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:Deeper into Karen Territory

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We headed out from the village into the newly transplanted padi fields, green shoots pushing out from the dark brown earth.

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Jare explained to us that the charred trees were from the previous growing cycle where the chaff was burnt in the fields to break down the nutrients quickly for the next batch of seedlings. The trees were collateral damage, a testimony to the impact of man on nature.

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There was also the occasional little hut dotting the valley, made as rest huts for the tired farmer.

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In one of these huts, Jare and Kiat found a traditional headpiece worn by the villagers to protect them from the elements. It shields the head, neck and back from the fierce sun and offers some relief from the incessant drizzle so characteristic of that season. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, but the moment it started pouring again, I was back in the humid poncho!

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Soon, we moved further away from the village where it was too far away and not worth the effort for the villagers to farm. Here, the valley gave way to an incredible spectrum of green, Nature showing us the inadequacy of our own paints and colours.

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Even more beautiful were the little splotches of bright colour on the way, including this pretty pink flower that came into our path all of a sudden.

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Jare pointed out various weird and wonderful creatures, including this cow-horned insect, a beetle of some sort. It’s amazing how long and curved its antennae were and the odd mask-like back with black dots on white looked so out of place.

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In direct contrast was the stick insect Kiat coaxed onto his parang. I’d not seen one before except in pictures, and it was almost a shock to see how, well, stick-y this fella was! The details were amazing, even down to a little knob of a shorn off branch on the top.

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Soon, we reached our destination for lunch, another village nestled in a valley, this time a little lower so there were plenty of coconut trees.

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Here, they were a little bit more old school, with shrunken skulls from the way back in the days where they dried enemies’ skulls and hung them up to ward off evil and other enemies.

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The strangest thing was sitting around the stove slurping up the instant noodle lunch Jare cooked for us, watching the skulls stare out at us from their empty sockets.

June in Thailand: Life with the Karen

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The next village we got to was slightly more remote. Again, we stayed in the house of the village chief where they provided bedding and cooking space. Jare and Kiat did the honours for the cooking and while waiting for dinner to be served, the village headman brought out home made rice whiskey.

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We sat round on very empty stomachs downing shots of (thankfully not very strong) local whisky from the same chipped china cup. Even though we could only communicate through sign language, the villagers were always smiling and trying their best to ask questions about us, like which country we came from and how old we were. When we were through with dinner, the villagers did the washing up after us. In Karen culture, a visitor who washes up after himself is one who never returns. After dinner, we rolled out sleeping rolls provided by the family and dropped straight off to sleep, the incessant rain still beat on the eaves of the hut. We wondered how our damp clothes would have any chance at all of drying.

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In the morning, the rain seemed to have stopped for a while and we woke to the sounds of inquisitive children staring in at the door. They were none too discreetly trying to make enough noise to get us to wake up and pay them some attention yet not alert the adults of their innocent mischief.

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We got up, put away the bed rolls and went out to find that the whole village was awake and it seemed like the day had started long before we arose. Only the youngest and the oldest were still around. Here is the village headman’s wife and one of her many grandchildren.

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She was very happy to have her picture taken and I hope the photo got to her safely. It was so lovely to see the great love for her grandchild in her eyes. Beautiful.

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After a quick breakfast of chillied sardine with rice for me, Jare and Kiat, and toast for the farangs, we said our farewells to whoever was left in the village and headed off. There was quite a way to cover yet.

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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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June in Thailand: Farm Animals at a Karen Village

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There was the usual assortment of cute farm animals at the village: goats complete with nursing kids…

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… lively little piglets running all over the place…

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… in complete contrast with their lazy parents conserving energy in a heap.

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The hens teaching their chicks to scratch around for food in the dirt were really cute too.

Surprisingly, there didn’t seem to be any animals doing work in the village. The only mechanical work being done was by some children threshing the rice. How strange!

June in Thailand: The Karen

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The first village we visited was but a short walk from where we got off the boat. We’d hardly broken a sweat before Jare called a halt and a village appeared in a clearing in the shrubbery. It consisted of several nondescript huts on stilts. We first paid our respects to the village headman lounging around on a hammock with a half-tame monkey scampering about on his lap. He looked so content and happy smoking his pipe. We ate our fried rice, packed earlier at Mae Sam Laeb, at his place. When we were done, we flicked the crumbs through the slats of the floor down onto the dirt below, letting the chickens have fun pecking at our leftovers.

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The villagers were happy to let us take photos. Jare told us that it was perfectly OK. Seemed like groups like ours only passed through once every few months, so I was comforted somewhat that they weren’t overexposed to tourism and its ill-effects. The kids were as always intrigued by the camera and very tickled to see their images on the little LED screen.

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The Karens’ colourful costumes photographed beautifully. It was amazing that their clothes were still so wonderfully colourful even though slightly worn from daily wear.

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This lady had so much character I had difficulty choosing which of her photos to feature. I like how this photo shows how her stern demeanour lightened after seeing me lurking about sheepishly, not knowing how to ask if I could take a photo. She signalled to me that it was okay and continued smoking her newly lit pipe.

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Then there was this young mother and her toddler son who shyly looked at her son and ignored the camera.

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It was such a pity we stayed for such a short couple of hours, giving us little time to interact with the villagers. We had to press on.

June in Thailand: Near the Burmese Border

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Mae Sam Laeb was an odd little border town consisting of only one dusty street containing a few little shops. These shops sold all sorts of odds and ends from army supplies to live fish from an aquarium! An equal oddment of people were on the street, from hardy looking men to saffron-clothed monks and little children just come home from school (wherever that was).

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Even odder was a huge carp breathing its last, seemingly abandoned after being weighed.

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The poor bug-eyed fella was simply left on the concrete to gasp its way to death. I felt so sorry for it.

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The real purpose of stopping here was to sign in with the Thai border guard as it was hard to monitor the border, especially at night. I wondered what they’d do with our details and how they’d find out about any mischief we’d get up to anyway.  I unashamedly asked the very obliging men in uniform for a picture.  They seemed fairly pleased to have their pictures taken, though I didn’t get their address to send them a copy!

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After Jare and Kiat took away fried rice in styrofoam boxes for lunch (a yet odder start to our back to basics nature trek),  we waited at the pier for a public boat to go down the Salawin River.

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This time there weren’t chickens but motorbike and children instead.

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The views were very beautiful as the river wound past lots of forested slopes, much more rugged and impressive than any other Southeast Asian river I’ve been on.

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It was also strange to look on the other side of the river: the Burmese side controlled by Karen rebels. It was dotted with little huts — outposts of the Karen army.

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