Wednesday 20th December 2000 Day 8

A good night was most thankfully received. I also felt slightly better. Perhaps because we all had our individual beds it helped with getting uninterrupted sleep. More space to wriggle without kicking someone awake! We were still able to meet in the middle for a cuddle though!

I woke up around 6:30am, and I sat on the balcony, waiting for the sun to rise over the Laos mountains. The view had an eerie beauty about it. The mist was still settled on the ground, covering almost everything in a cotton wool blanket. As if the whole place was still tucked up in bed!

Then when the sun rose over the mountaintops, it was simply breathtaking. The whole sky was bathed in a golden wash.

We had breakfast in our room and it was really nice, warm toast and croissant. I keep on saying it, but this hotel is worthwhile coming to.

Our excursion started around 8:30am. Julie was slightly apprehensive about today because it included the elephant trek. We returned to Chiang Rai, which took an hour.

Then we transferred onto a long tail boat that took us up the Mai Kok river.

It made us smile thinking how fortunate it wasn't this river the British prisoners of war built a bridge over during the Second World War. We couldn't imagine a film being made of "The Bridge Over the River Kok"!

We saw some amazing sights. Mountain top Golden Chedi and Buddha Statues, beautiful riverside houses, people collecting gravel from the river bed to sell on to concrete companies. For over ¾ of an hour we were the only tourist boat on the river.

At last we were real intrepid explorers! (briefly)

Our illusions were once again cruelly shattered the nearer we came to our destination. A supersonic long tail boat, bursting to the seams with farangs, came haring past us!

Within 10 minutes we had seen another three or four long tail boats, but it still felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, exploring deepest jungles!

We reached the Karen Ruammit Village Elephant Club after an hour on the river. It was a wonderful sight to see from the boat, a whole herd of elephants ready to take people on different rides and treks.

As we stepped off the boat at the camp we saw someone with a 50kg Python draped around him. He was a big bloke but looked to be struggling to carry the weight of the 18 year old snake!

"Line up, line up, take your photos quickly before the snake gets him!"

For 20 Baht we bought a bag of sugarcane and a bunch of green bananas to feed to the elephants.

We didn't get very far as the first two elephants we met trapped us in a pincer movement and wouldn't let us pass until they'd emptied our bags! Mugged by two trunks!

When we were released by the greedy elephants we walked up and down the market stalls. Julie bought herself a hat made from hemp fibres, and Hannah got some elephant postcards.

Before we got on our steeds we all went to the toilet. Our guide took us through to the back of one of the shacks, which did vaguely resemble a café. A few locals were gathered around a table, eating. There was also a Coca Cola fridge!

At the back, near the toilets there was a dog just having its litter of puppies. How sweet! Hopefully they weren't on the menu! The toilet was just a breezeblock cubicle with a corrugated iron roof, and the loo was eastern style! Once again I thanked God because I didn't want a number 2!

It was my first experience of an eastern style toilet, and I felt as if I was just pissing on the floor, which in fact I was! It got me thinking that, I suppose, a number2 would be just like shitting on the floor, (which I've only ever done once in my life before, by the way, on a beach in Belgium), and that the dynamics of squatting actually leaves your arse cleaner due to cheek separation! Us westerners have to wipe ours because as we sit down, we squeeze through tightly clenched buttocks? I don't know? It's just a theory? Anyway, I still can't imagine having to place a bowl of water at the base of my spine, and pouring cold water between my buttocks, and then fiddling about with the fingers, of my left hand only, to get myself clean. How disgusting! I manually flushed the toilet by filling the pan with water from the bowl provided. I felt chuffed that I'd successfully managed to use it properly!

It was time for our Elephant trek, and Julie did ask if we came back to the same village in case she could opt out, and stay put. But no, the trek took us 6km through thick forests to another village. So she had to come! Hannah and I got on first.

We had to climb up steps, onto a platform, and then step onto the elephants back, and into our chair.

We watched Julie walk up the wooden steps. She looked petrified. It was as if those stairs lead to the gallows!

She stepped cautiously onto the elephant's back, and positioned herself onto the chair. You could tell how scared she was by the way she was shaking uncontrollably! Now THAT was 'feeling the fear, and doing it anyway'! What courage! What an impressive achievement!

I'm glad that Hannah and I shared an elephant, and was the lead elephant. It meant I could turn around and take some photos of Julie to capture this triumphant moment!

Our trek took us out of the village, and upwards along dirt tracks, alongside edges of some considerable drop! Within a few minutes we had entered a beautiful world of lush green jungle, rice paddy fields, a hillside of orange bloom where a farmer was picking the flowers to make a dye for the monks robes.

We even saw a few Asian cows, (the strange looking ones with humps on their backs). All this was taking place before us.

We were on our very own private trek, we had no one else with us. Now we really felt like intrepid explorers! It became even more intrepid when our mahout took out a little machete to chop a way through some overgrown bamboo that had reached over and met in the middle creating a low tunnel. We still had to duck slightly to get through. How Indiana Jones! It was incredible how they controlled and directed these huge animals.

Ours just grunted, and the elephant did as it was told, but Julie's mahout was very vocal when it came to commanding his elephant. He well and truly bellowed out his orders. It made Hannah and I almost jump out of our skins the first time we heard it. God only knows what was going through Julie's mind.

She told me afterwards that her mahout had also pulled out his machete. It was when we had disappeared around the corner, and left them behind. For a split second Julie thought about jumping off and running for her life! But he had just wanted to cut some bamboo for a stick.

Every time we were on a narrow path with a drop to one side, they'd whip them with the stick to remind them not to get too close to the edge! The final part of the trek was to climb a mountain. No kidding!

It was an incredibly steep path. At times I thought "You can't go up there!" but they did! The path would easily of been too steep for anyone to do on foot. Even the elephant had to stop every now and again to catch its breath!

After the steep climb up came the steep climb down! This was harder work for us. We had to hold on for dear life but it was even worse for Julie. She was on her own, and had more room to slide about. Afterwards her back, and behind her knees were badly bruised, and her arms had just gone to jelly! She had visions of herself slipping off, landing on the elephant's head and knocking off the mahout! We eventually arrived safely at a Lahu village. The 6km had lasted 1 hour 20 minutes. It had been such an exhilarating ride. We felt as if we had truly 'ridden' an elephant. The beautiful scenery and a feeling of remoteness that is so hard to find, made it even more rewarding.

Once we got off the elephants they handed us bunches of bananas to feed them. (Which cost us 70 Baht) Julie didn't have the strength in her arms to pick anything up! Then came the hard sell!

I was surrounded by four Lahu tribeswomen trying to get me to buy off them. I eventually bought three friendship bracelets and a sequined elephant purse, one item from each to make them happy. I also got given a little something for nothing, but what the hell it was I haven't got a clue! Perhaps it was a good luck charm?

Our guide met us here. We followed him through the Lahu side of the village to the Yao quarter! The Yao are direct descendants of refugees from China. They started coming to Thailand over a hundred years ago, but there was a large influx during Mao Tse Tung's communist revolution.

We stopped for lunch at some table and chairs provided by a family who had a shop. Well, they had a crisp stand at least!

The shop was also their living room in a loose sense of the word. It looked more like a garage, built from concrete blocks and with a shutter to close the shop front. They had other rooms off the back of it, but this was where they spent most of their time. On the floor of this garage like room was a mattress with plenty of cushions and then, in the corner, the biggest Kenwood Hi-Fi system that I'd ever seen! Maybe they had family connections to members of the drug smuggling Chinese Triad because they surely couldn't afford those luxury items from the unsteady flow of tourist spending 70 Baht for some coconut flavoured dry roasted peanuts, and a packet of corn puffs, as we did. We only bought them to repay their kindness in allowing us to sit at their table. We already had lunch boxes provided by the hotel. The veggie one was actually quite nice with an apple crossed with a pear, a cheese sandwich, crisps, and a fruitcake.

None of us fancied the cakes so we gave them to the two children who were sitting next to us.

One of them was playing with what was obviously the kitchen knife, and he was stabbing the dog with it! Or at least he was pushing it into the dog's side. He was also stabbing himself in his boredom!

The old woman of the house told us that he was her grandchild, and that his father was ill in a Chiang Rai hospital with a stomach complaint. No wonder! He's probably caught some dog disease from that bloody knife!

With this in the back of our minds we watched them rustle up a salad for our guide. They then brought four forks for us all to sample the unique flavours of their gastronomic time bomb! The father was in hospital because of their cooking, but as the fool that I am, when I was offered some, I accepted. Despite the guide admitting that it probably included Nahm Pla (Thai fish sauce) I still tried a bit. I had a get out clause but I didn't use it! Ah, well, I had to be gracious as not to offend our hosts. It was very tasty, quite salty and very spicy, you could see that there were plenty of chillies in it. However, it was a bit crunchy, almost as if it contained eggshell? Minutes later I realised that I had been crunching on pieces of crab's claw!! The guide did apologise by saying "Crab's claw, not so good"! I didn't eat anymore after that.

We moved on to the next village, upwards along a dirt track, in the back of a pick up truck. The driver had been waiting for us down at the Yao village.

He had a big grin on his face, and our guide joked that "He's happy now he's had his whisky"!

The next village was an Akha village. These people originated from Tibet, and the majority of them moved here when China invaded Tibet.

Despite being the spiritual home of the Dalai Lama, these Akha Tibetans are animist as they believe in spirits and the power of Shamans.

The women of the tribe wore traditional silver headdresses. Apparently, the bigger the headdress, the wealthier the family. Their teeth were purple from chewing beetlenut. It gave them appearance of having toothless grins.

Now this felt more like a "hilltribe". They all lived in primitive wooden huts that clung to the hillside. There was no electricity. The government had supplied a battery powered radio-link telephone, which was installed in the village elder's house.

Once again the place had a wonderful feel because we were the only tourists here. Perfectly timed.

The guide told us that seven of the villagers had been recently sentenced to thirty years in jail for trafficking Amphetamine. Apparently it's the death penalty if you're caught producing the drug. The guilty are shot in the head.

He joked that, "In China, the family have to pay for the bullet, in Thailand it is free"!

He continued to tell us that growing poppies for opium is still happening. In fact it is not illegal for private use. It's tolerated. Mass production however has been outlawed and eradicated from Northen Thailand. All the drug lords and barons have scarpered over the border into Burma.

All the food we didn't eat from our lunch boxes we took to give to the Akha children. They were very appreciative. Two ladies cornered us at the entrance to the village, and more bracelets were bought!

We walked up towards an open space where more stalls were waiting to tempt us. We were still the only people there! All eyes were on us, so we walked from stall to stall buying something from almost all of them! For some strange reason a lot of their gifts were made with seashells? Perhaps they were riverbed molluscs?

By the time I reached the last lady I was all shopped up. She was so desperate to sell me something, but I just couldn't bring myself to buy yet another friendship bracelet. Fortunately she offered herself and her son up for a photo. She was by all means no oil painting, but you could sense her pride in having her photo taken. This gave me the opportunity to slip her a 20 Baht note without having to buy anything.

We made our way back down the mountain in the back of the truck, holding on tightly as we went tearing around bends. The dirt track opened out onto a new, but yet unfinished road. A dog was crossing the road and I'm sure the driver accelerated towards it. Next thing we heard was a thud, and as we looked out the back of the truck we saw the dog, lying dead on the road. The guide just shook his head. He couldn't believe what had just happened. I don't think he was joking when he said the driver had been on the moonshine whisky! He did say that the Akha people would be down later to have the dog for supper. I don't think he was joking then either! He was a very chatty guide who talked about his family a lot. His daughter goes to school in Chiang Saen, and his father is very superstitious. There have been many male deaths recently. Fit healthy men dying in their sleep with no apparent symptoms. His father, and his generation believes that a lady spirit visits in the night, and takes away the lives of men in their sleep. All the villagers have erected large wooden penis outside their houses to satisfy the evil woman, and she will then leave the men alone! However, our guide believed in a more modern scientific reasoning, and reckons that sticky rice is to blame. But apparently the phallic symbols have worked!

We were hugely relieved when we stopped at a local market, and got out of the pick-up truck. He sped off, chuckling to himself as we waved goodbye! Our comfortable mini bus was waiting for us here. The market was just in the process of setting up. All the traders were preparing their stalls ready for business. We walked amongst them opened mouthed! At one stall we noticed a bag moving along the table, it was alive! We looked closer we realised it was full of large frogs. Another stall, where a butcher was hacking at a carcass with his cleaver, was selling pigs trotters and chickens feet! But the most stomach churning was the bowl full of pig's entrails on offer. Now that's enough to turn anyone vegetarian! Everyone was smiling at us, or perhaps laughing at us, as they saw the looks on our faces! We did buy some garlic from the fresh veg stall, and it was only 10 Baht (15p) for a massive bag of cloves. Bargain! Once again we were the only farangs in town.

Our final stop was a huge handicraft shop in Chiang Rai. It felt odd being the only customers in there. We were offered a cooling iced drink of some description, slightly elderflower in flavour? The ice cubes did look home made, which is one of the things you should avoid. Somehow I still ended up accepting a drink from the shop assistant. I carried it around, sipping from it at intervals. We went on a small shopping spree, going mad and buying a ceramic bowl, a wooden goblet, a photo album, and two Thai prints for Hannah's room back home. As we walked out, on the left-hand side, were six people hard at work hand painting ceramics of all shapes and sizes. I'm sure they weren't there when we walked in! I wonder if they were just sitting around, having a beer, then all of a sudden they hurried to their positions as soon as they noticed us in the shop?

We were very tired when we arrived back at the hotel after an hours drive from Chiang Rai. We tipped the guide 200 Baht because he was excellent. We felt as if we got to know him, as if we'd made a friend, and we got to know more about Thai life. He even noticed my Manchester United UEFA Champions tattoo, and impressed us by knowing the names of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham! He told me that he also really enjoys football. His friends and him often travel 200 miles to Chiang Mai to watch football in a 38,000 capacity all seater stadium! Our only regret is that we didn't catch his name.

To refresh ourselves we got changed and headed for the pool. We shared a bowl of penne pasta. Not much swimming was done. We just sat in the shade for an hour and a half. We left at 5pm when midges came out to play. Retiring to our room, we relaxed by reading a book, playing gameboy or drinking some more rice whisky from the mini bar. No prizes for guessing who did what! At 6:45pm Hannah and I headed down to the sports club for a foot massage that we'd booked for 7pm. Julie stayed in the room as the mere thought of someone playing with her feet is enough to make her feel ill. By 7:05pm we were back, knocking at our door, pretending to be room service! Giggling like school children, (which Hannah is, so what's my excuse?) at the prospect of winding up Julie. Apparently they'd double booked us. Someone was already half way through a marathon full body massage session when we arrived. Thank God we didn't just barge into the room! So anyway, we've re-booked for tomorrow. Same time, same place, hopefully not the same mistake!

Time for our supper, and I decided to go for the vegetarian set menu. A three course meal for 495 Bahts. It was enormous. It was effectively eight meals! It was definitely what Hannah and I had for lunch and our tea yesterday. It was an obscene amount for one person. My thoughts did briefly dwell on the poor Akha tribe who were probably huddled around their fire, enjoying a bowl of dog's tail soup, or perhaps Dog a la Orange. What I had laid out in front of me could easily have fed the whole village that night! I did feel guilty about my privileged position, but hey, what was I to do? What I had left over on my several plates was wasteful though, and I should be thoroughly ashamed of my initial gluttony! My eyes were way too big for my belly, and I have a big appetite. I had reached the point where I thought I was going to pop, literally split open and pop! Monty Python's "One wafer thin mint" was the joke of the hour!

They rolled me to the room. We noticed tens of lizards lurking on the walls and ceilings of the stairwell and corridor. Attracted by the lights I guess. I read the Bangkok post before going to sleep, and read an article about fighting along the Thai-Burma border between rival factions of tribes. It was taking place over 400km away at Mae Hong Son, so we were perfectly safe, but I chose not to tell Julie about it! No need to worry her over nothing! Today has been an unforgettable experience, from beginning to end. We slept well tonight.

Day 9>>

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