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7. Going Up Country
‘OREENJOOS!!’ a steward yelled, pacing the train aisle with a jug of darkly coloured orange juice, stirring anyone not already awake. There was something cheeky about her obvious enjoyment of yelling and waking people up that made me chuckle.
Abundant greens had been striking as soon as I had drawn open the window curtains. I had slept, felt a notch or two better than in previous days, and this view helped. Aisle curtain still drawn, I blew my nose as quietly as possible and watched the forest scenery trundle past for a while. This was not a speedy train. We rode over an extremely narrow bridge with no barriers and little if any space between the outside of the train and the outside of the track. A gaping space dropped away beneath as I picked myself up from a slump to peer downwards. It was a welcome change from the city and it felt like my nasal passages would welcome it too.
We had boarded our train for the 13-hour trip to north Thailand after a protracted wait in the central station, which for some reason involved standing for the national anthem. I was grateful to find that the carriages were clean and metallic rather than damp and dark, as I had feared. All the same I hadn’t been hopeful of sleep, sitting behind my lower bunk curtain, rocking gently back and forth and sniffing steadily. I was suffering from the back-end of a virus which had worryingly consigned me to bed for much of my remaining spare time in Bangkok. At its worst, a fever scared me into thinking that I wouldn’t even make the journey north.
We arrived at the major northern city of Chiang Mai at around 8am and were immediately shipped in the back of a truck to a trekking equipment rental place owned by a young Australian. He skillfully picked at our uncertainties and insecurities about the trek, selling us more than we needed. We breakfasted at a hotel and were afforded our last electric shower in a few days, before boarding the open backed trucks once more for an hour’s journey further north.
The last leg of the day’s journey saw us into remote, lush green areas and our homestay: a series of basic but tidy huts. Ours held four berths on a single first floor hut, sleeping on floormats, with a couple of sheets and a mosquito net provided. The site also comprised a small block of squat toilets with large tubs of water used to scoop your waste away. A pleasant dining area with wooden pine benches connected to another indoor area. This housed the kitchen and a dining floor where we were entertained by a musical performance from local children later that evening.
Our hostess here was a cheerful middle-aged lady with two omnipresent children: one a well behaved, well-presented girl of around 11, the other a rather irritating, excitable overweight boy of around 8. She and her children first escorted us to some nearby caves inside a hollow mountain with remarkable rock formations.
A scenic and leisurely-paced bicycle tour of the area followed, stopping at places for our hostess to commentate on the rice fields and worked land. We exchanged hellos and waves with friendly villagers as we pedalled by, all the while surrounded by verdant green mountains. Stopping for a drink at a small, locally run store selling materials, scarves and bags which some of the ladies bought, I noticed a small boy kicking about on the road. He looked bored, possibly recently told off, and only mildly curious of the westerners. He wore a replica Manchester United shirt which wasn’t that outdated. The immediacy of Chelsea’s current oligarch-driven success couldn’t buy them the level of global popularity United still enjoy.
Dinner was a well-presented buffet. In groups of four or five, we sat on the floor of the indoor room around three-tiered arrangements of various meats, samosas, bhajis, fish, vegetable options and rice. It was considerably more food than we could stomach.
Our evening’s entertainment comprised a musical demonstration by the local children, with tuition of their traditional instruments. Momentarily bitter in my disappointment at being beaten to the most interesting instrument, I had to settle for the more boring option of bongos.
In the courtyard an open-air musical performance was laid on from our hostess’s daughter, before an embarrassing solo kickboxing display from the chubby son, who had grown even more irritating. I had smiled weakly when he cut me up on his bike earlier. “Sohee!” he had yelled back, grinning broadly. We sat there watching him barely able to pick his legs up high enough to show the kicks he was attempting, yelling as he did so, more confident than he had any right to be. It could have been funny if it hadn’t continued for a painfully long twenty minutes. Consolation came in the form of a staff member creeping around the back of our attentive, silent semi-circle, giving us a small back and shoulder massage.
Next were terrifying but highly impressive fireworks. Glowing lanterns were sent serenely drifting skywards, before igniting at around forty feet and sending rockets back to earth at alarming speeds and to terrifying effect. We had all feared for our safety, some more jumpily than others. The lanterns continued their ghostly levitation, oblivious to the panic caused, eventually rising to become almost imperceptible specs.
What came before
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