July in Vietnam: Sapa

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I hopped on the night train to Sapa hoping that things would get better there. I arrived early the next morning to vastly different weather. In contrast to muggy, humid Hanoi, Sapa was cool and on the verge of chilly, though still quite humid as it was the rainy season. Higher up in the mountains, the weather felt almost temperate. I was surrounded by beautiful hills and verdant valleys again, the quintessential hill country.

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I took a walking day tour to Cat Cat, followed by a 2D1N trip slight further into the hill country. Hmong tribeswomen immediately attached themselves to our group as we ventured out with our ethnic Viet tour guides. I thought it very odd that it was rare to find a Hmong tour guide and that most came from the cities. One of them didn’t even seem to hold a very high view of the local indigenes, which unsettled me quite a bit. Nonetheless, we proceeded on with a procession of Hmong women joining us on the way.

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We walked on in the drizzle and were amused by how the Hmong women whipped out their umbrellas with alacrity and offered to shelter us. A bit discomfited because the Viet guide told us that they would ask us to buy their wares at the end, we kept slightly away from them. But as they helped us up and down slippery muddy slopes along the paddy fields, it was hard to keep a distance. We were soon won over by their charming ways.

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Before long, we arrived at Cat Cat village and its beautiful waterfalls. We spent ages oohing and aahing over the wonderful views and the almost poetic splash of water obeying the laws of gravity.

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Treks on the other days took us through more padi fields cut into the hillside, making for a breathtaking view through the mist into the valley below.

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As we walked on, we gazed longingly at the pack animals going by…

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… and followed behind our guides, amazed that they were wearing rubberised slippers and getting along fine while we were in proper sports shoes slip-sliding behind them at the treacherous bits.

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We paused to admire more of the wildlife, like these too cute ducks posing for postcard souvenirs to send home.

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This was the youngest of the Hmong women joining us, I think she’s probably about 12 years old. Check out her intricately embroidered clothes, especially her sling bag and belt. Later in the less touristy villages I would see progress in the form of villagers choosing the less labour-intensive and probably cheaper way of wearing western-style clothes bought from the market.

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Hmong women really did have the coolest clothes and accessories from all angles. Here you can see their intricately patterned clothes and accessories, from belts to sleeves, to earrings and hairclips. Exquisite.

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We stopped at yet another beautiful waterfall for a breather (note sign of breathtaking scenery fatigue setting in here).

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And also in huts along the way. It was here that the penny dropped and I realised that our informal guides were decked out in ceremonial Sunday best wear, while those who were actually working the padi fields wore far simpler clothes sans heavy embellishment. It spoke volumes on the value of the tourist dollar here.

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We stopped for the evening at a village where I experienced the most beautiful sight of my time in Sapa. A young river flowed past the village, gushing past the boulders in its path, worn smooth by the rushing water. I perched on one of the boulders enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and dipping my toes into the icy water. It was a great ending to a damp day of trekking.

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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: 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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