Monday, December 26, 2005

It still exists

Trekking was one of those experiences that you may never encounter again.

There were many places where we could have gone on treks but we held out, trying to get away from the "mass" trekking experience, where the villages are prepared for you, where you may trek for hours just to arrive and find that there is a road or other groups going to the same places...
What we got was definitely far from this.

It started with a songthew ride (a songthew is a truck taxi with seats in the back and a roof-cover) To a village on the Saliwin river where we took a longtail boat for three hours first to see our guide Aduls Karen army friends, then to a Burmese village to eat lunch.
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Long tail boat captain
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The Saliwin river is actually Burmese and divides Thailand from Burma, the river is very old and the majority of native people in the north west are Karen tribespeople. The Karen army is in conflict with Burma, and wants its own independent state far from Burmese oppressive government.
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Karen army guy
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Burmese villagers
We hiked for three hours wading through a small river several times (think 60) to reach a Karen Hilltribe village.
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There are no roads or electricity, truly "authentic" and the people wore mainly traditional dress and we were able to see them in their everyday environment.
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and we thought our bags were heavy...

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The crowd upon arrival
However, we were the main attraction as the children and young people consistently crowded around us and followed us around all the while maintaining their distance. It was very strange to be watched so intently. One of the highlights for me was the reactions of the people when I showed them their photo on my digital camera. Pointing and laughing they crowded in hoards to all get a glimpse of themselves.
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We slept in a family's house on the floor and in the morning you could see eyes that had been watching us sleeping. Life here is simplistic, in the houses their is no furniture, and only bamboo mats to sleep on (no not even a little comfortable). There is a kitchen area, where food is prepared and cooked over a small wood fire. You eat on the floor and everything is kept very clean and tidy.
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Dinner by candlelight
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Groupies
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Typical house
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This woman was hilarious, getting Dan to speak Karen and everyone laughing at his pronunciation
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Many of the villagers smoke
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Blind woman thrashing rice
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The children are so adorable

Chicken and pigs roam freely with some dogs and cats.
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The primary crop seemed to be subsistence rice farming, which is harvested once a year. Although on our second night the family we stayed with had banana and sugar cane as well.

On our second day we had to wait for the elephants.
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As there is no way to call ahead to these villages the elephants were brought in from close villages to accommodate us but first they had to be found from where they were in the jungle. Five elephants later, we nervously climbed aboard into the small wooden carriage. This is after a story the night before of a crazy elephant that had killed its mahout (owner/trainer) in a fit of rampage. Fortunately we arrived three and a half hours later to a lone house where a family stayed and tended crops.
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Our guide Adul and Teresa, a very nice German traveler

The elephants were so neat, we went on paths that you might think no animal that large would fit, but did. The mahouts controlled their 'pets' by nudging them constantly with their toes on the floppy earlobes also with curt harsh words. Would you think that an animal so large would be afraid of a goat? Well this was one of the only times where they blew their horns so load, and made a deep pulsive purring-like sound, while also trying to run away! I thought I may be tossed from my small cage high above the ground, but the threat was short-lived. I loved putting my bare feet on the elephants back and feeling its warmth and the wrinkles that would gently pinch my toes as it moved in a certain way. I think I will miss the rhythmic swaying of traveling through jungle on the back of such a magnificent creature.

That night we had our christmas jungle cocktail of banana whisky. Our guide maybe had a bit too much and told us about Karen animism, black and white magic and his disgust for christian missionaries that have ravaged the culture in the area. To our shock as the house cat walked across the fireplace, he said "I hate cats" and picked it up by the head and threw it out the window. Yes, the culture and mentality are very different from home, that was a part of the experience.
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Sugar cane harvesting

The next day we hiked to another Karen village for lunch and after to another for our last night.
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Karen village where we had lunch

The people in the last village were so shy, Adul told us that here they had never before seen foreigners, and so they were even more wary than the first village, keeping their distance even more.
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Last village

For christmas dinner, Adul bought a pig. I did not have to watch the slaughter but I thought if I eat it I should be able to watch the process. It was interesting, but I did have a hard time eating that night. The meat was so sweet, and this combined with the residing smells of the butcher made me nauseous.
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Dinner
Dan insisted on taking several more extremely gruesome pictures, if you are the kind of weird person that likes to see those things this is the link:

pig dinner

The hike on the last day was one of the most difficult of my life. Five and a half hours of steep lung-squeezing ups and knee-crushing downs. We ran into a long line of villagers carrying PVC pipes for water back to their village. Some were 10 and 12 years old smoking pipes.
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Advanced water system opportunists caravan

Apparently they were from the first village that we stayed in, and I just thought how strong they are, and how far they still have to go! When we got to our departing village with the songthew waiting for us, I knew I could take no more.
It started to rain. Many villagers packed into the truck with us and we were on our nervous bumpy way on the unkempt dirt road, we all knew we had three hours of this. We rounded a corner to find a Thai walking up the road who flagged us down. I did not know what he was saying but I understood him clearly. The wet slippery clay road had made several vehicles slip and slide on the corners downhill. So we got out and had to walk in the mud. Good for us though our truck had chains and would pick us up down the road. This was fine except later the clutch broke. Fortunately one of our guides, Alex, knew some mechanics and fixed it. All part of the experience.
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Alex fixing the truck

So yes, villages where people have not seen foreigners before exist, the wild jungle has not all been penetrated by roads and unique trekking experiences in Thailand still exist. For this I am very grateful of our experiences, and the people we met. Though most elements like sleeping and eating on the wood floor, squishing in the back of trucks and hard hiking were uncomfortable, it was an amazing experience and I am glad for it. As soon as the soreness goes away, I am up for it again.
tomorrow we are going on our way to Mae Sot but will stop off at a village that has caves to split up the six and a half hour songthew trip. We are not sure of internet connectivity there or in Um Pang where we are heading to after so it may be awhile before another post.

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