Hiking the Burma-Thailand Border
If you’re the type who seeks holiday bliss under jungle canopy and thatched village roofs, you’ll find everything you need along the trails straddling the Thai-Burma border. Nicholas Klar dons his hiking boots and heads into Karen country
Hot and crowded Bangkok is all very well but everyone has their limits. For myself it took only a couple of days’ immersion in the Thai capital’s snarling traffic and debilitating heat to turn my thoughts toward greener, quieter climes. Soon my travelling companion and I were evolving an escape route to the north-east of the country - via the ancient Thai capital of Sukhotai and Chiang Mai, the latter being a very popular starting point for the plethora of jungle treks offered in Thailand. However, acting on the advice of a friend, we caught a one-hour flight over the mountains to the village of Mae Hong Son that lays on the border of Burma (Myanmar). A bus can also be used but takes all night with very little saving. In fact the one I took on my return to Chiang Mai actually cost me twenty baht extra!
We checked in at a local guesthouse then set out down the main drag to explore our trekking options. We eventually settled for a three-day trek with a wiry old local with a penchant for cigars by the name of Aran. Duly arriving at his shop at 9am the next morning the three of us set out by tuk-tuk to our starting point about twenty minutes out of town. Aran had done this tour hundreds of time and was obviously well known along the route. We stopped early for a cup of Chinese tea with the village elder at in what was known as a ‘Red Karen’ village.
“A significant number of the ethnic Karen people have fled across the border during the many years they have fought the Burmese government for independence.”
A significant number of the ethnic Karen people, who like Native Americans do not traditionally recognise state borders, have fled across the border during the many years they have fought the Burmese government for independence. Many are Christians, but obviously the tag ‘red’ also draws up communist implications. Karen religious beliefs run the gamut from animism and Buddhism to visionary movements which prophesy a future, messianic king; Karen Christians refer to him as the ‘final’ Christ, whilst Karen Buddhists call him ‘the fifth and final incarnation’. In general terms the Karen are divided into the Sgaw, who live near Mae Hong Son and the Pwo to the south of Mae Sariang. Several other groups live across the border in Burma .
Elephants were plentiful along the track for the first day of our journey, all being gainfully employed for a variety of tasks. A pleasure to watch but there was a definite need to watch out for the more rambunctious ones! Unfortunately I later learned that in many cases the elephants are chained, beaten, and cut to act as human locomotives and tourist machines.
With the sky unable to make up its mind whether to drench us or leave us alone we paused for lunch under a rock alcove and then set out again with the cicadas in full song around us. We continued past the Pa Dong ‘Long Neck’ Karen village (that even had its own tourist office at the front). Aran deftly steered us away as visiting this tribe is inviting yourself into a patent tourist trap. The number one problem was that you must pay five hundred baht just to enter and then shell out more of the readies every time you click your camera shutter. Not much ‘red’ to be seen here.
“Our guide spent much of the night working his way through a litany of Buddhist chants for safe travel.”
Leaving the merciless punters behind it was then onwards and upwards to another ‘Red Karen’ village perched on a hill where we would stay for the night with a local family. Our host, a raggedy old fellow holding a well-worn rifle, met us at the gate and providing what I considered was an excellent impersonation of a campesino rebel. Before bedtime on the rough wooden floor our host family sang us hymns in the Karen language, plus the Karen national anthem. I slept well but my friend was kept awake with the scuttling of rodents whilst Aran spent much of the night working his way through a litany of Buddhist chants for safe travel.
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