ups and downs in the hill tribes of Chiang Dao

Mum and her elephantDay one – Elephants, bamboo rafts and bartering
We started our three day journey in Chiang Dao, about two hours north of Chiang Mai where we met Dan and Amber, a really lovely couple from the gold coast in Australia who were also on our trip. Just as well really, three days with just us Linneys and who knows what could have happened. The first day was mainly a lot of the more fun activities and not so much trekking which was cool. Limestone hills, Chiang Dao areaWe had a very funny guide called Tory who laughed at absolutely everything he told us, whether it was serious or not and sang us the cutest kids song about elephants in English and Thai! We started off with a quick visit to the local market which was a mishmash of cheap clothing, herbs, large bush knives and retro US army t-shirts. Then we headed off by jeep to where three large Asian Elephants were waiting to take us the one hour journey to the first hill tribe village, Palaung.

Lisu KidThe hill tribes live generally around 1000m in Thailand and originally came from China, Tibet, Laos or Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are being discouraged from their slash-and-burn agriculture and now much of the area is protected or being planted. The government also stopped their very lucrative trade in opium so now their main income is via tourism, hosting trekking groups and selling handicrafts.

Mum managed to get the biggest elephant all to herself and it spent most of the scenic leisurely ride trying to overtake Dan and Amber’s in front. On the final steep path down to the Palaung village James and I nearly slid off the front of ours and gripped onto the seat for dear life as we teetered down the path. Lisu Tribe WomanThe villages are a group of bamboo houses on stilts, most with solar panels outside and lots of squealing piglets, chickens and half fox/half dog breeds running around. The women were all waiting for us round in a circle on the ground in traditional colourful dress displaying their handicrafts to buy. I’m sure they go and change into jeans the minute the tourists leave. They were really lovely though and every time they smiled you got a sight of red and black stained teeth from all the betel they chew.

Mum barginning!After a tasty lunch we took the jeep onto visit a few more villages seeing on the way lots of bamboo houses, banana plants, a baby monkey riding on the back of a local dog, the men in their very kitsch blue velvet baggy pants, pigs and roosters. Mum brought a bag from one Lisu tribe woman and I don’t think the woman was quite prepared for the bargaining technique. Mum just kept leaning her head on one side and hugging her around the shoulders saying, “Go on, 120 Baht!” To the amazement of us all it worked far better than our bartering! When we reached the Akka tribe the women were waiting for us and practically jumped us with hats, bags and jewellery. It was surprisingly good natured though and they keep laughing and smiling even when we didn’t buy anything. James simply said,

“Look this is all women’s stuff. There are only two women in my life, and they are both over there.”

Raft hitchhikersWe finished the day with a long relaxing bamboo rafting trip down the river on literally sticks of bamboo bound together. We each had a go pushing the rafts through the shallow water with the long bamboo poles before letting the guide take over whilst we enjoyed the scenery. At one point three local boys in their underpants hijacked Dan and Amber’s raft and spent the next twenty minutes jumping and somersaulting off the back before finally disappearing up the banks. The Thai people really do seem to be laughing and smiling pretty much all the time! It was just before dark when we reached our bamboo hut in the Lisu village we were sleeping in. An almost full moon was shining above the limestone hills, we had a gorgeous dinner of sausage and chicken curries with rice and were all in bed by 9 o’clock.

Mum in the cavesDay Two – Extreme caving, claustrophobia and Thai whisky
The village roosters were rather over-enthusiastic and had two rather loud rehearsals in the middle of the night before finally timing their vocal announcements with actual daylight. As a result we were all awake fairly early and sat outside our hut watching small male piglets running after the larger females and trying unsuccessfully to mount them until breakfast was ready! For the day we had our very own velvet-trousered guide, who spoke no English but who none-the-less turned out to be a bit of a joker, to take us first caving and then to a local waterfall. The caving was fantastic, we spent about 90 minutes crawling, walking and scrambling through passageways to different chambers with immense stalactite and stalagmite formations. I’d forgotten, however, that James is considerably more claustrophobic than I am and when we finally got outside he was a good deal more relieved than the rest of us to be once more in the fresh air. Chiang Dao Mountain from Lisu NalaoWe trekked along the river side over some Indiana Jones-Style bridges to a small waterfall before making our way back up over the hill sides until about 4pm we came to our second Lisu village for the night. This time our bamboo hut had a terrace overlooking the whole valley to Chiang Dao mountain on the other side. Dan and the whisky man, Lisu NalaoThe villagers were a lot more friendly, within 10 minutes of arriving we all had a large bottle of Chang beer in hand and shortly afterwards the village drunk (?) arrived with a large bottle of home brewed whisky and a few small glasses and insisted that we spend the next hour drinking with him. The whisky was pretty strong, actually you could probably have got drunk just inhaling the stuff. After a few whiskies, beers and the luxury of a sit down toilet we were all feeling very relaxed as we sat down for a Thai dinner and watched the sky darken over the mountains.

Local ShamenDay three – Shaman, Blind caves and Mum is pushed to the limit
Our final day was the toughest hiking but some beautiful scenery and our guide for this day, a fifty-nine year old Lisu man with clipped words in English, a very peculiar sense of humour and a huge beaming smile. He was hugely surprised that Mum was old enough to have had James and I, he spent the rest of the day calling her Mama to our amusement! We stopped for lunch in a small village and were given some strange tea to drink by the local shaman in the cut off stems of bamboo trunks. We all then had to take a brightly coloured woven wrist band for luck. Dan and James were slightly horrified at the un-manliness of the orange ones they picked and announced they were taking them off the minute we got back to Chiang Dao! Village pigletWe trekked down steep paths through teak and bamboo forests, the earth changing colour from sand, to yellow-orange, to deep red clays. Huge brown fallen leaves lined the track and crunched underfoot and the sunlight filtered through the yellow and orange ones still on the trees. Our guide kept merrily kicking huge Buffalo turds out of the path and frequently hopped off to hack down bamboo shoots with his huge knife to make us walking sticks. He also cut down a huge stem which his assistant guide-in-training later made into long bowls for our lunch!

Cutting Bamboo for lunch bowlsBefore lunch we explored one more cave that cut right across the rock-face in front of the path. Even though this one had no crawling James wisely elected to stay outside. It was then we realised all our torches were in our packs which we’d left to be driven to our pick-up point. So we went in with the guide’s not-very-bright torch and Dan’s even-less-bright torch. The chambers in the cave were huge and though it wasn’t nearly as hard going as the previous cave it was more unsettling as we could hardly see where we were going. It was like the blind leading the blind. Lunch was rice and vegetable with chilli tuna in our very cool bamboo bowls. By now Mum was starting to have a dodgy stomach, probably from the Thai whisky the night before. Unfortunately we still had over two hours of particularly steep uphill trekking to do to reach our pick up. Mum made it but only just with a little help from James and I along the way. Then our truck broke down taking us to Chiang Dao to pick up the rest of our stuff so we had to wait another hour to get rescued.

“See this is the real travelling,” I joked to Mum, “food poisoning and transport breaking down when you least expect it.” She didn’t look amused!

Tri Yaan Na Ros, Colonial House, Chiang MaiTwo hours later we were back in Chiang Mai, dropped Dan and Amber off at their hotel and then we headed to the Tri Yaan Na Ros. To say this place is beautiful is the understatement of the year. It’s small, cosy, gorgeous, lovely, picturesque and amusingly costs about the same as a travel lodge in the UK! James disappeared immediately into his room and found the sports channel and Mum and I collapsed onto two huge dark wood four poster beds draped with maroon silk and white mosquito nets. Our room opens onto a balcony that overlooks a turquoise green swimming pool lined with white columns and palm trees. Sadly Mum is still in bed recovering from traveller’s diarrhea today but at least it’s a pretty fantastic bed to be ill in. This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when planning a lovely holiday for her with James and I in Thailand!

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