We said goodbye to island life and the beauty of Railay Beach. We were all in good spirits about it because our crew was headed to a city in the North of Thailand called Chiang Mai.
The flight time is just at 2 hours and we arrived with a pick up waiting for us. One of the major activities during our time in Chiang Mai was a trek through the tribal villages in the mountains on the border with Myanmar.
Our trekking guide, who went by Mike, met us at the airport even though our trek was not until the next morning. He offered airport pick up for free as part of booking the trek so we took him up on it, this was also the time for him to debrief us on what to expect and what to pack.
There was one thing he did not prepare us for but you’ll find that out soon…read on friends.
Everyone felt prepared and ready for the adventure so we got dropped off at our hotels and took Mike’s advice to get a good night’s sleep for a hard day ahead. Nate and I snuck out for a very late dinner, having missed the opportunity flying and knowing that the food in Chiang Mai is outstanding. We picked a hole in the wall joint that had no other patrons and ordered a massaman curry.
Best massaman we have ever had, which set the tone of excitement for eating during our few days in the North.
6:30 in the morning came abruptly. We got up to pack our overnight bag and meet our friends for a delicious and big breakfast at Blue Diamond Breakfast Club before a long day of trekking.
The first stop, about thirty minutes away, was at a local outdoor market to pick up any essentials needed, snacks, towels, rain ponchos, and toilet paper. Nate also found some much needed protein in the form of roadside bugs.
Then, another hour to a waterfall that we all took a nice cold dip in! There were facilities to shower and change in afterwards but in hindsight were unnecessary considering the trek that lay ahead.
We freshened up as best we could and hopped back into the SongThow for the next stop another 45 minutes away. That stop was lunch. Now at this point, we were deep in the woods and two hours from a tourist population and any major city. We pulled up to a wooden structure on stilts right next to a river. We headed upstairs where a gorgeous fresh lunch was served to us. Rice, veggies, and curries.
Our fiend Alicia had a gluten allergy so she had a special meal of white rice, egg and veggie. When she couldn’t finish it, a few of us took bites because the egg had such a unique salty flavor that was really delicious.
After lunch, we took one more ride about thirty more minutes where we would begin the trek to the village. Poor Alicia was getting car sick from the winding mountain roads but her positive attitude kept her smiling as she hung her head out the back.
The trek started off aggressively and didn’t stop for four hours. The first steps we took was Mike hacking his way through the brush that stood well beyond our height.
We quickly came to a bridge that had water gushing over so it was clear that one foot might get a little wet trying to delicately maneuver through it. Slightly annoyed that a foot and sock was damp just minutes into our trek, we soldiered on. Mike was laughing.
After the next turn, we understood why Mike was laughing. Our delicate crossing was in vein with a two foot deep river ahead of us to ford. The idea of anyone’s feet staying dry was out the window. This river was up past our knees and muddy brown. In we plunged, out we came and up we went.
Up, up and more up. That was the name of the game for the first two hours until we had to traverse the side of the mountain hanging on to rocks and roots for dear life.
Alicia’s sickness progressed as the intensity of our hike did. Only after having to vomit several times during the hike did we realize how bad it was getting. Her resiliency was amazing as she kept putting one foot in front of the other (in all honesty, there was no alternative).
We started to descend the mountain and caught a few bits of rain as well.
Mike even pointed out mushrooms to find that he could cook later. Merri and Gina found that to be a fun scavenger hunt, while the rest of us could not figure out how their eyes had developed the talent to even seeing the dirt covered mushrooms that look like stones.
Alicia’s progress on the trail had slowed so we decided to split up and get the majority of the group to the village while Nate, Craig, and Alicia stayed back with Mike and finished at their own pace.
Nate took advantage of this opportunity to get to know Mike and his interesting story. Mike is from a mountain tribal village of around 150 people in Northern Thailand. In Mikes village, nobody ever goes beyond a days walk from the village. They do not speak Thai, but their own tribal language. They live on less than a dollar a day and have no access to formal education.
When Mike was 14, a Dutch man visited his village, and through an interpreter started a conversation with Mike. When the Dutch man learned that Mike had never been to school, he asked if he wanted to learn. When Mike answered yes, it changed his life.
The Dutch man organized for Mike to study for and take the school entrance exam for high schools in Chiang Mai. Due to his lack of education, Mike did not score high enough to get into school. When the Dutch man returned a few months later, he found Mike and asked him about his progress. Mike shared the disappointing news, but the Dutch man asked, “You did not get admitted to any school?”
Mike replied, “That he got into one but that it costs over $1000 a year.”
The Dutch man smiled and offered to pay for Mike’s education. As a 14 year old, without ever having left his village, and against the advisement of his parents, he went to to big city of Chiang Mai, to live on his own and get an education. Talk about having guts.
Now Mike has a well paying job that he loves, a college education and is fluent in Thai and proficient in English. He is impressive.
On our approach to the Lahu Village, we were welcomed by a giant pig and her countless piglets running around. We saw a few dogs, an oxen and lots of chickens as well.
We took turns showering, which consisted of a large trash can filled with clean water and you use a handheld pail to dump cold water over you. It’s like doing the ice bucket challenge about ten times but without the ice.
The toilet rooms (outhouses) were tiny stalls, one with a “squatter” and one with a regular toilet. Both you manually flush by dumping water into it, again using a pail that is sitting it a giant trash can full of water.
Mike started cooking up a feast for us in the kitchen area. We all took turns helping him stir the curry or cook the chicken. Luckily Alicia was beginning to feel better as the time passed but not enough to join us for dinner. We toasted with a beer and ate our feast on the open air deck overlooking the muddy river.
Surprisingly, our music loving friend Gina didn’t join us and looked a little pale in the face. She said she was not feeling too well. Then shortly after she ran away and everything inside her came out. Uh oh we thought… This is not isolated to just Alicia. It seemed obvious that some food borne illness was at play. But what could it be? We had all shared each other’s breakfast and our lunch was served from communal dishes.
We retired to our mattresses on the bamboo floors under our mosquito nets.
After maybe an hour of sleep, I woke up to a horrible feeling but also terrified to go outside. It was pitch black on the way to the bathrooms where there is no electricity, wild animals and a host of insects.
Then, I notice my sister was up as well. I woke up Nate and he escorted us outside where we both joined Alicia and Gina in the process of “exiting the devil egg” from our bodies.
The four us girls all tried Alicia’s gluten free special meal, no one else. Nate had the tiniest bite but the four of us had several.
I can’t go into much more detail because it’s just not good reading material. But there were desperate times in the wee hours of the night and I can not describe a more unfit place to be that terribly ill.
When breakfast was served the next morning, only a few were even able to eat. Those that were feeling good were able to take part in riding the local elephants through the village. I managed to walk down and feed one and quickly went back inside. Mer was only able to view from the door of the sleeping room.
Nate described the Elephant ride as far more authentic and scary than any animal riding he had done in the past. The elephants are trained but live free in the jungle.
The trainer found them and brought them to the village. The elephant crouches for a second so you can jump on. Then you just hang on while the elephant does her thing. She walked into the five foot deep river, looks for trees to eat, and climbs up and down steep hills.
It just seemed so unlikely that we would return safely, but we did.
When the elephants trotted back to our homestay to deliver our friends, it was a relief because we knew we could begin the trek home. The trek home would be faster and less strenuous but with just as much adventure as getting into the village. We rafted down the muddy river rapids via bamboo rafts. We don’t have any photos because everything had been packed up safely to avoid getting wet. The rafts are about 20 ft long and 4 feet wide. They are made from long skinny bamboo trunks tied together with bamboo strands. With the weight of all the people and bags, the raft sits a couple inches underwater, so we got pretty wet. The women are required to sit and the men are required to stand and dig 20 foot bamboo poles into the river floor to steer.
We safely made it down the river after an hour and fifteen minutes. It was a very unique and fun experience. Given the fact not everyone was feeling 100%, we opted to skip lunch at the same restaurant that served us food poisoning and went straight to Chiang Mai instead.
I wish I could tell you we enjoyed the famous night market and remarkable food that Chiang Mai is notable for but it just wasn’t physically possible. Everyone showered and slept, thankfully turning a new leaf from what felt like a lifetime of being trapped in the jungle with food poisoning.
The next day, our final morning in Chiang Mai we started regaining strength by having a light American style breakfast and hour long foot and leg massages.
We were ready to get back on track, we were down to just over 30 hours until we began our journey back to the US. Relieved to be onto our next and last stop in Thailand, we headed to the airport for Bangkok.