Thursday, April 12, 2012

Guest House, Mae Kok, Rafting and the Hill Tribes

"It was 20 years ago today.....". For those who follow the game of Cricket, my first and last visit to Chiang Mai and further north was in March 1992, during the Cricket World Cup.  After a 5-day teaching assignment at Chiang Mai University, I had taken a few days off to wander around the region between Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle, not too well known those days. Over the years, I have been keen to revisit northern Thailand.  

Guest House: My Dream Guest House is owned and run by Anan Kodo (Nan, for short), a Karen tribal with 24 years tour guide experience. He effectively converted a family owned plot of land into the guest house, located in a Karen Village called Khaew Waaw Dam, along the Mae Kok river. The village is about 30 km from Chiang Rai and about 7 km from the Ruammit Elephant Camp by road, towards Thaton, and about 9 km if you choose to go by boat along the Mae Kok river. We learnt that Nan started My Dream Guest House back around the year 2000. The beginning was very simple, with two teak and bamboo bungalows.

Transport: Nan was punctual, he reached our home stay in Chiang Rai a few minutes before 10:30 on April 10, to pick us up. The drive to My Dream Guest House was pleasant, we stopped along the way to buy pineapples grown on the hill slopes. 

Family effort: Nan is extremely hard working, he maintains the garden, sweeps the leaves, trims the bushes and keeps the area immaculately clean. During the high season he employs boys from the village to help him. Food is cooked by Nan and Mrs Nan. Their shy 9 y/o boy helps out with a smile. Their little 3 y/o daughter skips around the garden, kitchen and dining areas, without a care in the world. 

Bungalows and Garden: Today there are about 15 bungalows, some are river facing, and some are set in the garden. This is a look at Bungalow #3, where we stayed, from the outside.

Sitting in the verandah, we got a beautiful view of the garden, river and the mountains beyond. All you can hear is the "ssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh" of the flowing river, and occasional clucking of fowl and chirping of birds.

The garden is an incredibly peaceful area to sit, walk, read, listen or just doing nothing.

Walking down the slope from the bungalows, you get to see the river at water level, and the mountains across the river. 

The dining area is set closest to the river, a wonderfully peaceful place for a quiet cup of coffee, breakfast, lunch or dinner, with the soothing, gentle sound of the river in the background. 

Walking, rafting and touring plan: Earlier in the day, Nan had sketched out a high level plan for us, for the 3-days/2-nights that we would be spending at My Dream Guest House. 

Wanting to relax and not to get stressed out, we opted for short walks around the area for about 3 hours, until sunset. 

Walk 1: Karen Village in which the guest house is located. 

Khaew Waaw Dam is a village of a few hundred Karen people. The Karen people migrated to Northern Thailand from Burma. The main street is paved. Mud paths lead off to the villagers houses. Karen homes are built on stilts. Most houses tie pigs to the stilts, while dogs and chicken run around. Karen homes are square in shape.

A look inside a typical Karen home. "Imagine no possessions....". As simple as can be. The villagers work on rice, pineapple and other crops in the fields, depending on the season.

Most homes have a loom using which ladies weave garments, bags and so on. We bought a few shawls. The money helps them earn a tiny amount, buy materials, and pass on the skills to the next generation. Interestingly, the dyes are not synthetic. Mahogany and other leaves found in the area are used to make the home made dyes. 

Walk 2: About 200 metres from the guest house is a little path that leads to a suspension bridge leading to the mountains and many villages on the other side. You need to step aside as motorbikes pass by, carrying people, wood, baskets and almost anything else you can think of. 

A look up-stream, towards Thaton, as the sun prepares to set. 

This is the downstream view from the bridge (towards Chiang Rai). You get adequate warning when a motorbike comes along, since the entire bridge starts to vibrate and swing. 

We passed by Lahu villagers on their way back to their village after plucking Oulong Tea leaves, carried back in sacks. The Lahu people migrated to Thailand from China and Tibet.

A board at the entrance of the Lahu village lists the homes that form the village. 

Lahu homes are rectangular in shape, starting with a square shape for newly wed couples. The length of the home depicts the size of the family. As the family grows, homes are extended, which takes a few days. The neighbours help out in the home expansion effort. The space below the home is reserved for bamboo firewood. We were told by Nan that high, neatly stacked bamboo piles indicate a hard working family whom other villagers respect.

A young mother with her child. Other children may belong to the same family or other families. Kids keep wandering in and out of various homes. It's like a large family.

The government has installed solar electricity in many villages. Each unit can supply electricity to 2 bulbs overnight. The project has helped, among other critical activities, for child birth. Midwives assist in child birth at home.  

Walk 3: Follow the mud road along the river, opposite the guest house, leading upstream. The road is used by villagers on foot, on motorbikes and occasional pick up trucks.

A view of the garden and river facing bungalows of My Dream Guest House from across the river. It gets  dark rather quickly as the sun dips behind the mountains.

A look at the village petrol filling station, as we walk back to the guest house.

The relaxed feeling  continues well into the evening, sitting on the verandah of the bungalow, listening to the gentle "sssssshhhhhhhh" of the flowing river, as the setting sun quietly lights up the clouds in various shades of lavender and pink. Bright stars start to be visible, and it is time for dinner in the dining area, cooked by Nan. 

Bamboo Rafting: The thought of going bamboo rafting down the Mae Kok had been as exciting for us as had been our anticipation of the snorkelling experience at the Similan Islands. A rare, first time experience for us. We were ready at 08:30 after a quick breakfast. The bamboo raft had actually been transported by road in two parts, and had been re-assembled at the guest house early in the morning. Nan checked the raft, complete with a floor mat, cushions and life jackets.

We gently set off downstream, under the suspension bridge that we had walked along the previous evening.

A typical scenery that passes by, mountains and dense vegetation, as the raft glides along soundlessly and seemingly effortlessly.

The Karen boatman deep in thought. He is also a farmer working on rice, pineapples and other seasonal crops.

We pass Lahu villages along the way, high up in the mountains. We learnt from Nan that pineapples are planted during the pre-monsoon rice season. We also learnt that the variety of rice is a special, mountain rice with roots that have evolved to prevent the saplings from getting washed away. I thought to myself that the tribal people probably have special balance and feet that enables them to walk up and down the mountain slopes with such ease.

While the distance from My Dream Guest House to the Ruammit Elephant Camp is 7 km by road, it is about 9km on the river. The river meanders along gently, though some of the curves are fairly angular.

The second boatman sits at the back of the boat. Together, they gently guide the boat on its course downstream using the oars. All you hear most of the time is an occasional little 'swish'.

A glazed look soon appears in the eyes. It can't be real, can it? Bamboo rafting down the Mae Kok is such a magical experience..!! 

Boulders like these are typical, and appear quite suddenly. The sound of the river changes in an instant from the almost soundless periods punctuated with the gentle swish of the oars to a garbled and relatively loud "whoooosh-whoooosh-whoooosh". 

The boatmen need to know every bit of the river including the many curves and boulders, small and large. Moreover, varying amounts of the boulders get exposed over the water as the level of water changes from season to seasons. Guiding the raft is an extremely skilled and responsible job, far harder than it seems, and far harder than the boatmen make it out to be.  

We stopped at a well maintained National Park with a Hot Spring (on the left of the picture). A lily pond is seen on the right. 

The temperature of the Hot Spring is about 56 degrees centigrade, okay for a quick dip of the finger. Don't drink, only touch, we were told. 

As we approach the Ruammit Elephant Camp, Nan explained to us that elephants were used extensively for logging in the past. Since logging has been banned, the elephants are now used to support the tourism industry, instead.  Nan's family owns two elephants. As we reach, the two boatman are up on their feet to guide the raft smoothly over to the pier using long, bamboo poles.

The gentle Ellies at the camp. There are now about 30 Ellies in the camp, we were told.

Jeep tour to the Hill tribes: After the rather surreal 2-hour bamboo raft ride experience from My Dream Guest House to Ruammit Elephant Camp, we  continued by jeep, up the mountain tracks, to the several Hill tribe villages. Nan had thoughtfully driven over to the camp early morning, parked his jeep there and had gone back to the guest house to escort us on the rafting trip to the elephant camp.

The Lahu people worship the spirits of their ancestors. Such offerings are commonly found along mountain paths. 

We went to a Lahu village and settled into a bamboo hut for lunch. It was quiet in the village. Children ran around from one house to another along steep tracks on the hill side. The space below the hut is filled with neatly stacked bamboo used for firewood.

The inside of the bamboo dwellings is extremely bare. Once again, it's a reminder of "Imagine no possessions...". Nan guides visitors on day-night treks, as a part of which they sleep in homes like these. The small sleeping area in the corner is typical, very simply furnished with a mattress, pillows and warm blankets. The colourful bags hanging on the pole are typical hand crafted items made by the villagers in their homes.

Our host, along with Nan, cooked lunch for us. They used Northern spices and herbs. The food was cooked over a fire lit using bamboo sticks. 

Our hosts mother joined us. She is skilled at weaving. We bought a few articles from her, a small gesture of support.

It turned out to be a huge meal, even after reducing the quantities that were served. Fresh, hot and delicious, though.

After lunch we looked around the village and then drove to a nearby waterfall, where we trekked up hundreds of uneven and slippery steps to reach the 20-feet high waterfall that is a popular picnic spot for the villagers during festivals and holidays.

Time to take a break, cool off and admire the dense vegetation.

A young lady from the Akha tribe has set up a stall to make spicy Som Tum salad. 

Nan then took us to the neighbouring Akha village. The Akha tribe originated in Southern China and has one of the deepest associations with rituals and spirit worship. This photograph is not for the squeamish. A dog had been recently sacrificed, and put up on the gate at the entrance of the village as a part of the ritual. The ceremony was meant to please the spirits. 

We wandered around the Akha village for a while as Nan said hello to his friends.  

An Akha villager sits outside his simple hut, puffing away at a pipe.

Spirit gates at the Akha village. The gates are carved, and signify entrances through which evil spirits leave and good spirits enter. We are permitted to photograph the gates, but not to touch them.

We visited a Lao village. The Lao people originated in Tibet, and appear to be more modern and prosperous compared to some of the other tribes. An old lady embroiders a garment very skillfully, both sides have the same pattern.

As we drive back to the guest house, village kids splash our jeep with water. It's the beginning of the Songkran festivities. 

Back at the guest house, there was just enough time for a quick walk across the suspension bridge before it got dark. We are going to miss our leisurely walks by the Mae Kok river. 

We sat in the verandah of the bungalow and watched another display of colours as the sun dipped behind the mountains. 

Nan invited us to join him and several relatives who had come in from Chiang Rai on the occasion of the upcoming Songkran festival. The atmosphere was warm and family like. The meal was extremely lavish, consisting of local dishes. 

The next morning, we walked around the garden for a while, along with chirping birds and fluttering butterflies.

Breakfast was, once again, at the dining area by the river. 

All packed up, ready to leave, a quick look around the teak and bamboo bungalow before the taxi boat arrives. 

During the high season, a long tail taxi boat service operates once a day in both directions between Thaton and Chiang Rai. Being the low season, we chartered a boat for the 30km trip to Chiang Rai.

Nan waves us good bye, as we set off for Chiang Rai. The trip was estimated to take between 45-minutes and 1-hour.  

Wind in our hair, we passed the Hot Spring, Ruammit Elephant Camp and continued further down the meandering Mae Kok river, expertly guided by the boatman between the boulders and along the curves. We reached Chiang Rai in just over 45-minutes.

A penny for Junior's thoughts as we chugged along to Chiang Rai.

Acknowledgement: Most photos (C) Junior.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What a fantastic, comprehensive account of your stay at My Dream GH! Great pictures, too!I hope to get there in the next few days.



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