Pat and I took a three hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, which is a bit further north and close to the “golden triangle”. This is where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand all meet. There is not much to see in Chiang Rai itself, but it is a great jumping off point to do jungle treks and home stays with local hill tribes. We did a two day, one night jungle trek on Christmas eve and Christmas day. The cost was about $100 per person. Pat and I were the only ones trekking, so we ended up having a private guide, Mai. She spoke excellent English and was full of questions about life in the United States. The first day started out with a longboat ride.
There were several village ladies selling handmade goods at our first stop. I purchased a handwoven scarf from this lady. Her teeth are stained red because she chews the traditional betel leaf with areca nut and tobacco. They believe this is better than seeing a dentist, although I’m not sure I agree. It’s been found to cause tooth decay, gum damage and oral cancer.
We then rode an elephant for two hours to reach the first village. There is a lot of exploitation of elephants in Thailand but the elephants we rode supposedly are treated very well. They only work until 4:00 and then are put out to pasture to graze to fulfill their enormous appetites. All the profits from the elephant camp go back to the villagers. At first the idea of riding an elephant was exciting. However, I soon learned that two hours on the back of an elephant as it treks up and down mountains is about 1 hour and 45 minutes too much.
Lunch was a traditional dish of pig liver over glass noodles – it was a little too much for me to handle so I focused on gorging myself on pomegranates, bananas and mandarins.
From the first village we trekked on foot to the village where we would be spending the night. We spent the night with the Akka people. Even though it was Christmas for us, they believe in Animism, or spirits. Some of the surrounding villagers had been converted to Christianity by missionaries.
Our Christmas dinner was a feast of traditional Thai dishes. We helped with the preparation. I took a scooter ride with Mei to the market to pick up supplies. On the way home we stopped to see her home and eat an early dinner with her mother. I enjoyed “Thai spicy” curry as well as some sticky rice with sweet coconut in the center that was wrapped in banana leaves.
After dinner the village ladies did a traditional chant and dance.
We also walked to another village that was Christian and enjoyed another traditional dance, but this one was set to Christmas carols and what sounded like Thai pop music.
Our room for the night was much nicer than I expected. We had a private room with private toilet. The view from our balcony was also very nice.
The only thing about the experience is that we hardly interacted with our host family. We ate our meals alone and it made me a little uncomfortable that we were fed and roomed so well while everyone else was away working.
The next morning we trekked to a waterfall and had lunch heated over a fire. We also had tea boiled in a bamboo pole and ate our food with chopsticks the Mei fashioned out of bamboo. There are hundreds of uses for bamboo – it is used to make walls, floors, ladders, roofs, utensils, fences and much more. It is a pretty incredible plant and their are over 200 species in Thailand.
All-in-all, the trek was well worth the $100. I highly recommend the tour company we went with – The Population and Community Development Association, who are also responsible for the brilliant Condom and Cabbages. They take some of their profits and help build water systems in the villages so they don’t have to get their water from local streams.