Trekking Beyond Pai

Pai, Thailand

You learn a great deal when you spend a day and a night with the local people, even when it’s structured and touristic. All the better if you remember that you’re seeing one small corner of a much larger society, presented through one or two viewpoints; the perspective is less sociological than anthropological, which is to say novelistic and personal.

I went on a one-day, one-night trek with Pai Adventure, the same outfit that took me rafting, and with Paul, the same guide who steered our boat. Along the way, I learned about this part of Thailand, where the land of the Tai ethnic group butts against the Shan and Karen peoples in the Burmese borderlands, and what Paul thinks of it.

Into the farms

We began with a drive up past Hong Nam Saen, Pai’s bigger brother out on the main road, until we veered off, down a dirt road, and began our walk into the hills. Along with our guide, Paul, there were five of us: Tammie, a 52-year-old Aussie train driver and florist who has been to 71 countries; Liu, a young Japanese Ph.D. student in biochemistry; and a young French couple, Gaelle and Julian. Gaelle studied cultural management, which strikes me as a very French thing to study; Julian is a pilot, just beginning his career with a small Swiss airline. Julian was also rather ill as we began our trek, and I worried how things might go if his upset stomach worsened into something acute.

The first half of the day was spent mostly in farmland that has been carved out of the surrounding mountain jungle: fields of peanuts, red bean, and especially corn. As we walked, paul explained the economics of each crop — the price per kilo, the kilos a field could produce, how long a farmer had to work to grow that much — and came up with hourly rates that did not make farming seem like a good proposition. We calculated that the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of no one living on less than a dollar a day was being met by farmers who were earning something like B150 ($4.50 or so), but Paul also explained that when he worked on farms in his younger years, his B30 would buy him enough for a great heap of food at the market and a tuk-tuk home, while now just the tuk-tuk is B20. It makes sense that prices would be rising in a country that has an unemployment rate of less than 1 percent, and also that the rural farmers would bear the brunt of it.

Added to their burden is the corn situation. According to Paul, the government encouraged people to clear the jungle and plant corn, which the government promised to buy at a subsidized rate. You could hear the trees falling “like elephant crashing, boom! boom! boom!” Paul told us, waving his hands in every direction. The trouble began when the subsidies ran out. The corn variety the farmers grow is for animal feed, not human consumption, and whether it’s GMO or not I’m not sure, but it’s one of those types where you have to buy the seeds again each year. Without the government coming in to buy the stuff at fixed prices, Paul estimated that the farmers struggle to net more than B50,000 (about $1400) in a year on a plot of land that takes three people to work. The seeds, the weed killing chemicals, and even gasoline to ride motorbikes back and forth to the farm every day, cut into the profits. (All day we saw farmers putting by on motorbikes, up and down the rutted dirt trails, going empty into the hills and coming down with sacks of crops.)

We climbed up a long way into the hills, then stopped for a break in a small village where there was a shop run by an old Shan couple. The old woman served us coffee — hot water and Nescafe, which I hope is less disastrous than the “Mexican coffee” that did in my brother and me some years back — while the old man sat and sipped his can of Chang beer, setting it down beside two empties. It was 11:30 am.

A short while later, we stopped for lunch at a shelter in a cornfield. Paul pulled out plastic bags of rice and chicken curry, and we all tucked in, except Julian, who had just managed to keep down a few swallows of the warm Coke he’d bought back in the village. Paul topped it off with some bananas he’d cut from a farmer’s tree along the way, and then we all napped for a while to the buzzing of flies and the rustle of corn leaves.

Into the forest

The second half of the hike took us into wilder territory, off of the farmers’ motorbike paths and into dense forest with great stands of bamboo. As soon as we entered, the air was cooler, wetter, and still. Paul warned us to put on our bug spray: bamboo, he said, means mosquitoes. He also cut a leafy branch and began swatting it in front of his face as he led us, to knock away spider webs. I found out why when I took the lead a bit later — Paul made a pit stop — and walked into a couple of webs before attempting to make my own spider swatter.

We went up and down and up again through the forest, past spectacular karst mountains that we had seen at a distance at the beginning of the day and suspected Paul was joking about when he said we’d be walking to them. According to Paul, we started at 400 meters and topped out at around 1800.

Along the way, at one of our breaks, Paul told us a story. At the beginning of the world, the Buddha came to all the different peoples to give them languages and alphabets. But at the end, he ran out, and there were two countries left, Burma and China. So Burma looked around, saw a horse walking by, and decided to make the tracks into its alphabet. And China saw a chicken scratching the ground, and that became the Chinese characters.

The climax of the long walk up was a soaring view of a vast cave across the canyon, a giant gaping mouth in the mountain where Paul told us he has led rappelling expeditions. After the cave, we began a descent that took us back into farmland, past banana groves and down to the Shan village where we spent the night. On the way down, in what felt like safer territory than the forest, Paul almost stepped on a cobra that was hissing at him, head reared, but I didn’t see it. He said it set his heart pounding.

Into the village

Lukhaolam, which means “bottom of the mountain,” sits in a bowl of karst ridges and peaks. It’s full of chickens, dogs, old people, and children — we walked around, handed out some candies, played soccer with some local kids — but few young adults, most of whom have headed for the cities for jobs that pay better than farming. I was reminded of the village setting where Laurel Kendall did her research in Korea in the 1970s: it was rural and shamanist, yes, but with electricity and televisions, not far from a road, and tied to the expanding Thai economy and the wider world.

Paul might have followed the others into the cities, but I suspect he has a conservative streak that keeps him tied to his homeland. He spoke wistfully of how the Shan used to have their own state, and he claimed to prefer his own village because it doesn’t have electricity, and he said that unlike a lot of local people, who supported Thaksin Shinawatra’s red shirt faction in the recent conflicts in Thailand, he supports the military government and its campaigns to root out drugs and addicts, sometimes by breaking into people’s homes and shooting them even though they don’t actually have any drugs — and this from a guy who also used to smoke meth when he was younger. He also showed me scars all over his legs, shrapnel wounds from a bomb that exploded when he was in the army, fighting off Burmese at the border in what he called the “quiet war” that has gone on for decades in the region: the Burmese army runs drugs, while the Thai army tries to put a stop to it. And he complained that Thai people sit around waiting for the government to help them, when really they should do something for themselves. In assessing his perspective, I imagined what his equivalent might be in the United States, and came up with a part-Navajo wilderness guide: someone with a minority tribe’s distrust of the central government and the disposition to maintain old ways and live on the land.

Paul, who is in his late thirties but looks much younger, told me a lot about himself, especially after he’d cooked dinner and had a few drinks, and after the other tourists had gone off to bed. Paul has two daughters and a girlfriend who is their mother. He used to run around with women a lot, especially the exotic tourists he had access to, but for the past seven years he’s been faithful. He told a story about the time he ended up in jail for the weekend because of a bar brawl that broke out between northerners and southerners over some German girls the former had brought in, and said he was glad he hadn’t brought his gun or his knife or his brass knuckles. He also explained that he’s a kind of village chief in his hometown, so he gets called in for every sort of problem: pythons in the house, domestic disputes (caused by “no fucking, no cooking, whatever”), or anything else that comes up. In fact, when we found him the next morning, we learned that Paul had only slept a couple of hours when the men of the town woke him up to lead a hunting expedition for some sort of big cat they’d seen. Paul was sneaking up on the animal and asked the others to hold back, but someone fired a rifle over his head, wounding the animal but not killing it, and it got away.

We stayed with a family that regularly hosts trekkers, getting paid for their hospitality. The household consisted of some old men, an old woman, and a five-year-old girl whose parents have gone to Chiang Mai for work. We sat on the bamboo floor of the kitchen — the bamboo stays cool even when the teak walls don’t — and ate chicken curry and fried vegetables over mountain rice. Above the doors were abstract woven wicker talismans and drawings put into plastic sleeves, provided by the village shaman for protection. Paul, who is half-Shan, half-Chinese, is Buddhist, as is his Burmese girlfriend, but this village was shamanist. Such villages, he explained, have both a secular chief and a shaman, usually an old man who is good with the spirits. As far as I could gather, the role is not hereditary, and like Korean shamanism, it includes spirit possession and expensive rituals: sometimes a family has to sacrifice six or seven pigs to feed the surrounding villages, spending several years’ wages, to bring good luck. I asked whether shamans undergo spirit sickness before they become religious figures, but Paul didn’t know.

We were all in bed by 9 pm, though the village continued to buzz with conversation and the barking of dogs for an hour or so after that. I made do with earplugs as I lay on my mat under the mosquito net, but by midnight or so, there was little sound but the chirping of insects. Around 3 am the roosters started up, and by five the village was coming back to life, though I slept through it until about seven. I came out to find Tam drinking coffee; she’d already gone into the village and joined in a community cleanup, pulling thistles with her bare hands and signing the register of participants. We were alone in the kitchen for a while, heating the water again over the fire, and then I stood out on the deck and watched the mist rise off the ridges as the sun crept in. (Later Paul explained that the raised houses let you hang things underneath, and also keep the pythons out.) Gradually the others emerged, Julian last, much better for a night of sleep. Paul fried us some eggs for breakfast, served alongside fresh-cut onions and tomatoes and toast he’d done on a grill. then it was time to pack up and go. Most of the others were going rafting today, but I’d already done it, and Gaelle doesn’t like that sort of thing, so the two of us waited in the middle of nowhere, by two little shops on either side of the highway, for the minivan that would take us back to Pai.