First published in 'Shanghai Voyage' - October, 2003
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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.
In the morning we waited for the jam of water buffalo to clear the trail before commencing our journey for the day. Nestling amongst the jungle growth as we came to the crest of a range of hills was a burnt out village; it's poles and slats lying starkly black amongst the green. Apparently Burmese refugees (presumably Karen) who were forced back over the border in the 1990's by the Thai military had occupied it. Aran dryly informed us that if we headed down the valley we would be in Burma. Except that would not be sensible as the whole area was mined. Even if we missed the mines we would not want to encounter the Burmese military. A doctor in Bangkok had warned us of instances of suspicious foreigners being shot. The bodies were then cremated before being returned and their deaths would be attributed to innocuous reasons, such as 'road accident'. Illegal donkey rides to cross the border are available but obviously recommended only for those bearing any kind of masochistic streak.
The second day was much finer than the day before and we walked along a stream for a long distance with a canopy of humungous tropical greenery, including banana palms, fern trees and bamboo. That night our hosts were the Thai military themselves and we were put up in an old wooden barracks at a small local army outpost. My first response was apprehension but as the night unfolded we found them to be extremely jovial and friendly. The two sergeants, one a former kick-boxing champion, invited us that night to their mess for a dinner of roughage, chili, salt and rice in exchange for an impromptu English lesson. Our last morning saw us 'on patrol' at a cracking pace as our new friends insisted on accompanying us, automatic weapons included, to our final destination - a 'Long Neck' Karen village.
These people, also refugees from Burma, are similar to the Maasai of Africa whose women begin placing bands on their neck at a very early age. A long neck is regarded as a symbol of beauty but the bands cannot be removed because the neck muscles and spine rapidly become too weak to support the weight of the head. From the village we walked through rice paddies to a nearby 'Shan' town where our sergeant friends arranged for us to return with them in a truck to Mae Hong Son.
We arrived just in time to be greeted by a large festival procession quite reminiscent of some Hindu rites played out in India. My companion thought our trek was the best thing that they had ever done. Although we chose well and had no complaints about Aran (apart from some dodgy chicken on the last day) normal warnings apply. If taking a trek do some research first or try to get a referral from someone you trust. Safety, reputation and trust plus the company's consideration of local peoples, environment and customs should be the first considerations, rather than price. A jungle trek such as the one we experienced is something that will be remembered for life, and you want the memories to be good ones.
Prices for treks in Northern Thailand generally start at around US$100 and range up to about $350 depending on days and group numbers. The following companies are just some of the many offering services. As services and management can change almost overnight they are provided as examples only and not necessarily recommended.
K-Trekking - 238/5, Chiangmai-hod Rd., A.muang Chiang Mai Tel.: 66-053-431 447 or Fax: 66-053-431 447 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
New Frontier Adventure Co. - 53/54 Onnutch 17, Suan Luang, Bangkok. Tel: 66-2300-3670, 66-2717-9950 Fax: 66-958-4305 E-mail : email@example.com
T.N.TOUR LTD. - 107/17 Khunlumprapas Rd. T. Jongkam muang Mae Hong Son Tel. 66-53-620-059,620-557,613-454 Fax: 66-53-620-060 E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
JKET (JorKoe EcoTrek) is located below the Panorama Hotel in Mae Hong Son
Bangkok / Chiang Mai - 12 flights per day = 2,275 Baht
Mae Hong Son / Chiang Mai - 3 flights per day = 870 Baht
Festivals in Mae Hong Son:
Muang Sam Mok Festival - February
Poi Sang Long Festival - April
Chong Para Procession - October
Bua Tong Blossom Festival - November
Loi Krathong - November
This article is part of a series relating to our lives abroad. For more articles click here