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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in Asia

Paddling the Maekok River
Antonio Graceffo in Thailand
*Photos by A. Graceffo are like bees, carrying a distant pollen to new and remote species of flowers, cross-pollinating the Earth.
When you tell the folks back in Brooklyn that you are going to paddle the entire Mekong River, they are justifiably impressed. The Mekong is one of the most famous rivers in the world, often referred to as The Heart of the Dragon, or The Soul of Indochina. It's pristine waterways run from Yunnan, China, through Indochina, ending in Vietnam.

But when you tell people you are going to paddle the entire Maekok River, they just stare and ask "The what river?" For an adventure writer, whose greatest claims to fame are a solo crossing of the second largest desert in the world, The Taklamakan, (which no one in Brooklyn had heard of), and climbing Taiwan's second highest mountain (San Cha Shan) choosing an obscure river in Northern Thailand, for his first canoe expedition, just seemed the right thing to do.
The Maekok is not even an independent river, in the strictest sense of the word. It is a spur of the Mekong, branching off at the Thai/ Burmese border, on the north west, cutting accross the North of Thailand, and rejoining the Mekong, near the Golden Triangle, at the Lao/Myanmar border. The first time I set eyes on the Maekok was during a bicycle trip to Burma. Climbing up the brutal hills, leading to the city of Thaton, I ran out of steam, and decided to take my bicycle on a motor boat, to the city of Chiang Rai, which would put me on the direct highway, to Burma. Although I spent much of the trip whimpering on the floor of the boat, nursing my muscle cramps and saddle sores, the beauty of the Maekok River grabbed hold of me. And, I knew I would have to come back, and do the river in a kayak or canoe.

Three months later, I found myself as a member of a small expedition, paddling the Maekok River, from Thaton to Chiang Rai. The beauty of the rivers of Indochina is often indescribable. The solid green walls of the jungle grow right up to the river's edge, where all manner of exotic animals come to drink and fish. A brilliant tropical sun shines down, illuminating the river like a green, neon snake, which twists and winds its way through the fertile landscape. Over head, a clear, bright sky ads a touch of blue to the breathtaking color scheme.

Massive elephants came down to the river to bath, and the good-natured Wadis, elephant divers, waved at us as we made our slow way down the river My companions on this trip were Reinier and Anouk, two Dutch adventure coaches, who work for Track of The Tiger Tours, and Pouk, a heavily muscled ex-soldier and former professional Muay Thai fighter, who acts as river guide and camp cook. Although Reinier and I both speak Thai, we must rely on Pouk as interpreter, when we meet with the Hill Tribe people, who live in close harmony with nature, along the river.

"Tell me about your days as a fighter." I asked Pouk, as we lazily paddled our canoes.
"I used to like Muay Thai very much." He told me, in his firm voice. "Then I studied Aikido. It is a beautiful art. But now I like scents."
"Scents?" I asked, suspecting he had made an error in his English.
"Yes, you know, fragrances. I like to smell good." He answered.

At every rest stop, Pouk doused himself with generous quantities of various perfumes. After meals, he insisted that we chew gum, which was laced with mouthwash. "It is important for hygiene." he said, sounding more like a den mother than a fighter. There were times I didn't feel like chewing the gum, but the look on Pouk's face said if I refused, I would never chew anything again. I must admit, I had the freshest breath I'd ever had on an adventure trip.

This being my first time in a canoe, I was heavily dependent on guidance from Reinier, who was quite an expert. "I will steer from the rear." Explained Reinier. "You sit in the front, paddle, and look out for rocks." Unfortunately that was too many steps for a novice like me: sit in the front, paddle and look out for rocks. Inevitably I forgot to do at least one of those things, usually looking for rocks. The result was that we bounced off of the hidden obstacles like the bumpers in a pinball machine.
"I told you to watch out for rocks!" Scolded Reinier, as we became beached through my negligence.
"I see them." I countered, in my own defense.
"But you're supposed to see them, BEFORE we hit them." He explained, in a patient tone, normally reserved for a slow-witted three-year-old.
"Oh! BEFORE we hit them." I said, Playing along. "Sorry, I had a sequence error."

Adventures are always more exciting, when they have a purpose. The reason for this trip was so that I could write about agro farming projects which were being introduced into the region, in the hopes of ending hunger, and varying the diets of the hill tribe people. Now that Thailand had outlawed logging, the Forestry Department and Royal Projects, were concerned with eliminating slash and burn farming. While we who have so much enjoy the beauty of the jungle, and wish to preserve it as a natural wonder, the hill tribe people need the jungle as a source of food and income. In dealing with the hill tribes one always has to strike some balance between preservation of natural resources, and not leaving human beings in a state of famine.

Fortunately, through the help of a visionaries, like Rick Barnet, who introduced agro farming into the region, these modern concepts were now being taught to the Lahu hill tribe. The night before our departure, Reiner took me on a tour of the Maekok River Village Complex, where an agro farming project had been installed, as part of a community development program. The complex also boasts an adventure sports training ground, complete with outdoor rock climbing and other obstacles, used to teach team building and self confidence to young people. Hill tribe children can attend the one year program on a scholarship basis, taking classes in: hotel skills, agro farming, adventure sports, and English.

The complex was tremendous, providing a different sort of vacation for foreigners, while helping as many locals as possible. They were obviously doing good work there. But, the most impressive aspect of the program was that it actually involved hill tribe and rural Thai people. It was refreshing to find a program which wasn't forced on people, but instead, began by identifying a problem, and then included the locals in working towards a solution. I wasn't thinking about obstacle courses, or agro farming. Reiner would probably have preferred I were thinking about rocks. But instead, I was taking in the beauty of the river, and the life that teamed upon it. Whole families poled their way, in long dugout boats, on their way to market, with their produce. Boys waded in water, up to their necks, throwing fishing nets.

Houses, built on sticks, jutted right out over the water. Oxen lazed on the banks. Children swam and played. Tourists, with fat wallets, whizzed by in motor boats, missing it all. And, we in our lazy canoes, became part of the river, and moved in harmony with it. BLAM! We hit yet another rock. So much for harmony. We took a rest stop at the Track of the Tiger adventure base camp, and turned the canoe over. There were two large holes, which had been leaking water, in Reiner's end of the boat, for hours.
"It's your fault." Reinier said.
"If it's my fault, why are the holes in your end of the boat?" I asked, in defense.
"Are you guys going to be able to get along all the way down the Mekong?" Asked Anouk.
Reinier and I had never worked together before. And, I had never been in a canoe before. But this trip was to be the warm up for a Don Quixote-esque attempt, which I wanted to make on the Mekong.
"We will if Antonio could keep his head out of the photos." Said Reinie. He had been complaining all day that our group photos would have been better if my head were cut off.
"I think we'll get along fine on the Mekong." I said. "It only takes like two or three days, right?"
Both Reinier and Anouk suggested I look at a map when we returned to Chiang Mai.

To plug the leaks, I used a trick I had picked up, while living with the Akha hill tribe. We set an empty water bottle on fire, and dripped the molten plastic into the holes. It held, surprisingly well, until we hit more rocks. Every thud on the bottom of the boat was one step further away from the Mekong.
Any time I am on a river in Thailand, I always think of the movie "Apocalypse Now," where Martin Sheen, playing Captain Willard, is drifting up the Mekong river, into Laos.
"Never get out of the boat." Said Willard. "Damned right! Kurtz got out of the boat. And he split from the whole program."
Willard was on a mission to meet Colonel Kurtz. Although we still had two days to go, my mission would end once we reached the Lahu village, and I did an interview with the head man. I was extremely nervous about this meeting. Meeting a head man was like meeting royalty. I had never met royalty. I had no idea of how to comport myself. Willard had put it this way. "Part of me was afraid of what I would find, and what I would do when I got there. I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him."

Every time I stayed with the hill tribe people, I learned something new. The Akha had taught me to make rope, by splitting bamboo into long thin strips, and then braiding it. They also taught me to make a flashlight, using only two batteries, some notebook paper, a small piece of wire, and a light bulb. At our next stop, a Lahu man showed us an even better way of repairing the canoe. He ignited a car tire, and dripped huge clumps of liquid rubber into the holes. This really put my melted bottle trick into perspective. Now, the repairs were permanent.

Everywhere we went, the hill tribe men took special interest in our unique canoes. Shane Kevin Beary, a former S.A.S soldier and professional deep-sea diver, who runs Track of the Tiger, had built these canoes, based on a design used by Indians of Canada. They had an extremely shallow draft, which was especially important during the dry season. In the last five months, it had only rained a handful of times in Northern Thailand. The canoes were roomy enough to carry our luggage and water, with space for additional passengers. Even with their large size, the canoes were surprisingly agile. Everywhere we went, hill tribe people studied every detail. Like some strange form of reverse assimilation, the Hill Tribes of Thailand were being exposed to the culture of the Native People of North America. In my work, I often have the feeling that travelers are like bees, carrying a distant pollen to new and remote species of flowers, cross-pollinating the Earth.
When I bring the story of the Lahu back to Brooklyn, the circle will be complete. "Do you really think we could do the whole Mekong?" Asked Reinier.
Since my boatmanship wasn't impressing anyone, I had been using psychology on Reinier, all day, to win him over to the idea of making the trip with me, and hopefully getting Shane to pay for it. Once I told him that there were over seventy-three ethnic groups on the river, or more accurately, seventy-three types of women, Reinier was hooked. He also liked the idea of being the main character in an historic adventure book. But I think the girls were the real attraction for him.
"I think we can do it." I said.
"What about your horrible driving?" He asked.
"We will just have to bring more tires." I answered. The Lahu had already taught me something.

At a small collection of houses on stilts, we beached the canoes. Pouk lead us on an easy hiking trail, into the jungle. The view from the boat was incredible, because of all of the air and space. But trekking, the jungle was up-close and personal. Now, we could not only see, but also hear, feel, and smell the natural world. Already, at this low altitude, we saw evidence of scientific farming, as we crossed over patty fields, integrated with the jungle scenery. Fruits and wild flowers grew inches from our path. When we reached Tisae Lahu Village, we were told that the headman was out, working on the farm. So, we would have to wait. A Lahu woman took us to her house, which doubled as the village store.

"We are sleeping in Seven Eleven." Joked Pouk, taking in the shelves of snack foods and cola, which decorated our sleeping room. Just judging from the quantity of food available for sale, and by the nearly normal amount of baby fat on the faces of the Lahu children, playing in the yard, I determined that this village was infinitely richer than the Akha Hill tribe villages, where I had been living. In those villages, people had gaunt, tight faces, and children often lost their hair. Here, everyone looked healthy. We grounded our packs, and had just settled into a very comfortable resting position, when Reinier said to me. "You're a journalist. Go out and learn something about the village, so you can write your article." The bamboo mats which the Lahu had laid out on the floor for us were exceedingly comfortable, and standing up was not on my personal agenda. "Can't I just make something up, or do research on the internet, when we get back?" I asked, like a six year old who didn't want to get up for school. Luckily, Pouk, who, like a deadly Mary Popins, always had the right solution in his bag of tricks, boiled up some coffee for me. Fortified with caffeine, I was back in the game.

Our Lahu host, showed us a tremendous lizard that would be our dinner. Pouk assured her, however, that we had brought our own food. So, the large reptile would be spared for one more day. Outside, what was typical about this hill tribe village, was that people lived in bamboo and wooden houses. There were large troupes of giggling children running around, playing. And, there were packs of dogs, chasing the countless pigs. What was not typical, however, was that the village had its own school. There was a single classroom, made of cinderblock, where we found a volunteer Thai teacher. She was a wonderful young lady, who seemed very excited to meet foreigners. She explained to us that she teaches classes in Thai, English, and Chinese, for the children, in the day time, and teaches Thai to the parents at night. The classroom, although financially poor, showed the dedication and love that this courageous woman took in her work. To the extent that she was capable, she had decorated the classroom with posters, and children's art work. While Anauk stroked a baby piglet, only a week old, we looked at the drawings exhibited on the walls. Interesting was that all of the children had drawn pictures of a house, with trees, and a sun, as children would have anywhere else. But these pictures were unique, because the houses were all bamboo huts. Most of the drawings also showed a TV in each hut. The trees and animals were all exotic flora and fauna, which western children only see on TV, but which make up the every day world of the Lahu children. Outside each house, there was a Thai flag, demonstrating once again, that the Thais have a strong sense of nationalism.

Headman Tisea
I had been told that Headman Tisae, had actually begun doing agro farming years and years before anyone in the west had even thought of the concept. In actuality, all of the hill tribes had historically gone in to the jungle, as hunters and gathers, collecting edible and medicinal plants. What was unique about the hill tribes, however, was that they didn't just use the plants that they found. Instead, they replanted them, in the jungle, near the village, so they would be there when they were needed. Tisae, had taken the basic hill tribe concept of gathering a step further, by transplanting fruits and other cash crops near his village. Apparently, in the early years of his personal crusade, to both save the jungle and save his people, no one supported him. Not only did the other villagers refuse to help, but they actually laughed at him. But when they began, very slowly, to see the financial benefits, they all joined him.

One of the difficulties that men like Rick Barnet face is that the hill tribes are resistant to change anything about their lifestyle. After all, it is there rigid set of morals and cultural norms that have preserved them as a unique people, thousands of miles, and hundreds of years removed from their ancestral home in Central Asia. Luckily, in Tisae, Rick found a willing partner, and both the project and the village were flourishing as a result. There had been so much build up about this great headman, Tisae, that i expected him to be a regal figure, ten feet tall, clad in stainless, gold trimmed armor, head-to-toe. When word came to us that Headman Tisae had arrived, I was prepared to be awed. Instead, what I found was a comical character, about five feet tall, who looked like he had just stepped out of a Disney movie about forest gnomes. Tisae, who is about 70 years old, had a gaunt face, a ready smile, and boundless energy. He wore a traditional cap, a wraparound skirt, and a machete. Between his spars teeth, stained a deep red, from beetle nut, he smoked, a long, thin pipe, which made him look like some mythical elf from a fairy story. Questions of comportment were mute, as he immediately, led us into the deepest jungle, hacking a path, with his machete. Doing an interview was also out of the question. Tisae talked constantly, Pouk translated, and I struggled through the jungle, writing dictation.

The path was steep and narrow, completely over grown with huge thorn bushes, and vines, covered with tremendous spines. The pen might be mightier than the sword. But I would have traded them both for a machete. Tisae, laughed at the city people, slipping and sliding as we struggled to keep up with the old man. All Thais, and hill tribes in particular, live by a code of senook (fun). If something isn't senook, they won't do it. By the same token, any work or any hardship is endurable, as long as you make it senook. City people getting cut and tripped up by thorns was definitely a source of senook for Tisae, who cackled constantly, making me wonder just what he was smoking in that pipe of his. He added to his mirth by intentionally cutting the path at a height appropriate for his tiny frame to pass through. The remaining foliage clotheslined any of us westerners, who tried to walk up right, through the forest. At a much needed rest stop, Tisae showed us an ancient tree, which was about four meters in diameter. He climbed up onto the gnarled trunk, and smoked his pipe reflectively. "Look" He said, through Pouk, the interpreter, "I am the spirit of the forest."
Tisae was only joking. But there was much truth in what he said. The hill tribe people really are like spirits of the forest, or maybe children of the forest would be more accurate. These are people who have lived as a part of the natural ecosystem for centuries. Now, because of far thinking men like Tisae, who embrace such modern concept as agro farming, the tribes may survive. In other, less "developed" villages where I had been, I saw starvation and death, as whole villages were on the brink of extinction.

When they told me I was coming to see a farming project, I expected to see fruits and vegetables, growing in nice, even rows. Instead, I found this seemingly virgin trail. Along the way, Tisae would stop and point to some flora and say. "This is a medicinal herb tree. It sells for 300 Baht." or "This is an edible fruit, which we can use to feed the village."

Long before the hard science of agro farming came to Thailand, Tisae had the idea of gathering edible and medicinal plants, and replanting them, nearer to the village. Now, through the aid of a westerner, named Rick Burnette, the village has one of the largest agro farms in Thailand. Among crops that Tisae showed us were bananas and coconuts. Once again, he stressed to us that these plants were naturally occurring. But they had been transplanted, within the jungle to provide income and sustenance to the village. The project was immense, covering acres and acres of land. And yet, Tisae told me it only requires five fulltime workers to maintain the project. Growing crops in a natural environment is a nearly hands off activity. "At harvest time," Said Tisae, "The whole village comes to help." Eventually, the jungle trail, which I had begun to refer to as the "Trail of Tears," gave way to a lowland, where Tisae showed us artificial ponds, stocked with thousands of fish. "How do you feed them all?" asked Anauk. "Like this." Said Tisae. He took up a huge ant colony, which had been dug out of the forest. He kicked off his sandals, and walked, clinging expertly, on a bamboo which protruded out, over the pond. There, he shaved the ant hill, by hacking it with his machete. The fish all gathered around, below him, to gobble up the tiny feast of ant eggs, which rained into the water.

The tour was over, and the rain began to fall. As much as I couldn't wait to get back to the comfort of the village, and eat one of Pouk's legendary field dinners, the thought of making that same Baton Death March in reverse was so unappealing I began to wonder if I could just spend the night at the fish farm. Tisae, laughing like a banshee, lead us ten feet into the jungle, and set us right back on the easy trekking trail we had used to enter the village originally.
"You mean we could have taken this trail all along, and been spared all the pain?" I asked, in disbelief, and not just a little anger. Tisae just laughed. I knew what he was thinking. Taking the easy path wouldn't have been senook. Besides, struggling through the forest made a better story. Once again, Tisae taught me that we had a lot to learn from Thailand's Hill Tribes.
© Antonio Graceffo April 2004
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