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27 December 2002, Chiang Mai

>We had breakfast at “Nice, Sweet Place” once again, this time opting for a selection of pastries, which all turned out to be very good. Then we returned to the guesthouse and waited for the mini-bus to pick us up for our one-day trek. We were the last stop, and the driver had to pick up the other members of our groups before getting to us, so he didn’t arrive until about 9:00.

There were a total of nine people in our group: four Italians, two Japanese, an Australian (actually a Vietnamese-born Chinese who family left Vietnam when he was young because of the government’s persecution of the Chinese), Hyunjin, and I. Our guide was a guy named Jack—he was an interesting fellow and tried his best to explain various things along the way. He was probably one of the better guides. No, we didn’t go on any other treks, but as it turns out most of the treks (the one-day treks, at least) follow the same course, so we got to see some of the other guides in action at various points throughout the day.

We drove for about an hour out of Chiang Mai to a place called Mae Wang. There we walked about forty minutes into the mountains and arrived at a Hmong village. I must say I was a bit disappointed, as the area they had set up to sell crafts to tourists seemed to be larger than the village itself. I also felt a tad guilty, knowing that I was actually just part of the problem. I’m sure the influx of tourists has its benefits, but the disruption of traditional lifestyles can’t be in the hill tribes’ best interests.

On our way down the hillside, one of the four Italian guys finally made the connection between Hyunjin and I and Italy’s defeat at the hands of Korea in the 2002 World Cup. The four Italian’s were ahead of us, and suddenly I saw one guy’s head snap up. He turned around, stuck out a big, meaty hand with a pointing finger, and said, “You! Korea! Bad!” For a moment I was nervous, because he was a really big guy, but he smiled as he went into a very limited rant on what he (and all of his countrymen) saw as the greatest injustice in the history of the world (or at least since Italy’s last unjust defeat).

The next part of our trip was an hour-long elephant ride. I think I only managed to take about two pictures, since most of the time I was just holding on for dear life, trying not to slip out of the seat. Sitting up on top like that, it looked a lot higher up than it had from the ground. Nonetheless, it was definitely an interesting experience. The size and strength of the elephant was just amazing. At no point during the ride did they ever walk faster than a lumber, but the ground trembled and their huge feet sunk deep into the mud with each step. I can only imagine what it would be like to be facing a stampeding herd of elephants on the ground—probably one of the more terrifying things that could ever happen to you. Just to give you an idea of how big and strong these animals are, we were told that they eat 220 kilograms of food each day—in other words, the elephant I was riding could literally eat me for breakfast. In the evening they are set free in the mountains, where they sleep, and then in the morning the Karen drivers round them up.

After getting off the elephants we were taken to a nearby settlement. I don’t think it could properly be called a village—it was more like a few houses out in the middle of nowhere. We were served Thai food for lunch: soup, omelets, vegetable stir-fry, and rice. I was a bit concerned about sanitation, especially with all the dogs around, and I did in fact see one of the dogs get into the cabinet with the extra omelets are start eating them. For some reason, the others found this funny, and I was the only one who thought to shoo the dog away and close the cabinet. I must be weird. Anyway, it didn’t do much to inspire confidence in the overall cleanliness of the food, but I suppose that is to be expected.

We got back into the mini-bus after lunch and drove to our next destination, where ten-minute walk brought us to a beautiful waterfall. We then walked back and went to visit a Karen village, which was much larger than the Hmong village and appeared to be less affected by tourism (so far).

The final leg of our trek (and, to be honest, there really wasn’t all that much trekking involved, but we didn’t expect there to be for a one-day trip) was a ride downriver on a raft made of ten lengths of bamboo tied together, with two shorter lengths across the middle for a seat. Hyunjin and I sat on one raft and Tai (the Chinese-Vietnamese-Australian) stood in the rear with a pole. The raftsman (raftsboy, actually) stood in the front and did most of the steering, while Tai pretty much just tried to keep from falling off. He did a very good job of it, too—Naruto, the Japanese guy, wasn’t as lucky and ended up taking a swim in the river.

Like the elephant ride, this ride was also an hour long, but we had an easier time of this one. There were a good number of rapid sections where we got a bit wet, but the calm sections gave us the chance to look around at the scenery and enjoy the leisurely ride. At one point there was a small falls, and we got off and walked while the raftsmen went over alone. The first guy to go over was very professional, and he went over without a hitch. When our raftsboy went over, though, he knocked the raft against a rock and almost took a dip. He managed to stay upright, though, and he also managed to get us all the way down the river without dumping us in the water—which is certainly better than I would have done.

The mini-bus was waiting for us at the end of the ride, and we got in for an hour-long drive back to Chiang Mai. True, to call it a “trek” would be stretching the facts quite a bit, but it was an enjoyable day, and we got to sample a little bit of everything. Considering our time constraints, I think it was a good choice for us. And as I mentioned above, it appears that the one-day treks all follow the same route, so it doesn’t appear that going with one travel agency over another would make that much of a difference. The only variable, really, is the guide, and that is pretty much the luck of the draw. I imagine it might be different with some of the longer treks.

We got back to the guesthouse, changed out of our slightly wet clothes and then went out to dinner. LP recommended the Aroon (Rai) Restaurant, on the east side of the moat south of Tha Phae Gate, so we decided to give it a try. They did have a rather extensive menu, but I was disappointed to see that the “native dishes” page only had a handful of English translations—there must have been a good forty dishes or so that were only written in Thai. We chose from the small English language selection, of course—Hyunjin had the fried noodles and chicken curry, and I had the pork curry with ginger on rice. For an appetizer we had a Thai salad. All of the dishes were quite good, but our favorite was dessert: fried bananas with honey. The bananas just melted in your mouth, and dipped in honey they were absolutely delicious. When God provided manna for the Israelites in the desert, I bet it tasted like fried bananas with honey.

After eating we headed over to the Night Bazaar, and along the way we ran into Tai. He was looking for a place to eat, so we suggested Aroon, and we also arranged to meet up later at the Red Lion Pub (next to Haus München).

At the Night Bazaar we bought two more shirts, a silk shirt for each of us. We discovered the central building of the Night Bazaar, which houses all kinds of handicrafts—very beautiful, and very expensive. We also spent a good fifteen minutes back outside watching a guy at one stall reproduce Picasso works on T-shirts.

At 20:30 we went to the Red Lion and met Tai. I decided to try some other Thai beers, and I went with Chang (6.5% alcohol content—higher than Singha, but with a smoother taste) for starters and “Black Beer,” which advertises itself as a dark lager. Each Thai beer is associated with an animal: Singha with the lion, Chang with the elephant, and “Black Beer” with the tiger.

We talked for a while with Tai, who was working as an architect in Australia and was traveling with his girlfriend in Vietnam before coming to Chiang Mai. We chatted until about 23:00, when we decided to head back. This was the latest we had been out in the Night Bazaar area, and apparently it gets livelier as the night goes on.

When we got back across the moat, Tai headed south to his guesthouse and we went back to Somwang. It was almost midnight when we got to bed.

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