We had the fortune of spending some time in Thailand; we decided to divide our time between the urban jungle of Bangkok and the actual jungle near Thailand’s border with Myanmar in the Chiangmai province. As ex-New Yorkers, we couldn’t help but appreciate the disturbing odors, myriads of people, and various modes of transportation that we encountered on the streets in Bangkok. It’s a city that even having many futuristic traits of the most advanced metropolises, also maintains many strong traditional aspects: magnificent temples and street markets to name just a couple. As our first encounter with southeast Asia, we were also struck more generally by the people—everyone was very kind and respectful with us. To get on the subway system, there were clear lines indicated where to wait to enter (in order to let those exiting the subway have a clear path). Coming from New York City, we were amazed that people actually lined up single file in the indicated zones to board the subway. All of this seemed in stark contrast to the surrounding chaos in the city streets. In hindsight, the complementarity of opposites shouldn’t be surprising, especially in Asia.
We left Bangkok to fly up north to Chiangmai to trek (hike) for 3 days. We had been nervous about the rain, and checked the weather app each day for updates. A couple days before our trek was supposed to begin, the forecast cleared up and we were relieved.
When we arrived in Chiangmai, our taxi driver recounted the epic storm they had just had the previous night/ that morning. It was a rain like they hadn’t seen in 50 years, they said. We got so lucky, we just missed it. Or so we thought.
As soon as we started our trek it became clear that with the rain came slippery mud and…leeches. This was an unpleasant surprise.
The first day, we hiked for 2 and a half hours to the Karen village, where they speak their own language (not Thai) but use the same letters as English. Upon our arrival, two girls (9 & 11) climbed a tree to get us fresh lychee.
After the long (or what we thought was long) hike, there was nothing better than sitting by the river, and peeling and eating our lychee by the handful.
We gathered that not many people in the village spoke much, if any, English. However, they all know the word “shopping.” When we returned to our accommodation, the two girls who gathered the lychee greeted us with, “shopping!” I looked at the bracelets, many of which were red, white and blue. I turned to Marco and commented, “look, it’s for the U.S.A.” the 11-year old girl came over and corrected me—“Thailand.” Of course, their flag’s colors are red, white and blue as well. What an American thing to presume. I bought a bracelet for 50 bhat.
The second day of our trek we went on a 4-hour trek to get to the elephant camp. We thought we were tired after the first day! This day was incredibly treacherous-- super steep going up and down, and of course the weather was more hot and humid than the previous day. At the end of the day I checked my pedometer on my phone – we had climbed the equivalent of 131 flights of stairs in ~18,000 steps. After our lunch, we fed and bathed the elephants, then continued our trek.
We continued on to the Lahu village, where we were posted up for the second evening. Our hosts were lovely, and of the little English they spoke, “shopping” was again a key word. We concluded the evening with music around the campfire.
The third and final day we had no further hiking, we simply hopped on a bamboo raft that our guides built, and rafted down the river for a couple hours to our lunch spot, stopping for swimming breaks along the way. A car with our big luggage was waiting after lunch, to take us to the orchid farm and then back to the center of Chiangmai.
One of the most interesting parts of the 3-day trip was learning about the culture of the tribes that live in the hills around Chiangmai. Within the communities, they don't use or exchange money for goods and services. Everyone works with everyone, and men try to show they are healthy and not lazy, because it is the women who decide who to marry. When a couple gets married, there is no “legal” documentation, but they are married for life. Divorce is not permitted. Generally speaking, people are married before age 20. As our guide put it, “if you’re not married by age 20, something’s wrong.” You have to have children soon when you get married so by the time you're 45 you have someone to take care of you. The more children, the better.
The people in these villages farm and raise livestock. If they need to buy something (clothing, a scooter, etc.), they sell the livestock to make the money. No one claims anyone else's goods. If one family has a couple cows, they may tell another family, “if you take care of them when they have a calf it's yours,” and so on. When someone needs a house built, the rest of the village helps without asking for payment, because eventually each person (or family) will need help to build their house as well.
When receiving a visitor, it's rude to ask questions. Because they are tired and hungry, it’s polite to first give them food and something to drink. After this you can ask how they are doing and have a conversation.
There is little to no electricity in these villages. However, in recent years, the Thai government has brought in solar panels. This is primarily because only 30% of forest is left, so the government wants to promote cooking with electricity as opposed to burning wood. With the arrival of solar panels also comes electricity.
A few days after the trip, my bracelet from Karen village started to fray. I thought about a conversation I had with one of our co-trekkers. She lamented the price of the bracelets, but added, “but I don’t mind. These people have nothing.” In reality, don’t they have everything?