Saturday, July 14, 2012

Oh my Buddha! Hilltribes and Tigers!

One of the hilltribes near the Myanmar border 

Before heading into the jungle for our three day hilltribe trek, the eleven of us cram ourselves into the back of the truck for our final stop in civilization: a large, rural market where we buy the necessities -sunscreen and Deet.
Crowded under the wavy tin roofs are tables upon tables of furry fruits and sweaty meat. Large, slimy fish on steel slabs gasp in the humid air, a certain musky odor that dances between rotten meat and outhouse sweeps over their gills. I reassure myself that the smell must be coming from the table of ripe Durians, a fruit known for being so violently pungent that it is banned explicitly in subways and shopping malls. Some people describe it as being the combination of sour milk, old gym shoes, rotten meat, and a bit of dog doo. I hear it tastes great. Somehow, thinking of the smell as being from a fruit makes me stop myself from holding my breath. Ignorance is bliss.

A tidy lineup of pig heads sweat under the lights, snouts to the sky, surrounded by their rumps and hooves and indiscernibles. In a creative and bold attempt to keep away the hovering flies, one vendor has tied a plastic bag to the end of a fan blade. The bag, which is full of what looks like bloody entrails, swings above the meat. It certainly kept the flies away, I can say that. At least he double bagged it.

While pontificating the physics of centrifugal force on fans and meat, I felt a small warm hand tug at my fingers. I looked down to see a small hunchbacked woman smiling toothlessly at me. With the severe 90 degree angle of her legs to her back she couldn't have stood more than three feet tall. In what must have been the slowest kidnapping of all time, she proceeded to grab my hand in a grip that was shockingly firm, nodded her head, and began shuffling me away, past the stalls, and out of the market. Being curious, and thinking maybe she just needed someone taller to get her through the crowd, I allowed myself to be shuffled away. When we got to the edge of the market she sat down on the steps, looked up at me, and said what could only be deciphered as "banana". She repeated this over and over again, but I simply could not figure out what it was she meant or why she had taken me out into the back alley of the market. I will never know.

Our next stop on the way up the mountain was at Tiger Kingdom, a place where you pay a ridiculously small fee to hang out with tigers. I had read about the Tiger Temple in the middle of Thailand which was rumored to drug their tigers into a calmer state, so I was wary of that being the case here as well. This place, which raises the baby tigers for all of the zoos in Thailand, was supposed to be better, so I was hopeful. In we went. All of the tigers were under two years old, once they are old enough they get sent to different zoos.

The beads of sweat on my brow give a hint at the humidity

The babies are ridiculously cute, but not very soft. Their fur is surprisingly wiry and rough. One of them hisses at Ryan. All of them love belly rubs. The belly rubs are true to the bigger tigers as well. While they may seem remarkably calm, they went through bouts of wrestling with their siblings every few minutes. They didn't appear drugged at all, they just seemed like a bigger version of my own rascally cats.

While all of the tigers seemed to be kept relatively healthy and well looked after, something about the tiger kingdom didn't feel as special to me as the Elephant Farm. We were told that the babies are taken away from their mothers almost immediately after birth. The purpose of this isn't for the health of the babies, but for the sake of tourism. That sits weirdly with me. The whole thing felt like we were being shuffled in and out to take pictures. It had that awkward familiarity of being posed in rushed, uncomfortable positions for Prom photos. Any time the tigers started to play, they would get bopped on the nose with a stick until they sat back down. While I understand that a dangerous animal needs to be trained not to bite or attack trainers, not allowing them time to play seems like winding up a ticking time bomb. There are simply too many tourists going through in a day to allow the tiger or the visitor to have an enriching experience.

 The artificial feeling of it overshadowed a lot of my experience. I didn't get the sense that conservation was a big issue for them like it was for Patara Elephant Farm. Tourism was definitely their priority. While I wouldn't particularly say anything bad about the Tiger Kingdom, by far their facilities were astounding compared to others I have heard about in southeast Asia, it doesn't seem like the best possible situation. With so many visitors a day, it is hard to find that perfect balance, but not allowing the babies to be with their mothers for any part of the day, to make money, seems wrong. The tigers themselves were wonderful and magnificent, but they deserve better.

After another 30 minutes up a bumpy, muddy road, where we occupied ourselves with conversations about british chocolate and bad accents, we stopped for a visit to a beautiful leech infested waterfall and had lunch at a nearby roadside restaurant. The path to the waterfall was covered in vicious ants and carnivorous plants. The bushy carnivore plant had long fernlike leaves that clasped shut, seeming to wilt, when touched. The leeches had a magnificent way of sneaking into socks. I was prey to the biting ants.

At lunch, we befriended a couple of local cats. This was the first of many cats that decided Ryan has a good lap for napping. The cats in Thailand were all tiny with huge, mesmerizing eyes. Most of them had tails that kink halfway up the tail into a small ball. It was so common that I thought it was a modification done on purpose, like docked tails and ears on dogs. It turns out the trait is genetic and has become the dominant one among cats in this part of the world. 

After another stomach churning ride up the curvy mountain we were finally at the starting point for our trek. Being the optimistic dweeb that I can often be, I did not bring hiking shoes. On most of the pictures I was able to find of the trek before the trip, it was on mild inclines. The trek was rated at mild-moderate. I brought my hiking water sandals, thinking my biggest issue would be potential thunderstorms...

I was ridiculously unprepared. While yes, I have done some long hikes/backpacking in my day, I should have remembered that it was almost all done in the lovely low altitude of the desert, or in the colder mountain weather of northern California. I have never hiked in such high altitudes in 90+ degree humid weather. Add that on top of comically wrong shoes, and I was a disaster for the whole trek. Every mountain seemed to add on another blister; by the end of the first day I had about 6 blisters on each foot. After popping one particularly bulbous blister that first night, I was somehow not surprised to see a blister within the blister. 

Don't get me wrong, the hills of Northern Thailand were remarkable and entirely worth my exhaustive use of every curse word in my vocabulary and the mop like sweating of my reeking armpits. The benefit of being a wobbly mess in the back of the pack is that I saw so many little details I probably would have missed if I was chugging along. I saw baby birds, enormous stick bugs, and was able to do some mushroom farming with our astounding guide, Boone, along the way. He taught me about how he knows which mushrooms are safe to eat based on the way the insects act around the mushroom. We filled a whole bag.

Oh Boone. We couldn't have had a better guide over the 3 day trek. Being a native to the hilltribes, his family escaped from Burma a long time ago to reside in Northern Thailand as free people. He was older than all of us, but never broke a sweat on the whole trek. Like most Thais I got to know on the trip, he had that lighthearted and yet honest thai sense of humor that pokes fun at us silly foreigners while still being charming. "Young people! Old Body!" he would chuckle at us with a twinkle in his eye as he jogged up and down the mountain singing Bob Marley and Beatles tunes. I was wincing all the way down the steep muddy mountains to the tune of No Woman, No Cry.

Some more Booneisms
"Oh, that's ladyboy milk!"- Boone on the honey we used for breakfast

"No money, no honey" - Boone on why he isn't married
"Ladyboy no like the thai banana" - Boone on both our observance of how tiny bananas were here in thailand, and also why ladyboys prefer white boyfriends.
"Oh my Buddha!" - Boone on everything exciting or treacherous
"Uh Oh! My King Cobra!" - Boone on almost getting his family jewels smashed between a rock and a bamboo raft.

Click on the picture to see it enlarged, since it is a panorama

Click on it, another panorama

After literally slip n' sliding down the final hill into the village, we settled down into our cozy accommodations for the night on thin bed pads surrounded by holy mosquito nets - I don't mean holy in the blessed sense. I slept remarkably well, though I had a few more bug bites waking up than I had going to sleep.

At approximately 4 in the morning a chorus of roosters began a round of cockadoodledooing around the village. I had to slam my hand over my mouth to stifle my delirious chuckles as a rooster in desperate need of crowing school blurted out the most pathetic crow right on the other side of the bamboo wall from my head. A buffalo peeked into the window above us. The absurdity of the situation was more than I could bear. I was a giggling mess.

That morning we trekked to Boone's village, where piglets and cows ran through the streets. We hiked to their rice fields nearby where everyone was rapidly tilling the hillside with new rice. Two little boys watched, machetes in hand, as their mother seeded the hills.  

Furry Fruit

Boone showed us a plant that you can blow bubbles with. Just crack the stem and blow!

Ryan is helping out in the gray shirt in the back

Another panorama, click to big it up.

Boone's village with the gorgeous cows

Our second Elephant ride on the trip was a heap more terrifying than the first. On these elephants we sat on top of lofty metal seats, perched precariously on their backs. My arms were sore from holding onto the bars so tightly. I allowed this Elephant to eat my walking stick.

Our next mode of transportation would be by bamboo raft. We tied all of our backpacks to a bamboo perch in front of the raft and sailed our way down the river surrounded by jungle. Water buffalo chewed their cud while they cooled off in the water next to us, big heads peeking out of the murky brown water. Our group was split onto two rafts with Boone leading the other raft. While our river guide seemed to be taking his job very seriously, needing every moment to maneuver us around boulders and fallen trees, Boone was effortlessly leading his raft while simultaneously fishing and swimming. Only Boone.

After a couple of hours on the raft we arrived at our village for the night. Resting at the table outside of our new bamboo bedroom we were almost instantly surrounded by a group of women from the village who insisted on giving us massages. I say insisted because all of a sudden they were rubbing our shoulders despite our attempts to tell them we were fine. Honestly, a massage was too much sensation after the hiking we had done the past couple of days. And in case I haven't mentioned it yet, Thai massages are not gentle. One little kid kept covering my arms in loads of bracelets until I gave in and bought one. A villager walked by with a rather relaxed chicken clutched in his hands. He went right into the kitchen. We had chicken pumpkin curry for dinner.

According to Boone, this village eats dogs and monkeys. They also sell their babies to the more well off villagers in the tribe. Apparently the black dogs are worth more because they can cure more ailments when eaten. Boone has tried dog and monkey but doesn't chose to eat them if he has a choice. As he says, monkey is too similar to human and he doesn't like the taste of dog. Underneath the table was a sleeping black dog with a lame leg. On the bench across from us an elderly village woman wearing a tribal skirt and flip flops smokes a long pipe with an "I don't give a shit" face on. We drink their homemade rice whisky and catch fireflies in empty jam jars.

Our trail mushrooms!

I woke up the next morning to the smell of smoke from breakfast cooking and quiet mews. Nothing can get me out of bed faster than kittens. They did not disappoint. Ry and I picked them up, their bony little bodies vibrating violently with their purrs. We walked through town before getting back on the raft for our final two hours down the river.

Boone told us the owner of this house was one of the wealthiest in town. He works in Chiang Mai and uses the money to better his home and family. Notice how he has wooden boards instead of woven bamboo for his walls? 

While our raft ride began with a beautiful, dare I say almost chilly, sprinkling of rain, we soon started to come upon a bit of mild white water. Now, in a bamboo raft even a bit of whitewater is going to be a problem. While Boone was able to still fish and swim and raft simultaneously, the same could not be said for our doomed raft. In Titanic like fashion, our guide broke his bamboo pole and we went barreling into a boulder. We all slid forward violently as our raft began to sink under the pressure of the relentless water. We all had to abandon ship before getting pulled down into the river and rocks with it. After scrambling off of the raft the water quickly took the opportunity to carry us down the river until we all seemed to hit the same boulder where we hung on as our raft twisted into a mess of sticks and rushing water. While I should have been worried about my scraped thighs and the potential leeches, I couldn't keep my eyes off of my backpack with my camera inside. Ryan, the good man that he is, secured my camera tightly inside of it's hopefully waterproof bag before he jumped off the raft himself. Priorities, haha.

The other raft came to our rescue as the strongest lifted the raft out of the mini rapid it was stuck in. Remarkably, and this is a testament to the miraculousness of bamboo, the raft untwisted itself and looked no worse for the wear. It was missing a couple of bamboo poles, but it was good to go. So good to go, in fact, that it started passing us by at a rapid speed while we cheered from the rock we were all stranded on. Seeing Ryan almost fall off of the now swiftly moving raft triggered me to leap after him in overly dramatic fashion. I tumbled into the water and over a bunch of rocks until I smashed myself up against the raft. Others followed suit. We were back in action.

We ended at another village where hot pad thai awaited us, along with our truck ride back into town. On the way back down the mountain we stopped at a gas station with a convenience store and a bathroom. Now, without getting too gross... let's just say I was overjoyed to see a bathroom after being "bunged up" - a lovely term I learned from my british trekmates -  for 3 days in the jungle. "Lobster Hot Plate" flavored Lays chips welcomed us back into civilization. That night in Chiang Mai, tired and sore, our whole group made a pilgrimage past night bazaars and dogs dyed purple in front of sketchy massage parlors to a place that we were all undeniably craving after days of eating nothing but curry and pad thai... we found an amazing American Burger place, Duke's. Fries never tasted so good.

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