At 2,565m asl, Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest mountain. Doi Inthanon is situated in a remote, jungle-covered region of the country's north — just south-west of Chiang Mai — and the largely pristine jungle for a broad radius around the mountain is a protected National Park. Today I began a three-day trek in the National Park area: I didn't actually ascend the mountain itself, but I did explore the area near to it, which includes some gorgeous rivers and waterfalls, and some remote hill-tribe villages.
If there's one thing you simply must do when you visit Thailand, it's elephant riding. This afternoon, for the grande finale to our Doi Inthanon trek, the 15 of us hopped onto a troop of 7 elephants, and went on a lumbering stroll around the jungle. The seats atop the elephants can only accommodate two persons each: and since we were an odd-numbered group, and everyone else was a pair, I ended up sharing an elephant with the German guys, and straddling the beast's enormous neck. It was a jolly old ride (if a bit uncomfortable for me): it's very impressive how these seemingly clumsy animals can daintily saunter up and down steep, narrow jungle trails; and it's good fun when they walk splashing right across a river, with you getting sprayed on top.
The third and final day of our romping through Doi Inthanon was pleasant, mainly downhill, and all over by lunchtime. We had a relatively early start: we left the Karen village at about 9:30am; and it was more jungle scenery, winding paths, and fairly easy walking for most of the morning. We were followed for some time by a few of the village dogs: the dogs around here are amiable enough to visitors; but they're bloody wild and vicious with each other! I guess that's what happens when none of them are de-sexed, and when they're all on heat 24/7. The morning rest stop was a looong and very relaxing one: we found a lovely natural pool, with a bunch of flat rocks all around, that was perfect for a ½ hour or so of swimming and sunbaking (and reading).
I'd heard that instead of just giving them money, it's a much better idea to give the kids in hill-tribe villages some stationery that they can use at school. This is similar to the custom for tourists in other parts of the world, such as on the islands of Peru's Lake Titicaca. So before I left Chiang Mai on Tuesday, I bought a few pens, a few pencils, and some blank exercise books. Didn't get a chance to offer these to the kids last night; but I cornered two little boys this morning, and they eagerly accepted the precious educational gifts. I Hope they get put to good use.
As well as the smiling, joking *Cluck" — whose favourite sayings are "oh my Buddha" (ostensibly because they believe in Buddha, not G-d), and "no money no honey" — we also have another guide on this trek. I don't know his real name, but I call him "Mr. Baht". He's the accountant of the tour. He enjoys telling us repeatedly, and well in advance, whenever there's an additional cost coming our way, and exactly what the amount will be. And he takes great pride in keeping a drinks tab for all of us, every night, and in meticulously tracking our purchases and in chasing down our money every morning. Mr. Baht like his money.
When we arrived at the Karen village today, *Cluck* announced to us excitedly: "tonight BBQ pig for dinner." Most of us accepted the news eagerly — almost everyone loves a good plate of roast pork — and even though I wasn't planning to eat any of it (I've had enough traife lately, thanks), I had no problem with them cooking up some pig on the campfire. But little did we realise just what was involved in "having BBQ pig" — had we comprehended the fact that out here in the jungle, you have to slaughter and butcher a pig before you eat it, perhaps we would have thought differently.
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For the second night of our Doi Inthanon trek, we're staying at the Karen "hill-tribe" village in the area. I say "hill-tribe" with inverted commas, and for good reason: this is actually well-known as a "fake" village — unlike the real hill-tribe villages further north in Thailand, it's quite literally just kept here for the purposes of tourism — and this is fairly obvious when you visit the place. They get tourists staying here almost every night (especially during peak season), and they're neither awkward nor intimidated around us. We saw the hill-tribe school, where the local kids are taught to read and write; we were shown the villagers' humble houses; and we observed the various animals that roam freely around the town. Our accommodation for the night — like last night's — is a simply affair of bamboo huts, which are once again rather uncomfortable, but which are something rough and different.
The second day of our Doi Inthanon trek was easy-going — much like yesterday — but it did involve a fair bit more walking. From last night's campsite, we embarked on a big romp through the jungle, with a fair bit of uphill along the way. Our ascent came to a close in the afternoon, when we reached the famous Karen hill-tribe village that became our abode for this evening.
Of the 15 folks (including myself) that comprised my group during the Doi Inthanon trek, four others were native English speakers. The Pom couple are from fair London, and they've lived in the Canary Islands of Spain for several years, where they mainly worked in bars and partied in-between. The Canadian couple are a sweet pair from Winnipeg, which they describe as being "right in the middle of Canada", far from the big centres on both coasts.
Seven (or "Sevens") is one of the easier card games I've ever played. Gameplay is simple enough: people start by putting down sevens, and from there you put down cards (of corresponding suite) in order from eight to king, and from six to ace. First person to get rid of their hand is the winner. Sorta like playing dominoes with cards. Late this evening, at the waterfall camp where we spent the first night of our Doi Inthanon trek, myself and some of the other guys played a few games of Seven. The game is really too civilised and boring for my liking (don't forget, I've been playing card games with such names such as "S$#%head" and "A$$hole" all year), but it's a good time-passer nonetheless.
Our first chance to all get to know each other, during the Doi Inthanon trek, presented itself today at lunch. There are 15 of us in all, and Europe definitely dominates: two Swedes, two Dutch, two Germans (two guys), four Danish (two couples), two English, two Canadians, and myself. We enjoyed a quick lunch in "*Cluck*'s village" — *Cluck* claims to live in the village's largest house — and we explored the houses and farmyards a bit. When someone asked *Cluck* if he had a baby in his stomach (due to his constantly baring the formidable chubby spot and patting it), he said: "yes, baby ladyboy" :P. From the village, we spent most of the afternoon hiking, until we reached our gorgeous camp by the falls.