A Travellerspoint blog

Doi Inthanon National Park

Our three days with Karen Hill Tribe

sunny 75 °F

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Doi Inthanon National Park (aka 'The Roof of Thailand') is about 60 km southwest of Chiang Mai City, and its namesake, Inthanon Mountain, boasts the highest peak in Thailand at 2,565 meters (about 8,415 feet). The Park is also home to several hill tribe villages that have been established for centuries, and are therefore "grandfathered in" as the only people allowed to live and farm on the protected land. We were lucky enough to spend three days in one of these villages, the Karen Hill Tribe, and enjoyed guided hikes and treks with locals from their village.

Monday morning we were picked up bright and early by our driver, Jackie, who is not a hill tribe native, but is from a city just south of Chiang Mai and has been driving tours to the Karen Village in Doi Inthanon for the last six years. We would get to know him well over the next three days, and were greeted most mornings with a small keepsake that he weaved out of palm leaves. Also along for the ride was Randy, an American ex-pat who was our point of contact for the arrangement of our journey. He spent two years in Thailand during the Vietnam War, learned the language, and was asked to return 10 years later as a translator for his church during a mission project. That was 25 years ago and he's been in Thailand ever since. He runs a business called All Thailand Experiences where he organizes all types of guided tours in the ouskirts of Chiang Mai using local guides, and therefore contributing directly to their local economies. We didn't see much of Randy after this ride as his big thing is to drop people off with the hill tribes and let them interact directly with the villagers for the entirety of their stay.

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We had the unusual, but in our opinion, lucky opportunity to have a different guide on each of the three days we were there: Loti, Boontom, and Joseph. Each had a decent grasp of the English language (Boontom's was the best), and although this barrier was frustrating at times, we really liked the experience of walking through the village they grew up in and listening to them chat with their neighbors is their native tongue, which as it turns out is not Thai. The only word in the Karen language that we learned was “thank you”, which was pronounced “tab-bloot”, but could also mean “mad” if you didn't use the correct inflection. To lessen any confusion we always made sure we were smiling when trying to thank someone.

Day 1: After the drive from Chiang Mai, Loti took us on a short hike to see the Siraphum Waterfall, followed by a longer hike on the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail that winds through a cloud forest and out to a great view of the valley below (photo above). We finished with a short drive to the summit of Doi (Mt.) Inthanon, after which we returned to the village and unpacked our belongings at our modest bungalow along the Mae La-Up River. We ate dinner with Loti and Jackie who spent a lot of time showing us random photos and videos from their phones. All of our guides, besides Boontom, seemed fascinated with showing us odd things things on their smart phones. Our guess is they felt the need to entertain us, and this was the only way they knew how with the language barrier. It's also possible that they haven't had access to smart phones and the internet as long as we have; Loti shared with us that their village has only had electricity for the past ten years. Speaking of which, the temperature was close to freezing that night and while our cabin did have electricity and running water, it did not have heat. We didn't exactly come prepared for this type of weather, so we put on practically all the clothes we had with us and hoped for warmer weather the next day.

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Day 2: We got an earlier start this morning which began with a traditional Thai breakfast. Yes, this includes a lot of rice, but the cool thing is that they grew and harvested this grain just a couple of months ago in fields right in front of us. We were also served an omelet that was more reminiscent of a frittata. Soon after we were dropped of at an unmarked trailhead and began our ascent of Doi Heo Soe (Tiger Head Mountain). Along the way we saw a couple of snakes, lots of birds, and one chipmunk. We stopped for many breaks to catch our breaths and view the stunning scenery. Six hours later we ended up back at the village and had dinner and a beer with Boontom and Jackie and met our final guide, Joseph, who would be taking us out the following day. Immediately after introducing ourselves, Joseph pulled out his cell phone and opened a saved YouTube video of some Celtic band covering a Christmas song, followed by an almost endless webpage of gold clocks that he thought were the coolest things ever. After dinner, we were pretty worn out from the hike and crashed early.

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Day 3: We (i.e., John) requested an earlier start to try and see some more native birds: blue-throated barbet, scarlet minivet, Mrs. Gould's sunbird, and white-headed bulbul. John couldn't get photos of all these and therefore fired Joesph and demanded a new guide (not true). After a waffle and omlete breakfast, including coffee grown, harvested, and roasted on site, we got a more proper tour of the village. Among the stops, we visited the elementary school, coffee roaster, and cloth weaving in a small hut. We broke for lunch, requesting noodles over rice, and then embarked on a hike from the top to the bottom of the park's largest waterfall. Once again we wound our way through the forest and ended up back at the village. Finally, we packed up our things and headed north to Chiang Mai where we would spend two more nights before taking an overnight train back to Bangkok.

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Chiang Mai was a great city, a bit larger than we expected, but still small enough to get around and explore fairly easily. Next we hop on a short flight to Hanoi, Vietnam!

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Posted by carpentrek 23:07 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Thai Farm Cooking School

Some like it hot

sunny 86 °F

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Attention fans of Thai food: you're in luck because today we graduated from the Thai Farm Cooking School and will be bringing our new skills back to the States to share.

We started the day at an indoor food market to check out the local produce, spices, etc. that were for sale. There were a lot of familiar foods, some not so familiar, and some very bizarre ones too.

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Our guide and chef, Garnet, was trained at the Johnson and Wales University in Singapore and is without doubt the most enthusiastic human being on the planet. She kept us on our toes and made sure that we were all having a good time. We were one of five couples, three of which were also from the US and the other from Hong Kong. Shortly after arriving at the farm we got a tour of their organic garden where many of our ingredients were grown, right outside of our open-air kitchen.

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There were options to choose from for each of our five courses, so we made sure to pick different items to get the most well rounded experience. We each made a soup, an appetizer, a curry (which we pounded from scratch in a stone mortar), a stir fry, and finally a dessert. Surprisingly, we managed to eat just about every bite. Garnet also made a fresh papaya salad for everyone to taste, and demonstrated the correct ways to prepare both jasmine and traditional sticky rice.

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And here is a yet to be identified bird (olive-backed sunbird?) hanging out by the kitchen!
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Posted by carpentrek 04:40 Archived in Thailand Tagged school farm cooking coconut thai soup curry Comments (1)

Elephant Nature Park

sunny 84 °F

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Today was elephant day! Our Elephant Nature Park guide picked us up in a van from our guesthouse at 8 AM and we, along with seven other people from all over the world, began the 1.5 hour journey to the countryside. The big city of Chiang Mai gradually faded into smaller towns until we finally arrived in the mountains and were greeted with the picturesque views we had hoped for.

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Upon arrival at ENP we were led to a feeding platform to feed cucumbers and sweet potatoes to our first elephant, Lucky. Lucky is unfortunately completely blind due to mistreatment before being rescued, but is thriving at ENP and is very familiar with this feeding ritual. As we took turns gently placing food in the crook of her trunk, we were also allowed to pet her. This was honestly a little terrifying at first-- we had just watched a safety video on the ride there that reiterated the fact that an elephant can send a human catapulting through the air with about the same amount of effort we use to swat away a fly--but Lucky was very gentle, and much more interested in the veggies than the humans providing them. We learned today that Asian elephants, who are smaller and shaped a bit differently than their African cousins, spend 18 hours a day eating, so they are highly motivated by food.

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After feeding, our tour guide, Aeh (pronounced "ay") took us for our first walk through the park. Along the way we were introduced to several different elephants, all of whom were female and had their own names and backstories. We were allowed to pet most of them, as long as we moved slowly and made sure the elephant was always aware of our whereabouts. Spooking an elephant can lead to the aforementioned catapulting. One of the last elephants we met on this walk was Mae Pam, ENP's very first elephant who came to the park in 1995. She was very sweet, and curious, and was accompanied by her best friend Jakia. Jakia was the first blind elephant ENP's founder, Lek, rescued and she wasn't sure how the other elephants would react to her disability. Luckily, Mae Pam took her under her wing from day one, and they've been best friends ever since. Lek has since acquired several other blind rescues, as this is sadly a common problem among working elephants.

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After lunch, we joined the elephants by the river and bathed them by splashing water on them with buckets, which they seemed to love. We then took another walk to meet a family of elephants with a 2-year old named 'Baby Boy' who was just the cutest! Unfortunately we could not pet, or get very near him because mama elephant wouldn't like that, but it was still a great experience to be able to see him.

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Posted by carpentrek 06:53 Archived in Thailand Tagged nature park elephant thailand chiang mai Comments (1)

Bangkok -- Chiang Mai

Street Food and Street Crossing

sunny 94 °F
View Land of Smiles on carpentrek's travel map.

Today began with yet another helping hand from our Air BnB host, Surat, who called us a cab to take us to the train station from his apartment. While we waited, we spent time chatting with his wife, Carol, and their 10 month old baby. Carol is from France, met Surat seven years ago in Thailand and decided to stay. Even though we could have avoided some of the difficulty navigating with cab drivers if we had stayed in a hotel, we are really glad we stayed with Carol and Surat. They live in a cute little neighborhood where everyone knows everyone and people set up shop right in front of their homes to sell food and trinkets to passersby. We enjoyed walking the streets and getting a peek into day to day life in a small neighborhood of Bangkok.

After arriving at the train station where we would eventually catch a ride to the airport for our flight to Chiang Mai, we had some time to kill and we were hungry. We found a food market right under the station that turned out to be one of the more authentic places we've encountered, bearing no English subtext in the menus for westerners. There were dozens of food vendors with goods ranging from fresh fruit, soups, curries, coffee, smoothies and some things I couldn't even begin to guess what they were. After browsing the options, we settled on a vendor offering steamed rice and a choice of two sides for the competitive price of 30 THB (about $0.83)! We split a plate (after all it was only 10 AM) and it was delicious! We ate every bite except for a few unidentified objects, one of which may or may not have been some type of bean, and another that we think was cabbage, but had the vague appearance of a tentacle. We are trying to be adventurous here, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

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Jump ahead five hours and we arrive in Chiang Mai, the unofficial capitol of Northern Thailand. From what we had heard, we expected Chiang Mai to be this sleepy, quiet town, and that is not even close to the case.There is still no way we are getting behind the wheel of a moped, or even a bicycle here. Just like in Bangkok, even crossing the street as a pedestrian is a sheer act of bravery. We can see how it could be described as "chill" (as Surat put it) in comparison to Bangkok, but there are no doubts that it is still a big city. Our guesthouse is not the nicest, but is really cheap and has a nice pool, and outdoor restaurant that has a menu so large it literally has a table of contents. We are staying just outside of the "Old City", a historic square that was once enclosed by a wall of which only some remnants remain, but is still surrounded by a moat. So far, we've really enjoyed the availability of restaurants and bars that line the streets here in comparison to where we visited in Bangkok. For dinner we found a vegetarian cafe and got some of the best curry we've ever had. John ordered medium spiciness as I stared at him in horror (I had heard that medium here is like extra hot in America) but we were actually able to handle it. The nights here are definitely cooler, and we enjoyed sitting in our guest house's outdoor lobby and splitting a Chang beer to finish off the night.

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Posted by carpentrek 18:57 Archived in Thailand Tagged food street city chiang mai old Comments (0)

"City of Life"

sunny 93 °F
View Land of Smiles on carpentrek's travel map.

We are currently at rest on the private roof-top patio at our apartment. Earlier we learned that navigating in Bangkok is not for the faint of heart! Luckily our host, Surat, has helped us find our way around, and more importantly, our way back to his place by speaking to our cab drivers over the phone in Thai. He even offered us his scooter to get around on, but we declined; after seeing how people drive around here, we are glad we didn't accept.

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We don't think it's quite sunk in yet that we are on the other side of the globe. If it weren't for our visit to Wat Pho and our complete lack of a Thai vocabulary, it has at times felt like we are in some secret corner of NYC. The past 48 hours has been a whirlwind - over 20 practically sleepless hours on three different planes that somehow went surprisingly fast, haggling for an ancient cell phone in a humongous mall so we can make local calls, and finally getting out to experience a different way of life.

We'll be back and forth from this city a few times, but tomorrow we have an early afternoon flight up to Chaing Mai in northern Thailand. It will be much more laid back and pastoral up there, which we're both looking forward to. We've got lots planned so be on the lookout for photos of baby elephants and tips on how to make coconut soup!

Posted by carpentrek 01:40 Archived in Thailand Tagged bangkok wat pho Comments (1)

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