Fruit in a bowl and a big bottle of water to start the day. Our group of eight for the jungle trek would consist of me, Derek, two English girls, two French Canadian guys, and a couple from Italy but now living in Germany. And of course our fearless leader Say What, or at least that was the name he preferred. We packed into an old truck and went on our way. First business was to stop at a local market for some fruit and water for the jungle. We also picked up dinosaur action figures and a Toy Story puzzle to bring to the children of the village we would be sleeping in that night. A little more driving and we were dropped off on the side of the road. Say pointed out a path and we hiked to a stream with a small waterfall and had lunch on the rocks. Afterward, a few of us went for a swim and made a series of poor attempts to catch fish with our hands. A little more time relaxing on the rocks in the sun and we traversed back up to the road. It was back in the truck for one more trip through the winding mountain roads and we were unloaded at a path that would be our starting point into the jungle to the Karen tribe village. The trek was about 10km up through a tough mountainside passing through vines and streams. As we made it along, Say picked snacks from plants for us to eat and carved cups from bamboo. He also engineered a few hats from Banana leaves for us. As we forged our way through, we would take periodic rests for water and Say would tell stories of his experiences in the jungle. The most memorable being a story of how he came across a cobra nest accidentally and was chased by the mother cobra over 500 meters until it finally turned back. He went back the next day to the nest with his gun and shot the cobra for chasing him. He said cobras are “no good for the body” and I agree. Aside from one of our British friends banging her leg on a rouge tree stub that led to a nice small gash on her shin, and a slip up I encountered on a rock that led to a sore elbow, we made our way through to the village unscathed.
As we entered, hogs and dogs and chickens flooded the pathways. The people live in small beige bamboo huts without electricity. On our way to our temporary hut, we met a few women and their children. We did learn how to say “Hello” and “Thank You” in their language but without being able to communicate much else, I just smiled and reached in my bag and pulled out the toy dinosaurs. I became instantly surrounded by the kids. I was happy they were as excited for the toys as I was to be giving them. After dropping off our bags in our hut, Derek and I stumbled upon a villager who motioned for us to follow him. He appeared to be a bit drunk or out of sorts but he wanted to show us his village and we weren’t going to turn his offer down. We went from hut to hut and visited with the families, we saw a new construction project a few of the men were working on, we saw women weaving new clothes, he even took us to his home, and we ended at a hilltop hut that overlooked the entire valley. He pointed to which direction Chiang Mai was located. The view over the cluttered mountain ranges was remarkable. A few other men from the village were having a meal and offered us some of their food. I have no idea what the combination of noodles, meat, greens, and spice actually was, but it was good to the taste. We found our way back to the hut next to ours, where Say was preparing a big curry dinner. As he chopped up the meat and veggies, a few of us sat nearby and enjoyed the view of the rice fields below as the glowing tangerine sun fell behind the hills. While dinner simmered over the fire, Say presented a bottle of what he calls “happy water”, which seems to be the local moonshine spirit made from rice. Also in the hut was a bong made from bamboo that the locals use to smoke their tobacco and other herbs. A few sips of happy water out of bamboo cups had us feeling good.
Figuring we had about a half hour before the meal would be ready, Derek and I wandered a bit more around the village. We bumped into a young man that had been off in the jungle all day and motioned that his knees were in pain. He had with him an elixir drink which he communicated would make him strong and help his body heal. Unfortunately for us, he offered up a drink as well. Saying that it was the most foul taste I have ever experienced might be an understatement. We thanked him and displayed our false pleasure for the drink and said goodbye. As we turned out of sight, I began choking and Derek threw it all right back up. How I didn’t throw up, I’m not really sure. It had the taste of the bottom of an ashtray, tiger balm, cough syrup, and carried some kind of instant anesthetic effect. That is one of the deals with traveling and trying new foods and drinks. Many times you are accepting an offering from someone being generous. So you want to make them feel like you are pleased with their offering of kindness. Even if you are grinding your teeth while doing so. We returned to find everyone gathered around a large table, fully lit by candles jammed into empty coke cans, and plates set for a big meal. After a long day being worn down by the mountain, every bite was warming. The usual pineapple for dessert and we all reassembled around a fire nearby.
Most of the villagers called it a night early, but we still had a few hanging around with us. The oldest man and woman in the village stayed with us and we would call them “Papi” and “Mama” all night. Their constant smiles are unforgettable. We drank happy water and rum we brought and watched as Papi cooked rice inside bamboo sticks for us. The crazy old man would just reach into the fire and turn the sticks and not even flinch. Once catching his sleeve on fire and even part of his finger. As we looked on in shock, he just laughed with us. And then Mama proved she could do the same. Another villager appeared out of the dark, completely adorned in a strange hat and big scarf and baggy clothing. Say told us his name was Jack Sparrow, so they do know a little bit about pop culture. Well, Jack fired up some pork and more pork and more pork. Actually he cooked pork all night, right up until the minute we put the fire out. I have a feeling there were less hogs in the village the next morning. Another local woman began showing us card tricks, stick tricks and string tricks. After she would perform the trick, she would try to get all of us to attempt it, too. Derek even pulled off an impressive card trick which left a few scratching their heads in wonder. After many stories were exchanged and friendships made, we let the fire simmer down and a village dog laid his head nearby to stay warm for the night.
Taking a step back from the fire, a couple of us took notice of the star filled sky. There aren’t many things in life quite as fascinating as looking up into a clear night sky off away in the middle of nowhere. In that nowhere, you will find an endless amount of little lights in the sky that chase the darkness away. I can only imagine hundreds or thousands of years ago or longer, before the internet and television and all of these distractions, the night sky was their only form of entertainment. And how clear the sky must have been so long ago before the pollution and city lights drowning it all out. People should take more time to find the stars in their sky. It will make your dreams grow. And as Say murmured all day long about the trekking and the dinner and the happy water and the laughter and the company and the stars, it’s “good for the body”. We shambled back to our bamboo hut and slept the night away along with the rest of the Karen tribe. We would need the rest for the morning activities to come and the adventure back out of the jungle.