Friday, August 26, 2005

Thailand, Part 7: Intestinal Fortitude, See-Thru Airports, and Stinging Water

Wow, bananas! Life’s been crazy lately and for some reason, I just haven’t had the time to sit down and do any writing. But here I am, back in the saddle once more.

The hours following our return from the Bubbin Disco weren’t good. That night the curry, the heat, and everything else caught up to me and I was sick, very sick.

So I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night. Worse, we had to be up early the next morning to catch our flight to Koh Samui, an island in southern Thailand. Somehow, Mike and Rachel managed to get me into the back of a songthaew and I endured the ride to the airport with a minimum of heaving.

For some reason, we got ushered into the executive lounge before the flight. Even more surreal, the entire lounge was filled with backpackers and other grubby-looking western travelers nursing the remains of a hangover from the night before, staring blankly at the TV feeds of the BBC news and sipping cups of weak coffee. We even saw a number of people from the disco the night before (Chiang Mai is a small town, evidently). We loaded onto a small prop-driven plane and off we went.

Once again, the three of us were split up, and I was seated next to a gorgeous brunette yoga instructor from the UK who had just spent a year in India learning massage techniques. We spent most of the flight talking about our travels, our homes, and life and all that kind of good stuff. Sadly, so very very sadly, it turned out she wasn’t heading to the same places we were and couldn’t change her plans no matter how much convincing I pitched. I picked at my meal during breaks in the conversation, and the food was arguably the worst of the whole trip - even the best in the world would have gone down funny, the way I was feeling. The only thing I finished was my cup of coconut icemilk.

Flying into the airport at Koh Samui was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had flying. First off, the plane started to descend even before we could see the island – it’s not huge. And then, after landing, coming through the door and seeing the palm trees and smelling the crisp ocean air – I just wanted to inhale it all in, sights, sounds, smells, everything. After the dirty streets of Bangkok, Chiang Rai, and Chaing Mai, it was like arriving in heaven with your name on the guest list.

And the Samui airport was amazing too. If you’ve ever been to the Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, I’ve been told it’s very similar. We’re talking thatched roofs, open-air terminals, and a paved patio serving as the main concourse. Unlike Canadian and American airports with all their sharp security and stuffiness, this kind of laidback style suited me just fine.

In no time we spotted Mikey, who had flown in from Bangkok that morning. After a brief and happy reunion, Mikey negotiated a shuttle bus ride to the ferry where we’d leave Koh Samui and head over to Koh Pha Ngan (pronounced “ko-pa-nang” for those of you keeping score at home). And you’ve already seen this shot, but hey, one more time for good meaure. This view, at that point in time, was just about the most inviting, exciting thing my puny little brain could imagine. I couldn’t wait to get on the boat. I almost forgot my stomach troubles.

Almost. As we waited to load, I realized I was starting to feel really weak. All I’d really eaten that day was that cup of that coconut stuff and a few bites of some gawd-awful teriyaki-type mess that didn’t look fit for human consumption. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to eat anything. I made a decision then and there to take the meds my doctor sent with me at my first opportunity.

The boat was packed to the gills with dark-tanned surfer bums, girls in bikinis, and the noticeably lighter-skinned and more modestly-dressed backpackers coming from the airport. The 45 minute trip flew by.

Koh Pha Ngan has recently eclipsed Koh Samui as the prime destination for sun-seeking backpackers. The island, 7 km north of Samui, is well known for its white powdery beaches, coconut plantations, coral reefs, and colourful beach-hut accommodations, right on the beach . And between you and me, I’d say that it’s just about as close to paradise as you can find in Thailand. It’s just developed enough to have everything you’d need without making it feel like you’re anywhere close to civilization. We landed at Haat Rin, the party capital of the island – once a month, the seaside town celebrates a full-out full moon beach party. And from what I’ve been told, they’re legendary. Everything you’d expect of a party on the beach with a thousand people in the middle of nowhere and quite a bit more. Unfortunately, we were about two weeks late for it.

Immediately we were attacked by people with three-ring binders full of pictures of beach huts, trying to whisk us away to their rugged resorts on songthaews. We kept walking, since Mikey had a plan. We’d walk the beach, he said, and pick the first place that looked nice that we could get for a reasonable price. Great plan…except that my legs felt like they were made of a tofu-like substance and my stomach felt like it was full of molten lava. But the view was spectacular.

The trip across the beach was a nauseous blur. I did my best to keep up with the crew, but I must have been a pretty pathetic sight. All of that would have been fine if we could have found a place to stay – and there were no vacancies anywhere.

To make an unfortunate story short, I eventually succumbed. We made our way back into town and I crashed out at a restaurant beneath a shady-looking guest house while everyone else continued the search (by the way, if I didn’t say it at the time, thanks guys, I was toast). Ironically, the movie “The Beach” was playing while I was sitting there – a movie which is set in Koh Pha Ngan and Samui. But if any of you have seen it, it doesn’t paint the rosiest of pictures of the area.

The movie ended shortly after Mike, Rachel, and Mikey got back. The news wasn’t good. The only place that had a room that they could find was the very guesthouse that I was sitting at. We took their last room and it wasn’t a good one – the air conditioner was broken and the room had no windows. Pretty miserable. But at least the meds had kicked in and I was finally starting to feel human again.

The rest of my day was pretty uneventful. I stayed close to the guesthouse and had to sacrifice the rest of the day. I did manage to spend a bit of time on the beach with Mike admiring some of the topless sunbathers (there were a lot of them on Pha Ngan’s beaches). But in the end, I played it safe and stayed in the room while everyone else went out and partied on the beach. They returned with stories of drunken teenaged revelries, fire eaters and pyro-shows, limbo sticks, smoking flavoured tobacco on hookahs, and lots and lots of cheap Thai beer.

The good news is that the following morning, I was almost back to normal. I got up early and Mike and I took a quick swim at the beach – the beach was pretty deserted, but the water was as warm as bath water. And a beautiful shade of turquoise.

At the bakery where we had breakfast later that morning, I learned about cheap Thai lighters the hard way – just as I was lighting a smoke, I looked down to see my hand engulfed in flames. I dropped it - and as it sat there, still smoking on the concrete floor of the restaurant, a Thai kid came flying out of nowhere, grabbed the volatile lighter and chucked it sharply at the ground. It made a satisfying little explosion and then the kid went back to watching the WWE wrestling that was playing on the TV. I couldn’t help but think that this sort of thing happens all the time with Thai lighters.

After breakfast, we packed up and decided to move on to another beach. We negotiated a ride with a guy who owned a pickup truck, and before we knew it, we were careening around the island at unsafe speeds down steep one-lane dirt tracks that could only be called roads in the most liberal sense. We traversed the mountainous island in no time, whizzing past coconut plantations and other travelers on rented motorbikes, and made our way onto the prettiest beach of the whole trip – Ao Tong Nai Pan.

We crossed the beach and eventually settled on the Candle Resort. The pic above shows the view from the porch. We took two huts, one for me and Mike and one for Rachel and Mikey. The air conditioning, ocean view, and porches with hammocks were big selling points. The middle one was the one I stayed in.

We didn’t waste any time and packed up a beach bag. We decided to start off on the other side of the beach, across the headland from our resort (we were staying on Yai, and we decided to see what Noi was all about). After a short hike, we passed a crazy luxurious resort with concrete bungalows connected by concrete walkways (sculpted to look like wood). We immediately coined the place the “Flintstone Village.”

Noi was amazing. The white sand was beautiful, the trees provided a bit of shade. And the women were topless and gorgeous. It was exceptional. We spent the rest of the day lounging on the beach, exploring the headlands, and swimming. And the semi-wild dogs paid us a visit too. Mike snapped a shot of one as proof.

We learned quickly about one of the small quirks about Ao Tong Nai Pan – we didn’t know how or why, but there was something in the water that was stinging us every once in a while. We settled on microscopic jellyfish as an explanation, but I haven’t been able to shed any more light on that since we got back. Very strange though.

We made our way back to Yai and spent the remainder of the daylight relaxing before dinner. I had my first taste of giant prawns in a spicy Thai curry. Not to be missed. We had also heard about some rave-like thing called a “Half-Moon Party” happening that night near Haat Rin, but after some investigation and talking to some of the travelers on the beach, we figured out that it was just a sham to try and squeeze some more money out of kids that didn’t know any better (we found out the next day that we were right and it sucked – some people even got stranded there with no way to get back to the resort).

We ended up at a little beachfront bar called the Blue Iguana where the bartended was putting on a show with some flaming devil sticks. Mike and I sparked up a conversation with a couple of German girls while Mikey and Rachel called it an early night and headed back to their hut. Linde and Miriam told us all about the glow-bug-like plankton that lived near the beach, another quirk that only happened there at Ao Tong Nai Pan. And they did, leaving trails of tiny little stars in the wake of your arms and legs as you move through the water. Much Singha, a midnight swim, and fun ensued.

The next day was one of the most relaxing and lazy days that I’ve ever had. Mikey left early, catching the early ferry back to Samui so he could get back to work in Bangkok. The biggest decision that the rest of us had to make all day was whether we wanted to swim, to sunbathe, to read, or crash out for a nap on the hammock. Bliss. I must have gone swimming twenty times that day, often catching flying fish unaware as they basked in the warm bay. And a brief, violent rain shower late in the afternoon added a little character to the day.

Dinner was fresh Tuna steak, which I would recommend to anyone – forget the stuff in the can. And the evening was a repeat of the night before. We went back to the Iguana and found Linde and Miriam waiting for us there.

All-in-all, it was a close-to-perfect two days at Ao Tong Nai Pan. I can’t wait to go back to Koh Pha Ngan. It’s not a question of “if,” only a question of “when.”

Tune-in for the long-awaited conclusion in my next post – Part 8: “Crazy-Eyed Kittens, the Green Lagoon, and the Search for a Bubble Machine.”

Friday, August 05, 2005

Thailand, Part 6: Moonmuang, His-n-Hers Temples, and The Worst Mood Music I’ve Ever Heard

Hey everyone, lots of photos in today’s post. In Chaing Mai, many of the activities turned out to be sightseeing. And it’s a great place for that, let me tell you.

The trip into Chiang Mai was pretty luxurious. All accounted for, there were maybe seven passengers aboard. So of course, the bus needed a crew of three to keep things running smoothly: a driver, a conductor (or captain, maybe?), and a stewardess. We spent most of the trip flipping through the Lonely Planet guide for recommendations on accommodations, which was particularly important since we wouldn’t be arriving in town until after 10 pm.

At one point, the bus was stopped at a checkpoint at the provincial border. We were surprised when two Thai soldiers boarded the bus and checked our tickets and passports. Rachel explained that refugees in Thailand, such as members of the Hill Tribes, were not allowed to cross provincial borders without proper authorization. Satisfied that no one was trying to smuggle themselves into Chiang Mai province, the soldiers left us and we went on our way.

We arrived feeling a little disoriented (well, I was at least….it certainly didn’t help that it was nighttime and I was forced to fumble around again in sunglasses, and Thai streets aren’t exactly well-lit). We called a few guesthouses only to find that our first, second, third, and fourth choices were full. We finally found a place to stay by process of elimination, paid way too much for a songthaew ride, and were dropped off in an alleyway in the middle of the Old City of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city, and it’s a lot like Bangkok in appearance, feeling, and smell, with subtle differences here and there (especially size, at 200,000 people). In 1292, King Mengrai chose Chiang Mai as the new capital of Lanna Kingdom, so there’s a lot of history there, including some of the oldest operational wats in Thailand. Early in its history, the city was enclosed by an extensive square rampart and a wide moat, and then it continued to grow outside the walls. The walled city came to be known as the “Old City” and the areas outside of the walls was known as the “New City.” Much of the wall has disappeared over the centuries, but the moat still divides these two parts of town, and although there are old and significant sites in both parts of Chiang Mai, the Old City still seems to be higher regarded.

Our guesthouse, the Golden Fern, was pretty basic, without a lot to recommend it except that it was clean, cheap, and air conditioned. We treated ourselves to a few bottles of Singha and called it an early night.

The next morning, we scavenged for some breakfast and found, much to our surprise, that Chiang Mai is the coffee capital of Thailand. We found a nice French-style café and had some delicious Montreal-style bagels and eggs. Then we went on two more missions: first to find a trek for the next day to Doi Inthanon National Park, second, and more importantly, to find me a new pair of glasses so I wouldn’t be Captain No-Fun as soon as nighttime hits. We found a decent place along Moonmuang Street (although it was no LensCrafters, to be sure) close to one of the last remaining gates of the wall, and I managed to find a pair that suited me for a paltry $45. Sweeeeet. I’m still wearing them today.

We spent the rest of the morning at Wats. We started out at Wat Phra Sing, the largest in Chiang Mai. I took a lot of photos there.

Phra Sing has been in steady operation since 1345. Lanna King Kham Fu’s ashes were interred here, but we didn’t really see much mention of this.

Really, the photos speak for themselves. It was an island of peace in a busy city.

From there, we hadn’t had our fill of wats yet, so we made our way down twisting alleyways (only getting lost or confused once or twice) to Wat Chedi Luang, which was even older than Phra Sing. And you can see that the style is very different from other wats we saw, as well. We took lots of pics here, too.

Chedi Luang has had a particularly violent history. In 1317, the Lanna King Mengrai was killed here by lightning. And the main chedi of the wat, which looks kind of like a Mayan pyramid today, was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1465 and was not rebuilt.

It used to be an astonishing 90 meters high (that’s like a 20-storey building, folks). Compare this to the imposing 79 meter tower of Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) in Bangkok that I told you about. Chedi Luang must have stuck out from medieval Chiang Mai like the CN Tower does today in Toronto’s skyline.

From there, we made our way to an amazing place, the Warorot Market in the New City. Unlike many of the other markets we had been to, Warorot was one half grocery store and one half department store divided into hundreds of individual stalls. It was mostly aimed at residents rather than tourists and it was interesting to compare the two kinds of markets. The big food item here was pork rinds – they were literally everywhere, they’re big money in Chiang Mai and many of their local dishes include them. I’m not a huge fan, but when in Chiang Mai, y’know…

We ate lunch at the market in one of the most different and alien food courts I’ve ever experienced (again, because it was aimed at the locals instead of tourists). For the first time in Thailand, we were eating out and there wasn’t a single word of English in sight. Rachel came to the rescue once again, and I tried some serious pork noodle soup. We also had fun with the condiments that are served at the table on large trays with the meal. I couldn’t identify half of the stuff that I was adding to my soup, but it was all pretty tasty.

The rest of the afternoon involved wandering, shopping, and finding a better guesthouse for the next night. We also found this little gem…I’m not sure who did their translating for them, but somebody should tell them that they’ve got this wrong, so very wrong.

I picked up my glasses on Moonmuang (I just like saying Moonmuang…moon-moo-ang). The prescription was right, but for some reason they made me feel spacey and kinda dizzy. Fortunately, that went away in time, but it was pretty trippy for a while there. Dinner was delicious, I opted for some fish cakes and spring rolls, then we partied the night away in the Moonmuang area along the moat (moon-moo-ang).

Mike and Rachel bought “rotis” at a street vendor stand. I was still full from dinner and they sounded a little strange – the most popular kind is a grilled crepe with bananas and egg wrapped inside and chocolate and condensed milk (straight out of the can and all syrupy-like) drizzled on top – so I opted out. I regretted it, though, Rachel gave me a taste of hers and it was amazing. Like a chocolate-y, banana-y French cruller. We spent most of the night at Cheers (everybody knew our name…beer name, at least, after the fourth round or so).

Oh yeah, and more Thais unclear on the concept.

The next morning, the tour company picked us up at our guesthouse and we were off to Doi Inthanon! As I said before, there are a number of different kinds of treks, and this one was one of the less-involved types. It was basically a bus tour in a mini-van with a group of about 12 people. But it was one of the only ways for us to get to the park, which was hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, and it was a good way to see the best parts in a short period of time.

Doi Inthanon is famous for being the highest mountain in Thailand at 2,565 meters. The park itself is fairly large and is a big destination for bird watching. It also has a number of religious sites and Hill Tribe villages, so we were getting quite a mix of stuff over the course of the day.

First stop was a waterfall, and it was amazing. The pictures say it all. We climbed on some of the rocks and followed the trail around to its base. But all too soon…back in the bus!

Second stop….was another waterfall! And this one was even bigger than the last. And just as spectacular. We played around for a while with these giant seed helicopter thingees that the maple seeds back home seem pretty pathetic. We had even less time here…and then back on the bus!

Third stop was a Karen village. The Karen Hill Tribe is a much larger group in Burma, and better known, but is still the largest and least-nomadic Hill Tribe group in Thailand. Traditionally, the Karen tribe is famous for their long-necked women (or “padaung”), who start lengthening their necks using brass rings at a very young age. But in the modern era, this practice has become problematic, both for health reasons (it weakens the neck) and because many of these Karen women have been placed into semi-slavery by unscrupulous tour companies who see them as a money-making attraction. Many Karen communities have abandoned the tradition as a result.

When we found out we were going to be participating this kind of voyeuristic visit, we got kinda nervous. It wasn’t on the pamphlet at the tour company – in fact, we chose that one on particular because it didn’t involve any Hill Tribes. As it turned out though, it was a quick stop, and involved very little pointing-n-staring, and no padaung women. We saw a quick weaving demonstration, admired some belts made out of watermelon seeds (thousands of them, they must really like their watermelon), walked the village, and then back on the bus! At this point, I started to feel a bit like we were being herded like cattle.

We had lunch at an open-sided thatched restaurant across from the village. Our timing couldn’t have been better, because it started to seriously pour moments after we got under shelter (the first real rain of the trip). I was a little annoyed at the German couple who were with us, who picked all of the meat out of the dishes and then had the gall to pour most of the sauce over their rice. It was all they ate. My meal was virtually meat and sauce-free as a result. One of the risks when you don’t take a private tour, I guess. Back on the bus!

After lunch, we found ourselves at a commercial flower plantation project on the steppes of Doi Inthanon. Once upon a time, Thailand was notorious for its opium farms. Of course, for more reasons than I can count, the Thai authorities saw this as a bad thing. The current Queen of Thailand actually took direct responsibility for cleansing the country of the drug industry and has had a great deal of success in doing so (although, in some cases there were hurtful side effects of the project, which I won’t go into in more detail). Flower plantation farming was one of the new industries that were offered as a substitute, trading poppies for other species and creating markets for the new crops in Bangkok and other centers. Orchids are particularly popular, and we saw lots of them there. We toured some of the greenhouses housing millions of flowers and other plants under plastic sheeting, 20 seconds to look at the swans, and then…yes, back on the bus.

Next stop was the top of the mountain, which was promised to be one of the most spectacular views in Thailand. Of course, the rain clouds from lunchtime were still hanging around and we saw squat. About 5 seconds of staring at the blank grayness was enough for us. We took a walk through the lush forest at the top of the mountain along a boardwalk, admiring some colourful birds and beetles along the way. I rebelled a bit at this point and purposely came back to the bus late. I’m not sure that anyone noticed.

The last stop was kinda neat. Close to the top of the mountain are the twin pagodas of Phra That Naphamataneedon (say that fast, I dare you). The whole complex was started in 1987 when the Royal Thai Air Force built a chedi to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 60th birthday. Then in 1992, they followed suite with another chedi in honor of the Queen’s 60th.

Unlike the top of the mountain, the view was quite a bit clearer here. And it was interesting seeing a modern take on a religious building to compare with all of the ancient ones we’d been seeing. The friezes along the sides of the buildings were incredible. The gardens were pretty ornate and extensive, too. All too soon, we were smushed into the bus and carted back to Chiang Mai. I’ve gotta say though, the whole thing felt rushed. I wish I had time to explore at least one of the trails through the forest, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

We checked into our rooms at the Souvenir guesthouse, which was much nicer than the place we were at the previous nights. The rooms themselves weren’t any better, but at least it had a nice garden courtyard and it was closer to where we wanted to go that evening.

We had dinner at a nearby restaurant and tried what turned out to be my favourite dish of the whole trip, Chiang Mai noodles with chicken. If you ever find this at a Thai restaurant, get it. It was soft noodles in a brown broth-y sauce with hard fried noodles on top. Delicious. It was so good that we barely noticed the dead goldfish that were floating upside down in the tank across from our table. An Irish couple at the restaurant talked us into checking out the Muay Thai boxing match that evening, which we had been debating for most of the day.

If you ever get to Thailand, you absolutely must not miss a match of Muay Thai. Okay, so what is it? Basically, it’s kick-boxing, and it’s old, first documented in 1411. Boxers have the choice of hitting with their hands (in boxing gloves) or their feet. It’s pretty brutal, many boxers have been known to break bones in the ring and it’s pretty much a sure thing that at least one match of the night will result in blood being spilled. It’s also a highly ritualized sport, involving ceremonial bows (called a “wai cru”) and even a special dance before the match (the “ram muay”).

The whole experience was cool and surreal. We got to this giant arena around 9pm and the matches had already started. Like in North America, the ring was in the middle, with wooden bleachers on all 4 sides and a big area where people were standing and watching or sitting on folding chairs. First reactions: the place was crawling in farang (foreigners, remember?) with very few Thai people. Rachel explained that this was probably because the ticket price for the night was more than the average Thai person made in a whole week. Understandable, to be sure. This deal was for the tourists and the high-rollers alone.

Many of the boxers were pretty young (one pair looked like they were 12 years old) and some were international, with one guy from the UK, one from Congo, and another from Germany. Strangely, it was the kids who were more vicious, probably because they had more to prove in front of the farang. We took turns making our own money-free bets on the boxers. Not knowing anything about any one of them from average guy “x” on the street, all we could say was “I’ve got red shorts! He looks feisty!” I think Rachel ended up with the keenest eye for picking the winners.

So through the match, people were placing bets and drinking beers in the stands. Every time a boxer made a nice hit, everyone around the ring shouted “OI!” And in the background was the most indescribable music imaginable. The 3-person band (called a “piphat” band) was live, and was made up of a drummer beating on a sideways bongo-like drum, a guy shaking tambourine-like jangly things, and a guy playing what looked like a clarinet. It sure didn’t sound like a clarinet though.

To our untrained western ears, there was no clear tune. I swear the “clarinet” guy was making the whole thing up as he went. The sound was equal parts screechy and squawky and basically sounded like a very, very loud impression of a complete amateur picking up a saxophone and randomly hitting keys and squeaking the reed to get some laughs. It wasn’t funny. It sounded terrible. I classified it as “the worst mood music I’d ever heard” on the spot. I’m sure they were very talented though. Hard to say without a frame of reference.

To make matters worse, once they reached the last few minutes of the 5th and final round of the match, they started to play faster and louder. If there’s a musical hell, I swear that a piphat band would be playing there. And unlike in North America, they only played when people were boxing. In between rounds, there was silence.

We left a bit early and made our way back across the Ping River. We closed out the night at the outer space-themed Bubble Disco (pronounced “bubbin” for some reason) where we drank our faces off, paid too much for drinks, made asses of ourselves dancing on speakers, dodged the US soldiers on the dance floor, and hit on/got hit on by some cuties. Fun had by all.

So that was Chiang Mai! Next stop, Part 7: “Intestinal Fortitude, See-Thru Airports, and Stinging Water”.

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!)