6. A jungle walk

I've just come off a jungle trek - 4 days and 3 nights in Doi Inthanon National Park, south of Chiang Mai. I was the odd man out attached to a group of 5 couples - one German, another Irish, the rest Brits - who joined together for some organized days of walking, elephant riding, white water bamboo rafting and observing ethnic minorities who live in villages within the park. Over 100,000 tourists come annually to northern Thailand to commune with nature and witness its inhabitants, although most do so on one day trips - a shorter, much more commercial version of what we did.

One of the things many backpackers and hotel stayers alike like to do when they 'do' Thailand is eco-tourism, a buzz-rubric from the 1990s which implies being more friendly to things experienced, including the natives. For us that meant spending US $60 for a package arranged by a Chiang Mai guesthouse (http://www.eaglehouse.com). Our guide was Doh, a 28 year old Thai who ethnically and linguistically hails from the Karen mountain people, one of Thailand's dozen or so minorities. (Besides these Karen, some 150,000 Karen have fled military rule in Burma and now live in refugee camps in Thailand.

For 5 years Doh has been leading similar groups on mountain trails, which he maintains, mostly along the Mae Cheam River. We walked about 30 kms over 4 days, slept in a communal hut in different Karen villages and washed in the river. We saw no other westerners during this period. As tourism goes, this was pretty non-invasive and villagers gawked at us about as little as we gawked at them. (In contrast, the day tourists descend upon special villages, often set up specifically for tourists, who often outnumber the villagers.)

We were even fortunate enough to be in one village on the very day of its annual festival. The Karen, who are predominantly animists, believe that certain spirits possess all natural objects. Almost all Thais heed spirits to some extent and provide little 'spirit houses' for them to dwell in in their front yards. At 5 o'clock in the morning we awoke to the terminal squeals of pigs which each family was slaughtering and transporting by pole to streamside for cleaning, butchering and dressing. We partook of special cuisine which the locals blessed by passing thread over (or vice-versa, it wasn't clear). The string was then made into bracelets over which village elders chanted and ceremoniously wrapped upon our wrists (and the wrists of Doh and his 2 local food porters). A few strands were put on our left shoulders for some reason.

Our presence at the festival time was considered a propitious event for the village, which had twice postponed the events due to coincidental deaths of residents. Each of several hundred villagers wore similar bracelets on this special day. The children watched in solemn awe as we were braceleted. They were rewarded with sweets by my fellow trekers - a practice I abhor as it may turn tribal children here into the candy beggars that populate so many of the African villages I visited [white person equals sweets handout]. Let's hope that our presence does in fact bring the villagers good luck and little harm as well as a few eco-tourist dollars.

Taking an organized tour is always a risky business. For one who is unaccustomed to compromise and is used to solitude and independent travel (a la bicycle), it can be down right intimidating. Group dynamics may develop so that by the end of a trip, you hate one another and humanity to boot. Our group, however, turned out to be mellow with a few genuine characters who provided life to the party. No one got on my nerves; I suspect this was mutual. For most of the group, it was their first visit to Asia and first visit to an area which remains relatively unaffected by urbanization, economic development and modernization. The two Brit collegians had never ridden an animal before ("horse riding is elitist in Britain"). The group was not accustomed to roughing it. Most had queasy stomachs and various other ailments, so there was some degree of wingeing. None of us slept much the first night, but it wasn't until we compared notes at breakfast (Doh cooked all meals) that we realized we had all remained coldly awake as the temperature dipped down below 10 degrees C in our well ventilated hut. (For none of us had taken Doh's advice to put the blankets INSIDE the sleeping bags.)

All in all this was a good holiday within a holiday. I've seen only a wee bit of northern Thailand. I am saving the rest for the bicycle, on a return trip sometime down the road.

27 Feb 2002

Chiang Mai