Trekking in Northern Thailand 2
October 17, 2017
For my adventures in Northern Thailand I’d chosen Tha Ton as my base, primarily because I knew it offered treks to nearby villages, but also because it was the launching point for a three hour river boat ride to Chiang Rai, a method of transportation that seemed far more interesting than the bus.
I’ve already written about my arrival in Tha Ton, which featured a nighttime walk along a dark path while stalked by growling dogs, so I’ll skip to my first full day in the region. Tha Ton is a small town near the Burmese border. It actually used to be a staging ground for the import of drugs from Myanmar into Thailand, ruled by warlords turned drug lords. It was cleaned up years ago, though, and is now a rather quaint place.
I had contacted a local guide named Renato via email to inquire about trekking. He—or rather, his daughter, I would later learn—replied that trekking was available on my dates but details were . . . sketchy. So I didn’t actually know if I had anything officially booked and reserved. Once in Tha Ton, I gave them a call. Following a half dozen rings and the noise of a phone being drawn from a deep pocket or bag, a man answered in Thai. I spoke to him in English, telling him who I was and that I’d emailed about trekking. He simply responded with a series of yesses. I asked if tomorrow would work. Yes. And he could pick me up at my hotel? Yes. At what time? A brief pause that sounded like the auditory equivalent of a shrug, and then: “Nine?”
At 9am the next morning, a man in his fifties showed up to pick me up . . . on a scooter. I wondered briefly how he would have reacted if I’d been a 300lbs 75-year-old. Genuinely happy and irrepressibly friendly, Renato had me hop onto his scooter and drove me the twenty-some minutes to his village.
Renato and his family are members of the Karen tribe, one of several Hilltribes in the area. These are minority groups who came down from China and/or Myanmar. The Karen have their own language but also speak Thai and many learn English. Renato and his daughter spoke Karen, Thai, English and a touch of French.
Once at the village, Renato explained that he had another group but that Tuk-tu, his daughter, would be my guide for the day and that her cousin, Utu, would be joining us. “You have two guides today!” he exclaimed, beaming.
Tuk-tu was 25 and, like her father, unfailingly jovial. Utu was quieter, mainly due to the fact that he spoke little English.
We headed out for the jungle, trekking first through crops of rice and pineapples and passing villagers in traditional dress as they returned with the morning’s early harvest.
As we finally entered the jungle it was like being transformed into a character from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”. We were swallowed up by bristling bamboo stalks and enormous fronds.
Once deep in the jungle, Tuk-Tu and Utu stopped to fix us a jungle snack. The entire meal was constructed from the surrounding bamboo and a few handfuls of rice. Tuk-Tu made a fire while Utu stuffed rice inside a length of bamboo then filled it with water. This was then placed over the fire. They also collected leaves and stuffed those into a second length of bamboo filled with water. The water was heated and the leaves thus steamed. It was admittedly a little bland, but given that it was prepared using available materials and required only carrying a bit of rice, it was truly impressive.
We left the jungle and trekked along valleys and rice fields, the scenery absolutely dwarfing us.
A local man hosted us at his small cabin for lunch. We had boiled rice soup and grilled river fish, freshly caught from a nearby stream.
We bid our host and lunch mate a thank you and goodbye and resumed our trek.
After 7 or 8 hours of trekking, we finally made it back to the village. Actually, we made it back to a separate village. The village Renato and his family call home is actually Muang Gnam North and is Catholic, while the village we entered now was Muang Gnam South and mostly Buddhist. This next bit is rather sad: As we arrived in the village, Utu recognized a few men and women who were working on the roof of a house. He waved and they invited us to join them for a drink. We went behind the house and sat with the half-dozen villagers for a few minutes. I snapped this picture just as we approached the house:
Later that night, I was having dinner in Renato’s family home, eating a meal he and his wife prepared for me, when he received a phone call telling him that one of the men who’d been working on the house had fallen off the roof and struck his head. As the evening progressed, and following further phone calls, it was confirmed that the man had died of his injuries. I don’t know if he is one of the men in the picture above but, if so, it’s the last photo taken of him alive. Everyone expressed shock—the death had been so sudden. It was an oddly intimate thing to share with people I’d just met. I was both an outsider but, in a way, now an insider. They were not upset, exactly, but just couldn’t believe how sudden it had been. As Tuk-Tu said, “The hairs on my skin are standing.” We all listened as the village chapel bell tolled for the man.