After a whirlwind trip through Bangkok, we awoke early and headed to Suvarnabhumi Airport for a domestic flight up to the access point of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai, where we spent 4 nights partaking in some really great activities. In retrospect, Chiang Mai provided some of the biggest highlights of our two week trip with my brother and sister-in-law in Thailand.
With Peter’s commitment to Starwood we stayed at Le Meridian our first night in Chiang Mai. The location is perfect. It’s right in the thick of the night-market and walking distance to almost all inner-city locations, including the walled city.
We checked-in and despite being a little tired we punched onwards and took a “songthaew” to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a sacred temple built on Doi Suthep mountain which provides one of the best views of the city. While maneuvering the winding streets to the temple our driver pulled over to give us an opportunity to take in some of the views on the way up.
Before entering the temple you have to climb 309 steps that are guarded by two nagas, ravenous five-headed dragons.
The temple is considered to be one of the holiest in Thailand because it is believed that right before construction of the temple in 1386 the King couldn’t decide on a location for a shrine. So he took a magic relic and placed it on the back of a sacred white elephant. The elephant charged through the jungle and up the Doi Suthep mountain where it took its last breath. The temple now stands in its place.
The grand colors of gold, red, and green glistening off the sun rays are truly an all encompassing treat to the eyes. We enjoyed the devotional buzz of locals and those that traveled from afar to worship.
In Thai Buddhism it is believed that after Buddha reached enlightenment he spent 7 days thinking about the suffering of all living creatures.
Therefore, there are seven buddhas dedicated to each day of the week all in different postures. In Thai culture the statue dedicated to the day of the week you are born is of great significance and worshipped. Similar to your astrological or Chinese sign. Coincidently all four of us were born on Saturday so we took part in the tradition. Saturday is represented by Buddha in a lotus pose in deep meditation while being protected from rain by a cobra.
After we were finished taking in the sites of the temple we hopped back in our ride and headed down the hill. We had to get to an introductory meeting with Pooh Eco Trekking, a company we hired to take us on a trekking tour the following morning.
The next day we were setting out early on a trek to a hill tribe village populated by Karen, an indigenous culture that lives amongst the Eastern hillsides of Burma and into Northern Thailand. We would spend the night in a Karen village. The company running the the operation wanted to make sure we were prepared. Unfortunately, Peter had a work commitment that came up last minute so wasn’t going to be able to join. At the introductory meeting we received backpacks and instructions on what we would need and what to expect. We also met Harald, a friendly good humored Dutch man that would be joining us on the tour. We also met our guide, Su Pot.
After the somewhat dry intro meeting we spiced things up at one of the best Thai restaurants I have had the pleasure of enjoying called Lemongrass. It’s one of those restaurants where everything on the menu is delicious. We ended up back here a second time before we left Chiang Mai. With bellies full and happy we called it a night.
We were up early the next day to get picked up for our trek into the jungle.
There were seven of us on the trip. In addition to Harald, who I ended up getting a huge kick out of mainly because of his subtle, witty humor and nice nature, we also met Helen, Romain, and Rodolfo. Helen, a traveling nurse out of San Diego who was globetrotting on her own. Naturally she and I had a lot to discuss and got along great. Romain and Rodolfo a French couple living in Paris who couldn’t have been lovelier and more pleasant to be around. Individually, they were really impressive men. We were so lucky that we had such a great group of people. Its too bad Peter wasn’t with us.
We kick-started the day with a trip to an open market. This is where we bought the essentials like crocs for wading through rivers, towels, and snacks. And a bottle of vodka. I was discussing with Su Pot which local vodka to buy when he told me, “the villagers will love it if you bring vodka for them. If you buy a big bottle the truck can deliver it to the village.” I had been considering the weight of the bottle as we had a four hour hike ahead of us but upon receiving this new information, I thought to myself, “party with the villagers,” and proceeded to buy the biggest bottle in the market. Su Pot gave me a big grin.
After picking up the necessities we were driven to a tiny restaurant where we were served lunch: fried rice on banana leaves and fruit. The restaurant overlooked a beautiful vineyard….yes, a vineyard in Chiang Mai?
After a peaceful and quiet lunch we went next door where things really started to heat up, in a good way.
A new house had just been built for a married couple and they were having a party to celebrate. Mind you the approximate time was noon, on a weekday, but the vibe of the party felt more like 11 PM on a Saturday. We sat down with a crowd of people at some outdoors tables. There was music, dancing, food, drinks. The locals kept coming over to our table offering us plates of food and pouring us beer and shots, insisting that we cheers with them. We had just eaten and we had a long day of hiking in front of us, but you couldn’t help but get caught up in the fun and happiness the locals were exuding. How wonderfully welcoming of the guests to open their home to complete strangers and then provide such warmth and generosity. Really remarkable if you stop and think about it.
Here I am with Su Pot. You can see his genuine smile.
Harald and Helen
After some mingling we headed out to start our trek. But first Su Pot grabbed dinner for the night.
A few things about Su Pot.
He is one of those people that exudes a spirit of peace, sincerity, and genuineness. Someone that puts you at ease with his smile and gentle, calm demeanor. We later found out that he had been a monk for 12 years. 12 years! When he told us that, suddenly his personality made complete sense. He spent most of his life without worldly possessions living a simple life for the sake of ending suffering to all living creatures and finding himself through mediation, a deep inner peace. Intertwined with with his sweet soul lies a quick witted and fun sense of humor which only adds to his already likable personality. He took me by surprise quite a few times when he understood our American innuendos and jokes. Our group was lucky that we was assigned to us.
Su Pot led us through the hiking trails with a deep knowledge of animals, insects, trees, and plant life. He stopped along the way to have us taste different plants and fruits. There are a number of different hill top Karen villages throughout the jungles of Northern Thailand each with their own Shaman, head household, and community micro-government. As we started out on our hike we passed through one of the many Karan villages where we saw some of the women going about their day, including chopping wood with an ax.
Su Pot then showed us the elementary school in one of the villages where I was knocked out by the student’s cuteness.
We journeyed on and found ourselves in the thick jungle exploring and learning more about their survival and subsistence methods. This included coming across some men who were hand sawing wood to build a home. That’s hard work, especially under the hot sun.
On our hike we came across the largest termite hill we had ever seen.
Traversed through a river.
We got some great and exhilarating exercise hiking up and down the steep hills all while enjoying the jungle scenery.
Best of all really was all the great laughs we had along the way. There seemed to be a contest going for best comedian led by Chris, Harald, Su Pot, and myself. Either way or whoever won that contest, there were many belly laughs had by all on our trek to the village.
We finally arrived around 4 PM where we got a quick glimpse of some of the strong tough women of the tribe who were carrying piles of wood on their backs.
Upon entering the village we walked directly over to the Shaman, the spiritual leader, and his wife’s hut to pay our respects for having us.
Then introductions were made to the head household where we would all be sleeping. As we sat outside with the family we quickly realized there was an obvious language barrier. Where was Peter with his Thai skills when we needed him? This is when I discovered my brother’s secret skill-set. I watched Chris utilize a complex mixture of enthusiastic hand gestures, iPhone pictures and award winning charade performances to successfully communicate with the villagers. They loved him and appreciated his efforts.
Chris was able to relay to the villages a little later that I was his sister and Jen his wife which meant we were cool with the tribe by association. And I’m only half-kidding. It was really entertaining and a joy to watch Chris bridging cultural gaps between the Karen’s and our group. I mean where were we?
We also delighted in buying snacks for the kids who lit up with joy and gratitude by the simple act. It was wonderful just watching them run around and play together with happiness and enthusiasm. All they needed were the outdoors and each other. No iPads necessary.
After the long day of trekking all of us sat on the porch and did a cheers with our beers. Chris continued to communicate with our new friends. At one point I looked over and Chris was pouring beer into a mug for our host while the host was giving him food in a generous exchange. We were all sharing, laughing, and relaxing after a long hike.
Dinner preparation was next where most of our group joined in with cutting and peeling vegetables. Chris and I, however, stayed back to continue hanging out with our hosts. Could you blame us?
The hut where we all remained for the rest of the night is designed by two separate rooms that are connected by a large outdoor patio. One room is where we all slept and the other is the main room where the owner and his family slept. The food is cooked in a fire by an indoor fireplace in the main room.
We all sat outside on the porch in a big circle where the food was placed in the middle for a family style dinner. The food was out of this world good. So fresh and delicious. Su Pot did something so special with roasted pumpkin that I fear I will never have pumpkins that ever tastes as good. Jen concurs with me on this sentiment.
After dinner Su Pot gave me the bottle of vodka I had bought, but it came with specific instructions.
I would be the “holder of the bottle” and I would be the one passing out drinks to our mixed tribe.
A drink would consist of filling a cap of liquor and giving it to each person in order of the circle till the bottle was gone. I was up for the task and understood the instructions. He had know ideas that I was made for this job. I was social chair of my sorority. I love to get a party going and organizing one is my jam. I did have one add-on to Su Pot’s rules. Each person, before they could drink, had to say what they were grateful for. This really turned out to be a heartfelt and honest moment between all of us in our circle. Su Pot went last and said how grateful he was to have such an open-minded, open hearted, and fun group. I gave him his cap of vodka.
As I continued passing out the vodka to the circle of friends the night got funnier and better as you can imagine.
We found common ground in odd things like songs. Jingle Bells and Happy Birthday, for example. Do you know the part in Jingle Bells where it goes, “…in a one horse open-sleigh, HEY!”? Well, the “Hey” part was sung with so much gusto and high fives that we laughed until we cried.
Dance music was played via iPhone with the top requested song being “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. Really incredible how music can transcend across different cultures and worlds. Just six months prior that song was the most requested song at our wedding.
At some point the Karen women rolled cigarettes made of wild tobacco leafs and those were passed around the circle. I don’t think anyone was a smoker, but you know…when in Rome or a tribal village.
At some point the party seemingly was coming to a close. People changed and did their night time rituals. After I had brushed my teeth I was summoned by Su Pot to enter into the main room. He was in their drinking and smoking with our host. He then motioned me to sit and join them. I obliged and happily realized that I had been invited to the after hours VIP party. Moments later Chris peaked in. “Hey, what are you guys doing.” he asked. The host looked him up and down and then shook his head signaling him to come in and sit down. One by one our full-crew entered into the house and the party was back in full swing.
This is when we realized Chris had made a true friend.
There is no way of really describing what transpired between the two of them. This guy would laugh at all of his jokes without understanding English. They sat together laughing hysterically and somehow understood each other just through the eyes and non-verbal queues. It was incredible. We started to call him doppelganger-Chris. Anything Chris would say was met with doppelganger-Chris shrieking out in laughter. That laughter would have a domino effect and we’d all be laughing. He was also really impressed by Chris’s arm muscles. He would point at Chris’s arm and grin as wide as the room and then point at his own arm and shake his head. Then he would burst out laughing. At this point I should mention that doppelganger-Chris is married to one of the village women.
So speaking of muscles, and because we come from a family of athletes, we introduced our new family of friends to leg, arm, and thumb wrestling. If we were musically inclined there might have been guitar strumming and sweet singing, instead they got Jingle Bells and leg wrestling. I do have to admit though, they seemed to love it. Everyone got involved.
The good times did finally come to an end and we retreated back to the adjoining room where we each had a spot on the floor with a sleeping bag. It was an adult slumber party. People were actually giggling and still chatting.
Before bed I gave the group a fair warning that on occasion Chris and I have been known to scream in our sleep. Not sure if this is a genetic thing, but it does happen, sometimes. Much to the dismay of our significant others. So sure enough hours later when everyone was in a deep sleep I woke up to myself screaming. Well, screaming doesn’t really depict the sheer loudness of the noise that came out of me. Chris snapped me back into reality when he insisted “you’re fine, you’re fine.” Moments later the door opened and one of the villagers peered in making sure everything was still on the up and up. So there you have it I had woken up the entire tour group and a village. I was beginning to think I had over stayed my welcome. Good thing I brought the vodka.
The next morning it was rise and shine early with the singing roosters. We were cooked another tasty meal before we were off again to hike back to civilization.
We snapped a quick group photo with our generous hosts and we were off.
The trip back started with a trek through a think cloud cover which gave it a mystical feel.
The day also involved crossing shallows rivers and streams.
Halfway back we stopped for lunch near a waterfall where we took a swim before our meal. Luckily Harald had a waterproof camera and got some fun photos of us. In fact most of these pictures are courtesy of Harald. My camera battery died on the trip which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because Harald then took it upon himself to take photos for and of us. He is an avid photographer and just won a photo contest with the award being a trip to India. You can see more of his photos at donkerlicht.nl. He has inspired me to get to know my new camera better.
Wide awake from the cold water we enjoyed a lunch of fried rice wrapped in banana leaves while drying off in the middle of the jungle. Not your typical lunch scenario. Additionally the bamboo chopsticks we used were handmade by one of our guides.
After a quick lunch we were back on the trek trail till we arrived at the bat cave. Unfortunately, there was no bat-mobile or cool gadgets just a large cave full of bats. I don’t really care for bats and am claustrophobic so this wasn’t my favorite activity, but overall ended up being not scary at all.
Before we entered the cave, Su Pot and the other guides lit torches which were our only light in the pitch black cave.
We walked on through without a hitch and were rewarded with beautiful scenery on the opposite mouth of the cave. Mother nature offers so much in the jungles of Thailand.
As our trip was nearing an end we grabbed one last group photo while relishing in and reflecting on a very special day and a half spent together.
We took our final leg of the trek up a dirt road for another 30 min until we hit our pick-up point. It felt like the extraction point of a survival show. We climbed into the back of a truck and headed out of the jungle. Many forms of transportation are involved in this tour.
The truck took us to a mini mart where our van would pick us up to take us back into town. This was our official last stop before the tour ended. I bought Su Pot, Chris and Jen Leo beers and everyone else followed suit. We did one last toast to time well spent. Then we shared our beers with the locals sitting around the market. How great would it be if we all started sharing and pouring drinks for strangers next to us?
Around 8PM we were back at the hotel and met up with Peter at our new hotel, Rimping Village, who was eager to hear all about our trip. Over dinner we relayed the tales of a most wonderful, once in a lifetime trip with much thanks to our fellow trekkers, Su Pot, and the people of the Karen hilltop tribe.
In reflecting back it’s incredible how really similar we all are despite being from vastly different backgrounds and cultures. We had a dinner party in a village where we communicated, ate, drank, sang, and danced. People made connections and friends. We got silly and laughed. The setting was different than our typical dinner parties at home but the outcome was the same. Well except for all the wrestling. That’s a Hodges special.
Open minds. Open hearts.