Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jungle Paradise

As you might have guessed by my lack of posts, I’m having a brilliant time (picked brilliant up from the Brits). So prepare for a long read. Lets see, I left you in Chiang Mai. From there I took a bus north to Tha Ton. It was a public bus and took about 4 hours. The young Thai girl next to me fell asleep on my shoulder. I didn’t feel the need to wake her and all the other Thai people laughed and smiled. When we arrived the bus driver shook my hand wished me luck. Standing in the dusty parking lot reading my Lonely Planet (everyone calls it the Holy Bible) looking for a hostel, I met an older Australian couple doing the same thing. We wandered down the street together and I was relieved to see that Tha Ton is beautiful and quite small. After finding a couple rooms, the three of us did the only thing there is to do in Tha Ton. We climbed the hill to Wat Tha Ton. You start along the Mae Nam Kok River and can go to higher and higher levels of Chinese temples. The first was a man-made rock covered in Chinese Buddhas. You walk up steps through fake little caves and up to the Wat at the top. Further up the road is another fake rock area with more caves, fake stone tigers and a large white Buddha. A huge gold sitting Buddha is next up the road. The last one we went to was a large gold Buddha with 6 snake heads surrounding it. Jim and Judy (the Aussies) thought that the snakes were protectors of Buddha. The view from here was incredible. We could see the whole valley with the s-curves in the river and rice patties around it.

It was getting towards sunset and Judy was dying for a cup-a (cup of tea). We headed down to the first level where we found free food! The temple provides not only for the monks, but for anyone who comes. So we made a donation, grabbed some rice and veggies and sat on the deck over looking the town just as the sun went down. Turns out Jim and Judy have a WWOOF farm near Brisbane probably not far from where I wwoofed 3 years ago. We had a lovely time chatting about travels and politics.

The next day I met them again for breakfast and for another walk. We continued up the steep road to the next temple. This one was at the very top and is brand new. It’s large, ornate and shiny. From inside you walk in a spiral up to the top. Workers were still painting and putting shiny metal dragon scales on the ceiling. A blinding white terrace on top gave extraordinary views. It was awe-inspiring and will bring a lot of people to Tha Ton. It wasn’t the end though. Further down the road along the ridge was the last temple. It was older and had a large gold standing Buddha holding a bowl or cup. People attempted to throw coins up into the bowl, which reminded me of how we throw coins in a pond, except harder. From there we had to hurry down the mountain to catch our boat.

From Tha Ton I boarded a long tail boat down the river to Chiang Rai. I was sick of buses and although this was only for tourists, it seemed like a nice way to travel. They crammed 12 of us and our bags (and a bike) on the boat and we were perhaps too close to the water level, but we motored down.

Water splashed in a couple times and we had to get out once and walk because of some rapids. When we left shore again, the propeller hit a rock and broke. We all thought that was it, we’d be stuck there overnight or something, but after paddling back to shore the driver pulled a new one out and replaced it. It must happen a lot. On the boat I met a very nice couple from Denmark. Thor and Kristina were getting off half way and staying in a mountain village. A guy from Akha Village Hill House was going to pick them up and take them into the jungle. It sounded so nice I decided to follow them. I had paid for the whole boat ride, but this place would drive me to Chiang Rai for free in the next day or two. I figured if I went to Chiang Rai and paid for a trek, they would we bring me back to this area. So when they got off the boat at a lonely looking dock, I followed. When the guy wasn’t there to pick us up, I hoped I wasn’t going to be stranded in the middle of nowhere since only one boat goes down the river each day. But, he showed up shortly after and we headed into the jungle. It was good we had 4 wheel drive since the road was steep and rutted. We passed a green tea plantation and headed up a very steep hill to the Akha village. There at the Hill House were lovely mud houses, bungalows and an open restaurant perched over the hill. It was an incredibly beautiful spot and I was really glad I came. To find a place like this is rare. It was nearing the end of the day when the light is golden so I went for a little hike. I climbed the hill to the top of the village (no more than 20 houses) and saw a trail on the other ridge. I wandered through town again looking for a trail. A little boy motioned for me to follow him and pointed me to the trail. Not far down it I looked back for a great view of the village.

I came to the end of the trail and realized I’d missed the trail leading up to the ridge. I found it on my way back and followed it straight up the hillside. The view was incredible- I could see over the other side to the endless ridges and valleys. I quickly headed down before the sun could. Back at the restaurant I found everyone sitting around a fire. I ordered some food, grabbed a Leo beer and met the other folks. There was guy from Portland, OR, a Dutchman, some Germans, a Scot, a Norwegian, a couple Brits, an Australian family and my Danish friends. At one point Portland, an Aussie and a Thai boy were all playing guitar. Puppies ran in and out of the group and eventually fell asleep in people’s laps. A friendly cat fell asleep in mine ;). It was perfect. Later in the evening a couple of the Akha men came in for a sort of show. The first “game” was the challenge of bending down on one foot and picking up a beer can with your mouth. A 3 year boy demonstrated and made it look easy. None of the farangs could do it. I of course tried and couldn’t make it. The next trick involved a bamboo stick and flexibility. That one I was able to do. Harder and harder tricks ensued proving that these two Akha men were very, very strong. I of course tried everything. My favorite involved a stick about 6 inches long that you pushed against a board on the floor and twisted your body upside down and back around without touching the floor (if that made any sense). I came really close to doing it and somewhat impressed them I think. We all compared games of strength and flexibility and I loved it (big surprise to you all I’m sure)!

The next day I went on a trek with Thor and Kristina and a girl from New York who’s been teaching in Chiang Mai. Our guide was Ame, one of the stong Akha guys. He led us into the jungle and taught us about the plants. We saw jungle tea, jungle apples, jungle beans etc. We hiked over the mountains crossing streams on bamboo bridges.
Thailand has many kinds of bamboo and the people use them all. Some are for houses, some for floors, some for cooking, some for chopsticks, some for weaving etc. We stopped at a stream to catch some fish for lunch. The tactic was to build a dam on half of the stream so there was less water and the fish could be caught. We couldn’t see any fish, but we followed Ame and moved rocks and dirt to build a dam. It took a while and we finally stopped the water on one side. We got down and felt around. Can you picture me hunting for fish? We found little tiny crawdad things and a couple tiny fish. It seemed like a lot of work for such a small catch, but it was fun. Then we hiked to the lunch spot. Ame cut down some bamboo and chopped it with his machete. He cut 4 little cups and 6 long tubes. He also cut chopsticks for us. We filled the bamboo tubes with water from the river.
We then sat back and watched him cook us lunch using traditional bamboo cooking. In one tube he put vegetables and water. He used a large leaf as a lid and put it in the fire. In another he cracked the eggs and added tomato and onion and put that in the fire. In another he put banana flowers, the fish and water. Once they were cooking he put large leaves inside a hole in the ground. He cracked more eggs in and added ramen noodles. When the vegetables were done he poured them and the boiling water onto the hole and covered it with a leaf to cook the noodles. The egg tube he cut in half revealing the cooked omelet. We ate out of our bamboo cups and it was delicious! The fish was boney but tasty. I was very impressed and felt like I’d learned some survival skills. After lunch we headed straight up the mountain to a Yao village. It was hard hiking and Ame waited for us patiently. The village was at the very top of the ridge and had an incredible view. I could see the tea plantation many ridges away. The village was mostly deserted since everyone was in town for work. There were a couple old ladies sitting in the street sewing. They were adorable. One had a needle stuck in her head wrap with string tied to it and her double thick glasses. I think it held the glasses on her nose as she sewed. They smiled at us with toothless grins as we rested for a moment.
The village was not an old ‘traditional’ village- it had power lines and satellite dishes- and I was a little disappointed with the lack of interaction. It was still nice to be that far out there and hear the Yao language. On the hike back Ame made all sorts of things out of bamboo. He made an air gun that shot balled leaves pretty far and made a loud bang. We shot fruit out of a tree with his slingshot. We finished our long hike with an amazing waterfall. By that time of day it wasn’t warm enough to swim, but it was beautiful and Ame and I climbed on a rock for a photo. We got back to the village dirty and exhausted wearing jungle hats made out of leaves. I felt like I got a unique experience that I couldn’t have found in Chiang Rai. That night we sat around the fire again. The cat feel asleep on me again and the guitars were played again. I tried the tricks again and learned that rumors about me being a dancer or a gymnast were circling the guesthouse. An elderly woman from the village came and silently sat by the fire. The 3 year old and one of the young Australian girls were best friends. Ame walked on beer cans while the farangs just crushed them. We compared travel stories late into the night.
I hated leaving the Akha village. I loved the community and knew there was more to see. I could have stayed to help build a mud house or gone down to the hot springs. But, I knew I had to move on to see Laos. A lot of people were leaving so we piled into the back of a pickup. Standing, we held on tight as the truck went down the bumpy road. I can’t imagine the amount of waivers you’d have to sign in the US, but it was fun. At the bus station I said goodbye to Thor and Kristina and thanked them for leading me astray. Then I took the bus to Chiang Khong and headed straight for the border- the Mekong River. There weren’t very many signs for the ferry across. I paid 30 baht and boarded a sketchy long boat. Within minutes I was in Laos. I got a visa at immigration and a new stamp in my passport.

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