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: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: 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: 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.