Racha Guest House, Chiang Mai
16th December 1985 2pm
I returned today to the ‘real’ world: traffic, newspapers and contacts with the encroaching western way of life.
For 4 days, 3 nights and 650 baht I have been trekking among the lands of the Meo (Hmong), Lua (Lawa), and Karen hill tribes to the south-west of here. On an immediate personal level, it was good to get the exercise. Travelling is generally sedentary: buses, trains and planes are not conducive to physical fitness. Generally too, one learns about urban life. Towns are where communication is easiest with the people of the country being passed through.
A trek with a guide in tune with the cultures met on route and not out to exploit his rich charges through sales commissions and the like is one way to discover the roots of a country.
In Pinan we had a truly sympathetic guide. Conversant in English and at least six Thai dialects, he was obviously known and, most importantly, well liked by the villagers we met. An erudite and intelligent man, he had spent a number of years training to be a Buddhist monk. With a degree in Buddhist philosophy and psychology, and English behind him, he has spent the past five years as a guide focussing on the less tourist orientated areas. Nowhere, therefore, were we greeted by villagers demanding 5 baht for a photograph or by simulated ‘culture shows’.
An example: “At Old Chiengmai Cultural Center guests will be treated with this never-to-be-forgot tradition in our airconditionned and wall to wall carpet hall.” (sic)
The first day we – Cliff and Andrea, Tom and Liz, Rom and myself – took gently. A cold ride in the back of a Toyota pickup truck (songthaew) took us to some hot springs. On the way we paused at a roadside market where I purchased tobacco to be wrapped in cut leaves for rolling it in. It was a difficult smoke, a lung chewer.
The springs area was landscaped for tourism, and the King sometimes visited, but we were the only people in sight. The King’s bathroom was locked while the water bubbled sulphurously at a temperature too hot to dunk oneself in.
On leaving a flat tyre was discovered, so I took a stroll up to a semi-derelict prefabricated building overlooking the track. Inside, two young men were sleeping off the effects of a bong. I had no intention of disturbing them – all I wanted was a loo – but they emerged anyway and gave me a leafy stem. With the seeds sorted out and some leaves wrapped in one of our tobacco leaves, we started our journey very amiably.
A songthaew in Udon Thani
Rom and I were somewhat puzzled by the road condition. A two-lane blacktop with an occasional sophisticated road junction, there seemed to be too little traffic to justify the expense. As we ascended into the hills the surface changed to impacted dirt, which was still far superior to many busier roads I have travelled in India.
Pinan later told us that the road network in the north of Thailand is essentially for military purposes. There is currently a drive by the government to eradicate the opium and heroin trafficking which emanates from this area, and to encourage the growing of alternative crops.
Around five we arrived in a Meo village which was to be our first night’s halt because we were to join in the celebrations of their new year. But first Pinan took us for a stroll past an opium poppy field which, for me, had as much interest as the adjacent cabbage patch.
Upland rice has replaced the poppies
The village celebrations consisted of the village males consuming a lot of Thai whisky, a cockfight which seemed interminable as the two roosters were unable to summon up the anger to do more than nibble at each other, and a film show.
A large screen was erected on the ground in front of the community centre and an area screened off with plastic sheeting for the auditorium. The roof was a vivid planetarium. Coca Cola was on sale, which disappointed me because I’ve yet to go somewhere and not see signs of it. For 10 baht – a donation to the school building fund after the mobile cinema entrepreneurs has taken their cut – we were treated to a BoHo Production.
Every cliché from every cheap cinematic genre was exploited. ‘Indiana Jones’, the hero, wore a trilby; 50’s cheap titillation – we never worked out why a dozen nubile ladies were for ever being chased by a dozen young men and a tiger; Tarzan was portrayed by a woman; cannibals; kung fu, with speeded up frames which failed to obscure the pulled punches; and snakes guarded the gold hidden in the caves. The dialogue was incomprehensible to us and, I suspect, the villagers.
Tom and Liz were the only ones who stayed to the end. This came when a drunken youth fired his gun causing a stampede by everyone down the pitch-black paths.
Perhaps he was a fan of cinema verité.