8. North Thailand trekking
Having been shipped in trucks a short distance further north, we were deposited in a national park with pure rushing waterfalls and surrounded by dense, lush forests. We paddled in the shallows, chatted and picnicked by a stream before embarking on the trek.
Necessary preparations involved complicated rucksack rejigging, sun lotion application and the donning of walking boots used only my native western forest.
Our start proved to be a false one. We had been joined by local porters: four or five men ranging in age from twenty to sixty, wearing traditional claret waistcoat dress and basic flip-flops as footwear. They carried our food, as well as the rucksacks of a couple of tourists. We hadn’t walked five minutes up a hill when we were told to stop and wait while the porters ate their lunch, smoked a little and did their business in the depths of a nearby forest.
We stopped and waited on the hillside, surveying the views, taking in the strong heat, bewildered and not a little irritated by the false start. Thais, or at least the Thais here, seem to have a different attitude to time, whereby waiting for anything, even unnecessary waiting, should never be an issue – let alone be reacted to with impatience.
Dropping my rucksack to the dusty ground, I sucked at my water bottle and gazed around us. It was remarkable how little some parts differed from home in terms of vegetation. This place was merely subjected to a greater intensity of sunshine, heat and rain and everything was proportionately bigger. Although we’re not so well off for banana trees.
Our descent into the valley on awkward, apparently seldom trodden paths led me to wonder further about our guides. They appeared so casual, obviously knew the area well, were deeply familiar with the network of paths, yet there was something disorganised about the routes we were taking, as if they were making it up as they went along, vaguely following their own probably flawless sense of direction.
A dusty, ramshackle village was our home that evening. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we entered the village. Would the young children be fascinated by us and starey? Would we be treated warmly by the villagers? In reality we were treated as coolly as most tourists are treated by locals wherever they are. We passed a frantic, brutal looking football match involving around 35 children, taking place on a flattish area of brown dust in front of long buildings which could have housed a school or community centre. Not one of the children looked in our direction.
Erratically dotted wooden cabins and huts – none too close to each other – appeared to be in various states of repair. One was in the process of being built by a young man with excellent English. He had enjoyed a decent education and worked casually as a tour guide not long ago, but he also wanted to provide his family and his whole village with a new home to be proud of. Judging from its ambitious shell – larger than any other in the village, he was heading in the right direction. At home, if you come from a rough background, you might pack your bags and look to make enough money elsewhere to come back and buy your folks a new place in a new area. You probably wouldn’t return and build a new house in that same area yourself, alone, while you’re still young and not earning much money.
Steep rungs led up to our own cabin, again set some distance from the ground. One small room held a kitchen of sorts; a neighbouring one was the largest room where we would all eat and sleep; another back room would temporarily accommodate the large family whose home we had effectively colonised.
A short walk into the village revealed numerous chickens and mangey dogs, none with much more than skin and bone to show for their endurance. We stood watching the endlessly frenetic football game, interested to see if we’d be invited on. I was concerned for my flip-flops and the exposure of my toes if we were, although most of the hardened children were barefoot. Our presence was barely acknowledged, but one of our trio took positive action, inviting herself into a smaller game of volleyball with some young girls behind the football.
Our multi-purpose main cabin room staged that evening’s dinner, followed by light entertainment. Dinner was similar to the previous evening: bowls of rice, vegetables and catfish with more bone than meat.
Entertainment comprised optional Thai massage from our gallant porters for a nominal fee, card games, or logic matchstick games. I was severely taxed by the latter. Our youngest and most cheeky porter had a boundless enthusiasm and was always seeking to play practical jokes. One matchstick puzzle involved trying to fit one triangle inside another of exactly the same size, with the same number of matchsticks. I thought hard about this, determined not to let it beat me, buoyed slightly by an earlier success. When I eventually admitted defeat, he lifted one of the triangles from the floor, held it to his eye, and viewed the triangle on the floor through it. His other favourite game involved taking blackened dirt from the old kettle with his thumb, and slyly finding ways of spreading it onto people’s faces or legs. This escalated into such a feud with our Danish blonde bombshell that she leapt up growling, lurched across a caving wooden floorboard and swept him off his feet in a fluid judo move, before pinning him to the ground. Although stunned, it’s safe to assume that because the girl in question was rather attractive, he enjoyed it immensely. He barely stopped grinning for about ten minutes.
Our presence in the cabin relegated a young family of six or seven to a smaller back room. One of the youngest residents, around four years old and impossibly cute, posed with her father for photographs.
It wasn’t late before the battery-generated light was clicked off and mosquito nets were unfurled.
What came before
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