The Reluctant Adventurer (Part 2): Jungle Trekking
Just before we head off on our great jungle trekking adventure, we're herded into a makeshift bamboo grandstand - a welcome reprieve from the scorching sun outside - for the elephant show. Our tour guide tells us that we're about to get a glimpse of how young elephants are trained to work in Thailand's timber industry, and what better place for this than at an elephant training school!
As I'm watching the young elephants and their trainers, I can't help but marvel at the timing, coordination and precision in these perfectly-orchestrated sequences of man and beast working together - lifting tree trunks, and stacking them neatly into heaps in one corner of the clearing.
The jungle trek is up next, and again the tour guide promises it would be an hour-long exercise. Oh great, I sigh, here we go again! I look around and note that some of our group members are clearly ill-equipped to do any sort of heavy-duty walking. Maybe they would opt out of the trekking, and then I too could concoct some excuse to stay behind.
But my hopes are soon dashed when the tour guide signals the start of the trek, and everyone eagerly jostles forward to participate, even the ladies in the skimpy thonged sandals, and two-inch-high wooden clogs. I look down at my hardy Timberlands and know, once again, that there is no way out of this.
With a sigh, I slap on a generous helping of mosquito repellant and tell myself that with any luck, this entire thing will be all over in an hour. There being very little love lost between me and those blood-suckers (yes, mosquitoes!), I'm careful to leave as few exposed areas as possible. With my cap, sunglasses and a long-sleeved shirt turned up at the collar over my T-shirt, I reckon I'm pretty much covered and about as ready as I'll ever be.
The weather is getting hotter as we carefully pick our way, single file, through a narrow dirt path littered with crisp newly-fallen leaves and branches. Now mind you, this is not your regular walk in the park. The pebbles and stones over the dry dirt make the path very slippery. If you're not careful, you could twist your ankle, or go sliding down the sheer edge of the path into the forest below.
As the slope gets steeper, the lively conversations and laughter among our group members soon give way to heavy huffing and puffing. I reckon I would have been in far worse shape had I not done some serious fitness walking back home over the last two weeks.
The first sign that we've arrived is the huge black pig lying asleep under a short bridge of logs. Not far away is the mother pig tending to her seven little black piglets, and countless chickens strutting to and fro as if on parade.
Our tour guide tells us that this is the village of the Lisu Hill tribe, a people who originated from Tibet and later migrated down through China and then into Burma and Thailand some eighty years ago. They are best known for their brightly-colored traditional costumes of startling red, pink, yellow, blue and green in brilliant contrast to the dusty dull browns of their thatched houses and parched forest surroundings.
What's most amazing is that every single one of the women and children are dressed in those bright colors. I look around and notice that the designs are largely similar - long-sleeved double-breasted dresses that reach to the knees worn with ankle-length pants, all trimmed with multi-colored strips at the edges of the collars, sleeves and trouser legs.
Less than ten steps ahead is a small circular clearing with a few makeshift sheds strung with colorful handicraft for sale. The handicraft is as intricate and colorful as the women's tribal wear. There is a wooden hut behind each shed, presumably the living quarters of the family whose handicraft is on display out front.
The village is almost deserted, save for a handful of women and children clad in gaudy traditional tribal wear, minding the handicraft displays. We're told most of the young men have gone to work at the elephant training camp below.
The air hangs hot, dry and still for there is little chatter between the hill people. Members of our group quickly seek out the few shady spots along the edge of the clearing, milling around in small groups, drawing long gulps at our supply of mineral water, and fanning ourselves with caps and hats.
There is little else to do but to survey our surroundings - a big black female pig leading her eight little black piglets to the back of a hut, and an even bigger black male lying fast asleep further away, oblivious to the bevy of talkative chickens parading around him.
The wooden huts are topped with slanting roofs made of large interwoven leaves. On the invitation of our tour guide, we make our way towards one of the nearby huts. We are told not to touch anything, and specifically warned against taking photos inside the hut as the hill people believe the bright flashes would frighten the spirits of their ancestors who live inside the huts.
We are allowed to enter the huts in groups of five. On stepping across the threshold, I am immediately and totally blinded - it is pitch dark inside - as my eyes struggle to readjust from the blinding brightness outside. But what I eventually do see makes me blink again and again, as if the initial adjustment of my eyes has not been totally effective.
I am standing in, what the tour guide tells us is, the living room, the bedroom and the kitchen of the hut, all rolled into one. The room is no larger than ten feet square, and completely bare. It's ironic that we have been told not to touch anything, indeed there is nothing to touch!
The one and only one piece of furniture is a bare wooden bed, more like a bench, along one wall. It does not even have a mattress on it. On the wall to my right hang two flimsy curtains to mark the doors that apparently lead to two other bedrooms, we are told. But that's it!
The walls are completely bare - not one electrical point, not one phone jack, nothing. There is nothing else in this hut! And this, we are told, is exactly how the Lisu and many other hill tribes live, untouched by even the most basic of modern technology.
A withered old woman squats along the wall perpendicular to the bare wooden bed. In front of her, on the unpaved dirt floor, is a heap of stones used for cooking and keeping warm on the chilly nights. She nods in a kind of speechless acknowledgement at the bunch of pampered tourists who have come all this way to gawk at her humble abode.
We must seem a weird bunch to her, we in our city clothes and alien tongue, with 'flashing light bulbs' dangling from our necks, gaping in disbelief at the absence of all the worldly things we have taken so much for granted.
Where're the lights, the TV, the soft leather sofa that I can sink into after a long hard day at work? And if sitting at the office is hard work, what more training elephants and selling handicraft in this heat! What about the phone - what if Mom decides to call? What, no air-conditioning to ward away the stifling afternoon heat?!
But that's exactly it. Theirs is a laid-back existence of fresh mountain air with none of the comforts and stress of modern living. Without this brief glimpse into their lifestyle, it would've been hard to imagine that there are people living such simple lives in this day and age when the rest of the world, as we know it, is running circles around speed, technology, and creature comforts.
There's a tiny part of us that's perhaps a little envious of this refreshingly simple lifestyle and wish our lives were less complex, and yet, I'm sure few of us would dream of trading our modern lifestyle and luxuries for a house of leaves, and an elephant for transportation. We may wish for a day without traffic jams and barking bosses, but then again, we know we couldn't let that day go by without our car or cell phone either.
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Published on 12/5/03