Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Thailand, Part 5: Flanked by Tiny Soldiers, A World Vision Moment, and the Bamboo Tunnel

Hey everyone, hope you all had a fantastic long weekend. My weekend was good, although I have to admit I really missed the Lac Sioui cottage-fest this year (which is on hiatus while its organizer is livin’ it large overseas in London). Hopefully it’ll be back again next year. I’m in serious cottage withdrawal now, with little hope of fixing the situation before the end of the summer.

So the last installment closed with me rendered totally blind, passing out stone-cold unconscious in a bamboo hut in a bamboo village at the top of a hill, literally in the middle of nowhere, with a stomach full of curry and the remnants of the insects that had flown into it the night before. Despite the fact that we were sleeping on the floor, the mosquito netting that our hosts provided ensured that our night passed relatively peacefully.

Of course, by “night,” I’m referring only to the classic definition of the term. At somewhere around 4:30 in the morning, I was torn from a dead sleep by a crowing rooster. Even better, this particular rooster had gone the extra mile and had chosen to make his rounds in the crawlspace beneath our hut that morning.

Maybe I’ve watched too many Bugs Bunny cartoons or something, but I had the impression that after crowing for awhile, roosters get bored and shut the hell up. So, comfortable in this assumption, I rolled over on my sleeping pad, hauled a sweater over my head and tried to get another few hours of sleep.

The crowing continued. In fact, it became a chorus. I’m not sure what it was about our hut, but it seems that it’s a full-blown rooster hangout. By sometime around 5 am, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be any more sleeping and I crawled outside onto the porch.

It wasn’t pretty. Well, okay, maybe the view was…

But I was looking (and feeling) pretty rough, despite the fact that I actually got a reasonable amount of sleep. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for poor Mike and Rachel. Rachel stayed in bed, doing her best to sleep through the shrieking, but Mike gave up shortly after I did. The two of us sat on the porch as the sky gradually grew brighter, me sitting cross-legged and rubbing my eyes behind my sunglasses and Mike blinking and snapping a few shots of the fog-shrouded valley below.

As night shifted into dawn, Mike filled me in on their night out in the village. Apparently, the Akha love karaoke. Mike and Rachel spent the evening with Abba and his friends and family, who took turns singing along in Akha while watching tribal music videos on TV (most of which were from China, and featured a dancer in front of a swirling psychedelic backdrop, all shot in one take). I think Mike described the experience as “surreal.” My details are kinda hazy on the subject – after all, I was still being tortured by roosters at the time and for some reason my eyes weren’t focusing right. It sounded like it was a fun time, though.

Somewhere around 6:30, Ai came to check on us, and soon enough, we were chowing down on some more Akha tea, fresh eggs gathered that morning, and all the toast and fruit that we could eat (which was kind of a big deal, since toast is a bit of a delicacy there). After a very brief, cold shower in the toilet shed (in this case, the shower was a rusty pipe mounted at the top of a log wall…and I’m being charitable in my description here by calling it a “shower”), some of the Akha matriarchs paid us a visit. And we knew exactly why they were there when we spotted the laundry baskets full of merchandise they were carrying with them.

Before we knew it, the two ladies and their army of children had practically buried the porch of the hut with their wares – mounds of the stuff, from woven goods, to jewelry, to wood carvings, to silverware, to traditional Akha headdresses and medallions. It was overwhelming. And it kept coming. We came to the realization that if we didn’t buy something, they’d probably go and get more laundry baskets full of stuff and wouldn’t stop until we found something we liked. Their high-pressure sales tactics worked like a charm. We dropped a small fortune (by Akha standards) on a small collection of beautiful souvenirs and didn’t regret a single purchase.

We slung on our packs and grabbed our walking sticks, ready to hit the trail. As we made our way out of the village, dodging dogs and chickens every step of the way (who, strangely, lived in perfect harmony), we waved goodbye to our hosts and made brief stops at a few of the noteworthy cultural landmarks around the village.

One was a giant wooden swing. We were told that the swing, despite being extremely dangerous (it was 20 feet tall!), was tied to the tribe’s courting rituals – every spring, the young men of the tribe would try to impress the ladies with their swinging prowess, and the best swingers got their choice of brides. Another was the village gate. According to tradition, before a village was founded in a new location, the tribe elders would build a small wooden gate and decorate it with symbolic carvings, promoting good harvests and fertility. Then every member of the tribe would walk through the gate and begin work on their homes. And when it came time to leave the village and move on to a new location, the village citizens would leave through the same gate. I really liked the elegant simplicity of the idea.

The first hike of the day was relatively easy. We crossed through some dense forest for awhile, emerging on a roadway that led past some of the most well-groomed scenery of the whole trip, with picturesque thatched huts, rolling green fields, and meandering streams. We passed through the outskirts of a small village and turned off towards the first stop of the day, a secluded waterfall.

As we set off down this road, we suddenly caught sight of movement in the trees, moving fast on an intercepting path. I immediately flashbacked to every ambush scene in every Vietnam War movie I’d ever seen. And the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by children.

At some point on our way past the village, we’d been spotted. Apparently, the local children lie in wait for the arrival of trekking groups on their way to the waterfall, hoping to sell bracelets to tourists. And they don’t take no for an answer. No matter how many times we said “mai ao krup!” they’d come right back with “ao!” while hanging off our arms and trying to force their woven bracelets into our hands. They were cute, but after the first few hundred meters, it became pretty annoying.

Fortunately, Rachel came to the rescue. She was delighted with the children and somehow convinced them to put away their bracelets and turn back into kids instead of salespeople. In no time, she had them holding her hand and skipping up the roadway. Some of the children gave up and returned to the village, but most came along with us to the waterfall.

The waterfall was spectacular. Although it was fairly small, it was like we had the waterfall all to ourselves. We waded right in, and Mike and Ai decided to take a quick swim in the lagoon. The swim proved to be pretty short-lived, though, cut short by one of the kids shouting and pointing at an area close to where they were swimming. Ai, translating, shouted “snake!” Mike practically sprinted out of the water, looking a little pale.

As it turned out, we soon discovered that Ai had incorrectly translated the word, saying “snake” because he didn’t know the word for “iguana.” But suffice it to say, Mike wasn’t too keen on swimming with an iguana either. It was a big one too, almost a meter long from its nose to the end of its tail. (Update: on further research, Iguanas are native to the Americas. It looks like what we saw was actually a Green Water Dragon. But hey, you'd have to be some kind of zoology geek to tell them apart at a glance).

We spent the better part of an hour at the waterfall, skipping rocks and posing for photographs with the kids. For some reason, they adored me and posed for picture after picture with me. Mike and Rachel guessed that this was because I had a beard and reminded them of Santa Claus. For whatever reason though, I had my World Vision Moment, with numerous photos of me with the kids that wouldn’t have looked all that out of place on a TV pitch for money made by any number of charitable organizations.

Rachel even let the kids borrow her digital camera and they had a blast taking pictures of each other. We found out later that one of them had pressed a wrong button somewhere along the way and deleted all of the photos Rachel had taken up to that point (which sucked). But it was cool seeing them have so much fun playing with the camera, Rachel wasn’t that upset about it. They also seemed fascinated with Mike’s sunscreen, which he happily shared with them. I don’t think they had any idea of what it was for, but they imitated what Mike was doing with big smiles on their faces.

Before too long, the kids started to get a little stir-crazy and started up their sales routine again. At this point, we had already bought two or tree bracelets each from other tribespeople along the way, and couldn’t bring ourselves to buy any more, no matter how much fun we had at the waterfall together. Rachel got an idea, though: instead of buying the bracelets, maybe we could treat them to a snack in the village. Ai thought it was a great idea, and off we went.

We ate a lunch of noodles in an open-sided canteen in the village, and just like we had hoped, they were delighted to have their own bag of rice chips. After lunch, they followed us back through the village to the beginning of our next trail and waved goodbye to us as we started up the hill. It was such an awesome, heartwarming experience spending time with these kids.

The hike uphill was rough. We crossed a burnt-out area, Ai explaining that when any of the Hill Tribes move to a new area, they prepare the surrounding hills for agriculture by burning down the jungle (sad but true). Mike and Rachel didn’t seem to be slowed too much by the climb, but I took my time, stopping often, my heart trying to force its way out of my ribcage.

Here I flashbacked to just about every phys ed test I’d ever done poorly before, from beep tests, to endurance runs, and generally felt that building a hut halfway up the mountain and staying there was a better idea than finishing the climb. But I kept plowing ahead, and soon enough, we were headed downhill again.

There was still one more landmark to look forward to, something that had been promised on the brochure for the trek: The Bamboo Tunnel. We were pretty excited about this, but had no idea what to expect.

We crossed though more of the jungle, wandering through another small Akha village. Ai told us that unlike the village we had stayed at, this one had abandoned its traditional ways and had been converted by Christian missionaries. Slowly, the ancient Akha traditions were disappearing across all of Thailand as a result of this conversion, but it wasn’t based on any religious grounds or on any belief-system per se. Instead, he said, these villages welcomed the missionaries because of the influx of money that they brought into their community. In the end, it was a cold, hard, economic decision, brought about by extreme poverty. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but I could tell it was something that deeply concerned Abba and his family.

We made our way beneath various stands of bamboo trees before emerging from the woods at the edge of a rice paddy, which we crossed and then started up another roadway. We followed along to our pick-up point and got aboard a waiting taxi-pickup truck (called a “songthaew”) feeling sweaty, dirty, and completely exhausted. Anti-climactically, we realized we had passed through The Bamboo Tunnel on our way out of the forest and hadn’t even noticed it. We said goodbye to Mr. Abba in the Akha language and rode the rest of the way back to the museum to get the rest of our stuff.

We quickly decided that we would catch the last bus out of town to Chiang Mai, paying a little extra for air-conditioning. Wanting something quick, we picked up some street vendor food at the bus station for dinner and boarded just in time, each getting two seats to ourselves. We took the opportunity to relax a bit on the bus, gazing off into the distance and watching the mountains and forests pass by on the way to our next adventure.

Check back soon for the next leg of the journey - Part 6: “Moonmuang, His-n-Hers Temples, and The Worst Mood Music I’ve Ever Heard.”

(By the way, some of the photos I used in this installment were from Mike and Rachel. I’m positive they won’t mind that I used them, but I thought I’d give them props for their pics. Cheers, guys!)


At 4:16 AM, Blogger Rachel said...

I'm really enjoying your travel diary... I anxiously await each new post!!!

Nice to see you at the bluesfest...

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

Thanks! I'm going to try and step up the pace (TRY) and get the log finished in the next week or so, if all goes well. I think it's time to move on to something else. And it was great seeing you too, wish we could have had more time to hang out! Next time...


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