he was toasting. Though the village is equipped with electricity, there was no hot water and Hollie and I both bottled having a cold shower.
After a breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and watermelon we said a thousand thank-yous to our hosts before trekking for two or three hours down the mountain, breaking for about half an hour at a waterfall before arriving back at the road. We had lunch of pad-thai before hopping onto some bamboo rafts. There were three to a raft , sitting cross-leggged on the bamboo whilst a bloke stood up and punted us down the shallow river using a bamboo cane. There is a fine art to steering a bamboo raft and our oarsman didn’t have it – we crashed against the rocks on three seperate occasions, jolting us forwards a couple of feet. About halfway down the course we spotted the first snakes we’ve seen in Thailand. Two little brown serpents who were sunning themselves on the rocks. After we’d spotted them and shouted a bit they plopped into the water and dissapeared into the murky depths. I crossed my legs a little tighter – Your arse is constantly in the water on a bamboo raft and I thought I’d minimise a passing snakey’s chances of nibbling at my sweet spots. Hollie – animal whisperer that she is – has since identified the snakes in question as a type of ratsnake – constrictors of small creatures who don’t carry a venomous bite. We floated serenely under precarious looking rope bridges, past an abandoned city of stilted bamboo huts and alongside a few elephants that were enjoying an afternoon bath under the watchful eye of their mahouts. We landed ashore and endured another hour’s worth of being tossed about in the back of a songtheaw before arriving back at the hostel. We said a heartfelt goodbye to our fellow tour members and holed up for the night in our hostel, in bed by nine’o’clock!
That’s it for now – It’s taken me all afternoon and several beerlaos to complete this epic, Shakespearean tale, and now we must head out in search of sustenance.
Again I apologise for the length of this post, there’s so much I’ve missed out but I felt like I’d just bang out what I could in one looooong blog entry. If you could share this blog with everybody you know who might be into it, I would be eternally grateful.
Much tribal love,
Tommy and Hollie x