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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April in The Philippines: The Bible Dedication

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I said bye to the diving group at Manila airport and hopped onto a connecting flight to Puerto Princesa. Just as I settled into my seat, there was an announcement asking for volunteers to be offloaded. They’d be given a nice hotel room and flown out to Puerto Princesa on the next flight out the next day. On top of that, they’d get a return ticket to anywhere in the Visayas (Cebu area) as compensation. I was very sorely tempted by that, but sadly kept my seat as I had to be in Puerto Princesa that very day for a bible dedication.

You see, my church had been supporting a missionary who was involved in some translation work for the villagers on Cagayancillo, a tiny remote island somewhere in the large expanse between Palawan and Luzon in the Sulu sea. They’d recently finished translating the New Testament and were holding a dedication ceremony to which lots of overseas supporters were invited. Now, how often do you get to witness something like this while on holiday? I stayed put in my seat.

As we walked across the tarmac to the Puerto Princesa arrival terminal, a military brass band complete with saxophonist serenaded us. Apparently the mayor of Puerto Princesa had arrived in town straight from an overseas junket just to grace the bible dedication! It was great to come in at the same time as the mayor and receive the mayoral welcome.

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Michael, our missionary-translator, was kind enough to meet me at the airport despite being one of the busy stars of the dedication. He whisked me straight to the hall where the event was held. Soon enough, the mayor himself appeared and gave a congratulatory speech.

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Then came some very touching homespun performances by the talented Kagayanens. Here’s the band playing some haunting Kagayanen melodies, complete with rain shakers and local guitars. I wish I had a proper recording of it instead of snatches of it on the video function on my crappy camera.

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After that, there was a bit of a pantomime/sketch that showed the journey of the Kagayanens and their everyday life, complete with cute props of traditional boats and cooking implements.

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I’m sure there was some sort of praying and dedication stuff happening, but I forget. The rest of the activities were lots more fun! The best part of the dedication ceremony was the end, when the band starting jamming and two by two the villagers got up to dance. It was really sweet how very soon a lot of the overseas visitors soon joined in, many pulled up to dance by an enthusiastic local.

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Later that evening, the mayor hosted the supporters (us) for a lovely dinner and cultural performance at the hotel. Now, a cultural performance put up by the mayor of the island can’t be beat. It was top notch, full of colour and talent. Again, I wished my camera didn’t let me down. This shot was the best I got because they actually stayed still to pose for pictures here. At least you can make out the colourful costumes. Moral of the story? You’ve got to be there yourself in person.

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The best part of the whole dinner party was the mayor giving out rain shakers and personally thanking each guest (including me!) for coming all this way for the bible dedication. It was a sincere gesture from someone who genuinely seemed to care about his constituents, even those in the remotest corner of his remote island.

March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.

August in China: Chengyang Bridge

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In Guilin, I met Willy, a Spanish fella who wanted to go off the tourist loop and see some real villages. We took off after lunch and headed up to Sanjiang (where?) in hopes of getting to Chengyang Bridge before nightfall. It was not to be. The minibuses had stopped by the time we rocked up and we had to take this modified tuk-tuk. It looks a lot sturdier than it feels and of course this photo opp was only possible because of a fuel stop.

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Chengyang Bridge is one of the most famous symbols of the Dong minority group. They are famous for their skill in carpentry, particularly in building bridges and drum towers. The bridges are called fengyu qiao (wind-rain bridges) and are very elaborate structures that look like several pagodas joined together. This is the lovely sight that greeted us.

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We were lucky to arrive so late because the entrance fee was something crazy like ¥100! For obvious reasons, I wouldn’t know exactly how much it cost. We called our inn on the other side of the bridge and the lady-boss came over to get us. She instructed us not to give in if anyone demanded payment and to tell them that any receipts would be at the inn. I guess this shows that the admission fees weren’t going back to the community!

Nonethelss, the fairy lights on the bridge were magical at night. Thankfully, the lights were switched off at 11 pm so it was relatively good for the environment.

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The bridge was also pretty darn good-looking in the day time. It was charmingly rustic and weathered. It was too bad that we couldn’t walk back across the bridge for fear of having to pay the dreaded entrance fee on the way back.

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Luckily, the complex of villages was on our side of the bridge and there was so much else to explore. We walked across several equally impressive bridges, none of them demanding entrance fees. However, all of them asked for a small donation in exchange for having your name carved on a stone tablet as a benefactor. Posterity for ¥10 sounded like a good deal, but since Willy had walked ahead and declined the offer, I didn’t bother and didn’t have the chance to ponder the consequences of donation and stone tablet.

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I thought this bridge was especially spectacular. It was a lot quieter and rose majestically above the fields. I guess it’s less famous for the simple reason that it was further away from the main road.

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One of the bridges led to the market and of course this was the most popular with the locals, especially the elders. It was a great place to hang out as it was breezy and there was a good view of the river. Some people played cards and dominoes while others just snoozed. What a great lifestyle choice.

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On this bridge I found a little niche housing the gods of the bridge. It was pretty old but well-tended. Cute.

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Quite serendipitously, we met this man who asked us what we were up to and invited us to his house for a cup of tea. Turned out that he was a great bridge builder who had done many projects in the big cities and even as far as Shanghai and Beijing. He showed us cut-out newspaper features on him and sheaves of architectural plans of bridges he’d drawn. He had shelves of models of bridges and drum towers all over his house. It was too bad he didn’t allow us to photograph those because he had plans to set up a museum featuring them. He was quite pleased to oblige us with a photo with him though.

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