by Jennifer L. Hile <Submit your comments to the author>
When I decided to go to Thailand, I wanted to avoid the insulated circuit of remote villages that get overrun with trekking tourists, so I decided to take my chances and hired an independent guide I met when I got there and hike around the country--just him, my friend Tracey, and me.
Our first destination was a tribal village where our guide Awu, was born. As we drove out of Pai, at the top of Thailand, the world peeled away from the edge of the truck like a painting. I had no clear idea where I was going, and I relished it. I felt ecstatic.
Our first stop was a remote village market, swollen with colorful veggies, fruits, and fish, which were pulled out of buckets to suffocate on long wooden tables. Our shy driver tentatively offered me some fried chicken feet. It was the first time I'd ever eaten the feet of anything; sticking those claws into my mouth was pretty counterintuitive. They were brittle, but not bad. They tasted, well, like over-cooked chicken.
After a luxurious swim at a nearby waterfall draped in moss and abuzz with mating dragonflies, we were back on the road. From here on out, we would go on foot. There was no trail to speak of, so Awu gave the two of us giant knives to hack through the forest. When he pointed out a scar on his lower arm, saying he'd been stabbed by his wife, I should have been concerned. Instead, I just laughed blithely with him about how crazy she must be and did not pause to consider what it might reveal about him. Rather than running like hell in the opposite direction, we followed him deeper into the jungle. It was steep and rough going as we trekked past opium fields and rice paddies, but the shade of the trees, the shimmering rivers, one or two storms off the horizon, and the sense of isolation were ample rewards for the effort.
When we got to Awu's village, all Tracey and I wanted was a shower. There was a makeshift aqueduct, made of metal pipes cut in half and propped up, sluicing water from a nearby river to the village. We shooed off the young men of the tribe, who kept turning up around the corner, watching us. A young Thai woman had just rinsed off behind a towel and was putting on brightly colored traditional clothes. Tracey spied a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, scattered on the rocks at her feet. She later asked Awu if the villagers were putting on their tribal clothes for us, and indeed they were. On closer inspection, their colorfully patched clothes resembled outfits you might find on sale at Walmart, rather than hand-sewn, hand-dyed native garments.
Dinner was cooked over a fire in an empty wooden hut after nightfall. There was no electricity in the village; the only sources of light were the fire and a couple of candles throwing shards of light into pitch-black corners. Villagers sat quietly in the shadows, watching us eat while we watched our guide get progressively more drunk. He had a plastic baggy full of wheat-colored whisky that was quickly disappearing. His English became slurred and his topics of conversation more personal. "You don't know my life," he moaned to us in the flickering light of the fire, rubbing Tracey's hand, repeating how lonely he was while she and I became increasingly uneasy.
That night Tracey and I slept on hard mats under filthy blankets and the heavy cover of a dense night, plagued by uneasy dreams. In our attempt to get off the beaten track, away from the crowds of a tour group, had we gone too far? Two young American women in the jungle with a guide we picked up off the streets. We didn't know where we were (and no one back home did either), we couldn't speak the local dialect, and we were hundreds of miles from a phone, all of which, ironically, was the point of the trip. We'd intentionally veered off the predictable, well-worn routes, hoping for a more authentic experience of Thai culture by winging it -- a decision which, for all its merit, left us totally dependent on the drunk guide slobbering next to us.
The next morning we confronted Awu about getting drunk, and threatened to cancel the rest of our trip. He became immediately apologetic. Tracey and I rolled the dice and decided to continue. We'd known the risks in exploring a remote area before we came, and we weren't ready to give up the chance to see more of this country just yet.
After another full day's hike, we arrived at a settlement that teamed with animal life -- pigs on leashes, a pack of mangy dogs, chickens running amuck among simple wooden huts perched on stilts. We clambered up a thin ladder into the hut where we'd be staying, which was empty of everything save some heavy blankets on the floor and a shy young couple with their son. About 2 years old, he wobbled around on the open deck between the thatch-covered sleeping rooms. Though he didn't have more than twigs and leaves to play with, he couldn't have been happier. Tracey and I dropped our backpacks, exhausted. We felt relieved that it was our last night with Awu. We were hiking out of the forest tomorrow.
While we bathed in a sparkling river close by, a line of elephants lumbered out of the trees, trumpeting and gorgeous, graceful, extraordinarily beautiful and homely at the same time. (When one defecated in the water about 25 feet from us, our bath was over: nature has no time for idle concepts like "pristine" in the jungle.) We came eye-to-eye with the elephants and their giant, soft faces later, when we got back to the village and climbed up into our hideaway, and men riding bareback, perched just behind the ears of their giant necks, ambled up to our hut so they could speak to our host. Then they wandered away, heading in the direction we'd come from, and were soon swallowed up by the trees and the twilight.
The next day, three villagers lashed stalks of bamboo together with twine to make a raft for our journey down the river. Awu grabbed a long pole that he could lean on and jab into the riverbed to steer. He gave another pole to Tracey, who was stationed at the back. A stick was propped up in the middle of the raft for us to hang our backpacks on.
It was a hot, languid day and my mind unwound like the river, taking each turn as it came, seeking the path of least resistance. Herds of water-buffalo calmly watched us pass; towering trees crowded the shore. We arrived at a small village in the late afternoon, itching to stretch our legs. It was a short walk out to the highway, where a beat-up white truck was waiting to haul us back to the city.
As we sped back towards electricity and crowds, I sat in the bed of the truck looking over my shoulder, watching the glinting river fade into a corner of my memory. The risks in this journey -- no one to call for help in the middle of a jungle in a foreign country, not knowing where we were, a drunk guide, not being able (or wanting) to flee as soon as something went wrong, had led to immense rewards. Bathing with elephants, taking a bamboo raft down a river full of water buffalo, exploring that gorgeous jungle and the quiet villages scattered in the trees made it all well worth it.
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