It was near dusk when I found myself ankle-deep in mud, preparing to cross a fast-flowing murky stream. The bridge - all of two bamboo poles - had washed away. I could not see what was lurking under water, or in the high grass on the other bank. And this was just the start of a trek around the hill tribe country in Northern Thailand. I longed for the boutique hotel in Chiang Mai. With a sigh and a curse, I waded through the stream.
Earlier that day, we had stopped at a local market in a dusty village. My stomach was a little unsettled from the bumpy road. Even so, I decided to buy a piece of the spicy sausage I saw stacked at the food stalls. A specialty of Northern Thailand, this terrific sausage is seasoned with a fragrant red chili paste that has refreshing hints of lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal. I had tried a link or two in Chiang Mai. But on that hot morning, surrounded by unfamiliar smells and the colorful array of skewers with grilled intestines, crispy toe-nailed chicken feet and deep-fried chicken heads, this version was a little too much for me. It was fiercely spicy and too coarse in texture. Struggling in particular with the big and chewy chunks of fat, I discretely spit the mouthful of sausage in a tissue and looked around for a bin to dispose of it.
I noticed skewered eggs on the grill. Three on a skewer, shell and all. The way to prepare these eggs is to carefully open them on one end, add seasoning through the hole created, steam briefly so the egg will set, and then grill them slowly over a charcoal fire. Seasoning can be a little fish sauce, fresh herbs, a lick of a pounded chili paste, or just some chicken stock powder. I tried one. It was a firm egg, dark yellow in color throughout, and well-seasoned with a touch of smokiness. It was a few hours later that we were wading knee-deep through a stream at dusk to reach our accommodation for the night. A little hut in the forest with mattresses on the floor under mosquito netting. The main area was a wooden walk bridge away. There was a parade of a zillion large ants marching up and down in front of the entrance door. That night, a massive thunderstorm followed by heavy downpour made the thin-walled hut tremble on its stilts.
The following morning, the narrow mountain trails were waiting for us. We walked on a carpet of fallen leaves, clambered over fallen tree trunks, got entangled in low-hanging twigs and shoots, stopped to admire the lilac flower of wild ginger, or jumped at the sight of something scurrying away. Until we reached a picnic spot set up near a cascading river. A local couple in handwoven shirts was busy preparing lunch, using traditional cooking utensils of bamboo and wood. Out came a stunning meal of grilled chicken, white eggplant and pork red curry, a vegetable stir fry, and steamed rice wrapped in banana leaf. I watched the woman prepare eggs. She carefully made a hole on one end, and poured the raw eggs into a hollow piece of bamboo. She added chicken stock powder and a pinch of chili paste. Shaking the bamboo gently, she covered it and placed it in the wood fire to cook. When it was done, her husband skillfully chopped away at the bamboo with his machete to finally reveal the steaming hot and delicious looking scrambled eggs.
Just as I was contemplating a visit to the makeshift bamboo outhouse, a family of three elephants came crashing through the bush. When one of them leaned against the outhouse in a hungry attempt to catch the last leaves on the bamboo bush, I was glad I had postponed my pitstop. With a creaking sound the outhouse bent out of shape and nearly collapsed. Breaking off branches and stripping them clean in one big swoop of their massive trunks, the two adults and their baby elephant slowly made it down the rocks to the river for their bath. I followed at a respectable distance. Not my son, he was ready to jump into the water with them. Next thing, I see him - barefoot and beaming - straddled on the elephant's head as it trudged back up the steep rocks.
His less adventurous parents didn't get on the elephant until after it was fitted with a wooden seat. It looked rickety, and I really wanted to decline. Up the hill we went, holding the sides of the seat in a tight grip. Especially when the elephant lunged for a branch hanging over the edge. We made it to the village after a short ride when I bolted upright at the sudden trumpeting noise of the elephant ahead of us. Our elephant rushed forward, trumpeting even louder. The elephants went berserk, stamping their column-sized feet, swaying their massive heads and trumpeting, loud and again. They roared like the heavy engine of an old and rustic truck, trembling violently. It was a piglet, the guide explained later. Holding on for dear life on this humongous mammal going wild, I do remember seeing a tiny little piglet under a house we passed. It terrified the elephants. "They also afraid of baby chicken", he added. Hilarious yes, but only in hindsight.
We stayed two nights at the Karen Hill Tribe Lodge. Located some 250 kilometers Northwest of Chiang Mai in a remote mountain area, it is a serene place with small, individual bedrooms opening onto a large communal veranda looking out over the rice fields. Bare in April, the planting starts again in May, yielding vibrant green rice fields to be harvested from October. We enjoyed home-cooked dinners of pad thai, fresh made curries, stir-fried vegetables, grilled meats. We sat by the campfire and watched a delightful cultural show of music, song and dance performed by the village youngsters.
The farming method of slash and burn is popular around here. Everywhere we saw the scorched patches of land cleared for farming. The haze caused by slash and burn agriculture can be horrific, and April has a reputation for being the worst month for haze. Fortunately, heavy downpour in the nights before had cleared the air. On our way to the Royal Project Baan Sao Dang (a community-based farming cooperation) we passed a shelter on stilts next to such a recently burned patch. The farmers inside were taking a break from clearing the field. They invited us up. Water was brought to a boil in a beaten old wok over a wood fire in the corner. It was for their lunch of instant noodles with greens picked in the forest. We smiled and nodded at each other for a while, then got up and went on our way again.
At the Royal Project, high on a plateau looking out over the hill tribe land, we enjoyed a picnic lunch of fried rice on a banana leaf. Local ladies at the farm offered a taste of their green papaya salad, but warned it was "Thai spicy". This is heat-speak for the sensation of skin ripped from your tongue and lips, the burn taking away your ability to speak, or even to breathe. Politely we declined. After lunch, we roamed the mulberry orchard, picking the ripe, dark purple fruit from the trees. Its leaves are essential in the silk industry: silk worms only eat mulberry leaves. On a high point on our way back to our hill tribe lodge, we stopped to take in the sweeping views, all the way into Burma.
If it wasn't for the rooster concert at 4am, or the barking dogs at night, it would've been not just idyllic, but peacefully so. I guess if you stay long enough, you'll adapt to the rhythm of the land, and would never want to leave!
|tea poured from the bamboo "kettle"|
www.karenhilltribelodge.com, I booked through the link on their website. The lovely manager took care of the booking and itinerary. She was at the lodge when we were there, and showed me her way of cooking pad thai and a red curry. Karen people are one of six major hill tribes in Northern Thailand. Our guide grew up in a village nearby (he showed us his village, the mountain path he used to walk every day to school, and the school itself). The hill tribes each have their own language and culture.