June in Thailand: The Elephant Trek

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Over lunch, one of the villagers lounged around smoking his pipe as we slurped down our noodles. We wondered why as he didn’t make any contact at all with us. No one else in the village came into the hut, not even inquisitive children.

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It was only after lunch when we set off that we realised that the mystery man was our mahout! Jare told us that there was only one elephant this time because the rest were turned out to feed. We had this handsome female to take us for a little spin round the jungle.

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But first we had to walk own our own two feet for a little while so the poor elephant wouldn’t be too tired out. The path took us through more hilly forest and yet more padi fields.

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The  Danish couple went first, spending a good hour on the elephant. When it was time to swap, they jumped down quickly and strangely, neither wanted to continue on with the ride.  Tom didn’t want to take the elephant because of his issues with animal welfare. So it was just me.
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After 15 minutes, I was ready to call it quits. Going up wasn’t too bad as the elephant plodded along the forest path. All that happened was that her ears flapped the horseflies around, occasionally slapping my mud-encrusted feet and I got frequent bashes on the face from twigs and branches. And she must have had a dribbly nose because she snorted a few times, spraying me with a fine mist of what I hope wasn’t elephant snot. However, when the path starting trailing downwards, I had to hang on for dear life to the bamboo howdah, wondering desperately why there wasn’t a seatbelt of some sort to stop me from being flung forward over her head. Branches were still slapping me on the head and horseflies were still trying to get at me. I turned back and looked imploringly at Jare who was leading the rest on foot. Thankfully, he signalled a stop after half an hour and I got off the elephant in double quick time.

It was lovely to get back on my feet again and we continued onwards to the final village where we’d spend the night, enjoying the views all the way.

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It was amazing the generousity and warmth of the Karen villagers. The area we were in was fairly remote and not many tourists came by.  The locals would never know when someone would turn up and ask for shelter. Hospitality is very much a part of them. According to Jare, they led treks to each village on average once every three to six months: the villagers had rather infrequent contact with tourists. This trek was as untouristy as they come, especially given the very basic conditions and the difficult terrain we had to pass through.

Even on the last morning, the elements didn’t let up and we walked out of the forest in the driving rain, footpaths turning into muddy rivulets.

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After finally making it to the main dirt track did we see a motorised vehicle, but only after waiting a good four hours. Here, hitchhiking is the norm and it was customary to give lifts to anyone who asks. Here’s a picture of us crammed in the back of the pickup together with other hitchhikers. We were about to leave Karen and their beloved country…

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… but not before a little grasshopper landed on my head in farewell. Just before reaching Mae Sariang, it flew back off into the forest, leaving only photos and memories as reminders of its presence.

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June in Thailand: Trekking in Karen Country

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After the first village, we headed into Karen country proper, passing through jungle tracks well-known by the locals. Here Jare and Kiat pointed out a tree that was used as a lookout to survey the surrounding environment. Having checked in with the village headman and knowing the local news of the area, there was no need to climb the tree to check things out. Anyway, we were already well forewarned that the weather for the area was set to be very wet and to be prepared for our parade to be rained upon.

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Already, the clouds were starting to roll into the valley. We walked up and down the green, green slopes, some of which were terraced to grow rice.

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Trekking involved tramping up dry slopes in the secondary forest before it started raining and when it started raining, trying not to slide back down the same, now muddy, slopes. After a hairy moment where Kiat had to push and prop me up to stop me from sliding down a good few metres,  Jare cut each of us a bamboo walking stick. By now the skies started to intermittently open on us and there were only a few moments where it was lovely enough to take photos.

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We had to climb over a few hills to get to the next village to spend the night and the view from the top down into the valleys were nothing short of beautiful. One highlight of the trek was the view: the fabulous panorama of the valley below, complete with the sight of two rivers merging into the Salawin River, clouds blowing past us as we trudged on.

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There were plenty of buffalo about. I’m still not sure whether they were wild or loosely belonged to a particular village.

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Downslopes were harder, especially in the mud when it started raining again. The good thing is that we had plastic ponchos that stopped our bums from getting too dirty. The bad thing was that the poncho also made it more slippery when we fell . One funny moment came when Tom slipped and fell on his bum, sliding forward so fast that he managed to kick me off my feet too, resulting in two people whizzing downhill. Jare and Kiat were very amused by my shriek of surprise and subsequent whingeing. At least it got us down the hill slightly faster.

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Occasionally, we halted for a break and sometimes there were little rest huts along the way. These were built for villagers to take a break from the day’s labour in the fields.

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We were very thankful to chance across one when the rain got especially heavy, and we huddled damply and very humidly there till the rain eased off.

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Still, being out in nature had its charm, especially when the clouds parted slightly…

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… and when they revealed the incredibly verdant hill range below.

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Despite the rough going and difficult terrain, we made it up there in one piece and were overjoyed to cover the last stretch that stood between us and bed.

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Rustic French

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Work has been wearing me out lately, so DC decided to take me out for a weeknight splurge at Le Bistrot du Sommelier. It has a very traditional country-style French menu with surprisingly large portions. We ended up sharing a soup and a for-two main course.

The garbure soup was pretty excellent. The base was chopped vegetables in a light chicken and duck stock. On its own, it’d be a really boring vegetable soup. What made it pretty darn sublime were both the ravioli and the chicken dumpling. The mini ravioli were perfect little parcels stuffed with savoury cheese. Against the bland foil of the soup, the slightly chewy morsels gave out bursts of salty pleasure with each bite. And then the chicken dumpling. It had a lot more chicken than flour in it and was incredibly soft and delicate. I wasn’t sure of the slightly grainy texture of overdone chicken breast, but the flavour was deeply chickeny. One of the best bits of the soup was the crispy croutons. I don’t know how the grilled chunks of country bread retained the crunch even though waterlogged, but they did and… bliss.

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We went for the Baekenofe pork casserole for two made of different cuts of pork: cheek, trotter, belly and bacon. There were two large pieces of each in the claypot interspersed with carrot and turnip chunks as well as new potatoes. This dish is one of the few that made me like new potatoes (which I obviously normally detest). The whole dish was awash in white wine, with some cuts, especially the trotter, redolent with alcohol. It was lovingly braised so that the pork was tender. The best cut was the cheek, which just about didn’t require much chewing to enjoy. I just let it sit in my mouth for a moment to savour the taste and let it disintegrate slowly into a fragrant heap. (Pardon the red cast of the photo, we sat under the sign board lit in red so there’s no helping the hue of the photo. Sorry.)

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This place has great food. It’s too bad that it’s not exactly the cheapest place around and the service can be quite take-it-or-leave-it French. Even though we were the first to arrive on a weeknight they flatly refused to let us sit inside, claiming that it was all reserved inside. Mysteriously, we noticed only one table inside over the time we had our dinner. The outside doesn’t have the best atmosphere because of all the construction work going on opposite.

[An aside: If you’d like great atmosphere, just step two units down to the Creperie Des Armes. The Brittany atmosphere is amazing, made me feel like I was in a corner cafe in Europe. What was better was the warm welcome of the French couple running the place. Here, the couple smiled so much and tried so hard to please that I couldn’t help fall in love with the place. I practised my dormant French here, to the lady owner’s delight. It’s a pity that another place I like has far superior crepes. Also didn’t help that the crepes came out one by one, so not good for impatient or hungry hordes. ]

Le Bistrot du Sommelier
46 Prinsep Street #01-01 Prinsep Place
Tel: 6333 1982