She giggled uncontrollably, covering her mouth and leaning her face forward into her lap. She had just unwrapped her long, dark locks from the twisted towel holding them up, revealing two pink child’s clips, pinning back her bangs. Her girlish chuckle sent all of us into a joined, raucous laughter, rolling backwards onto the bamboo mats, eyeing each other with a solidified sense of human connection.
Mama, we called her, had just tried to blow on the deck of cards sitting atop an empty Chang bottle. Sitting around the circle, we each took a turn blowing on the stack. The aim was to not be the person to blow the last remaining cards onto the floor, or you would be punished via Thai whiskey shot. Having trouble with the actual technique of getting any of the cards to even move, Mama was so entertained by her own failure that she passed her turn to her husband, our homestay father, and directed one of her younger sons to take her shot for her (who so promptly refused).
The shaman of the village, papa had just finished cooking us a grand meal of grilled meats, sauteed vegetables and steamed brown rice. We had helped cut the vegetables and watched mama sort the rice as soon as we had arrived. While he cooked, one of his sons brought in a rat and a small bird, both of which were immediately charred and offered as appetizers. I passed on the rat, but the small bird…yep. Just like chicken.
Papa was now dolling out shots of the village’s moonshine, distilled in Grandma’s bamboo hut next door. I braced myself for its potency, surprised at its lack thereof. But, the warm, rice flavor induced faces that would suggest otherwise.
I’d started to miss the feeling of being with people who care more about you than how long you’ve traveled for. I was sick of having twenty-four hour friends and questions that left me feeling unsatisfied. As a solo traveler, you’re rarely actually alone. But, it’s also hard to get past the surface.
Choosing a trek from Chiang Mai wasn’t hard. I knew what I was looking for. My experience with LLama Path in Peru taught me how important it was to work with an environmentally conscious tour company – and not one that just uses green language as a marketing scheme. Turns out there just aren’t very many jungle trek companies like this in Chiang Mai. Thankfully, Pooh Eco came with rave reviews. They claimed to truly care about the land and worked with the local communities to plan the treks.
— We operate our own trekking program and do not allow commissioned sales from Travel Agents — Pooh Eco website
I had been worried that my experience visiting the Karen village, the indigenous Thai people, would be gawker-ish. That feeling that you’re staring into someone else’s life, without a true understanding of what you’re looking at. All over the north of Thailand, there are tours that bring tourists straight to villages just to “see”, barely interacting and definitely not connecting. I’d heard horror stories and wasn’t into that type of invasive experience for my Chiang Mai trek.
I also knew that the group I traveled with could make or break my time in the woods. Another risk of traveling solo – you just aren’t sure who you will end up with. I wonder now if the South African family, Mom, Dad, and the 17 and 18-year-old sons sensed my surprise to see them when they sat down at the table during our orientation. I stayed up late that night, thinking about what I would do if I didn’t end up liking my group.
“Eeeeeek!” I screamed while stumbling backwards from my squatting position, attempting to balance my camera on my chest so I wouldn’t drop it. After a three-hour drive into the Doi Inthanon National Park, we arrived to the sight of a large sow and seven baby piglets chasing her around. Obviously a killer photo opportunity, I scooted towards her with my camera in hand. Apparently feeding time is not picture time. My South African Dad chuckled in the background from beneath his traveler’s sun hat.
We wandered down the dusty road together heading towards our first stop on the two-day trek. Already dripping from the mid-afternoon sun, we were greeted with smiles emanating from the stoops of the village’s bamboo huts. We arrived at the school with box of cookies that we had picked up at a local market on the way. Ting spoke a few words to the kids and immediately the students rushed over to form a line. A few came up for seconds, hiding their firsts in their tiny hands behind their backs. I smiled, remembering my fifth graders in Houston at snack time, sensing the similarity of kids everywhere.
After playing the local recess games, it was time to start our real hike through the jungle. We started off slow and steady, preparing ourselves for the long journey ahead. I chatted with Mom and Dad mostly, warming to their strong sense of humor and adventure. I soon began to cherish the way Mom called everyone, including me, “lovey” with a smile that immediately embraced you. Her silliness and carefree energy were contagious. Dad’s stories of previous travels and the women he knew before his perfect family came to be entertained me for miles. And while the boys played every competitive game imaginable, as brothers do, my affection for my new South African family grew.
When we passed Poe Karen women working in the tobacco fields and men lugging metal bars up the mountains,Ting spoke with every person in their native Poe Karen language. He navigated us around cows, through rivers and up boulders. He taught us about poisonous plants, leaves that make bubbles, and picked berries which we could eat. At one point he asked, “do you want to see a tarantula?” “No…but, yes,” I responded, my heart already beating faster at the thought of the giant creature.
The day carried us quickly to our homestay for the evening. We arrived a couple of hours before sundown, just in time to watch our host mother cleaning the rice for dinner. We stripped our shoes and chased the chickens into their coops before finally sitting down to eat our much earned meal.
After dinner, our homestay Mama set up our beds in our bamboo hut, separating me in my own room so I could have my own space. It wasn’t until I walked into the eerily dark room next door, noticed the single mat and blanket on the floor and the lonely mosquito net draped above, that I realized I might be a little scared to sleep by myself. I peeked back into my South African family’s room, four bamboo mats lined right up next to each other right outside of my own room.
“Come sleep with us!” my South African mom yelled to me. The boys immediately moved their mats over as I, the official adopted daughter, pushed my sleeping sack in. As the five of us squeezed into our designated bamboo mat spaces, we giggled at the realization that as rustic as we were, none of us would be getting much sleep that night.
We awoke with stiff backs and tired eyes at sunrise to the literal cock-a-doodle-dos and dogs barking outside. We dressed, packed and drank our coffee from bamboo cups before heading out for our final trek day. Feeling closer after our sleepover, we took family photos and told jokes along the way through waterfalls, rivers, and a bamboo fire-lit cave.
With each sweaty step into the Doi Inthanon jungle, the closer we got to each other and to the smiles and hospitality that Thai people are known for. Ting, Mama, Papa, Grandma and all the the local children we met along the way showed us the human side of this infectious country that I hadn’t yet seen.
I left my jungle trek, beaming with a full soul and two new adopted families.
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