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One of Thailand's many beautifully ornate templesApr. 15-21, 1999 Chang Mai and Hill Tribe Trek, North Thailand

"Excuse me, is there something you know that we don't?" I ask one of our four evident new 'boat mates' standing with us on the floating dock, waiting for our longtail boat driver to drift aside the platform and pick us up.
"What?"
"I said, is there something you know that we don't?" this time pointing to he and his traveling companion's backpacks, laying beside them and wrapped tight with clear plastic in an apparent effort to waterprotect the contents.
Crusin' down the Kok River"Uh, maybe" he replies with some surprise, "I just read in my guidebook that our path to Chang Rai takes us through a few good rapids" he informs me in excellent English, although through a thick German accent. "It says this ride can get a little wet".
Well, I think to myself as our boat pulls up, that'd be a great way to start our trek into the northern hills of Thailand - with sopping underwear! And socks, shorts, shirts, and everything else for that matter.
"There's something else" he says.
"Yes"
"Good stuff, they call it sunscreen" he says, half sarcastically.
"Ju'd read about that in your guidebook too?" I ask, just to have the last smart-aleck word in.

Life just drifts by in a this typical river villageAnd so, Laura with queasy stomach, and I with unsettled mind, we load our bags and CAREFULLY climb into the long, narrow, low-to-the-water, (and rocking) craft that the Thais have lovingly dubbed hong yao, or 'longtail'. Its name comes from the 6 feet long axle pole, sprouting backwards from the engine and blossoming into a prop. It's designed so it can be raised or lowered to navigate any particularly shallow waterways. But hopefully we won't hit too many areas that are that shallow, for the six of us, our luggage, and our 250 pound driver, drop the edges of the craft down to near water level.

At crusin' speed along the Kok RiverWe shove off and quickly reach 'crusin'' speed. The jungled banks of the Kok River whiz by with our wake. Along the way, we pass a few fishermen wading in the water - their nets in hand, and small groups of children jumping from rocks - their shorts in hand. Arrangements of small, thatched huts occasionally interrupt the lines of lush green vegetation zipping by us along both banks.

Taking shelter from the afternoon sun - and waving hello to passers byVery out of place, I'm surprised to see what looks like a large sign popping from the water by the left bank. As we get closer, I can begin to make out the letters. It reads: Severe rapids ahead. Remove craft and walk around. Hum, maybe our German friend was right after all. We'll soon find ooouuut! Splash! Plash! Swash! Splash! Fortunately, our driver demonstrates his skill by getting us through the roughest sections, soaking wet, but still afloat. No harm, no foul, our backpacks are still relatively dry, and besides, the dousing feels kinda' nice on this hot, balmy Thai afternoon.

Young entrepreneurs selling ribbon necklacesAfter arriving and spending yesterday in Chang Rai, (attending to such small details such as finding a guide for our trek into the hills), this morning has us up bright and early and waiting for our driver.
"Hello, my name is Homee" he tells us when they arrive, hand stretched out and a beam as wide as Buddha's.
"Hello. I'm Scott and this is Laura. Nice to meet you. By the way, did they tell you that we're looking for non-tourists places, sort of off the beaten track?"
"Yes, yes, I know. No other tourists. Remote villages. No problem."

Hammin' it up for the cameraNext thing we know, we're deep in the north hills, riding atop a large lumbering pachyderm, leaning sideways to avoid being swatted in the face by a 'low-hanging' branch sticking out about 12 feet above the trail. And sure enough, true to Homee's word, there isn't another tourist in sight. The few people that we do see, as we bounce bop and rock back and forth along the trail, are hill tribe clansfolk planting new, and tending to existing, crops along the slopes. Occasionally, they look up from their back-breaking labor to watch us slowly trod past. For the native Thais, I suppose the sight of an elephant sauntering along on a nearby path is a rather normal one. But for those us who are visitors, the experience of riding atop one is anything but normal.

A stretch of nice, level ground - welcomed break for us and our rideHigh on the elephant's back, we're perched upon (and gripping tightly to) a platform that's strapped around his tail, belly, and neck. All we can do is hold tight and hope the knots stay fast as he navigates down into steep ravines, and then up along sheer sloping hillsides. Sometimes pausing in-between for a quick, 'refreshing shower' (for all of us) of creek water and elephant phlegm. Burroouugh! Fittissshhh! I wipe off my face and think - it's amazing how much water that trunk can hold!

'Ellie want a 'nana?'As we move on, I'm also amazed at how narrow and rocky a path those huge round feet are able to so gracefully navigate. After gingerly stepping through a particularly challenging stretch like this one, we usually reward our hard-working carrier's efforts with a special treat of sugar cane stalks or bananas. "Here ya go boy! Like that? Good, how 'bout a few bananas?" It's all in a day's work for our water-spewing, floppy-eared, long-trunked new buddy.

Stripping & flattening bamboo canes to build the teacher's houseOur elephant friend takes a well deserved rest as we spend the remainder of the day leaving boot tracks, instead of hoof prints, along the dusty trail. On our way through one of the villages, we stop to watch the men of the tribe build a house for the village's new school teacher. It's remarkable what the trained hand can do with a few simple canes of bamboo. A quick chat with the teacher, a tour of the small schoolhouse, and we're back on our way to our next stop.

One of the complexities of the Buddhist religion - a monk in prayerIt's a hour or two down the trail, under what seems to be a randomly chosen group of shade trees, that our guide Homee motions us close and begins telling us stories of life in the hill tribes. At this point, his real personality begins to show itself. Bright twinkle in his eye and almost constant chuckle in his voice, he rants on and on, using quip, example, and antidote to give us the real scoop on sex, religion, and politics, in a typical northern Thai village. An all-around jolly fellow, Homee enjoys peppering his tales with jokes that he finds particularly humorous and entertaining. And they are, but not nearly as entertaining as the sound of his self-induced laughter after he tells us one.

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Last modified: September 29, 1999    Photographs and text 1999 Scott and Laura Kruglewicz. All Rights Reserved.

 

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