Our guide Lowey points to a hole in the reddish-baked earth and says “snake”. He tells us it’s easy to identify snake homes because the holes are rounded and smooth. I became acutely aware of every hole with smooth edges for the rest of the trek; silently sizing them up in my mind to correspond with the most horrifically-sized snake my imagination could conjure. Luckily, I’m proud to report that there were no snake encounters on this trip at all. Lowey is a jovial man; he seems to know just about everyone along the trail and particularly enjoys casting a wide net of jokes into our little troupe to see if he gets any nibbles. “No joke, no fun. No fun, no baby”, he says with a broad smile. As we puff up the steep mountainside with our packs, he takes many light-footed steps in his sneakers around the earth’s cracks and shiny flecks of mineral that he calls “white gold”. We put our complete trust in Lowey to guide us through 12 miles through the jungles of northern Thailand to the Karen Village.
Your guide will dictate the experience.
There are dozens of similar tours in the same location following a similar itinerary. The key difference is selecting a guide and group size that will enhance your experience. If you are traveling with a few friends, I would recommend arranging a private tour. If you are traveling solo or as a couple, try to get an understanding for how many others will be joining the tour. If you want a guide that will take you to a unique experience, it’s best not to skimp out by signing on to an overcrowded “cookie cutter” tour. We specifically told Lowey that we preferred not to ride any elephants due to the cruel process used to tame them for riding (read more on reasons to not ride elephants here.) Instead, we asked to visit a temple of his recommendation and he took us to a marvelous Wat that we had all to ourselves. It would have been difficult to make modifications in the itinerary outside of a private tour.
Fires are universally mesmerizing.
Shortly after arrival to the village, our host prepared a campfire near our sleeping area. He, of course, was born in the village and had a large family that still lived within and near neighboring areas. As night fell, we huddled around the fire for warmth and light. Children and their accompanying parents began to appear one by one, each group bringing a piece of firewood to contribute. We shared a bag of stale shrimp chips and a water bottle of homemade village rice moonshine which filled our stomachs and hearts with warmth. It felt that we had a common appreciation for the beauty of the velvety night sky, peppered with stars from the milky way. We took turns poking and prodding at the crackling fire and murmured hushed thanks when one of the villagers would reach into the darkness and procure another piece of firewood to feed to the flames. After the children and families had gone to bed, we stayed awake with a middle-aged village man and his wife. Lowey graciously acted as our translator as we traded questions about daily life and beliefs in the village in contrast to our own lives in California. We learned that women are held as authorities in Karen culture and that her spirit is tied to the home for protection. When a woman dies, the home is abandoned and must be reconstructed elsewhere to start again.
Brush up on your nursery and folk songs.
Visiting the children of the Karen Tribe and their schools was a major highlight of the trek for our entire group. The kids were keen enough to know that goodies awaited them inside of the plastic bags we carried– admittedly full of candy, toys, and supplies from the town we had shopped in before the hike. We were invited into the kindergarten classrooms where we were greeted warmly as guests and participated in a few songs. A quick after school soccer game also erupted, causing a frenzy of young kids artfully chasing the ball with their sandals on. On the morning of our return back to Chiang Mai, we sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” including hand movements to an entire class. I hadn’t realized how large of a memory gap had grown since the days I was playing in the playground tanbark, but it sure felt good to knock off the cobwebs.
Enjoy the strange and unexpected.
While this could be said for many things in life, I think it especially applies when you’re traveling. Several hours into the trail, Lowey told us not to worry, because we were approaching a “7-11” store. I knew he had to be joking because we had been trudging uphill for quite some time without another soul in sight. We finally came upon a single raised hut and outdoor rest area, with a sign that had “beer, coke, water, and slingshot” written on it. A large ice chest sat below the sign with instructions to take what we wanted and leave our payment in a tin can. A few minutes later, an elderly yet spry man sporting a weathered woven hat came out of the trees carrying cold drinks to add to the cooler. It turns out he owned this little “7-11”, and appeared extra pleased to see Lowey. I watched as he carefully took a large pinch of tobacco leaves, crushed tamarind, and rolled it in a sheet of banana paper. He offered me a puff and despite being quite “anti-cigarette” myself, I found myself nodding yes because I wanted to share the experience with this person. The scent was musky, rich, and strangely intoxicating. Without another word, he pulled out several slingshots and we took turns shooting small stones at the targets he had rigged with plastic water bottles.
We ended up hiking 12 miles over the course of two days, visited a waterfall on each day, stopped by two Karen Village schools, fed dozens of pieces of firewood to the flames, and mastered just the right pronunciation to say “dah bluet” (with a question tone), which is thank you in Sgaw Karen. I sought out this trek because I was looking for adventure off of the beaten path; perhaps one I would even have trouble conveying in words. The village had opened up their hearts and homes to us, passed cups of their rice moonshine, and shared their attitude on a life lived in the present. Their sense of unwavering community, genuine hospitality, and dedication to family gave me a gentle reminder of how different my life is and has become. I can’t help but think what it may have been like if my parents did not leave southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Had I been born on this side of the world; would I still have the same sensibilities, morality, and spirit? While I may never be able to find the answer to such questions, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to observe and consider a way of life that has undoubtedly made an impact on my mind.
Protect: Jungle Juice mosquito repellent
Bring: Lightweight Towel and close-toed shoes
Eat: Everything offered to you
Stay: Overnight in the Karen Village