Welcome to the Jungle!

October 16, 2006 — Sa Wat Dema

I am back in Bangkok and have successfully met up with Hanagi-Son, but less than 24 hours ago, I was barefoot in a village in the jungle. I have showered off the layers of mud, sweat, and blood, but I have come away with memories of what was literally one of the best nights of my life. By the way, Adam should be flying high over the Pacific right now and he is a bit ill (stomach problems that he has carried away from the village) – so please send him your support.

Now back to the jungle…

We traveled up into the North of Thailand to a beautiful city called Chaing Mai. It is a very touristy place but very international and with a laid back atmosphere. I guess that is what happens when the biggest draw to the town is trekking into the wild to experience life with the various minority hilltribes that live in and around Thailand. Basically, the place brings a much different type of traveler than the beaches of Ko Somui.

Adam has a friend in town he knows from a camp he used to work at, and I’ll tell you, knowing someone local made all of the difference. His friend, Rachel, is dating one of the trek guides and was able to hook us up with a private tour with her boyfriend’s brother –a Karen tribesmen named Bat. Bat was basically the Derek Cwik of Chaing Mai, if Derek was 5 feet tall, knew everyone in town, and was just as at home on a bamboo raft down a jungle river as he is in the city. Bat is 24 and would do well in Wrigleyville. We agreed to go on a 3-day trek to visit the village he grew up in, a few other hilltribe villages, ride elephants and raft a river.

The night before we left, we went out for drinks with Rachel, Bat and a few friends. We also went to see a live elephant show. Imagine about 30 highly-trained elephants at a very eco-friendly camp in the bush doing things like playing with oversized soccer balls, eating bananna out of your hand, throwing darts at balloons, and even painting. No kidding. They taught these elephants to paint! I think they just learned different patterns by wrote and their trainers dipped their brushes in different colors of paint, but the elephants did all the work. Though the whole show was a bit hoky, this is actually a great thing for these elephants. There are few wild elephants left in these parts (though some of the hilltribes still use them to move timber when making houses in places where there are no roads), but there are many elephants still living that were previously trained to work int he forest. Elephants live to like 80 years old and get passed from father to son. These shows provide an outlet for these elephants and money for their trainers.

For those of you interested in Elephant art, they mostly painted flowers and tree shapes, though some of the elephants could actually paint a line drawing of another elephant. I was a bit surprised – I think it says something about me when an elephant can draw better than I can. I also think it says something about human nature when we saw some of the same tricks these elephants did also performed at a rather seedy show the night before for which Bangkok is famous. We just had to go, though I never need to see another one. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that ping pong balls are involved. Ask any friendly tuk tuk driver if you would like to learn more.

Anyway, back to Chaing Mai. We went out for drinks and I met this gorgeous Norwegian. Among other things, I learned that I have been saying my mother’s maiden name (“Sjoberg”) very wrong all of my life. It is something more like “Se-u-berg-a”. Though I should say that I was more interested in learning Normegian for “let’s make out” so my translation may be off.

Now to the trek – In the course of 3 days, we hiked about 7 hours, rafted down the Mae Taeng River on what was probably the most un-seaworthy craft I have ever been on, rode elephants through the forest, and visited 3 small villages. But by far the most memorable experience was our first night spent in Bat’s own village called Mae Gok. Imagine a place where there is just one “road” into the village, though it is a 2 hour drive from Chain Mai, then another hour drive up a very steep, muddy, often wahed out road that is only really useable by motorbike. Even four by fours can only go to the village at certain times of the year. Imagine a place where only two or three of the houses (there are about 250 people in the village) have electricity, and even that only consists of solar-powered charged car baterries lighting one small flourescent bulb per house for only a few hours a day. Toilets are squat toilets or holes in the ground. People still farm rice and there are chickens, cows, and pigs running around everywhere. There are no roads or even stone paths, just mud. All bathing and washing is done in a small river or with water probably pumped up from it. There are people that have never left the village, and most people still wear the tradional clothes they have woven from cotton for centuries. This was what is colloquially known as a “red” Karen village because much of the cloth they make is dyed red. Other villages are black or blue Karen. Only the youngest people spoke Thai (the rest speaking Karen) and almost no one spoke English. I have never been in such a remote place in my life. Even the villages I lived in in Belize don’t compare to this. Some of the houses were even still made out of thatch and sticks.

There was another trekking group visiting the village that night, though they didn’t really leave their house. Bat immediately took Adam and I to meet almost everyone in the village. We met his mother who still wears a head wrap and tradional clothing, his uncle with teeth dyed black, his cousing who is a midget, his father who smoked local tobacco, and literally the rest of the village. WE were the entertainment that night! We paraded around town all night meeting everyone. My camara was a big hit –we took TONS of photos of the local people, and they loved it because we could immmediately turn the camara around and show them their pictures! I mean, i didn’t even see any mirrors anywhere in the the whole town. The funny thing is that though these people live in such a very different place from us, they laughed at the same things, giggles when Adam made faces at the little kids, and appreciated the same respect and generosity. It was an amazing experience.

Bat also took us to the local church (oddly enough they are Catholic) where the entire village gathered for a prayer every night (at least every night this month because it is the month Mary was born). Everyone was so happy to see us (and particularly because we were respectful and friends of one of their local sons). It was amazing. We felt like Kings. Despite the dirt and most basic living standards, it was a very peaceful place. I could see spending time in a place liek that and being very happy.

The best part of the night was still to come. Bat mentoined that fo a little more money we could buy a pig to barbecue. We said sure, but we may have said something different when we realized that we had to kill it! I think out of respect for us, and because they thought we would get a kick out of it, the offered us a very small little black pig to kill for dinner. I was in the process of saying no thank you when I found a long kitchen knife in one hand and a bowl to catch the blood in the other. Men were holding the pig’s feet and mouth –it was go time and I really had no choice. I also thought that since were going to eat it, it was OK – I mean for all of the meat I have eaten in my life, I would be a hippocrite if I didn’t step up and kill it at least once. Well, Adam took a great video of me plunging the knife into it’s throat and neck arteries and I think he even caught the look of complete disgust mized with wild wonder on my face. Adam could not believe that I catually did it. He was so impressed that I think that is why he took the chance to kill a the next night’s chicken by knocking over the head with a stick. He even helped to pluck its feathers and butcher the thing. Perhaps that is were he caught his avian flu / malaria / stomach sickness that has plagued him for the last 24 hours. (By the way, adam, if you are still sick when you read this, please go to a doctor). I choose to let the local guys skin, gut, and barbesue the pig –though I did make sure to give the main butcher a small bottle of whicky (I learned in Belize that you always bring alchohol into the jungle –that and snickers bars –just a quick tip for those of you on your way to Mae Gok).

As the pig roasted over a fire, Bat taught us how to cook other Thai dishes. He made this chili sauce for the pork that was about the spiciest, but best things I have ever eaten. When the pig was done, the whole family and half the village came over to help us eat it. we were treated like royalty, which everyone cutting off hunks of the greasy and delicious meat, but feeding us their choised pieces. We all sat ont he ground on banana leaves (the easiest tablecloth to clean!) pulling apart the meat with our fingers and dipping it in chili sauce. It was so primal and amazing. They fed us until we could not eat any more –we even had barbecue for breakfast. There was greasy fingers and smiling faces everywhere. We bought beers and made whickey drinks for the men, and everyone had a great time (with about 20 people in attendance, that ended up costing quite a bit, but it was all worth it). The butcher was very very pleased that I left much of the small bottle of whickey for him to drink. It was just an amazing experience. I have never felt so welcomed and yet the center of such interest before in my life. They then broke out the guitar and Adam played while we all sang songs in Karen, Thai, and English. The Karen ones were the biggest hit, though I must say that everyone did seem to know “Country Road Take Me Home” extremely well. We even did an encore of that one at the next village the next night.

While in the village we also took a crack at playing the loca ball game called Ti-Juk. It is bascially hacky-sack played with a small woven whicker ball over a low volleyball net. To spike the balll they do these incredible soccer-style bicycle kicks. It is pretty amazing. I also leanred that it takes a lot of practice.

Anyway, the trel was amazing and we stubled out of the jungle extremely dirty, adam a little worse for the wear, my feet cut up, our clothes disgusting –but with absolutely great memories. Bat said that we should come back and spend more time in the village, like a week or two where we would even work int he rice fields with the locals. If I am ever in Chaing Mai again, I will definitely take him up on the offer. And if anyone from Mae Gok happens to be reading this –thank you so much and you are most definitely welcome to stay with us in Chicago! There aren’t many pigs to kill in Wrigleyville, but we’ll show you a good time!

Well – off tomorrow to Cambodia to see Ankor Wat!


Subscribe and get notified to hear about future adventures.