“Hill tribes, hot springs and a Honda PCX…”
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)
We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.
Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…
Days 1 & 2
It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”
It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it. Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.
That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border. Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.
Days 3 & 4:
By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!
Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective. Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.
We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.
The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…
We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup? No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.
DAYS 6 & 7:
We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…
“Turn around. It’s another one. “
Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border. Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads. Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…
We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.
We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.
Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly. Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.
Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.