All within a two week time frame, Thailand introduced me to a new world of experiences. It's exotic allure drew me in, remaining severely infused in my spirit far longer than the 15 days I spent in the country.
New faces, tastes, smells, sights, encounters with animals, culture, and adventures all set the scene for an unforgettable opportunity. It'd be difficult to choose a favorite experience, as I thoroughly enjoyed it from the minute I arrived, but if I were to pluck out the single most notable part of the trip... It would have to be my two night stay in Chiang Rai, and more specifically, the four hour span I spent trekking up mountainside, horrified that one wrong step could send me tumbling to my death.
While the majority of our study abroad course was spent in Bangkok, we also traveled to Northern Thailand during the second week to the smaller and dramatically less congested cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
We spent two nights in a lavish hotel in Chiang Mai right on the river, only to head to the more rural town of Chiang Rai next where we were met with...well, less than fabulous accommodations… *enters flashback*
I admit, upon arrival to our new room at the Mirror Art Guesthouse, I’m way uncomfortable. Maybe even slightly creeped out. It’s the most basic space, tiny, furnished with two beds covered in thin blankets that appear to be hand-me-downs from generations past. The bathroom, a little on the run-down side, alarms me with its shower head simply hanging from the wall, with no curtain or glass enclosure. It’s so far removed from the beautiful 4 star hotel we just came from. Someone send me back to Chiang Mai, please!
However, it’s clean. And there are no bed bugs (I check every time I travel ANYwhere). And it will only be for one night. It’s not so bad, as it turns out, for a room that’s advertised for only 350 baht (that's USD $11, people) per night. The guest house owners are extremely warm and friendly, and believe it or not, the place even has wi-fi in its outdoor common area.
What I am not looking forward to is the next 24 hours: Hiking up a who-knows-how-high mountain and sleeping overnight in a remote village. Think: no running water, no real beds, no electricity, and definitely no wifi. I’m open to the very temporary new experience, but in all honesty, I cannot wait until this portion of the trip is over. All I want is to fly back to Bangkok and be rewarded with a day trip off to the beach. Oh how I love the beach.
Bougie princess I am not, but I’m not quite prepared for this ‘roughing it’ lifestyle, having never gone camping, and never have even gone on a real hike. I’m an all around neophyte when it comes to any type of outdoor activity that does not involve the sea.
The next day, we’re transported to a semi-remote area at the base of the northern Thai mountain range where the Mirror Foundation is located. The nonprofit organization helps support the five hill tribe villages in the Northern region, especially by providing funds for their children. We’ll be trekking to one of the tribal villages, where we’ll observe cultural guidelines such as not wearing tank tops or short shorts, not staying in the same hut with the opposite sex, refraining from any PDA, and removing our shoes before entering the homes (which is customary in Thailand before entering temples and many organizations).
We are especially warned not to give out money to the children, and not to accept any sex solicitations from them either. Our expressions are rattled at having to be told this; they explain that hill tribe families have sometimes encouraged their young girls to have sex with foreigners, who from their perspective, have lots of money to spend on the sex industry in Thailand (factual).
After learning about the foundation, we set off for our hike. Our group is large: 22 students, our class leader/instructor Guillermo, our local guides to show us the way, our photographer, and 3 other adult tagalongs who have joined us along the way (they were in some way affiliated with our school but I have no idea how they finessed joining us).
We’re in a rural area, but there are several small homes that we pass on our way to the beginning of the trail. The homes start to clear out as our ascend begins.
Goodbye modern civilization.
About 10-15 minutes in, we encounter our first baby hill. It’s steep, and it takes a bit of effort, but it’s relatively short, so we reached the top pretty quickly. “Daaang, that was REAL,” a few of us joke. Soon after that one, we have to climb right up a second hill, only this one’s steeper and the path a little less wide.
The pathway upwards isn’t only slippery, but right on the edge of the hill. “No, THAT was real,” we joke again, catching our breath once we overcome the climb. “That’s probably nothing compared to the rest of the hike,” we all agree.
I hope that it really won’t get much harder than this. Little did I know in the beginning, however, those initial hills are actually nothing compared to the hours of intimidating hike that lie ahead of us.
In the following minutes, we’re met with incline after steep. ass. incline.
The trail, if you can even identify it as that, is a narrow dirt path barely even visible at times. If I’ve ever seen anything go from 0-100 real quick, it’s this. It gets dangerous and scary and all of a sudden I just want to be escorted back down to the base.
Before I know it, I’m on the edge of the mountain. One wrong step can send any of us falling to our death...or serious injury. Do people die up here!?? I wish I were exaggerating the intensity. I repeat: I’m literally on the edge of a mountain. I’m hot as hell under the beaming sun. Even when we are thrust into a jungle-like overpass of trees lending us shade, I’m still burning up in my hat, long sleeved shirt, and Adidas leggings.
Even though our local guides and plenty of students in my group are hiking in shorts, short sleeved T’s, and even flip flops (gasp!), I’m fully covered because who knows what sorts of creatures and insects would have their way with my exposed skin. Oh, and I’m lugging a 25lb backpack of my stuff along the way. I’m already dripping with sweat, and this pack is only making it worse. I swear I wish I could just launch it over the mountain.
I’m being pushed to my limits. We’re trekking through plants just as tall as us, the inclines are becoming even more sharp, and the trail isn’t even wide enough for two feet. The hike is so physically demanding, I can’t even full explain how crazy it is. Towards the back of the group, my roommate, our friend, a couple of the other less experienced hikers, and myself, all struggle to keep up. It feels like it will never. ever. end.
I’m gasping for breath the whole time, trying not to complain too much aloud (or perhaps lacking the energy to). I can’t suppress these thoughts from repeating in my head: “Why the hell am I doing this!??” “I can’t fucking breathe.” “I really hope I don’t die up here.” “Why didn’t someone tell us it would be this hard!!” “If I have to climb one more rocky incline I WILL pass out.”
And of course: “I AM NEVER GOING HIKING AGAIN!!!!!!!”
We pass some of the most gorgeous, scenic views out over the mountains. Lush green rolling hills at heights I’ve never before witnessed without a vehicle to take me there. I can hardly appreciate the scenery though, or much less take good photos, because I am in so much agony!
I am truly losing it. And thank God I’m not the only one. My fellow weaklings and I are PISSED that we haven’t been warned about the conditions of this trek. It’s no joke. After about two and a half hours we come upon one small village where we get to take a short break (we don’t understand why we can’t just stay here in this village). Then we arrive at a waterfall, receiving a long, much-needed lunch brunch.
Laid out on the rocks as I gear up for part two, I pray I make it to the top.
We resume hiking for another hour and a half of even more agonized trekking up the slippery steep rocks and narrow dirt paths along the sides of mountains we can easily tumble down. I can’t belieeeve what I’ve gotten myself into. I don’t even think my parents would have financed this trip if they would have seen photos or read a full description of what this hike would be like. Most of us thought it’d be a moderate hike, only slightly challenging. It’s nothing like what I’d imagined.
We’re battling our way through woods, we’re damn near rock climbing, we’re clambering up inhumane slopes. It’s no Mt. Everest, but for a first timer like me, it’s completely dreadful. It’s the WORST. Even the downhill parts are bad because it’s so hard on the knees, and we have to maneuver across tree branches and creeks, through bushes, and watch out for ditches...all while trying to stay on our feet. I trip and slip a few times, thankfully never face planting or landing on my butt. I feel like we’re never going to make it.
And then...a welcome respite. Could it be!??
Alas, the village has finally come into view. WE MADE IT!!!! PRAISE HIM!
I can kiss the ground, I’m so relieved. I’m alive. I’m in one piece. We’ve conquered this mountain, and no one has died!
In the village, we break off into groups of ~3 and meet the families who will be hosting us overnight. Children are outdoors playing kick ball, chickens and black pigs are roaming the grounds freely, and there are only about 20 homes spread atop the red dirt landscape. The homes are tiny bamboo huts of only one or two rooms, with shared bathrooms that are located outside of the houses. I’m completely amazed, stunned, and astounded that actual villagers exist and still live like this in the world. Sure, there are documentaries that portray these rural lifestyles, but it’s never really real until you see it with your own eyes.
Our host family consists of a mom, a dad, and a son who looks around 9, with a love of playing soccer. They welcome us inside their humble abode, even though they don’t speak a word of English. In fact, they don’t speak Thai either -- the remote hill tribe villages have their own dialects. Their background stems from a blend of Laos, Thai, and Burmese roots, all of which share country borders in the North. We cannot communicate with this family at all, yet they extend their intimate space to us. Do they do this in exchange for protection and support through the Mirror Foundation? Or would they welcome us in regardless? Either way, I’m abundantly grateful.
The mom lays out 3 mats for us side by side and gives us blankets, showing us where we’ll sleep. Mandy, Mona, and I all get settled in for later by rolling out our sleeping bags on top of our mats and finally setting our stuff down. In one corner of the home is the kitchen -- simply a fire pit in the floor with a few surrounding pots, dishes, and cooking utensils. There’s only one other room in the house which seems to be for storage. It’s extremely simple, and I suddenly wonder why I feel the need to live with so much stuff back home, when these villagers seem to be getting along fine with a fraction of the possessions I think are necessary.
Mom cooks dinner for us in the fire pit cooking area, while us three guests sit on our side of the room awaiting the delicious smelling meal while chatting about our mind-blowing day and how much of a stark contrast this experience is in comparison to our first world existences. We’re served dinner out on the front porch, where we sit cross legged with our shoes off. Mom sets out a tray, with a candle burning and an appetizing platter of steaming bowls. The son is off kicking soccer balls with his friend, and the dad, I assume, is out in the village taking care of head-of-the-household things, so it’s just the four of us gals.
We practically ravish through our food, oohing and ahhing over how freaking yummy it is. I savor the pungent tastes of the spiced broth, veggies, and fresh chicken and pork meat. 100% natural, every ingredient they cook with is available right in their village, and it makes all the difference in the quality of the meal. Mandy, Mona, and I attempt to extend our gratitude through thank yous, 'khap-kun-kas' (Thai for thank you), and head bows with our hands together, but Mom only responded to our thanks with wordless blank looks.
After dinner, the villagers hold a hilltribe wide bonfire for us, singing and teaching us their traditional tribal dance around the blazing fire. It’s brimming with love and organic energy...it feels like one of the most authentic cultural celebrations I’ve been part of to date. The kids are so excited. They keep the fire ablaze by constantly dropping twigs into the flame, coming dangerously close each time. Genuine smiles and laughter all around. No texting, TVs, iPads, or Nintendo DSs. (Meanwhile back at home, my little cousins probably can’t put their gadgets down, and I'd probably otherwise be engrossed in one of my social media timelines.)
The evening wraps up by 8 or 9pm, if not earlier. Back in our host home, we’re beat. Exhausted to capacity. Our family is already sleeping in their corner, laid on mats underneath blankets. Mom, dad, and son, all side by side. Us three Americans houseguests soon follow suit in the opposite corner. I briefly reflect on the entire experience so far. It’s so quiet and tranquil up here in the mountains. So far away from the world. Little modern technology. No news...who cares about the news? I’m on the floor of a bamboo hut, not much more separated from the outside than I would be in a tent. To my surprise, it feels amazing. I realize how much I enjoyed this evening as I drift off into a deep, deep sleep.
I’m abruptly woken up by cock-a-doodle-doos, pigs snorting, and dogs howling somewhere yonder. It’s pitch black and cold, only 5am, but I have to get up and pee -- and the bathroom is outside , down the path. F*ck. This being in tuned to nature is great and all until it's nature that's jostling you awake before the sun even rises.
Mom makes us breakfast bright and early -- another meal just as tasty and fresh as dinner the night before. We all agree that these two home cooked pieces of heaven are probably the best Thai meals we’ve had thus far, even though technically, the hilltribes aren’t even considered Thai.
Each of us visitors get good luck bracelets wrapped around our wrists by the tribe grandfather -- who’s like 90 or 100 years old and was one of the first to inhabit this particular village. Then we take a mini hike in the hot sun to a different site, where we get to chill in the shade and admire the breathtaking scenery. Locals share stories about life high up in the mountains and cook us lunch inside hollow bamboo tubes -- sticky rice and eggs. Yet another delicious treat.
All too soon, it’s time to leave and resume our modern lives. Mona and I beg our instructor to convince our hiking guides to summons a motor bike, vehicle, helicopter, anything, to transport us to the bottom of the mountain, but we’re told the hike back down will be through a different, less challenging route. Thankfully, that wasn’t a lie. We trek down and down, knees sore, limbs sore, everything sore, passing through another hilltribe village before reaching the vans that are awaiting us, ready to take us on to our next adventure: elephant rides! As much as I’d dreaded ‘roughing it,’ I’m actually a teensy bit sad it’s over… but bring on the elephants!
That introductory hike was without a doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever subject myself to. YES, I was scared for my life during a few parts of the climb, but mostly, I was just sweaty, short of breath, and miserable. I wanted to quit. The sense of achievement I felt when I actually made it however, is unexplainable. A quote from a book I’m currently reading perfectly describes the euphoria:
“I did it! It seems so hard to believe. All of the pain, discomfort, and torture it took to get here in beginning to fade. I faced my greatest fears and I’m still alive. The buzz of this accomplishment brings on a deeply satisfied joy that I’ve never felt before. Even if I never [climb a mountain] again, I can keep this sense of empowerment for life.”
With that being said, I will most definitely take on more hikes in the future, and not just the super easy ones.
It was challenging but incredibly rewarding -- especially to be able to get a small taste of the simple yet fulfilling lives of the mountain villagers.
I mean, I might just have to make it back for Mom’s good ol’ fresh, home cooked food. The hilltribe version of soul food. It was banging, y’all! Who’s with me?