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Thai Hill Trekking
Dave Rich

Because their relatively high standard of living depends on tourists taking pictures... they wear up to a dozen thick golden rings from chin to chest, on arms and legs. Little Karen girls are slathered with make-up to eclipse Cher.

Take sixteen people from eleven countries, shake together three days in the far north of Thailand and they emerge Thai hill-trekking buddies. At least three Slovenians, two French, a Kiwi, Scot, South African, German, Aussie, Swede, Canadian and a three Thais donated their email addresses to the lone American in the group.
Right off we found out why they called it hill trekking. The north Thai hills resemble wet fire walls: straight up, unreasonably hot and sloppy humid. Our Thai leader, Kai (easily remembered from “Bridge over the River Kai”) claimed we pushed him unmercifully. Poor Kai was soaked halfway up the first hill but then, so were we.

By the end of the first day we’d worn ourselves out, exploring a Meo village, empty except for one woman mending a blue, pink and black costume surrounded by pot-bellied piglets. Kai bunked us down in a Lahu village enveloped by brilliant marigolds stretching to the horizon, which in Thai hill country isn’t all that far. In a house of bamboo propped on ten foot stilts, precariously piercing the ionosphere, we spread mats under mosquito netting though we saw no mosquitoes. Our harassment instead came from little Lahu kids streaking across the outside veranda, braking abruptly at the end before they might have mercifully disappeared into the abyss below. Barely older kids carried babies in a cloth sling and after dinner the kids appeared in costume, singing and dancing merrily for donations. The village’s sole source of energy was four solar panels donated by the Thai government. Even without real electricity we stayed up late, playing hysterical card games by candlelight while the Thais and the village leader smoked herbal stogies as big around as our wrists, later switching to a bong. Secondary smoke guaranteed deep slumber for all.

The next day’s highlight was escaping sweat-drenched clothes, BVDing under a frigid waterfall after which we visited an even more chilling tableau of photogenic long-necked Karen women. The Karens are refugees from Myanmar relegated to a single kilometer over the border into Thailand. The golden rings appear to elongate the neck but instead crush the collarbones and chests making it excruciating to talk or breath. So why do they continue the torture and subject their kids to it? Because their relatively high standard of living depends on tourists taking pictures and what pictures they make. They wear up to a dozen thick golden rings from chin to chest, on arms and legs. Little Karen girls are slathered with make-up to eclipse Cher.

In camp we sipped Mekong Whiskey for $3 a bottle, topping off the night by trying to sing our respective national anthems. I confirmed I can never hit that note where the land’s of the free. The prize went to the Kiwi who did the Haka, an electrifying Maori war explosion invented by a warrior surrounded like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a cry designed to precipitate massive heart seizure. We sat stunned before bursting into spontaneous applause and foot stamping as the Kiwi, a fitness instructor from Auckland, stood gasping for air to slow his own rocketing heart. His Scottish girlfriend’s eyes were as wide as capitol O-rings.

The next morning’s breakfast was invaded by elephants, flashing gray trunks grabbing bananas and banana peels from our plates, less than particular which was which. We jumped back in case they might take a shine to us too, and they did, like barn-sized pussy cats as we rubbed their trunks and they frisked us for more bananas as Kai grandly announced elephant-riding time. We caught our breaths and mounted a high platform, clambering onto actual elephants in pairs and at that instant I swore off Mekong Whiskey.
The only way to comfortably ride a lumbering elephant is not in the swaying-side-to-side top box but astride the hairy neck, passenger and elephant cooled by flopping ears. If the elephant likes you his trunk whips up and over to steady you at particularly steep ups and downs of which I had several.

We disembarked to vendors selling huge bunches of bananas for 22 cents with which we rewarded out new elephant friends, furiously snapping pictures before the trekking grand finale split us into two groups on rafts. A wildly competitive paddling and splashing race ensued for an hour down five jouncy rapids, everyone screeching like pale Maori look-a-nuts, drenching each other for the bragging rights of which raft won, and I confidentially confide that the good guys (gender indeterminate) on my raft prevailed. We retired to our last communal pad Thai feast, hanging our wet duds in the sun and scribbling off email addresses with abandon for our new bosom hill-trekking buddies.

© Dave Rich 2002

More from Dave Rich who is at this moment in Myanmar (Feb 2002)


Dave Rich -after three months in China where the media consists of serendipitous bullhonky sprinkled with crapulous creativity. I finally found out what was really up with Brittany Spears.

Dave Rich - lousy Lao whiskey flowing like water. Water is far superior and less vindictive....
Laos is Mexico on downers and in slow motion

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