Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Lahu Tribe and our incredible Guide; Homie.

One of the most alluring reasons to travel to Chang Rai, a tiny morsel of a city, is its proximity to the various Hill tribes of Thailand’s northern forest region and the opportunity to experience them. When planning this type of overnight trek it is critical to have a tour operator and a guide that not only knows the area but can offer intimate experiences with the tribes (often done by speaking the elusive hill tribe languages).  Information about the history of the region is always a welcomed bonus. Upon settling in at the modest yet comfortable Golden Triangle Inn in Chang Rai, we set out on foot to interview the various tour operators and see which one fit the bill. 

After interviewing two tour operators who seemed to be more reluctant than eager to book our tour (not the best sign) we came across “Tourist Informations”, a Family-owned and operated tour service with the clever tag line, “We are honest in servicing & everything possible!”.  After speaking with Ane, the niece of the owner, we had a good feeling about the legitimacy of the tour. Ane allowed us to choose from two tour guides – Luu Niem, a young, vivacious and adventurous 25-year-old tour guide, or Homie, an experienced and incredibly knowledgeable 64-year-old guide who spoke the indigenous hill tribe languages and has been doing tours for 30+ years. We instantly connected with the idea of having Homie as our guide. Undoubtedly his pace would be a bit slower but that sat just fine with Michael and myself.

Our instructions were simple,: Bring a small bag with one change of clothes, bug repellant, some snacks, a bathing suit and flip-flops.  When asking Ane, “Are you sure there is nothing else we need to bring?”, she responded, “Well, yes… be sure to bring your heart.” At that moment my excitement solidified. We were about to wander the forests of Thailand and meet native tribes…finally!

We took off the next morning at about 10am and drove two hours outside of Chang Rai. Homie decided to take us up the back route and make a stop at one of his closest friend’s restaurants along the way for a home cooked meal. Who were we to argue? After

trekking for a few hours, we came across the roadside food stop, owned by Homie's friends, young couple who had their newborn baby along with them. She quickly whipped us up some delicious chicken fried rice and allowed me in the kitchen while she cooked. Michael and I fueled up and took to the road once again.  

Just a few hours later we arrived at the Lahu village. We entered an incredibly modest home 

and placed our backpacks down. The Madam of the village, also our hostess, welcomed us with a bucket of frosty beers and chilled water. We were eternally grateful. Homie suggested that we take a walk around the village to soak it all in while he take a small break from our trek. 

The sights were simply overwhelming. The village consisted of several small huts built up on stilts and covered by thick, woven bamboo roofs. Homie told us that if built correctly, the bamboo roofing could last close to five years.  Livestock, consisting of chickens and their young chicklets,

pigs, and family dogs all shared the same space as the children, teenagers and parents.  Hens sped across the paths protecting their black-tailed young as we wandered around. We received a mixed welcome from the members of the village. Some villagers seemed curious as to why we were there, some acted celebratory and others seemed flat out irritated, snarfing at our attempts to say hello. An extremely friendly woman who was in the midst of

preparing her banana tree leaves in bundles for next day's market wanted to take a picture with us. One glance at her T-shirt and and we couldn't refuse as it read, "New York, I love you but you're bringin' me down."!!! You simply can't make something like that up.

**As an aside, we completely understood the villagers varied responses to our presence, after all its not every day that someone walks into my apartment, says hello in a language I do not recognize and asks to take pictures of my daily routine.  We were careful to be as respectful and sensitive of their privacy as we possibly could. 

After moseying around the village and meeting just about everyone we headed back to our hut to prepare for dinner.  I took a glance inside the hut’s kitchen and immediately wanted to dive in 

and help!  I asked Homie if I could assist, he found this request rather odd.  I explained my love for cooking so he (a bit reluctantly) started to give me small tasks, peeling and chopping fresh cucumbers, onions and tomatoes. The kitchen smelled delicious. A raw fire was burning straight in the middle of the room as wrought iron pots and pans slowly brought oil and water to a sizzle and a steam.  My chopping board was a raw slab of tree trunk chopped perpendicularly.  The smell of the wood permeated each slice of vegetable. I had died and gone to heaven. After an hour or so of prep work Homie insisted that we take a break. Sounds of children playing right outside our hut

made the transition painless for me and I gladly agreed. I exited the kitchen to a view of the most precious kids I’ve ever seen!  Smiling and glowing faces, pure child-like joy, imaginations unfettered by afternoons in front of televisions, computers or video games, bounced up to say hello.  We played for what seemed like hours, never tiring of games such as low-five, high-five and three-rocks.

When we finally worked up a good appetite, dinner was served.  We dug into several dishes, consisting of fresh eggs with chopped chicken, tomato/cucumber/onion garnish, “American"

French fries, fried lima beans with a salty crust, chicken wings with spicy Lahu sauce and a boiled potato/onion dish. The tastes were indescribable! The family gathered round and we all dug in. The children gobbled up their food and the wives and husbands laughed as they took breaks to take sips from their beer and drags from freshly rolled tobacco cigarettes.  We were surrounded by love, happiness and delicious basic food and drink. It was one of the best meals of my life.

After about three hours 'round the dinner table it was time for bed. I could hardly wait for the morning. The thought of being woken up by the sound of a rooster and a crackling fire burning in time to prepare breakfast brought a smile to my face. Ane was absolutely right. We brought our hearts to the village and certainly left a piece of it behind.


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