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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August in China: The Lu Family

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While strolling past the river, we saw a villager shooting at fish with an air gun. We stood and stared for a while, not sure what to make of this. Weren’t guns illegal in China? Then again, this was a remote place that could possibly be outside of the law. Why on earth was he shooting the fish instead of a hook and line? If he got one, how was he going to catch it and we didn’t see any fish in the river anyway. Turned out that it was just for fun and occasionally they’d get a small one.

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As we stood around for a while, a lady came up and started chatting with me. It turned out that she was the gun-fish man’s wife. She told me about the village and how they made a living on the farms in the outskirts. I was surprised to find out that they commuted to work every morning on the buses that regularly passed the village. They made enough money to rebuild their wooden house every five years, which was the norm in the Dong area, but rather flabbergasting to me. I thought rebuilding every ten years was already horribly excessive. (Case in point, my alma mater is being rebuilt only ten years after moving to a new building.) I suppose for them, rebuilding is a matter of affording the rent or whatever it cost to stay somewhere else while the new house was being built. Wood and most of the construction material would come from the forest.

It seemed to be a labour-intensive, but fairly idyllic life. There was lots of time to sit around and chat. People here had time to spend with others. I liked that a lot. It helped that everyone in the village was pretty much family. They all had the surname Lu. It was odd at first, but I later realised that most villages in China were like that, including my own ancestral ones. Wives were found outside the village and daughters were married off to a family in a nearby village.

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Here, one of the Lu daughters showed me a grasshopper they’d just caught. We were chatting away in the house as the sky darkened, and suddenly there was a slight commotion at the far while. A large grasshopper flew into a special trap woven from grass fibres and scratched loudly but vainly to escape. I asked them what they caught the grasshopper for, and the answer was an insouciant, “Oh, for fun!”

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Later that evening, Willy showed the kids a magic trick with cards. They were delighted! It kept them occupied while Mr Lu showed me the family photos. There were photos of him in military service, at the local attractions within the province and with the family.

They had never stepped foot outside of the province before and would never be able to get a permit to leave the country for a holiday. Nonetheless, they seemed resigned to that and appeared content with their lot in life. They were incredibly generous, even asking us to stay the night with them and not waste money at the guesthouse.

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Before going back, we took pictures with the family. They were very happy to gather the family round for it. We left with them telling us to please come back and visit soon.

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