15 April 2013

My Overnight Trek in the Mae Tang Area of Thailand . . .

(You know what's super-fantastic? Spending a week typing this up, putting the finishing touches on it last night for it to go out, and then clicking publish only to find out that it did not publish nor did it save what had been written. So here I sit on a Monday night painstakingly trying to recreate the lower half of the post I had last night. I am nothing if not tenacious. Thank you for your patience.)

I have a giant scabby blister on the back of my right foot. If I point my toe just right, it cracks open and starts bleeding. All up and down both of my legs are teeny tiny mosquito and chigger bites (throw some fleas in there too, just for kicks). These days, getting out of bed is a bit of a challenge as my lower back and knees just aren't what they used to be, two weeks ago. And my toenails? I don't think they are back to their regular clear-ish, pink color yet. Nope. Traces of dirt are still cemented under the nails, and into the hairline wrinkles of my toes. (Especially the baby toe on my right foot.) 

You see, one week ago I was sitting in the back of an 1989 Toyota pick-up truck with ten 20-somethings being driven to the border of Burma (Myanmar), just outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I was still a bit emotional from leaving Wanalee. So I hadn't really looked over my itinerary. I had no idea what was in store for me. I had hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and not known a thing about where I was going, who I was going with, or how long I would be gone. Three cheers for preparedness!

Our first stop? An orchid farm. We stopped off here for about 30 minutes. The colors were incredible and the way that everything was hanging from a grid system was super cool. I kept thinking about how much my dad would love being there, and that he would probably want to build a similar grid system in his backyard.

I'm looking back at these images of the orchids and thinking, wow I have a whole new appreciation for these images now. When these pictures were originally taken, all 11 of us were feeling a bit awkward. We had all been tossed into the back of the truck around 7am, driven about an hour outside of town on a very bumpy road, and not spoken a single word to one another. Lucky me, I was the last one picked up. So there was no room on the two bench seats that were lining the sides of the truck. So I had to sit on the tailgate for the entire hour, worried that I would be flipped out of the truck and splattered all over the highway. Lovely. Four of my youngest traveling companions had massive hangovers . . . So when we got to the orchid farm, we were all just happy to not be in the truck and paid very little attention to the orchids.

About 10 minutes down the road from the orchid farm was a big open market that we spent some time in while our trusty guide purchased all of our food for the trip, including 4 giant pineapples that I never quite figured out how he transported up the trail as his backpack was quite small. But somehow they made it up to the top of the mountain . . . The colors always amaze me at open markets: everything from the food to the clothing, the party goods to the religious-inspired items. At this particular market, I saw the smallest dog I had ever seen. Look at this little boo, fits in the hand of quite a small person.

Following the market, we stopped at a small Kayan village. This small village was an offshoot of larger Kayan villages in the area. While I found this little girl playing in the river quite sweet, it seemed like this village was almost entirely created for tourists. We didn't see anyone doing anything but selling things from booths that were very similar to booths you would find at a craft fair. And--really--everything looked to be items you could purchase at the market we had just been to. But still, the items they were selling were very beautiful . . . I'm so drawn to all of the colors!

The major part of our driving ended when we got to the elephant camp. We were going on a bit of a short ride with some elephants after eating our beautiful lunch (see above, just like a present!). The countryside was absolutely gorgeous.

But I had just established a relationship with my friend Wanalee at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. So I was a bit weary about getting on elephants that looked hot and tired. Plus we were riding them in a seat that was perched up on their back. I must admit, I felt quite regal riding the elephant this way, like I was a Maharaja. But I kept thinking about how hot the elephant must be with all of those blankets and three people on her (three!!). I had become so accustomed to being on Wanalee's neck and giving her commands on my own. Now I was riding an elephant with mahouts who actually used their bamboo/hook stick. I did feel pretty awesome about the amount of food that we were able to give our elephant: we each bought a bag of bananas and sugar cane for 25 baht. So she ended up getting quite a bit of food on our relatively short journey.

This was the only part of the trip that I felt a little uncomfortable agreeing to . . .

Once we hopped off our elephants, we had to walk about ten minutes to where the truck was going to pick us up. And part of this little jaunt involved crossing a river. So, two-by-two, we piled into a metal cage and someone pushed us across the river. (Because--really--is there any other way to cross a river?)

Once we got to the truck, we drove about 15 minutes down the road to a little riverside store where we loaded up on water and drinks while our guide sharpened his giant knife and changed into shorts. A few of us went swimming. This is the same river that we would eventually raft down the very next day.

Along with the plethera of dogs in and around the store, there were also some great characters hanging out. I spoke to the guy below for a little while, asking all about his pet squirrel. He was having lunch, standing next to his giant motorcycle. It is in fact true: every good town needs a biker dude with a pet squirrel. Notice his fanny pack says SWAT on it. As in team? As in flies? Who knows . . .

Once everyone had dried off and gathered their items, we strolled down the road a bit to where the big hike began. Our first leg of the hike was 3 hours long, uphill. The first part was not so steep; but as we got higher and higher, the trail got steeper and steeper. I did pretty good until about the last 30 minutes when I had to stop several times to take a breather. I ended up running out of water in the middle of hour number 2. Below is a video of one of our breaks towards the end of our uphill journey. Notice my heavy panting . . .

When we finally arrived at our destination, we rounded the bend and there before us was a small little mountaintop village. Families living in one room dwellings. Kids playing outside. And pigs, dogs, and chickens all over the place. The first building we came to was selling cold waters and soda, which made us happier than knowing that our hike was over and we would be able to rest for a bit.

Once we got to our place (see image below), I took a picture of myself sitting on the porch. I made it! 

We all slept in the same room overnight: 4 fresh-out-of-highschool Danish girls, a newlywed couple, 4 people from Belgium, 2 people from Thailand, and me. You can see my backpack on the bed leaning against a wall in the background, behind the pole. Also in this house was a big brick stove and a tub of ice filled with beer, soda, and water.

Our bathroom was outside and down a ladder at least 2 meters high. The image below was taken from the porch, just above the top of the ladder. The shower is on the left, a hole in the ground on the right. The idea of having to climb down a ladder in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom was enough to keep me capped at 3 beers for the evening. There was no electricity, and the only flashlight I had was on my iPhone which was dwindling in battery life.

As the sun began to go down and the light began to change, it became clear to me why I had come on this trek. It was a breathtaking view, absolutely gorgeous. How incredibly lucky and life-changing it was for me to be standing on the top of a mountain in Thailand, watching the sun go down . . . I was meeting new people, living a brand new life in Singapore, and experiencing things I would never again be able to experience. Not in the same way. 

Live once and live it well.

Once the sun was down, it was time for dinner. Our guide was a man of many talents, and cooking was one of them. He slapped on his headlamp and went to work cooking vegetables, chicken, and rice over the brick stove in our house (see above).

When it was time to eat, he laid out some mats on the porch and lined the center of them with candles. For the candle holders he cut our used water bottles in half, flipped over the top part of the water bottle and stuck it down in the lower half, and used the hole in the flipped over part of the bottle as the candle holder. Pure crafty campy genius! Look how beautiful our table setting was . . . So simple, so romantic.

After dinner was cleared, we sat around talking and playing cards and spoons. I ended up going to bed around 10pm, just as the guitar came out. What a lovely way to drift off to sleep!

And just as I was the first person to drift off to sleep, I was also the first person to wake up. Can you blame me? It was like being in a painting: the colors were muted, but crystal clear. Every direction I looked had a very distinct foreground, middle ground, and background. I wouldn't have thought that it would get better than the sunset, but somehow it had. I have always been a sucker for mornings.

For the longest time, I watched the lady above with her pigs. It was around 6am and she talked to them for a good thirty minutes while feeding them and giving them water. I went down the ladder to visit the bathroom and one of the baby pigs waddled over to me. I picked him up and he just looked at me, blinking and oinking while wiggling his nose. It was the cutest thing I had ever seen. They seemed to act like dogs, wagging their tails and coming right up to me.

Speaking of dogs, look at that little guy below. He was my buddy. We played and played and played! Every time I tried to leave, he would grab a hold of the bottom of my sweater and pull me back for more! He had a bum right front leg, but that most certainly did not slow him down one bit. He was so much fun to be around!

Our breakfast wasn't until 830am, so one of the plus sides to being up early was getting first dibs on the coffee. The guide was up, cutting up pineapple and getting ready to cook eggs and peppers for breakfast. But no one else was awake. So I sat there with my essentials: camera and coffee, for a good two hours alone. It was fantastic! A great time for reflection and graciousness. I couldn't think of a better way to start the day (except for maybe my mornings with the elephants). Check out how dirty my feet were starting to get . . . And I was wearing tennis shoes, not sandals.

Our coffee station above, and our breakfast spread below. I couldn't believe how much food there was! Each time he had fed us, we had so much food! Where was it all coming from? There is no way all of this could've fit in his pack . . . Still a mystery.

And check out who climbed up our ladder to sit next to me! My buddy from earlier. I ended up feeding him a couple of slices of bread, some leftover crusts, and a few morsels of egg. He was sitting so nicely, I just had to give him something . . .

Once our breakfast was finished, we cleaned up and packed up our things and we were off on our trip down the mountain by 9am.

It was relatively easy terrain at the beginning. You can see in the picture above how well the trail was marked. But then we ended up going off the trail just after this image was taken, and landed at the tree on the righthand side of the picture below. You can't see from this image just how steep it was on the other side of that tree . . . But to give you an idea, over half of us slid down on our bottoms. I ended up getting a fair amount of splinters in my hands. But man was it gorgeous up there!

About an hour and a half later, we found our lunch spot in a gaggle of thatch roof houses. We rested for about thirty minutes. There was a little store, a large kitchen, and two eating areas inside the main house. A hammock was available for those wishing to lay down for a bit. I ended up putting my backpack down and walking around, taking pictures. I found it incredibly difficult to rest during our breaks because I wanted to see and experience everything.

Here is our guide cooking lunch for us in a giant wok on the stove: the best noodles on the planet! Tomatoes, onions, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and lime juice tossed in for good measure. It was such a great feast for our hungry hiker selves. Just looking at that serving bowl below makes my mouth water!

Surrounded on all sides by beauty.

We took off again for the allusive waterfall that was another 2 hours away. As we started off, our guide began making me things to keep me entertained. Because of this, I ended up calling him Peter Pan. He made me a fan out of bark on a tree--I still have it in my living room, here in Singapore. And he made me a hat out of a giant leaf, complete with a little sprig of grass in the back. I made him model it so I could take a picture. Unfortunately it blew off my head and down the side of the mountain. Alas . . . 

Slowly-but-surely, I started to fade. Let me be very clear that it was not necessarily me or my energy, but various parts of my body. For one, I got the aforementioned blister on my right foot. And while I tried ever-so-hard to forget about it and the pain it was causing me, everyone behind me kept mentioning how bad it looked and how it was bleeding all over the place. So the guide made me stop. He told everyone else to go ahead and we would catch up. He placed a bandage on my ankle and we were off again. Just the two of us, as the others had gotten quite a bit ahead.

And that's when the steep became super-steep. All of my body weight was on my toes and my legs were at a constant 45 degree angle for 5 miles. He said 2.5 kilometers, so I am guessing around 5 miles. We trudged through a forest fire, still burning. There was nothing for me to hold onto (because of the fire and the things that were burning), and it was really dry and dusty making every step feel super slippery. My 40 pound backpack was beginning to feel like a hundred pounds. Did I mention that I brought my laptop? Yes, I'm the idiot who brought her laptop. So I was constantly worried about falling and crashing my computer, which is basically my lifeline.

I asked our guide how much longer until we reached the waterfall. He said 10 minutes. He always said 10 minutes. Every time someone asked him how much further, he would answer with 10 minutes.

It was never 10 minutes.

And about 20 steps from reaching the waterfall, I said something mean. I told my guide that this was crazy and that I no longer was having fun, and how could anyone in their right mind do this on a regular basis . . . My left knee at this point had pretty much stopped working and I just snapped. He smiled and said, "We'll be there in 10 minutes."

When we finally got to the waterfall, I took off my right shoe and washed my blister off just a bit before bandaging it back up again. The rest of our group was relaxing and swimming. I looked around and took note of how far we had walked and where we had started and what we had all done. And even though my legs felt like spaghetti, I was really happy.

We rested for about 20 minutes before starting up again. We walked another hour to where we would start our rafting trip. It was a very easy, river rock walk. So it gave us all a chance to let our bodies rejuvenate. And once we hit our rafts, we were ready.

Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take anything in the raft with us, so I don't have any pictures of that part of our journey. But boy was it refreshing! We split up into teams of 4 and all three teams were completely drenched by the time we reached our end point. We white water rafted for about thirty minutes before jumping out and switching over to bamboo rafts. I really, really enjoyed the bamboo rafts! It was so nice and relaxing to sit there with our feet dangling in the water while our rafting guide gently pushed us along with a giant piece of bamboo.

Once we all arrived to our drop off point, we each had an ice cream bar and hopped back in the truck. It was just about sundown when we were finally on the road. I have never in my life seen 11 people fall asleep so quickly . . . All of us.

When I got back to my hotel, I must have looked like I had been hit by a truck. Our guide gave me a huge hug and the concierge carried all of my things to my room for me. I jumped in the shower, drank a beer, and by 830pm I was fast asleep.

What an incredible journey!! Lights out, people!

Up next? My last day in Thailand, filled with lots and lots of food!

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