From Chiang Mai we took a three hour minibus to Pai, a peaceful little mountain town in northern Thailand. We spent the night of the 25th there at Golden Huts guesthouse, an awesome set of bungalows with a good kitchen staff that cook good cheap food. I think I had 5 chicken sandwiches by the time we left.
The next day, January 26th, we left at 930am on a three day trek with Corn (pronounced ‘Gone’) and Too, our guides. After an hour and a half drive in the back of a pickup through very windy and hilly but generally well-paved mountain roads, we arrived at our starting point. We walked for several hours each day, up and down fairly steep forest hills. At times we hiked in the glaring sun, no shade in sight, sweat pouring like a water faucet off our brows. Most of the time we were in the spotted shade of the bamboo forests, sweat still pouring down our faces from the physical effort required to keep up with the uber fit guides.
The group was a good one. It consisted of myself, Jos, Ian, Ron, and one other traveller: Dave, from Vermont. Dave is 51 and smokes as much as our guides, which is a lot. He isn’t unfit though, and not a complainer at all which was great. He’s been travelling for the last 7 years, slowly getting rid of his property and belongings. As he says, he is now just “an email address and a PO Box.” Breaking out into song at random times and generally quite energetic, he was an interesting guy to have along with the four of us young friends.
Corn is 36 but looks 26 and Too is 32 but could be confused with a 20 year old pretty easily. While Corn spoke fairly fluent English throughout the trip, Too’s English was limited but usually sufficient to get by. Facial expressions, strange hand gestures, and a lot of laughter got many of our questions through to him. While Corn is single and living the young life still, Too is married as most Thais 20+ years old are, and has a 4 year old daughter. Too lives in Pai with Corn, sleeping in the back of the trekking office there, during the trekking high season. During the low season he returns to his village where his wife and daughter live and runs his farm, which explains his incredible strength and endurance. He can’t weigh more than 120lbs at most (I easily lifted him over my head and most people can wrap their hand, pinky to thumb, around my biceps) but he sure packs a lot of muscle into that tiny frame. He’s also very flexible, showing us some “stick tricks” with a bamboo staff that we all envied.
We spent the first night sleeping in the forest by a stream about 6 feet wide. Three extra people joined us for that first night, men from the local hilltribe where we had stopped for lunch. The five men, constantly rolling and smoking low grade tobacco in cornleaf wrappers, built us a shelter out of bamboo and banana leaves. We got them to teach us somewhat how to do it, and helped out a bit. If we had tried to do it ourselves we would have done a pretty bad job I think, as their machete skills are amazing. They also made our cups, bowls, kettle, pots, spoons and roasting grill out of bamboo and taught us how to catch frogs, which taste like chicken when you roast them on the fire.
We had a great meal of rice, pork, vegetables, and potato soup with lemon grass and chili paste by the fire, while the five men drank homebrew with tree bark for extra flavouring. I wasn’t in the mood to try but it smelled like strong rum. Ian had two or three shots over the course of the night, sipping them slowly. Ron tried but didn’t finish his. Dave doesn’t drink anymore, ever.
In the morning the three hilltribe men left back to their village and we continued on our trek. We walked for a few hours to another village where we had lunch, then walked some more to another village, mostly abandoned three years ago for one with better road access, and slept there. We had a fire outside and once we got tired we went inside and slept on the bamboo floor about 8 feet off the ground, as they build their homes raised. The floor is a set of bamboo rods spaced about 8 inches apart, covered with a ‘carpet’ of bamboo reeds, about a foot wide each, so that there are small slits in the floor. Spill a drink? No problem, it goes right through the floor. In some places around support beams there were even holes in the floor, one of which I used to spit out my toothpaste after brushing.
A better sleep than the previous night (warmer and a more comfortable floor) but I did get a shock when all of a sudden, about two feet from me and 6 inches from Ian’s head, two mice started fighting really loudly. They were on the outside of the wall at that point, but Ian woke up shortly thereafter and when I got back from the outdoor loo a couple minutes later he said they were inside. They ran around for a while and eventually I got back to sleep. Not before the roosters took their turn though. Just as Corn had told us, they began crowing at exactly 3am. There were three of them and they took turns crowing for some time, waking all of us for a bit. I don’t think any of us was really bothered by it though, and we enjoyed sleeping there quite a bit.
The next day was our last and was quite hard walking, for me at least. It was perhaps partly because we had already spent two days walking, but it was also very hot and steep. Several times I had to stop for water when I got a bit dizzy. That wasn’t a problem, as the people in front of me could keep walking and if I couldn’t find my way Corn and Dave were always at the rear a few minutes behind.
The last section of this day was perhaps the most entertaining walking, as we had to cross about ten small streams. It was actually a small river/stream that snakes through the area. We were walking on a dirt road at this point, and it cuts right through the stream constantly. Every time we arrived at a new stream, Too would nimbly skip across the stones or log to the other side, while I was always the first behind him. Sometimes they were big solid rocks and easy to cross, but most were smaller rocks, sometimes wet, and not always steady. Everyone managed to make it across all of them with dry feet, with the exception of Ron who missed one part of a crossing and got his foot wet.
A 40 minute drive by pickup (this time much faster and a bit dizzying really) and we were back in Pai. We returned to Golden Huts and after cleaning ourselves up (I wore the same socks, underwear, and teeshirt for three days) we went out on the town.
It isn’t a big town by any means, but there are many backpackers there and we found a couple of nice places to go, the first being Bebop (what a corny name) where there was great live music and a packed house. We met our Swiss friends Urs and Rene once again there, which was awesome. We also met three girls who are teaching English as a foreign language in different places in Thailand. There was Alex from LA, Zoe from Dublin, and Jenny from London. We met a bunch of other people as well, but that was a number of days ago and I can’t recall them all off the top of my head right now.
At the second place, Bamboo, which was open much later than Bebop, we ate and talked in a quieter atmosphere, on bamboo reed floors above ground. It was a nice place, but this one guy there was really annoying. His name was Johnny, he was a dirty hippie (as opposed to a nice hippie, the kind I like) and he was from Seattle. He grew up there his whole life, yet speaks with a faux Irish accent and is annoying. Not only this, but he decided to come up to our table of friends with his bucket of Sangsom (Thai rum), Coke, and Redbull and speak to Ian.
“I don’t like you” he said. Just like that. Ian hadn’t even talked to the guy before. He kept at it for a while as we asked him to leave and stop bothering us, and eventually we decided to just talk to each other and pretend he wasn’t there. That worked, and he soon left. We decided he had smoked too much pot and become paranoid, especially with the alcohol/red bull combination. If it had been a club or bar in the States or even Vancouver, he would have had his faced punched in by someone I’m sure, though it wouldn’t have been us.
We spent the next day lounging around and preparing for our departure. The morning after that, we left on a minibus to Chiang Mai from where we flew to Luang Prabang, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where we now find ourselves. I will write about our adventures here at a later date, as my fingers are getting blisters from typing too much, and your eyes are likely burning from reading this much on a computer monitor, if you made it this far.