The season when friends come to visit us in Chiang Mai is usually in late November when the weather is crisp and cool after the rains have ended. Because we are all now getting up in years, a rough trek to a hill tribe village or a long walk through the jungle is not our idea of fun any longer. However, we all still want to enjoy the hilltribe people and the fantastic scenery in north Thailand. Believe it or not this can be done and still avoid most of the tourist crowds. To enjoy a wonderful experience in north Thailand, it's a great advantage to speak a little Thai. However, if you don't speak the language, the best way is to hire a guide. My wife is a Thai national and I speak Thai so getting around in the rural areas is not a problem for us.
Around 9 am, we packed up our vehicle and left Chiang Mai heading to the Hill Tribe Museum. A good starting point where visitors can learn about the customs and traditions of the hilltribe people. To get there we drove north on Highway 107 toward Mae Rim and looked for the sign indicating a left turn into Rajamangala Ror Gao Park. After turning, we came to the Museum in a pavilion near a large lake.
The daily lives of the various hilltribe peoples are illustrated through exhibits of photographs, agricultural implements, household utensils, artifacts associated with the various traditional religions, musical instruments, and ethnic costumes. Some exhibits include models dressed in complete traditional costumes depicting daily activities, such as a Hmong family having a meal or a Lisu man serenading his sweetheart. The museum is open on weekdays from 9 am to 4 pm, and a slide and video show is available from 10 am to 2 pm daily except Sunday.
Leaving the museum, we returned to Highway 107 and continued north past Mae Rim, through the turn off to Mae Hong Sorn in Mae Malai (Highway 1095) and through Mae Taeng intersection. Continue driving north up a hill for a few kilometers to a large sign on the left indicating Mae Taaman. Turn left here and continue seven kilometers to a quiet elephant camp. You can't miss it as it is before the village and you will see elephants on your left. Turn onto the parking lot.
The day before the trip make reservations to book the tour. Again this can be made through a guide or tour operator. On arrival everyone went straight to the nursery pen where we bought bananas and sugar cane to feed the two calves. The manager of the elephant camp came to greet us, asking if we were ready for our little adventure. This included a one hour elephant ride through streams and hillsides, then transfer to an ox cart for a 20-minute ride to our bamboo raft and a 50-minute raft ride. We then transferred to a four-wheel vehicle for a short ride to a Lisu hill tribe village. Here we spent the evening with our host Lisu hill tribe family to enjoy their way of life. Toilet and showers are available here but not electricity.
I usually don't like to ride bamboo rafts, as the bamboo maerials are haphazardly cut from the forest. However, here the bamboo rafts are recycled for at least one year.
We asked the manager if we needed to take anything with us and she said, "Just take your camera, money and passport. Everything else will be taken to the Lisu village for you". We handed over our backpacks with the items we needed for our overnight stay in the village and locked everything else in the car.
When the elephants arrived, we boarded from a platform where we climbed into a howdah, a two person seat on the back of the elephant. We took off and right away headed for the stream. When we came to the river bank the elephant had to walk down. The front bar kept us from sliding off. It was a little scary at first but after a few minutes we anticipated when to hold on and it was kind of fun. Once we settled down from the excitement of being so high off the ground and started into the jungle. We heard shouting from our friends on the elephant in front of us. "Our elephant stopped and is shaking. What's going on!!" When we moved around the bend we could see that their elephant was urinating. We are talking gallons here. When an elephant urinates, it's whole body shakes something like being in a massage chair at the airport. Not only that, but an elephant eats constantly while walking in the jungle. This means it passes gas a lot and everyone got a real kick out of this. We continued on swaying gently on the elephants back with the sound of not only birds singing but the elephants constantly passing gas.
We traveled through stands of bamboo and it seemed that the elephants never stopped pulling the top tender bamboo branches with their trunks and eating them. There are not many trees here and the ones we did see were newly planted within the past ten years or so. We came back and crossed the river again to a Thai village. Here we got off the elephants at another platform, walked down the steps and purchased more bananas and fed the elephants as a tip. We then tipped our elephant handlers and were led to an ox cart harnessed to two white cows.
This is not a normal ox cart as it had two comfortable padded benches and a roof cover to keep us out of the sun. The ride was slow and steady along the paved road back to the elephant camp. As I had never taken an ox cart ride before, I needed to do it so I could check it off my list of done things in Thailand.
We were then led down to the river to get on the bamboo raft. The four of us were told to sit down on the two benches and face forward. There were two men on the raft with long bamboo poles, one at the front and one at the back. They pushed off and away we went.
I have been white water rafting many times in Thailand in rubber rafts through dense jungle so this transport was too calm for me. My friends loved it, slowly traveling down the river with the raft men pushing us away from the rocks along the banks. We saw a few colorful kingfishers gliding through the air and children playing in the river and shouting "Hello". Elephants that had finished their days' work of riding tourists on their backs were eating the bamboo on the hillside. The rafting was relaxing but it's extremely hot in the heat in the afternoon. Make sure to wear a hat and put on sunblock.
At the shore we were greeted by a Thai man who would drive us to the Lisu village in his pick up truck. We returned to the elephant camp where we had a wonderful Thai lunch along the river at their restaurant. After eating we jumped in the back of the pick up and away we went. The drive was only about 15 minutes or so on a dirt road through a small mountain canyon, across a stream and there we were.
The village was very clean with only about ten homes or so. What surprised us was the beautiful well kept garden and also that the village was surrounded with trees. Most hill tribes do clear by cut, slash and burn farming. Later, I found out from the village headman that the elephant camp owns the land and assists the villagers with funds for building projects. He stated that the villagers relocated here from the high mountains to be nearer to schools for their children and a much better way of life.
The village headman Asapa and his son greeted us in English. Before entering his home, we took our shoes off. While sipping a welcome cup of green tea, we started asking questions. One question I had was why were the houses built like those of the Karen or Lahu hill tribes up on stilts instead of a dirt floor on the ground like most Lisu homes. He told me that although they follow Lisu customs and culture, the homes more reflected a combination of hill tribe and Thai houses, which were more comfortable and sturdy. I had to agree that the house was very cool and one of the most clean hill tribe homes I have ever been in. Outside we enjoyed playing with the children spinning large tops and shooting crossbows at targets. The rest of the day was spent walking around the village watching women sewing and making beaded bracelets and necklaces. No one ever asked us to buy anything, however, when we saw something we liked we asked how much. They were glad to make a sale. We were allowed to take pictures however we always asked permission as some do not want their picture taken.
This village is a great place to learn about farming methods, how the children travel to school, who lived in which house and how many members in the families. I am sure they got tired of answering all our questions.
We were feeling hungry when Alipa, the headman's son, brought two plates of sliced ripe mangos. My wife asked what was for dinner. In the kitchen she was shown fresh meat and vegetables. My lovely Thai wife and Alipa's wife, Weepha, started preparing dinner.
About twenty or so Lisu men, women, boys and girls formed two circles in front of us. The boys and men formed an inside circle and the women and girls on the outside circle. They had all changed from their colorful work clothes into even more colorful evening costumes. The men usually wear T-shirts and Lisu baggy pants and the girls traditional dresses which are easy to work in during the day. The children had changed from their school uniforms into their traditional costumes.
Asapa came out of his home in his black Lisu clothes and hat, carrying a long musical instrument made of five bamboo pipes fastened to a gourd at the bottom end. Five holes were drilled in the gourd where he put his fingers.Standing in the center of the circle, he began playing. The sound was similar to a flute but also had a bass note that added a beat. As he was playing and marching in the center, the girls and boys joined hands and began dancing around the outside in their respective circles. Soon we all joined in. Just when some were getting the hang of the dance, my wife announced, "Dinner's ready" .
We went back into the house and sat on the floor. Dinner was mountain rice, lemon grass soup, a mild Lisu pork dish mixed with vegetables, a very spicy red curry with chicken and fresh stir fried vegetables. It was more than we could eat.
The mattresses were comfortable sleeping two persons on each mattress. We were given clean blankets and pillows and got ready to sleep. I reminded everyone to put on their ear plugs or at least keep them handy as at 3 am the roosters would start crowing. Soon we all fell asleep while listening to the village sounds, people talking softly, children laughing, pigs snorting at times and chickens flapping their wings as they perched in the trees to roost.
My wife was the first one to wake up saying "It's cold. I'm going outside to stand by the fire." It was just getting light outside as I lay there listening to the sound of women talking softly and the wonderful sound of a dull "Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk", which was the Rice Pounder taking the husks off the grains of rice. This is a morning ritual in a hill tribe village. The rice pounder (as I call it) is a long beam with a fulcrum near one end. On the other end is a round piece of wood attached to the beam pointing down into a wooden hollowed out log set into the ground vertically. Two women put their feet on the beam at the end opposite of hollowed log and press down. They then release their feet from the beam and the opposite end crashes into the hollowed log filled with unhusked rice.
When I got up and put my clothes on everyone was already awake and drinking coffee or tea. The girls were now taking the rice and placing it in large, round bamboo plates and tossing it into the air. The gentle breeze blew the husks away to leave nice white rice kernels in the bottom. The sun was just coming up but yet to peek over the mountains, a foggy mist was lingering from the ground up about two feet or so. Smoke was coming from the homes of people cooking rice and their breakfast, which my wife and Weepha were doing.
Since it was a weekday the children of school age were dressed in their school uniforms carrying their backpacks. We waited with them for the school bus to arrive, which was a large truck with benches and steel cage with a door in the back. We waved them a good bye while they were all screaming "Bye Bye." The village seemed deserted as most were already leaving for work in town or to work in the gardens. The women who worked in the gardens put on their traditional colorful work clothes and the men were back in their baggy bright blue or green Lisu pants and T-shirts. The only ones left in the village were children too young to start school and the grandparents that took care of them, all in traditional dress.
After showering in my home, we all headed to the handicraft factories in Sankhampaeng. After a great lunch, there was a four hour drive to Doi Inthanon National Park. That is another adventure that I will share with you in a future issue.
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