Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Last Night in Bangkok

After our week at the farm, Ryan and I headed back to Bangkok to fly home.  For our final night in Southeast Asia, we stayed at the most expensive hotel of the trip – the Lamphu Tree House, in Bangkok’s Banglamphu neighborhood.  $52 there earned us a lovely air-conditioned room with a fridge and balcony, and a very extensive breakfast buffet.

Wanting to live up our last hours in Asia, we headed out for dinner in the Panthum Wan district of Bangkok, a ways away from our hotel.  We’d gone there in search of an amazing sounding Mediterranean restaurant called the Olive Kebab, which Ryan had found online.  Unfortunately, it had either closed or moved, or maybe never really existed, because we could never find it, and nobody in the area had even heard of it.  We stumbled upon another promising-looking restaurant nearby, soon realizing it was part of the Meridian Plaza Athénée Hotel.  Surprisingly, and although all the drinks were outrageously expensive, the food was quite cheap.  So we stayed, pleased not only with the food, with also with a big basket of various delicious types of bread and unlimited free refills on water (something not to be taken for granted outside the US!).

To wrap up our last night, we stopped at the BaiyokeTower, Thailand’s tallest building.  Primarily a hotel, the tower has an observation area and bar on the 83rd floor and a revolving deck on the 84th.  The view of Bangkok from the top of the tower was great.  The city is so big and bright – lights forever in every direction.  I don’t think anybody standing at the top of the tower could look at Bangkok and think they were in a developing world city.

Since our flights didn’t leave until 11pm the following day, we were able to spend most of the day in Bangkok.  After breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to done some last-minute gift and souvenir shopping.  With time to spare, we decided to go to a movie.  That might seem like an odd way to spend our last afternoon in Thailand, but Bangkok’s movie theaters are unlike any I’ve seen in the States.  They’re absolutely enormous and super fancy, with big reclining chairs and assigned seating (better seats are more expensive, just like at a show), and most tickets are about $6.  More interestingly, prior to every movie showing in Thailand, a tribute to the king is played, during which everyone must stand up and watch quietly.  The film, which last about two minutes, is set to the Thai national anthem and shows clips from throughout KingBhumibol’s life.  I should point out that Thai people really, REALLY lovetheir king.  The film we saw was Chernobyl Diaries, which I was interested in seeing primarily because Ryan told me he’d seen it advertised in the U.S. and that Leonardo DiCaprio was in it.  It turned out the actor in it was just someone who looked kind of like Leo.

After the movie was over, we picked up our bags and headed for the airport.  The trip that I’d spent many months in Rwanda daydreaming about was coming to a close, and it was time to start the transition back to American society and get ready for the next chapter of my life.

Friday, August 17, 2012

WWOOFing in Chonburi, Thailand

I’d been wanting to try “WWOOFing” – volunteering on an organic farm in exchange for room and board, through the organization Willing Workers on Organic Farms – basically since I’d first heard about it.  Luckily for me, Ryan was game to try it out during our trip.  After looking at farms all over Thailand and Malaysia, we settled on Daruma Eco-Farm, outside a small town called Bang Phra, in Thailand’s Chonburi province.  The farm was our last stop on our trip before returning to Bangkok to fly back home, and we worked there for a week.

WWOOFing appealed to me for a lot of reasons.  Of course the fact that it’s (mostly) limited to small, often family-run, farms that are all organic was a big reason – I’m sure working on a standard American farm would have been a very different experience.  Since I really like the idea (if not always the price…) of eating organically-grown food, I was eager to learn more about the principles and practices behind it.  Plus, WWOOFing is a really great way to get far off the beaten path, probably in any country, and get more immersed in the local culture.  On top of that, since the farm typically covers its volunteers’ room and board, it’s basically a free week of travel!

To get to the farm – after a ferry from Koh Tao to the mainland and an overnight train ride back to Bangkok – we took the third-class train from Bangkok to Bang Phra, a distance of about 75 miles.  The third-class train, though, doesn’t ever go very fast, and it stops a lot, so I think the trip took around three hours.  We’d kind of been dreading taking the third-class train, having heard tons of horror stories from other travelers and even Thais, about how miserable, uncomfortable, and overcrowded they are.  Our train, though, wasn’t even full, and it was relatively comfortable with the windows rolled down.  Other than the fact that the seats were just wooden planks, it really wasn’t any more uncomfortable than the buses in Rwanda.  And our tickets cost less than $1 each!

Before arriving at the farm, I was really curious about what the other volunteers would be like, or if there’d even be any others.  When we got there, the farm had four other volunteers – a British guy who’d spent several months volunteering on farms all over Southeast Asia, an Indian guy who was hoping to start his own organic farm, and a Brazilian couple who’d been travel full-time for about two years – as well as an American research assistant who’d been there for six months.  As you can imagine, they all had lots of really interesting stories.  The farm’s owners, an American man, Neal, and a Thai woman, were also really interesting.  Neal has been living in Thailand for years, but just started the farm a few years ago, and they’re still working on really getting it going.  They’re hoping to eventually create a full-fledged eco-village, which would ideally be totally sustainable and self-sufficient.

The farm itself wasn’t huge, but it had a lot going on – tons of different crops, chickens, pigs, composting – and there was always work to be done.  Ryan and I worked on a lot of different things, some of which were pretty physically demanding, which may not have been nearly so difficult, except that it was really hot and really humid.  Lemongrass, which is commonly used to make tea and to flavor a huge variety of dishes all over Southeast Asia, pretty much grows like a weed on farms.  So we spent a lot of time clearing lemongrass, as well as debris, from the fields and from the structures designated for certain crops.  We also laid mulch around the trees, which is supposed to enrich the soil and prevent erosion.  On the day they were laying a new pathway on the farm, we carried loads and loads of bricks.  We also moved a lot of dirt around – shoveling and carrying dirt was one of our main activities, and it was pretty tiring.  One of the most interesting things Ryan and I worked on there was building a Hugelkultur (literally “mound culture”) bed, basically just a raised garden bed with wood on the bottom, which is supposed to more or less compost naturally and eventually become a garden bed that doesn’t need irrigation (at least from the explanation we got).  So, to create our Hugelkultur bed, we first reinforced an existing bamboo frame using metal sheets and logs, and then cleaned up a bunch of old wood, and demolished a few small wooden platforms and benches, to put in the bottom of it.  I have no idea if the process will go as smoothly as described – it seemed a little too good to be true – but Hugelkultur is apparently extremely popular among organic farmers and permaculture enthusiasts, so there must be something to it

A special treat of our WWOOFing experience was our day off from farm work, which allowed us to explore some more.  Since the farm was a bit isolated from the actual town, we were excited to “go to town.”  We left the farm early, and, as we were walking along the empty road leading from the farm to town, a Thai guy stopped his car and offered us a ride.  We had no idea where we wanted to go, or where he was going, but we hopped in.  We just kind of looked out the windows as we rode along, waiting for something that looked like a good place to stop.  Once we got to a bigger road, which turned out to be the main road from Bangkok that passes straight through Bang Phra and continues to eastern Thailand, we thanked this kind stranger and got out. 

As we walked along, the first place of interest we came to was a very cute and eclectic coffee shop/toy store.  Walking down the main road, and even down some quieter side streets, we passed numerous 7-11s (remember, Thailand has 6,000 7-11s) and 108 Shops, 7-11’s local competitor.  We eventually came to a really nice park, right on the water, complete with a short walking path, a few gazebos, and several food stands.  We’d been walking for hours by that point, and it was – of course – very hot, so the chance to sit down and rest under a gazebo for a while was much appreciated.  It was also a great people-watching opportunity, as the food stands were full of Thai people out for lunch in the park.

We eventually headed back to the main road, and, up until that point, things had been pretty much as I’d expected in this small town – not much obvious Western influence, nothing in English (outside the 7-11s, of course), no identifiable street food.  But then we found a coffee shop that could probably rival Starbucks, a really nice bakery, and a Vietnamese restaurant with an English menu.  In the interest of knowing what we were eating, we had lunch there, and it was tasty.  Despite being likely the fanciest restaurant in town, we still ate for about $5.  On our way back to the farm came the real surprise – a Tesco Lotus.  While it wasn’t much compared to some of the supermarkets in Bangkok, it was much, much more than I’d have expected in Bang Phra.  There were selections of fresh bread, cheese, yogurt, wine, produce, and more.  Still, though, it seemed there were no other foreigners in town.

Another neat experience we had while at the farm was visiting the night market for dinner with Neal and his wife.  The market was comprised of a couple dozen small open-air food stalls serving various types of seafood.  Since it was raining, we headed for the one tented stall, and sat on the ground around a low table.  The market was absolutely packed with people having dinner, but we volunteers were the only foreigners there.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of all the seafood, of course, it was a really cool experience, and one that we probably wouldn’t have had in a more touristy area.

Some of the work at the farm was hard, but I thought WWOOFing was a great experience overall, and I’d love to do it again somewhere else.  On more than one occasion, though, I did have to question if we with such limited knowledge, were actually contributing anything to the farm, or if a real farm worker would have to later fix or re-do a lot of what we had done.  That’s a huge problem in many types of volunteer organizations – short-term volunteers who don’t have the necessary skills or cultural understanding come for a week or month or three, do some things they feel good about, and then someone else eventually has to come and re-do the work.  Then there’s also the issue that volunteers are taking a job that a Thai person could do – instead of providing room and board for volunteers in exchange for work, farm owners could pay a salary to a Thai person to do the same farm work.  I think in the case of Daruma Eco-Farm, though, it was at least as much about spreading the ideas and principles of eco-farming, and offering experience for people looking to start their own farm, as it was about the free labor.  But, it’s still a dilemma I haven’t really reconciled.

From just a traveler’s perspective, though, WWOOFing was a wonderful way to get off the beaten path, cut costs, learn about sustainability, and have some really unique experiences.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Tanote Bay, Koh Tao

After finishing our scuba diving course, we headed to the other side of Koh Tao to spend our last two days on the island relaxing at Tanote Bay.

The entire island of Koh Tao is known having absolutely horrible roads, and, since there’s almost nothing in the interior, the few people who leave the Sairee Beach area get around the island by taking boats from beach to beach.  Since the water had been extremely rough that week and I’d gotten seasick on our other boat rides, I wasn’t willing to get back on another boat.  And our diving instructor talked us out of the idea of driving our rented motorcycle over the highest point of the island’s interior to get to Tanote Bay, convincing us that the road was essentially impassable.  Fortunately, the hotel we were staying at there, the Montalay Beach Resort, picked us up in a truck in Sairee Beach to take us over to Tanote Bay.  While in the truck, we looked at the supposedly horrible road and realized that Ryan is more than experienced enough to have driven a motorcycle there.  Like in most of Southeast Asia, though, lots of visitors to Koh Tao rent motorcycles even if they don’t really know how to ride them, and those people get in into a lot of trouble in the interior of Koh Tao.  In the end, though, the ride was free, so that was a plus.

The Montalay ended up being my favorite hotel of the entire trip, with gorgeous “jungle bungalows” set in a really lush garden for $20/night.  The landscape around the hotel was beautiful and so peaceful, and the rooms themselves were super cozy.  It was an amazing value, even for Thailand.

We did very little in Tanote Bay other than lounge in the bungalow, hang out on the patio of one of the two restaurants in town, walk along the beach, lay on the sand, swim, and relax in a hammock.  It was a wonderful place to chill after the relative strenuousness of diving – and the rowdiness of Sairee Beach.  So many divers stay at hotels in Sairee beach, do some dives, and then leave Koh Tao without ever seeing what else is there, but I would definitely recommend saving a couple days for seeing more rural parts of the island, especially if you’re looking for something a little more tranquil, or more private.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Learning to Scuba Dive - Koh Tao, Thailand

The 617-mile trip from Tanah Rata, Malaysia to Koh Tao, Thailand turned out to be much trickier than I’d anticipated, but it ended up going fairly smoothly.  The trip required a minibus from Tanah Rata, a brief stop in Georgetown, another minibus across the border, an overnight train, a ride to the coast in the back of a pick-up, and a ferry into the Gulf of Thailand, totaling about 28 hours of travel time.  Yes, we traveled at an overall average speed of about 22mph.

Southern Thailand is a beach-lover’s paradise, and we knew we wanted to visit one of the many beautiful islands off the coast, but had a hard time choosing.  Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Pha-Ghan – all are gorgeous, with cheap hotels and lots to do.  But, by deciding that we wanted to use our time at the beach to complete a PADI Open Water scuba diving course, our choice was made easy.  The tiny island (just eight square miles) of Koh Tao – literally “Turtle Island” – is the cheapest place in the world to dive, and more people earn scuba diving certifications there than anywhere else.  I’d been wanting to try scuba diving for a long time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally do it.

Koh Tao itself was a nice place to be, but it wouldn’t be a great destination for non-divers.  The island’s beaches really don’t compare to many of Thailand’s other offerings.  Further, there’s almost no local culture on Koh Tao.  At any given time, Koh Tao has far more visitors than residents, and most of the people who live there are ex-pats, not Thais.  I don’t think I’ve ever been some place that had so few local people.  But, for people focused on diving, it’s a good choice.

Located in Koh Tao’s heart of Sairee Beach, our hotel, the Prick Thai, was about $20/night and was definitely not the best place we stayed, mainly because there was a pretty serious ant problem.  But it was right across the street from our diving school, which was where we spent most of our time.

It was difficult to choose a school from the 100+ options on Koh Tao, but we eventually ended up at Scuba Junction, mainly because their Trip Advisor reviews were great.  Plus, the people there seemed infinitely more competent than at the other place we looked at, Simple Life Divers.

Before we arrived, I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the course.  It turned out to be pretty intensive and kept us really busy for the 3.5 days that it lasted.  The first three days included classroom time, which meant watching videos and having discussions with our instructor, as well as taking review quizzes on each section.  We also had homework every night – reading a couple chapters from the handbook and answering some questions to discuss the following day.  On our second day, we learned all about the equipment and then went out for our confined water dives (essentially practicing with diving gear in shallow water).  That was definitely the worst time we had in the water, especially for me since I got really seasick on the ride from the coast out to the dive site.  We started with a test of swimming around the boat three times, which would have been nothing except it was pretty stormy that day and the water was super choppy.  Then we put on our equipment for the first time and took our first “giant stride” into the water.  Unfortunately, we then had to swim pretty far, fighting the rough water and feeling awkward in our equipment for the first time, to get to shallower water.  We were pretty wiped by that point, and we hadn’t even started yet!  The rest of our time in the water that day was spent doing “skills,” basically things you need to know in order to dive safely, but that are never used unless there’s an emergency.  We were so anxious to dive down, swim around, and start seeing fish and coral, but we had to spend the day practicing what to do if you lose your mouthpiece or goggles, or you run out of air, or you get too tired to swim back to the boat.  Fortunately, our next two days in the water were much more fun and much easier.

The following day, after doing classroom work in the morning, we left for our first real dives.  It was awesome.  We had to practice some of the same skills in deeper water, but we also got to swim around – and finally feel like we were actually scuba diving!  We did two dives that afternoon and two more the next morning, each lasting about thirty minutes.  We got down as deep as about 17 meters, just shy of the 18-meter maximum allowed for Open Water divers.  Though diving can be a bit nerve-wracking – especially if you really stop to think about how far under the water you are and how terrifying (and potentially dangerous) it would be if your equipment malfunctioned – it can also be relaxing, if you focus on your breath and how your body is moving underwater.  We got to see more fish and plants that I could begin to name, but the things I found the coolest were the various types of coral and the clownfish (aka, Nemo) swimming in their brightly-colored sea anemone habitat.

Following our final dive, we took a written test, which covered what we’d learned in the water, as well as our three days of classroom discussions, videos, readings, and homework.  We both passed and received our certification cards – and began planning our next diving trip!  Spring break 2013, maybe?

Friday, July 20, 2012

More Malaysia - The Cameron Highlands

After leaving Kuala Lumpur, we headed to our only other stop in Malaysia, a refreshingly cool and incredibly lush area known as the Cameron Highlands, about four hours north of the capital.  The area is becoming increasingly popular as an eco-focused travel destination, and it’s known for producing much of Malaysia’s best strawberries and tea – and strawberry tea!

The bus we took from Kuala Lumpur was incredibly nice, but the ride was pretty nerve-racking – on extremely narrow and incredibly curvy roads, right on the edge of the mountain.  Fortunately, our bus driver – as well as the drivers of the numerous other buses, trucks, cars, and motorcycles on the road – drove very slow and courteously, and we made it with no problem.

Our base in the Cameron Highlands was Tanah Rata, one of the main towns in the area.  It was small, but much busier and more bustling than I would have expected.  There were a lot of tourists walking around, though the vast majority of them were Asian, many from Thailand, I imagine.

Our hotel, KRS Pines, was decent but nothing special – and, at $27/night for a double, another reminder that your money just doesn’t go as far in Malaysia as in other nearby countries.  Thailand had spoiled me!

Nearly all of Tanah Rata’s restaurants (other than a very out-of-place Starbucks, the town’s only remotely Western place) served Indian cuisine – good thing Ryan and I really like our dahl and naan!  The highlight food-wise was definitely a vegetarian banana-leaf meal, consisting of rice, chickpeas, and several vegetable dishes, all served on a large banana leaf.  And the whole thing cost only $3!

We knew there were a lot of things we wanted to visit in the Highlands, and we didn’t have much time, so we opted to spend one day on a tour, which took us to several eco-tourism sites in the area.  Along with a group otherwise comprised of French and Dutch people, we started the day with a hike into a beautiful, lush jungle to get a glimpse of a rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.  The hike only took about an hour each way, but it was harder than I had anticipated, with several steep and slippery areas, as well as a couple very narrow rickety bridges.  The flower itself was unlike anything I’ve seen.  Rafflesia, which are red, are so big that it’s hard to even recognize them as flowers.  The one we saw had grown flat on the ground and was about 29 inches across, though they sometimes hang and can get up to four feet across.  In the pictures we saw afterward, the rafflesia look almost pre-historic.

We made a quick stop outside a nearby village, where our guide talked about a new government program in the area.  Traditionally, people in this part of Malaysia have lived in houses constructed from bamboo.  Recently, however, the government has started paying to build concrete houses in rural areas, so people will live in these more modern houses instead of their traditional ones.  Our guide, a native of the Highlands, was pretty upset about this initiative, both because he believes it is unnecessarily changing people’s way of living, and also because he thinks the government should be putting money toward education, healthcare, or food instead.  I know hardly anything about the government’s program or how it’s affecting people there, but it was really interesting to hear a local person’s take on it.

After an Indian lunch, we visited a tea plantation and factory and got to see how the tea grows and how it’s processed.  I don’t remember a lot of the details of processing tealeaves, but I do remember how green and hilly the plantation was, with the tea organized in chunks and growing about waist-high.

We also visited one of several strawberry farms in the Highlands.  To our surprise, the strawberries were growing not in an open field, but rather in long containers under a large tent.  We had strawberry milkshakes and strawberry muffins, and bought some strawberry tea, strawberry jam, and chocolate-strawberry candy to take with us.  All of it was delicious.

Having seen most of the “sights,” we used our second full day in Tanah Rata to do some independent exploring.  The town is essentially surrounded by jungle, which has a few not-very-well-maintained trails running through it.  We started down the trail nearest town and ended up hiking about four hours.  Because the trails loop back and forth, you can hike for quite a long time, despite the fact that none of the trails actually go that far from town.  It was a gorgeous hike, and it was nice to be out in nature on our own and completely alone.

The following morning, we were up early to begin what turned out to be a long and pretty arduous journey through northern Malaysia, across the Thai border, up the Gulf coast, and out to the island of Koh Tao, our next destination.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Intro to Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur

Interested in seeing how Malaysia, a more developed Southeast Asian country, would compare to the other places I’d visited, and since AirAsia has convenient direct flights from Chiang Mai to Kuala Lumpur, Ryan and I decided to spend a few days exploring peninsular Malaysia.

Landing at the Kuala Lumpur airport, we easily found the bus we needed, which we were happy to discover was air-conditioned.  It turned out to be about an hour from the airport to the city, and the ride took us through endless lush green fields.

Our first impression of Kuala Lumpur was a good one, thanks to a very nice cab driver.  Though we had the address of our hotel (and street addresses mean a lot more in Malaysia than in, say, Rwanda), our driver couldn’t find it.  He drove in circles for quite awhile and called the hotel on his cell phone twice to ask for directions.  By the time we finally found the hotel, we’d been in the cab for so long the meter had gone up to 15 ringgit (about $5).  The driver felt so bad that he’d taken so long to find our hotel, he apologized profusely and only charged us 10 ringiit (about $3.30)!  I’d fully expected to pay the full amount, and I was shocked and pleasantly surprised at how kind he was.

The Pujangga Homestay was about we had expected.  We opted to stay there solely because it was the cheapest place we could find online.  Our rather cramped double room with a shared bathroom down the hall was $20/night.  $20 definitely doesn’t go as far in Malaysia as in some countries, but considering that Kuala Lumpur is a pretty first-world city and we had a great location in the Golden Triangle area, I can’t complain.

As far as we could tell, there’s not a lot of truly Malaysian cuisine available in Kuala Lumpur.  Apart from the some Western restaurants – including a whole lot of American chains – most “local” restaurants serve Indian or Chinese fare.

The city itself is very modern and clean.  Various commuter trains, monorails, and buses run through town, and the ones we rode on were all quite nice.  Many of the trains, buses, and taxis have illustrations indicating that food, animals, hazardous materials, and kissing (labeled “indecent behavior”) are prohibited.

Our short time in Kuala Lumpur was filled mostly with seeing the major sights.  The city is known for two skyscrapers – the Kuala Lumpur Tower and the Petronas Twin Towers.  We didn’t go up either one, but we did look up at them from the ground, and both were quite impressive.

The KL Tower, as it’s known, looks a lot like Seattle’s Space Needle and is used for telecommunications and as an Islamic lunar observatory.  Its observation deck is 905 feet high, and races are held in which participants climb the 2,058 steps to the top.  Ryan tried to challenge me to such a race, but I declined – ultimately, I think he was glad I did.

The Petronas Towers, connected by a skybridge between the 41st and 42nd floors, serve primarily as the office for Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company.  They were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 and are still the tallest twin towers ever built.  The bottom six floors of the towers comprise a 1.5 million square-foot shopping center, filled mostly with luxury shops I can’t even imagine ever buying anything from.

We also made a short trip to the Batu Caves just outside the city.  The caves are sacred in the Hindu faith and is one of the world’s most popular Hindu shrines outside India.  Standing in front of the caves is the world’s largest statue of the Hindu deity Murugan – it’s 140 feet tall!  Entering the caves requires climbing 272 steps (it was about halfway up the stairs that Ryan realized he was glad I hadn’t agreed to the race up the KL Tower!).  Several smaller statues and shrines sit inside the caves, and we saw many people praying and leaving offerings.  Prior to visiting, I hadn’t realized the caves were still used by Hindus today, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they felt about so many tourists trampling through their sacred place.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Unique Hilltribe Trek

One of the things we really wanted to do in northern Thailand was a hilltribe trek – a multi-day hike through the countryside staying overnight in minority villages – and one of the reasons we opted not to go to Chiang Mai was because the treks leaving from there don’t have a very good reputation.  Though treks from Chiang Mai are extremely popular, many people seem to come back from them disappointed – saying they only got to see villages set up for tourists to visit (which are apparently quite common in the area) and not places where people actually live, that they were never able to talk to any villagers because the villagers were only interested in selling souvenirs, and that the guides hustled them quickly from one activity to another (hiking, visiting “villages”, souvenir shopping, elephant riding, rafting, swimming – all in one day) without allowing time to really enjoy any of them.  We knew we wanted to do some hiking and see Thai village life, but trekking from Chiang Mai (and, to a lesser extent, I think, the other touristy towns of Chiang Rai and Pai) didn’t seem like it would offer we were hoping for.  So we were really happy to hear about the possibility of trekking from Mae Sariang – and we were fortunate that one of the town’s two trekking organizers was available while we were there.

After a 30-minute or so drive out of town, we headed into the jungle with our guide, who didn’t speak much English but was friendly enough.  The hike on the first day was great, and not too difficult, other than one incredibly steep area in which the ground was completely covered by slippery leaves.  After hiking about thirty minutes, we came to the first village, a cluster of stilted houses made of bamboo in the middle of the jungle.  We stopped there and ate some tiny bananas and mandarin oranges while our guide greeted somebody he knew.  One of the most surprising things to me was the how open most of the houses were – in fact, my mom asked, “Where are the door and the walls?” when I showed her a picture of one!  Many of the houses we saw were effectively lacking a wall around the front “room,” which was usually covered by a tin or thatched roof held up by a few poles but otherwise mostly open to the outside.  None of the houses had any furniture either, save for a couple mats on the floor.

After hiking through the jungle for a few more hours, we stopped in another village.  All the villages we visited during the trek were populated by the Karen, an ethnic minority group living in Thailand and Burma.  Northern Thailand has several ethnic minorities, referred to collectively as hilltribes, with other well-known groups including, Akha, Lisu, and  Hmong.  The people of these tribes are quite separated from mainstream Thai culture; each group has its own language, and they all live primarily in remote areas.  There is a much higher level of poverty, as well as lower living standards, among hilltribes than other Thais.

In the second village we stopped in, our guide took us to visit a family living in the village, and we spent a couple hours in their home.  We ate a lunch there of rice and vegetables – Ryan and I opted against having chicken – with fruit for dessert.  Around the time we finished lunch, it started to rain, so we hung out at the family’s house until it let up enough for us to continue.  Fortunately, they didn’t seem to mind having strange white people sitting on their floor all afternoon – in fact, they hardly noticed us.

As we made our way out of the village, we came to a group of people standing around outside.  Curious as to what was going on, we stopped.  Lying on the ground was a live but sedate pig, clearly about to become someone’s (or maybe the whole village’s) next meal.  We expected the pig’s throat to be slit.  I didn’t watch what happened instead, but they apparently set the pig on fire.  The pig was burned alive.  I don’t know much about hunting or butchering, but I can’t imagine that’s the standard means used to kill a pig.

A few more hours of hiking past rice paddies and we arrived in the village where we’d spend the night.  Our guide took us to a family’s house – whether he knew the family or just decided we’d stay with them because they happened to be at home was never really clear.  In the family was a 36-year-old man who’d just married a 15-year-old girl, apparently a common practice among the Karen.

After another meal of rice and vegetables, we hit the hay, tired from the day of hiking.  This house was, like many others, stilted and comprised of a partially enclosed front room and a back room that was actually indoors and served as both the kitchen and bedroom.  The back room in most houses in that area has a fire pit in the middle of the room where all the cooking is done.  I didn’t really understand how that wasn’t a fire hazard – or maybe it is – and I’m sure exposure to the smoke is damaging to everyone’s lungs.  Imagine building a campfire inside.  Anyhow, Ryan and I spent the night on a mat on the bamboo floor on one side of the fire, and our hosts, the newly married couple, slept on a mat on the other side of it.  It wasn’t horribly uncomfortable, but I wouldn’t want to have to sleep like that every night.

We woke up early the next morning, to the sound of people cooking breakfast over the fire in our room.  Thailand doesn’t seem to have any typical breakfast foods – most Thai people eat the same things for breakfast as for other meals.  Our hosts and some neighbors, as well as our guide, had rice for breakfast, but our guide grilled bread over the fire to make toast for us.

After breakfast, we headed out for our second day of trekking.  The second day was quite a bit hotter, and the hike ended up being much harder than day one.  Part of the difficulty came from hiking straight through the middle of several rice paddies, which were wet and extremely slippery and had no real path to walk on.  Plus I felt like we may be trampling someone’s crops.  The views looking out over the bright green paddies and to the hills beyond them was great, though.  Eventually, we made it to the beginning of the end of our trek – a series of six waterfalls, each providing a much appreciated mist, perfect for cooling us off a bit.  The end of the trek took us back to the main road where we ate a lunch of noodle soup in a small restaurant that seemed like it probably didn’t get many foreign patrons.

The next day, we left Mae Sariang for Chiang Mai to catch our flight the following morning.  We really only spent a few hours in Chiang Mai, and I’m sure we could have easily filled a couple days there.  But, while the city seems to offer a lot to do, I’m really glad we opted to spend our time in the north in Mae Sariang instead.  Though nice, Chiang Mai was a typical tourist town – everything in English, every other business a tour agency, more foreigners than locals on the street.  Coming from Mae Sariang, it practically felt like another country.  We were also skeptical of many of the tour agency’s promises of visits to “undiscovered” hill tribes and “unknown” villages.  Given that agencies in Chiang Mai take tourists on those trips everyday, and that there were hardly any foreigners at all in Mae Sariang, much less trekking out there – our guide and the people in the village we visited said there hadn’t been any trekkers in two months – I felt like we got the real deal.