On my recent trek through the Karen hill tribe region of Northern Chiangmai, I was surprised to discover that a package tour could offer a chance to intimately experience exotic cultural practices so different from my own. I am not talking about the Karen, who outside of our tour guides, we had virtually no contact with, I am talking about the other people on my tour. I am from upstate New York, and the cultures of Texas, Germany, England, Czech Republic – they are quite foreign to me.
We piled out of our tuk tuk – which is Thai for “pick up truck that sucks to ride in” – at the trailhead, inside Inthanon National Park. My friend Jess and I hop out of the front seat, where we had been enjoying the company and cd collection of our driver, who either loves John Denver or assumes that we do.
The other hikers all seem a little sick from fours hours of inhaling dust and being thrown around like cattle in the flatbed of the truck. Someone begins retching by the side of the road while one the British girls asks us, “Is there a reason you two got to sit up front?” “The reason is we showed up late,” I reply, hoping for a smile, but the girl replies, “Right then.” In my culture these words mean “at a particular juncture in time,” but I surmise that in her country it means something different – my exploration of foreign customs has begun.
Our Karen guides, Tri and Bi, pass down our packs from the roof of the tuk tuk and we hit the trail. We are heading to a Karen village high up in the hills, where we will spend the night. There are not a lot of viable sources of income up here, so some villages have opened their doors to eco-tourism. We’re walk single file, through terraced rice fields and past farmers relaxing on front stoops, along rivers and below tall fig trees.
We don’t make it to the village until after dark. As Tri passes out sleeping bags, Jess nudges me and nods towards a man sitting on a log in the shadows, smoking a cigarette. It’s our driver. The isolated hill tribe village we just spent 8 hours carrying heavy backpacks to, it has a road.
The next day we spend hiking through the jungle, along old, well worn paths and over rickety bamboo bridges tied together with string that I honestly cannot believe I am paying someone money to risk my life walking over. The jungle is lush, green, alive. There is no trash, no signs, no buildings, but somehow it feels civilized rather than wild, like someone’s very overgrown backyard. The paths are wide and well maintained; the occasional picnic clearing is cut into the trees. This jungle, surrounded on all sides by a scattering of villages, is not the backcountry: it is a neighborhood.
We pass two women out collecting wild orchids – not to sell, Tri tells me, but just to have. I watch these women, hanging out in the middle of a beautiful jungle clutching fistfuls of orchid plants, and I want their orchids. I want their lazy days spend hanging out by a river in the jungle. For a moment I want their lives, until I remember they don’t have the internet, and even if they did there is probably no Internet Scrabble Club for the Karen language. The jealousy fades.
That evening, gathered around a fire, the Germans bust out the whiskey, and Bi busts out a guitar (Huh? What truck? I had this all day) and starts taking requests. Given our diverse cultural backgrounds, we cannot decide between The Beatles and The Eagles, and finally agree we should each just sing our national anthems. Jess and I, and another girl whose name I only remember as Texas, perform a rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, complete with fist pumps. The English mumble through a few lines before apologizing that they’d rather not go on because one, they don’t know the words and two, there is “a rather bad bit about Scotland” in there. Next the Czechs stand and after the drunk Germans tell them to “just sing whatever you want” they give a quiet, soulful performance of their anthem.
The next day we are rafting to “where we can meet back up with the truck,” on bamboo rafts Tri and Bi have built themselves. The rafts are 100% bamboo, down to the strips they are tied together with. If you ever need anything built out of bamboo – a boat, a house, a rice cooker, a life-threatening bridge – find a Karen to do it for you. They are bamboo wizards.
As we are rafting down the river, up ahead of us is a brigade of scouts. The boys are chopping down bamboo with machetes as they’re building an irrigation system that moves water from the river to their campsite, while the girls are, of course, cooking. Ugh. Scouts. Turning sexist gender roles into a good time since the invention of kerchiefs. “Give the girls the machetes!” I want to yell, but I don’t speak any Thai except for hello so instead I yell, “Hello!”
The scouts all say hello back, and then we all realize something at the same moment: we cannot stop the rafts. We are going to crash straight into the complex bamboo irrigation system they have running over the river. Chaos erupts. The boy scouts are running around like ants who’ve had their nest stepped on, alerting scout leaders and evacuating the shoreline around the bamboo structure, while a few of the braver boys run into the river to try and lift up the pipes so we can pass under them. Only these kids are like 7 years old, they are short, they are useless.
Our raft crashes straight into the bamboo, hooking itself to the pipes. The bamboo bows dangerously, bending under the force of the water, until the second raft crashes in behind us, catapulting us forward like an arrow shot out of a bow, and then snapping the irrigation system to pieces. We emerge relatively unscathed, thanks to Tri and Bi’s fantastic raft construction, but in our wake is a pile of soaked, mildly injured boy scouts and the broken pieces of their complicated project. The girl scouts are kindly trying to hide their laughter. We float away, towards the tuk tuk waiting for us downstream. Who knew eco-tourism could be so destructive.