In the Northwest corner of Thailand, Pai to be exact, we
set out on a paid two day expedition to a mountainous region
famous for opium production and smuggling, drug warlords,
and small tribal villages. Our local guide, Chat, was a compact
and muscular man in his mid-thirties equally adept at cooking
up breakfast over an open fire as fashioning a lethal gun
using a four-foot machete and the stock of a randomly selected
This good-natured and energetic man was charged with guiding
a randomly assembled group of 20 and 30-something Americans
and Canadians of varied educational and social backgrounds
(ranging from a pair of high-school burnout types where every
sentence began with "dude" to a pair of girls determined
to experience the opium up-close and personal) into the mountains
In the sweltering humidity and heat we laboriously climbed
through the woods, eventually reaching steep rocky and muddy
hillsides. Where our guide could easily make footholds in
crevices that would be a spacious home to an egg, our Western
feet struggled to find traction. After six hours of hard work
we reached a Karen village in the cooler mountain air. Our
sleeping accommodations were sleeping bags arranged side-by-side
in a large rectangular wooden hut with enough room inside
for perhaps 30 people and a large cooking pot and fire.
At night the temperature dropped from the daytime 90's into
the 50's, thus making the sleeping bags surprisingly useful.
Another surprising element was the nighttime appearance of
woman dressed in a long beige tunic typical of the neighboring
Shan tribe who, in fact, was the medicine man. The "medicine"
she provided was smoked in long pipes which were seen in profile
along the side of the hut, illuminated at night in shadow
cast by the low-level fire.
Nocturnal visits to the outhouse were made in the dark along
a narrow muddy path bordered by leafy brush, and over slippery
sticks of wood placed over small streams; one small slip and
you would quickly step into a smelly ooze. The night was quiet
and peaceful however, and morning brought a magnificent mist-shrouded
view of the surrounding mountains. Hiking out along the narrow
dirt paths of the village brought one face-to-face with enormous
oxen with bells around their necks that sounded at each of
their ponderous footsteps.
The return hike along a mountain ridge revealed small plots
of camouflaged poppy plant. Our decent took us across a moderate-sized
stream with potable water that tasted especially good in the
steamy environment, and afforded a nice rest stop before hiking
further through knee-high grass to a remote bridge where we
met a truck along a dirt road that took us back to our starting
The trip provided an opportunity to appreciate nature's beauty,
and the kindness of villagers living a simple life in the
mountains. It also provided a newfound appreciation of clean
shower facilities and a proper toilet.
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