Chiang Mai holiday
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It took only half an hour to get to Surabaya airport. Helen and I separated in Changi airport, to shop. I bought a couple of books and magazines, although it might have been better to wait for the return journey. The Singapore-Chiang Mai flight was very comfortable, with the flight attendants supplying us with enough mini wine bottles to keep us happy.
At Chiang Mai airport, Helen left with some other people doing the PYP trainer course at the Prem Centre. I caught a taxi to the Karinthrip Village Hotel, which was okay, but overpriced, compared to Indonesia. I found a trekking agent, and, after a half-hour wait, booked a 3-day tour for the next day. I wandered around and had a beer in several bars. Few bars gave the impression that they were interested in customers.
Johnny, fresh from National Service in Israel, was already in the battered van when it picked me up at the Karinthrip Village Hotel on Monday morning. The driver seemed to take us down every back street in Chiang Mai before stopping at a very basic guesthouse. According to the sign-up list, I was 23 years older than the next oldest trekker.
After cramming 12 of us into the van, and messing about at the tourist police station, the crew headed off to take us elephant "trekking". The elephant place was huge, with more than 40 beasts carrying tourists around. Because there were five couples, Johnny and I shared a ride. It was okay, considering that we went around a fixed circuit. Our elephant and rider didn't have the best dispositions, and we were a long way from the ground.
Next was lunch, which entailed a walk through some rice padis. Lars and Vila, from Belgium, Neder and Delphine, from France, Johnny and I were joined by Stephen, from Birmingham. The others were on one and two-day trips. After a short bus ride, our trek began with a fairly short walk to a waterfall. From there, it got challenging. An hour's slippery climbing (up and down) later, we stopped briefly at a Hmong village. Our guide, Doi, explained that the Hmong originated in Mongolia, and only married within their culture. He said that this was sad for Thai men, because Hmong girls were beautiful. It certainly must have been in the eye of the beholder.
We trekked on, along an overgrown path, which was slippery, and lined with a plant that kept snagging us, and left small barbs in our skin and clothes. I was finding the terrain very hard on my knees and ankles. Helen had said her trek was not arduous, but, like someone, whose account I read on the internet, the word "hill", in "hill tribes", didn't really sink in until after the first hour of walking. I was not looking forward to a whole day of walking, the following day.
We eventually came to a small river, and crossed on two bamboo poles. We had an invigourating swim in the river, and then walked the last kilometre to the Lahu village, where we were to spend the night. We entered the village to the traditional sounds of a TV on full volume - there was a solar panel beside most of the five huts
The village appeared to be there solely because of trekking. We shared a long hut, and each had a mat, hard pillow and mosquito net. A village woman got the fire going, in a concrete bucket. At one point, the pot of of oil over the fire caught alight. Doi wasn't looking, so the lady called out to him in (her native) Lao. It was a few moments before he realized, and extinguished the conflagration by putting a wok over it. I used the very basic mandi, and advised the others not to wait until morning. Dinner was chicken curry dinner and a beer. Doi produced a bottle of local rice whiskey, whlch we drank most of. I hit the sack, as did Stephen. The others kept talking for another hour or so. I tripped over their empties during a midnight trip to the toilet.
In the morning I had some understanding of how homeless people must feel. The split-bamboo floor was softer than the mat. Doi cooked scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast. He also cooked noodles, which were parceled in banana leaves to take with us, for lunch.
We headed upwards, and Doi called enough rests for all of us to cope. After crossing a small stream, we clustered on some slippery rocks outside a bat cave. Using three torches between us, we clambered down into it. I took a couple of photos, and we climbed back out. We were all filthy, so we washed our hands at a pipe which was, somehow, part of the stream. Doi was a bit concerned that the rain had made his preferred path dangerous. (What did he think was "dangerous"'!!?) We elected to try it, and found that it was no more slippery than other difficult paths. I came close to losing the group when I stopped to take a panorama photo. I came to a fork, with no-one in sight. I called out, but the jungle soaked up the sound. I spotted a footprint to the right. One hundred metres on was another fork. This time there was a print to the left. I soon caught up with the group, and we enterered another Hmong village, for lunch. We spent an hour, or so, resting, eating and taking photos.
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A fair part of the rest of the afternoon was spent on mountain roads. The forests gave way to fields of of cabbages, corn, rice and other crops. The second Lahu village was at 1600m. This one was more substantial, with about 250 people. Our long hut was at the top of the village, with a view to distant mountains. It began to rain well before dark. There was a guitar, which I tuned,and I played a couple of songs, which attracted a few villagers. After a different chicken curry for dinner, I played and sang, and then taught the others "20 questions". We were visited by villagers, a kitten (to which Delphine was allergic) and its mother, and a dog. We suspected that there may have been a chicken and pig, or two. When we asked Doi if anyone was left, down in the village, he realized that they were stretching the friendship, and cleared them out. The only improvement in the sleeping arrangements was that I didn't need an umbrella to go to the toilet.
In the morning, both my hips felt bruised. Doi made French toast, by soaking bread in egg and then floating it in the wok full of boiling oil. There was plenty left over for the returning villagers. The trail down went through the jungle and across streams. We eventually hit a road, which we followed until it joined another, which ran along the river, on which we would be rafting. As we walked the last two kilometres, I noticed that there was a lot of water, and one stretch of rapids that looked too dangerous to raft on.
The rest of the day was a bit of a schemozzle, probably because Doi was relying on others, over whom he had no control. We had lunch, and then Stephen, Lars, Vila and I left to do "short rafting". (I had messed up here, because I thought that "long rafting" was on the bamboo rafts, which looked very tame. It was actually longer rubber rafting.) The first part of the rafting was fabulous, with the biggest rapids I'd ever been on. We then got out, to go around the dangerous rapids I'd noticed or the way in. The truck didn't come, so we walked, in bare feet. I got a thorn in my big toe, which I could feel, but not see. (It was still a nuisance, months later.) The rest of the rafting was very tame. When we got back, Doi told us we would have to wait for the others. He bought us a couple of bottles of beer. Eventually, the others returned, and we began the most dangerous part of the trip: twelve of us in the back of a covered utility, at 80 km/hr, in the pouring rain, back to Chiang Mai. We made it without incident, and I was dropped off first, which necessitated quick goodbyes.
Back in Chiang Mai