Trekking into Traditional Ways of Life
Travel writer, Meg Sine, blogs about trekking with a guide through the forest and farm fields near Doi Inthanon National Park to a Karen hill tribe homestay to see traditional ways of life.
I have to admit I was a bit skeptical that people still live a traditional existence (i.e. no electricity) in 2014. But I was about to find out. My niece, Stephanie, was coming to Thailand to celebrate a milestone birthday. We both wanted to experience authentic culture and rugged nature and were eager to take a trekking adventure.
I emailed Philip at Khiri Travel Chiang Mai about hiking at Doi Inthanon National Park to see waterfalls and scenic views on our way to an overnight homestay in a remote hill tribe village. Philip obliged with an awesome itinerary.
The morning of our first day we met our local guide, Khun Chai, and climbed aboard a songthaew (pick-up car with two benches in the back) to head out of town. After a chilly stopover in a misty cloud forest at the summit of Doi Inthanon, and Wachirathan Waterfall, we headed for the trailhead to start trekking to our homestay destination, a white Karen village. We each had our overnight gear, water and snacks in a small backpack. Khun Chai carried a shoulder bag of the typical woven cloth of the Karen tribe.
Another guide, an elder of the Karen village, made our group a party of four. Mr. Na Sa was wiry thin with the leathery brown skin of someone who has spent a life working the land. He lead the pace scuffing along in army issue black boots that had very loosely tied laces. I couldn’t imagine how he could keep them on his feet. Anyway, I had no doubt both guides were capable of walking the distance.
We turned off the dirt road onto a forest path. Almost immediately, our expert local guide, Mr. Na Sa, seemed disoriented or unsure of the direction we needed to go. Stephanie and I, not wanting to walk the wrong way, sat down and waited patiently for about 30 minutes for Mr. Na Sa with his sloppy boots to scout the correct path. Khun Chai apologized for the slow start and surmised that perhaps Mr. Na Sa hadn’t done this walk in a long while. Chai commented wryly, “He probably rides a motorcycle now instead of walking the jungle paths.”
We trekked for about two hours (about 8 km) passing through K. Na Sa’s boyhood home village where we had a refreshing snack of fresh fruits and refilled our water bottles. Dehydration, not sore feet, was my biggest concern. The forest views changed from towering trees to scrub vegetation and back again keeping our weary feet entertained with changing views.
One mountainside viewpoint demanded a photo stop. In the indirect light of the setting sun, we looked over a valley carpeted with bright green rice fields as far as we could see. We passed other farm fields growing corn and Thai Arabica coffee.
The second day of our trek started early. Khun Chai made the fields and forests his classroom. He pointed to the rice fields and told us that highland rice grows only in the rainy season, while lowland rice can be irrigated and cultivated up to three crops per year. We also learned interesting tidbits about spiders, termites and parasitic orchids. The Karen use the “soap plant” to make detergent as its broken stem oozes soap bubbles! The bark of pine trees is used to start fires when there is no charcoal. No doubt Khun Chai was an expert ecologist.
On the second day, we hiked to a large Karen village, Huay Khao Lip, where many of the women were outside doing their weaving. This village also offered rooms for rent where we stopped for tea and met several young European travelers. The view over a steep, green valley of rice paddies and palm trees made me want to sit and stare. Apart from the beautiful scenery, this dormitory style accommodation was not nearly as clean and comfortable as our presidential suite at the Na Sa Village Homestay.
This was the end of our trek. We boarded the songthaew again for a downhill drive on a deeply rutted dirt road. Along the way we were passing huge utility trucks delivering concrete poles to the village. Soon there would be electrical wires and big changes with the invasion of the modern world of TV, cell phones and Internet upon this traditional existence. I’m glad we got to see it when we did.
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