Our three days with Karen Hill Tribe
14.12.2015 - 16.12.2015 75 °F
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!