David Rich 800 Words
T h a i H i l l T r e k k i n g
Kai (easily remembered from Bridge over the River Kwai) took sixteen people from eleven countries, shook us together for three days in the far north of Thailand and we emerged Thai hill-trekking buddies: three Slovenians, two French, a Kiwi, Scot, South African, German, Aussie, Swede, Canadian, three Thais, and we two Americans.
Right off we found out why they called it hill trekking. The northern Thai hills resembled wet firewalls: straight up, unreasonably hot, and sloppy humid. Good ole Kai claimed we pushed him unmercifully. Poor Kai was soaked halfway up the first hill but then, we all were.
By the end of the first day, we'd worn ourselves out, hiking up and down vertical hills and exploring a Meo village, empty except for one woman mending a blue, pink, and black costume surrounded by pot-bellied piglets. Come evening Kai bunked us down in a Lahu village enveloped by brilliant marigolds stretching to the horizon, which in Thai hill country, wasn't all that far. In a house of bamboo propped on ten-foot stilts, precariously piercing the ionosphere, we spread mats under mosquito netting though we saw no mosquitoes. Our harassment instead came from little Lahu kids streaking across the outside veranda, braking abruptly at the end before they might have mercifully disappeared into the abyss below. Barely older kids carried babies in cloth slings, and after dinner the kids appeared in costume, singing and dancing merrily for donations. The village's sole source of energy was four solar panels donated by the Thai government. Even without real electricity we stayed up late, playing hysterical card games by candlelight while the Thais and the village leader smoked herbal stogies as big around as my wrist, later switching to a bong. Secondary smoke and overexertion guaranteed deep slumber for all.
The next day's highlights included escaping our sweat-drenched clothes and BVDing under a frigid waterfall, after which we visited an even more chilling tableau of photogenic, long-necked Karen women. The Karens were refugees from Myanmar relegated to a single kilometer over the border into Thailand. The golden rings appeared to elongate their necks but instead crushed their collarbones and chests making it excruciating for them to talk or breathe. Why did they continue the torture and subject their kids to it? Because the Karen's relatively high standard of living depended on tourists taking pictures and what pictures they made. They wore up to a dozen thick golden rings from chin to chest, on arms and legs. Little Karen girls were slathered with make-up to eclipse Cher.
In camp we sipped Mekong Whiskey for three dollars a bottle, topping off the night by trying to sing our respective national anthems. I reconfirmed I can never hit that note where the land's of the free. The prize went to the Kiwi who did the Haka, an electrifying Maori war explosion invented by a warrior surrounded like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a cry designed to precipitate massive heart seizure. We sat stunned before bursting into spontaneous applause and foot stamping as the Kiwi, a fitness instructor from Auckland, stood gasping for air to slow his own rocketing heart. His Scottish girlfriend's eyes were as wide as capitol O-rings.
The next morning's breakfast was invaded by elephants, flashing gray trunks grabbing bananas and banana peels from our plates, less than particular which was peel, which was banana and which was plate. We jumped back in case they took a shine to us, too, and they did, like barn-sized pussycats as we rubbed their trunks and they frisked us for more bananas while Kai grandly announced elephant-riding time. We caught our breaths and mounted a high platform, clambering onto actual elephants. At that instant I swore off Mekong Whiskey.
I found the only way to comfortably ride a lumbering elephant was not perched high on the swaying-side-to-side top-box but astride the hairy neck, cooled by the elephant's flopping ears. The elephant seemed to like me, his trunk whipping up and over to steady me at several particularly steep ups and downs.
We disembarked our elephants to vendors selling huge bunches of bananas for twenty-two cents with which we rewarded our big new friends, furiously snapping pictures before the trekking grand finale split us into rival rafting groups. A wildly competitive paddling and splashing race ensued for an hour down five jouncey rapids, everyone screeching like pale Maori look-a-nuts, drenching each other for the bragging rights of which raft won, and I jubilantly celebrated the good guys on my raft who prevailed. We retired to our last communal pad Thai feast, hanging wet duds in the sun and scribbling e-mail addresses with abandon for our new, hill-trekking, bosom buddies. I sent everyone digital pictures of the extravaganza and we actually wrote to each other a couple of times before losing all contact.