Wow, just in the nick of time. Things in Nepal seem to be heading in the right direction and we're due to fly there on Friday, 2 days from now. The BBC report I just read says that Friday will be the day that Parliament will be re-instated in Nepal. So, it seems, that we will be arriving on a rather historic day. Well, maybe not that historic - the country has a long history of political turmoil and monthly general strikes, but maybe this time democracy will have a chance to develop some staying power. We had been watching the goings on in Kathmandu for several weeks, and we were wondering if we would be changing our plans (at the last minute) after visiting Chiang Mai, but today's news seems to indicate that democracy is going to be restored and that there has been a dramatic turn for the positive in the country. Obviously, this has something to do with my lucky wife, who seems to be able to make things like this happen right out of thin air ;)
So we went trekking in the northern Thai hills. I was very surprised at the topography and the vegetation. One often thinks that these places are covered in tropical jungle, but actually the elevation is getting up there (more than 1500 m) and the vegetation is decidedly small to medium sized deciduous - not just the enormous banana leaf variety stuff. Still, it was hot though - April is the hottest month of the year. Our 2 day trek was fantastic including a market visit, a visit and a stay in a traditional Karen (this is the name of the tribe) village in the hills, elephant trekking, and a ride down some fairly tame rapids on a bamboo raft. A pretty good trip. We set out with our small back packs, fully laden with enough water, and Kristine of course had her emergency Lays potato chips strapped to the back of her pack with a hair tie. No wonder I married her - she does all these crazy things!
The little village we spent the night at was extremely basic, but very real. You couldn't drive there, and the families are essentially sustenance farmers - they keep pigs and chickens, and farm their own rice, vegetables, and fruit. It was amazing to interact with all the little kids would come up and shake your hand and try to sell you small bracelets and necklaces. I finally succumbed and bought a bracelet at a price that was more than I would have paid in any town, but these folks will make much better use of the much needed Baht. All the homes are basic huts on stilts with bamboo floors and walls, and woven grass ceilings. Open fires are used inside the huts to cook. It is here we spent the night, imagining what it must be like to live a lifetime like this. Still, these people are incredibly happy, owing I think perhaps to the simplicity with which they live their lives. We could learn a thing or two.
I never thought the night could be so loud though. Every creature was out prowling around - some I didn't even recognize! Suffices to say that the noise went on all night with all kinds of things screeching and growling until the first rooster went off at about 4:30 am. How do they get used to this? There was also a massive downpour right around dinnertime, and we all huddled around the outdoor table to eat the freshly prepared red curry, rice, and stir fried chicken with green beans. There couldn't have been a better five star restaurant to capture the moment.
In the morning, I awoke to the ethereal sight of thick mist hanging all around the village and an eerie calm broken only by the periodic calls of the awakening roosters. Then came the sound of children, and pots and pans preparing the morning meal. For an instant, we were nowhere, and it felt amazing.
After breakfast, we were off again on foot for about 1/2 hour until we met with three giants and their keepers. The elephants were amazingly intelligent and almost welcoming in the way they would look right at you - right into our eyes. There was no problem riding them at all, and it was as though they were protecting us. You could actually see them watch each other as they passed over more difficult terrain; making sure that none of them slipped or fell behind. You could almost hear them speaking to one and other. At any moment though, they would take the opportunity to scratch themselves along the passing trees and stumps, as well as taking the time to hunt for various plant and things with their trunks. After the ride, we fed them bananas, which they voraciously devoured. Kristine put one in her back pocket, which I am positive the elephant tried to pick! We then bid them farewell, as we carried on using human power. By the way, I have spared you the photo of a scuba tank sized scat that emerged from the rear of one of the beasts - hope you don't mind ;P
After another couple of hours of walking, it was time to get wet. These rafts actually function partially submerged (Tom Hanks style in Castaway), so you always feel like you're going in. Fortunately, the river was only a few metres wide all the time and nothing would have happened if we dunked, but our "driver" (if you can call him that) took every opportunity to capsize our raft and partially submerge us along the way. I didn't let on that it was actually refreshing in all this heat, and that all he was really doing was making us cool off, not scaring us ;) At the end of the ride, they actually take apart the rafts completely and load the individual timbers on to pick up trucks and take them all the way back up the river, re-build them, and start again. This is what you get in countries where labour is cheap and ingenuity is plentiful. By the end of the day, we were absolutely knackered (that's English for dead tired), and we still had to do some laundry and have dinner! But, it was a wonderful experience, and simply added to the splendour of the Chang Mai area - and area I would recommend highly to anyone who comes to this wonderful country.