A Two Day Journey in North Thailand

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Chiang Mai, Thailand
By Randy Gaudet

Our Lisu hill tribe host family
Our Lisu hill tribe host family
When friends come and visit us in Chiang Mai it is usually in late November when it is nice and cool and the rains have ended. Since we are all now getting up in years a rough trek to the hill tribe villages and long walks through the jungle is not our idea of fun. However we all still want to enjoy the hill tribe people and the fantastic scenery on North Thailand. Believe it or not this can be done and still avoid most of the tourist crowds.

To enjoy a wonderful experience in north Thailand you will need to speak a little Thai however if you don’t speak the language the best way to go is to hire a guide. Since my wife is a Thai national and I speak Thai this is not a problem for us.

We packed up our vehicle and left Chiang Mai around 9 a.m. by vehicle and visited the Hill Tribe Museum. This is a good starting point so you can learn about the hill tribe peoples, customs and traditions. To get there we drove on Hwy 107 toward Mae Rim and looked for a sign indicating a left turn, into Ratchamangkala Park. After turning, a few minutes’ drive we came to the museum, a pavilion near a large lake.

The daily lives of the various hill tribe peoples are illustrated through exhibits of photographs, agricultural implements, household utensils, artifacts associated with the various traditional religions, musical instruments, and ethnic costumes. Some exhibits include models dressed in complete traditional costumes depicting daily activities, such as a Hmong family having a meal or a Lisu man serenading his sweetheart. The museum is open on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and a slide and video show is available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily except Sunday.

From here we went back to Hwy 107 and continued north past Mae Rim, past the turn off to Mae Hong Son in Mae Malai (Hwy 1095) and through Mae Taeng. Once you past Mae Taeng go up the hill and a few kilometers more to a big sign on your left that says Mae Taaman. You will turn left here and travel about 7 kilometers to a quiet elephant camp. You can’t miss it as it is before the village and you will see elephants on your left. Turn onto the parking lot.

Now what we did here you will need to make reservations in advance for. Again you can do this through your guide or tour operator.

When we arrived everyone went straight to the baby elephant pen. We all bought bananas and sugar cane and feed the two babies. The manager of the elephant camp came up to us and asked if we were ready for our little adventure. This included a 1-hour elephant ride through streams and over mountains then transfer to an ox cart for a 20-minute ride to our bamboo raft and a 50-minute raft ride. We then transfer to a four-wheel vehicle for the short ride to a Lisu hill tribe village. Here we will spend the evening with our host Lisu hill tribe family and guide and enjoy their way of life. Toilet and showers are available here but no electricity.

I usually don’t like to ride bamboo rafts, as they have to cut the bamboo from the forest. However, this place uses the rafts over and over for at least one year.

We asked the manager if we needed to take anything with us and she said, “just your camera, money and passport as everything else will be taken to the Lisu village for .” We gave her our packs with the stuff we needed for our overnight stay in the village and locked everything else in the car.

When the elephants arrived we walked up the steps to a boarding platform where we got into the seat that holds 2 persons on the back of the elephant. We took off and right away headed for the stream. When we came to the bank the elephant had to go down and the front bar kept us from sliding off. It was a little scary at first but after you do this a few times you learn where to hold on and it was kind of fun. Once we settled down from the excitement of being so high off the ground and started into the jungle we heard shouting from our friends on the elephant in font of us, “Our elephant stopped and is shaking, what’s going on!!” When we could get around the bend we could see that their elephant was urinating. We are talking gallons here. When an elephant urinates its whole body shakes something like being in the massage chairs at the airport. Not only that but an elephant eats constantly while walking in the jungle. This means it passes gas a lot and everyone got a real kick out of this. We continued on swaying gently on the elephants back with the sound of birds of the elephants constantly passing gas.

We traveled through stands of bamboo and it seamed that the elephants never stopped eating pulling the top tender bamboo branches with their trunks and eating them. There are not many trees here and the ones we did see were newly planted within the past ten years or so. We came back and crossed the river again to a Thai village. Here we got off the elephants at another platform, walked down the steps and purchased more bananas and fed them to the elephants as a tip. We then tipped our elephant handlers and were led to an ox cart harnessed to 2 white cows.

This is not your normal ox cart as it had two comfortable padded bench seats and covered to keep us out of the sun. The ride was kind of boring as we stayed on the paved road back to the elephant camp. Next time I will give this a miss. I had never done an ox cart ride before I needed to do it so I could check it off my list of thing to do when in Thailand.

We were then led down to the river to get on our bamboo raft. We sat down on the two benches and faced forward. There were two men on the raft with long bamboo poles, one at the front and one at the back. They pushed off and away we went.

I have been rafting many times in Thailand but in rubber rafts through real jungle so this was also boring for me. My friends loved it, slowly traveling down the river with the raft men pushing us away from the rocks along the banks. We saw a few colorful kingfishers gliding through the air and children playing in the river and shouting “Hello”. Elephants that had finished their days’ work riding tourists on their backs were eating the bamboo on the hillside. The rafting was relaxing but I wouldn’t want to do this in the heat in the afternoon. Make sure you wear a hat and put on unblock.

When we got back to the shore we were greeted by a Thai man who would drive us to the Lisu village in his pick up truck. First we were to return to the elephant camp where we had a wonderful Thai lunch along the river at their restaurant. After eating we jumped in the back of the pick up and away we went. The drive was only about 15 minutes or so on a dirt road through a small mountain canyon, across a stream and there we were.

Elephants waiting for us
Elephants waiting for us
The village was very clean with only about 10 homes or so. What surprised us was their beautiful well kept garden and also that the village was surrounded with trees. Most hill tribes do clear cut, slash and burn farming. Later I found out from the village headman that the elephant camp owns the land and helps them with funds and money for building projects. He stated that the villagers moved here from high in the mountains because it was close to schools for their children and a much better way of life.

The village headman Asapa, and his son who spoke English, greeted us and we were taken to his home to meet their family. We took our shoes off and entered his home. We were given a cup of green tea, which we sipped and started asking questions. One question I had was why were the houses built like those of the Karen or Lahu hill tribes up on stilts instead of a dirt floor on the ground like most Lisu homes. He told me that although they stick to Lisu customs and culture, the homes more reflected a combination of hill tribe and Thai houses, which were more comfortable and sturdy. I had to agree that the house was very cool and one of the cleanest hill tribe homes I have ever been in.

We went back out side and enjoyed playing with the children spinning large tops and shooting crossbows at targets. We spent the rest of the day walking around the village, watching women sewing and making beaded bracelets and necklaces. No one ever asked us to buy anything however when we saw something we liked and asked how much they were glad to make a sale. We were allowed to take pictures however we had to ask as some do not want their picture taken.

This village was great and we learned a lot about their farming methods, how the children got to school, who lived in which house and how many in the families. I am sure they got tired of answering all our questions.

We were all starting to get a little hungry when Alipa, the headman’s son, brought two plates of sliced ripe mangos. My wife asked what was for dinner and she was taken into the house and shown fresh meat and vegetables that our driver brought along when he dropped us off here. My lovely Thai wife and Alipa’s wife, Weepha, started making the dinner.

While the dinner was being prepared, twenty or so Lisu men and women, boys and girls formed two circles in front of us. The boys and men formed an inside circle and the women and girls on the outside circle. They had all showered and changed from their colorful work clothes into there even more colorful evening costumes. The men usually wear t-shirts and Lisu baggy pants and the girls traditional dresses which are easy to work in during the day. The children had changed from their school uniforms into their traditional costumes.

Asapa came out of his home in his black Lisu clothes and hat carrying a long musical instrument made of five bamboo pipes fastened to a gourd at the bottom end. Five holes were drilled in the gourd where he put his fingers. He got into the center of the circle and began playing. It kind of sounded like a flute but also had a bass note that added a beat. As he was playing and marching in the center the girls and boys joined hands and began dancing around the outside in their respected circles. It didn’t take long before we all joined in. Just when some of us were getting the hang of it “dinner’s ready” my wife announced.

We went back into the house and sat on the floor. Dinner was mountain rice, a lemon grass soup, a Lisu pork dish mixed with vegetables, which was not spicy, a very spicy chicken red curry and fresh stir fried vegetables. It was more than we could eat.

We went back outside and sat under the tree and the children came around to talk with us. I asked where the pigs were kept as I knew that Lisu people like to eat black pig, which is much sweeter than the store bought commercial white pigs. In true Lisu tradition they are being kept in pens far away from the house and streams.

It was getting dark and a little chilly so we put on our jackets and sat around a campfire that was made for us. In the house the beds were being made up for us on the living room floor. Everyone took turns going to the bathroom and taking showers. Weepha even heated water for us to bath with.

The mattresses were comfortable sleeping two persons on each mattress. We were given clean blankets and pillows and got ready to go to sleep. I reminded everyone to put on their ear plugs or at least keep them handy as at 3 a.m. the roosters would start crowing.

Soon we all fell asleep while listening to the village sounds, people talking softly, children laughing, pigs snorting at times and chickens flapping their wings as they go into the trees to roost.

My wife was the first one to wake up saying “it’s cold – I’m going outside and stand by the fire.” It was just getting light outside as I lay there listening to the sound of women talking softly and the wonderful sound of a dull Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk, which was the rice pounder taking the husks off the grains of rice. This is a morning ritual in a hill tribe village.

Cooking dinner in a Lisu kitchen
Cooking dinner in a Lisu kitchen
The rice pounder (as I call it) is a long beam with a fulcrum near one end. On the other end is a round piece of wood attached to the beam pointing down into a wooden hollowed out log set into the ground vertically. Two women put their feet on the beam at end opposite of hollowed log and press down. They then release their feet from the beam and the opposite end crashes into the hollowed log filled with un-husked rice.

When I got up and put my clothes on everyone was already awake and drinking coffee or tea. The girls were now taking the rice and placing it in large, round bamboo plates and tossing it into the air. The gently breeze blew the husks away to leave nice white rice kernels in the bottom. The sun was just coming up but yet to peek over the mountains, a foggy mist was lingering from the ground up about two feet or so. Smoke was coming from the homes of people cooking rice and their breakfast, which my wife and Weepha were doing.

Since it was a weekday the children of school age were dressed in their school uniforms carrying their little backpacks. We waited with them for the school bus to arrive, which was a large truck with benches and steel cage with a door in the back. We waved them a good bye while they were all screaming “Bye Bye.” The village seamed deserted as most were already leaving for work in town or to work in the gardens. The women who worked in the gardens put on their traditional colorful work clothes and the men were back in their baggy bright blue or green Lisu pants and t-shirts. The only ones left in the village were children too young to start school and the grandparents that took care of them, all in traditional dress.

We ate our breakfast, which was rice porridge with minced pork, green onions, roasted garlic ginger and parsley. We then got our things together as the truck from the elephant camp came to pick us up. We said good bye to Asapha, Alipa, Weepha and Asapha’s wife, who we never found out what her name was. We got into the truck and went back to the elephant camp loaded everything into our vehicle and headed back to Chiang Mai.

We got to my house where everyone took a shower. We then headed to the handicraft factories in Sangkhampaeng, had a great lunch then on to Doi Inthanon National Park. That is a whole different story that I will share with you in another journal.

Check out the author’s website and book this tour through All Thailand Experiences.

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