Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Part 4: Elephant Snot, Barehanded Birds, and Akha Tea

Back again. It looks like the photo problem magically fixed itself. And the timing’s right since Bluesfest is over….which was amazing. And very very time consuming.

So I’m sure some of you are wondering what a “trek” is, or at least what it might mean in Thailand. First off, it has nothing to do with pointed ears or plastic laser guns, and it has everything to do with guided tours that venture a bit off the beaten track. The offerings are pretty broad - if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything you want in a package, and even if you can’t, you can probably convince a company to send you on your perfect trek anyway, if the money’s right. While we were there, we went on three treks, and they were all very different from one another. The price also tends to be variable, but in Thai terms, they were all very expensive (which means: pretty reasonable for what you get, by Canadian standards).

We had heard early on that you have to be careful about choosing a trekking company. You see, right now in Thailand, the poor rural Hill Tribe People of the northern provinces have become a huge moneymaker. The more-unscrupulous trekking companies happily ship-in busloads of tourists to their rural bamboo-hut villages. Then the tourists get out of the bus, point, stare, and take pictures of the tribespeople, and get back on the air-conditioned buses and move on to the next site of cultural pillaging. It’s like a twisted human zoo, in a way. Kinda sick, if you ask me. All three of us agreed that this sort of thing was not what we wanted to do (or support, for that matter). If we were going to do it, we wanted to truly be a part of the experience and take the time to learn about their culture

So this first trek we went on was very special. After some research, we decided that the best company to go with would be the people who had a stake in getting it right, and who better than the people at the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai? It was the right choice in so many ways.

Our Thai guide, Ai, picked us up at our guesthouse early the next morning. Ai turned out to be quite a character. He started off working in Bangkok as a construction worker, but somewhere along the way, he learned that he had a knack for languages and became a guide, which he prefers in almost every way. Ai was more like our own private translator than a guide. Although he knew many of the answers to our questions most of the time, he was the middle man whenever we needed to talk to any of the hill tribe people. And this was essential, because the different tribes all have their own language. In return, we shared a few new words in English with him, which he happily repeated several times so that he would remember them in the future.

After a quick pit-stop at the museum to lighten our bags into a storage locker (in retrospect, I should have dumped a few more of the semi-essentials than I did), we were shuttled off to the longtail landing on the River Kok (I know. Haha. Kok). And Immediately, we were whisked away to what can only be described as a re-enactment of the movie Apocalypse Now. Except without people shooting at us. And it was daytime. And Marlon Brando wasn’t waiting for us at the end of the river. Anyway, there was a river, at least.

As we made our way up the river, the terrain began to change. The boat cut its way through the water past the last few edges of the city and soon large, steep-sided dome-like hills became visible. Floating bamboo docks lined the edges of the river periodically and large barges were dredging sand from the bottom of the river, making it more navigable. In certain places, the piles of dredged sand became 8-foot tall sandy walls that effectively divided the river into separate channels. Some of these channels were so narrow that they even felt like tunnels. The terrain became more and more mountainous the further down the river that we went, and the foliage became denser and more jungle-y. We were very excited when we saw the first few bamboo huts along the side of the river. But this was just a small taste before the buffet.

About 20 km later, we felt like we were thousands of miles away from anything that would remind us of a city. And then we turned a corner. And there were elephants. Lots of elephants.

As you can see, the Elephant Camp of Baan Ruammit is quite the sight. In Thailand, Asian elephants have had both a practical role (historically used in their agriculture and forestry industries) as well as having huge spiritual significance, both as a symbol of the Hindu and Buddhist religions as well as a symbol of Thailand’s royal family. But today, the number of elephants in Thailand is sharply declining. Most are tied to the tourism industry, although there are still small herds that live in the wild. Apparently, it’s not unusual to see a fully grown elephant walking down the streets of Bangkok. But I didn’t see any.

I suppose it was at this point that, for the first time, I was consciously aware of the fact that the Thai people have very different attitudes towards animals than we have in Canada. The idea of animal rights is pretty foreign and animals are mostly seen as a nuisance more than anything else. Already we’d seen a little of this in Bangkok and Chiang Rai. It was pretty commonplace to see stray dogs on the street, surviving off whatever they could scavenge from alleyways or on un-sold street-meat handouts from street vendors. The only times I saw any major interaction between humans and animals in Thailand were when animals were profitable as a tourist attraction. For example, in Bangkok you could buy food for the catfish or the ducks, and here at Ruamit, you could ride an elephant up a mountain. Sadly, when the elephants weren’t working, they were kept captive by steel chains bolted around their forelegs – but at least they were fed well by the tourists and had lots of opportunities to cool themselves off in the river.

We docked and crossed through the large open area where the elephants were held, walking inches away from them (they didn’t seem to notice that we were even there). We bought a bag of melons and vegetables for our elephants and made our way up to the boarding tower. Mike and Rachel boarded their ride, and while Ai and I were waiting for our own, one particularly enterprising elephant made a grab for my bag of produce. She wasn’t successful.

If you’ve ever ridden an elephant before, you’d know that it isn’t especially comfortable, even under the best of circumstances. As you can see, the wooden sedan chair (or "howdah") on the elephant’s back seats two and it’s made entirely of wood. No discernable padding there, folks. Once we were seated, a young hill tribe boy climbed up behind the elephant’s ears to steer the beast with a whip-like crop (they call the driver a "mahout"). And off we went, lurching our way up the road from the camp.

It didn’t take long for the unnatural movement to start taking its toll on us (absolutely, fundamentally more brutal than riding a horse). So there I was, a good 12 feet or so off the ground, with my camera bag on one knee, and my over-stuffed bag of vegetables on the other. One of my legs was looped over a wooden cross bar two inches higher than the seat, while my body was repeatedly thrown backwards against the beam across the back of the chair. I was crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder with Ai, who was a pretty big guy for a Thai, and there were no footholds – there was only a small handrail on one side to steady myself with. I held onto this handrail for dear life until my knuckles turned white.

But once the first views of the hills and valleys opened up, I kinda forgot about how bad my back was hurting and I tried to absorb as much of the sights and sounds as I could. And they were breathtaking. We passed rice paddies and farmers’ thatched bamboo huts, lychee plantations, streams, paddocks, and skeletal-looking cows. We even reached out at one point and plucked some lychees to snack on, straight off the tree. The terrain steadily got steeper, and although most of the trip wasn’t over an extreme incline, I was happy to have the ride. Rachel actually took the driver’s spot behind the ears for the second half of the trip. Unfortunately, she said that her new seat wasn’t an improvement over the wooden one, comfort-wise.

Of course, as some of you might know, elephants spray themselves with water to keep cool. So whenever we reached a puddle, our elephant grabbed a trunk-full and blew a heady mixture of mud and elephant snot all over anyone unfortunate enough to be stuck on her back. Our young mahout thought this was pretty funny. I did too, until I accidentally got a mouthful of the stuff.

Two unforgettable (but painful) hours later, we arrived at our destination, a Lahu tribe village, where we stopped for lunch. After we’d fed our elephants, our host family welcomed us onto the porch of their home, where we met our second guide, Mr. Abba, for the first time. Abba is an elder of the Akha Tribe village where we were staying for the night, and by all accounts, he looks like an Akha version of Clint Eastwood. Although he’s small and wiry, he’s the strong, silent type and tougher than nails. Not to be underestimated, for sure.

As we ate our lunch of fried rice sitting on mats on the floor, speaking brokenly with our Lahu hosts through Ai, I came to the sickening realization that my glasses were missing. I emptied my backpack, but it was clear that they had fallen out of my pocket somewhere along the trip up the mountain and were gone for good. My sunglasses would have to do double duty, day and night, for the rest of the trek.

We left the village shortly after lunch and started off on our first leg of the hike. 20 minutes or so into the jungle, Abba suddenly whooped and threw himself off the steep edge of the trail we were walking on and plunged into the thick foliage. We were all kinda baffled by it until he climbed back up a minute or two later with a live, squirming songbird in his hands. Somehow, he had spotted it in the woods and caught it with his bare hands. We were stunned.

A few steps further up the path, he stooped down and pulled some long strands off a plant he had spotted. He then whipped this makeshift rope around the wings, beak, and legs of the bird, and plunked it unceremoniously into his pack. At this point, we realized we were dealing with Mr. Abba the NINJA, and not just Mr. Abba the guide. We learned through Ai that he was going to give the bird to his daughter as a pet.

The hike was long. And very, very hot. Things became easier once Mr. Abba spotted a stand of straight bamboo trees. He whipped out a machete, and with a few chops he fashioned a light, strong walking stick for each of us. I loved that walking stick. If I could have easily brought it back with me to Canada, I would have. We crossed several hilltops and bamboo fences before we caught sight of the Akha village that would be our home for the night.

Okay, so just to flesh things out a bit, I’ll give you a brief run-down on the Akha tribe. This Hill Tribe originated in Mon Tong Guay Joaw and Mon Ton, Yunnan China, but they’ve migrated several times as a tribe to escape persecution, first to Burma, and then to Thailand. Most migrated to Thailand within the last 20 to 30 years and the Akha population there is now estimated at over 30,000 people. Things still aren’t great for their people, as the Thai government has prosecuted, shot, and executed a fair number of Akha in their own right – but things are still much better in Thailand than they ever were in Burma. Or so we were told by the Akha we met.

Akha villages are generally large when compared to other Hill tribes, with 30 or more households, comprised of many clans. They are often built on the top of a hill in an attempt to avoid the spread of diseases and outbreaks associated with the moist conditions close to the river. The Akha are a deeply spiritual people, with many complex ceremonies and rituals, and wear elaborate traditional clothing, including headdresses adorned with silver medallions. Their lifestyle is based on their agricultural system. They work very hard in the fields in the valleys below their villages and often spend more time there than with their families. But their rural way of life is now threatened by the arrival of modern Thai culture and Christian missionaries. Already, there are paved roads leading to many Akha villages, and while the people still live in traditional homes, the village skyline is spiked with TV antennas and the peaceful quiet is regularly broken by the arrival of Akha youth on motorcycles.

We arrived at the village moments after the last tourist bus of the day set off back to Chiang Rai. I kind of felt that the people on the streets relaxed a bit once they saw the bus go – children came out of the houses to play and the men followed them, with cigarettes and Chang beer in hand. The women in the tourist centre, however, were still dressed in full Akha woven tunics and headdresses – tourism means big money, even here. Abba led us through the village to his home. We went a bit further down a mud path and collapsed on the porch of our very own hut, made from bamboo and wood with a roof made of woven cogon grass.

After a brief rest (and about a litre of water), we set out again to explore the areas around the village. We walked across a Lychee plantation and toured through several other hill tribe villages, all within a short walking distance. It was a little unclear which tribes lived where, but I suspect it was all a mix of Akha, Lahu, and Karen people. Many of the buildings here were much more modern than at the first Akha village, especially the school and medical centre we passed.

At one of the stops, we were swarmed by a group of children and their grandmothers who wanted us to buy some woven goods. The kids were adorable, we couldn’t resist. As the sun started to set, we watched some young Akha play a bowling game which reminded me of bocci ball for a while and then wandered over to a small canteen for some refreshments. We bought our guides a couple of beers to show our appreciation for what they’d done for us that day.

We returned to our hut and relaxed while dinner was cooking. We dined cross-legged, sitting on reed mats and cushions at a short round table. Abba cooked us a pork and cabbage dish, a spicy Thai vegetable soup, green curry chicken, and a delicious omelet, and made sure we had as much Akha Tea as we wanted (made by dumping a pinch of dark, stiff, dry leaves into a glass and adding boiling water). The food was amazing. We barely noticed the flying insects that kept diving into it kamikaze-styles, attracted to our candles, or the pack of ravenous dogs watching us while we ate.

After a day of elephants and hiking in 35 degree heat, I was tapped out. I collapsed, fast asleep by 9. And that was fine by me, seeing as how I was blind as a bat in my sunglasses anyway.

Okay, so I didn’t get as far as the World Vision moment. That will have to wait for another day. So that leaves us with the title of Part 4: “Flanked by Tiny Soldiers, A World Vision Moment, and the Bamboo Tunnel.” And now that Bluesfest is over, expect me to post the next installment a little faster than last time…

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Ba Bump

Part 4 is still on the way, it's about three-quarters written so far. I'm finding that this one is taking me a long time to write, not particularly because it's crazy long or crazy detailed...I'm just finding that it's taking a lot of thinking to get my perspective straight. You'll see when it's ready.

In the meantime, it's Bluesfest week in the Capital! Super-cool, can't wait....