“Just a few more kilometers uphill, almost there!”
Panting, you will your muscles one step at a time up the mountain. The sun’s viscous rays beat down on your skin and your pack weighs down on your shoulders as you gradually move your way up. Is it even possible for a human to sweat this much? Trekking off the beaten path through the jungles of Chiang Mai National Park, you take a moment from staring at your feet to take in your environment. The flora are lush and green. The fauna is mostly composed of various – and occasionally terrifying – insects. The majority of the wildlife have moved further up the mountains due to local tribal hunting however, the odd flying squirrel-like creatures still make an appearance. You listen closely and hear the steady beat of running water nearby. Walking through the rice fields, you can’t help but be reminded of Mexican Mayan Ruins due to their elevated and concentric arrangements. Cows graze in the fields as your guide explains how each plot is dedicated to farming a specific type of rice. You’re half listening at this point. Your mind wanders as your eyes catch a glimpse of an opening. You smile with relief as your body begs you to stop. A waterfall tells you hello.
“Volley over here!”
A volleyball blocks the sun as it flags towards you. You half debate moving to catch it but you’re quite content with your little place under the waterfall. I’ll let it hit the water and then go grab it. Laughing as the water splashes your face, you serve it to another individual in the circle and feel a nibble against your feet. The river fish have taken a liking to you and snap at the dead skin. It’s an odd feeling, not painful and yet not ticklish either. A faint call is heard in the background. It’s time to continue.
After another hour of trekking, you enter a small village belonging to one of the Karen Hill Tribes. As you walk down rugged roads, locals watch you from their hand-made houses, held together by wood and tin. Chickens flock around the streets and stray, yet friendly, dogs follow you up the path. You are brought to a long wooden cabin. Mosquito nets hang over the sleeping area as kindly places blankets and pillows line the sides. Light shines in from all directions, highlighting the beauty that is the countryside. Outside, liche and mango trees are fully stocked. The shower is a simple bucket and hose of river water. The air begins to fill with the smell of freshly cooked Thai yellow curry. Your stomach growls. When did I get this hungry?
“Let me tell you about my people. I am now a Thai citizen on paper but I am Karen tribe by blood.”
The candle lights flicker as you gather around the table. You listen intently as you are told the history of the Karen tribe. Your heart aches as you learn of their poverty. How their culture is slowly diminishing as they start to relocate to the city for a better life. You wonder through the explanation of the ways they differentiate the 3 separate Karen tribes. How they traveled by land from China to settle in the hills. Hours pass by. The candles have begun to die out. You are filled with questions and an urge to help but you don’t know if you can. Is this the price we have to pay to live in the 21st century?
You’re staring at an upside-down big dipper. The stars are the brightest you’ve ever seen. Light pollution can’t reach you as your left to bask in the moonlight. The red tint of Mars is directly above you. Saturn and Jupiter fight for your attention. Someone spots a firefly but you miss it. It must have been lovely. You take-in your place within the universe. That’s the problem with the city, you can never see the stars. No matter where you go, there are too many lights.
“Today we walk up to 1200m before we stop for the night.”
Your sleep was restless but you enjoyed the sound of the wildlife outside. A rooster’s call wakes you up. With your bags packed, you start your uphill journey once again. It’s 40C outside and you quietly thank the stars that you’re deep within the heart of the jungle. Your stomach is angry at you for some unknown reason and quickly pop a Tylenol to keep it quiet. That should fix it for now. You come across another village and stop for lunch. A local preschool is in session. The children laugh and run up to the door to say hello. The building looks like it just received a fresh coat of cream paint. Childish murals are painted on its side. Kids run around barefoot and wave around their toys. They want to know their new friends and repeatedly say hello. Their eyes are wide as they illuminate innocence. The harsh reality of the world has yet to take its toll. You hope it never will. The school yard is deserted. Monkey bars and a rusty swing set lay lonesome in a corner. They deserve so much more.
Homemade rice ramen is served for lunch. You sit in a wooden house suspended on stilts overlooking rice fields. Starving cows graze in the distance as village puppies beg for scraps. Malnourished life prevails in these parts. Looking at your hot soup, you feel guilty for the food and hospitality shown to you.
Everyone is beautiful.
Everyone is kind.
They are at peace with very little.
We live in a complex world.
Your home for the evening is a remote cabin by the river. After bathing under the waterfall and doing laundry in the river, a set of rocks nearby peak your interest. They are easy enough to climb. You venture into the unknown. Under a few fallen trees and over smooth bedrock, you follow the stream of trickling water. The final view is a Bridge to Terabithia. Colours sprout in all directions. Pebbles and stones form the perfect mini waterfall. Branches sing you towards a new world but you have to refrain yourself. I can’t get lost in the woods, no matter how much I want to. Once again you catch yourself with an idiotic grin.
Stupid wonderful world.
Dinner is another freshly cooked meal. The best pumpkin and green curry your taste buds have ever met. With guilty satisfied bellies, your group settles for a friendly games of cards. As the two men from Netherlands explain the rules of Toepen, you take a moment to appreciate how good your fellow trekkers are. How they all lookout for one another. How they are all pure and genuine. Sometimes people are beautiful, not in looks, not in what they say, but in what they are.
At the break of dawn, the sounds of wild dogs gently wake you. With sleep barely escaping your eyes, you greet your fellow trekkers with a good morning grunt. Today is the last day of hiking followed by a visit to the elephants and bamboo rafting down a lagoon. The hike was a peaceful one, with the exception of an eventful bush-fire that you ran through. By the time you reach the main road, any pain your legs had gone through mysteriously vanish. Sadness rushes over you. It’s over. Throwing your pack in the back of a jeep, you climb aboard. The breeze is nice. Elephants are your first stop. Half the group rides while the other half elects to watch. You’re part of the latter. The elephants look worn and tired. They blow sand on themselves as an attempt to cool off. They aren’t made for riding. They shouldn’t be here.
The jeep jerks you past nearby towns and for a few moments, you forget that electricity is a thing. That there are actual stores and buildings. It’s funny what a few days of isolation can do to the mind. A red clay road rests beyond the next right. Barefoot, you make your way towards the bamboo rafts where locals await. They must not be more then 16 years. They have constellations in their eyes and their laughs toddler-like as you journey through the lagoon. Tree branches dance overheard, creating a curtain in your path. The water is shallow and you can see the pebbles underneath. A member on your raft grabs a bamboo stick and takes the lead. You race one another and local boys hide in the water to scare you for fun. Prepared, You splash them at first chance. This is what life is supposed to be like, stress free and joyous.
Although you’ll always be a little bit lost, somewhere along your way, you’re becoming found.
Take a deep breath.