Walk, Eat, Swim, Eat, Trek, Eat, and Climb, Climb, Climb (Haven't They Ever Heard of Switchbacks?!)
"No elephants, no rafting," the young Thai woman calls out. "Only walking! Only walking!" The exasperated voice comes from Roong, the only female trekking guide in Pai, a small, friendly city in northern Thailand.
The streets are lined with guesthouses, restaurants, trekking companies, Internet cafes, jazz bars, a bank with an ATM, and Thai massage parlors in low-key, Bohemian fashion. Not McDonalds or KFC in sightÂ—a welcome change from the country's second-largest city, Chaing Mai, only some three hours away. Roong has been leading treks from Pai since 1993. In that time, she has befriended many of the locals living in the hill tribe villages and learned their languages, particularly the Karen, the most popular tribe in the region. Though the Karen's religious identity has been influenced by both Thai Buddhism or Christianity, they still maintain their faith in the Great Spirit dwelling with the water and landÂ—spirits we would soon court in a three-day, two-night trek.
My roommate and I traveled from New York to Pai and joined a German woman for the trek into the surrounding hills. The day we set off Roong wore blue fisherman pants and a black heavy-metal t-shirt. A man from a nearby Karen village by the name of Bonyun joined us as our porter, carrying the food. We started at a Lisu village populated by an ethnic group originating from China, and hiked a few hours. In that time we followed a serpentine path that crossed the same river 14 times, stopped in a village for a drink of water, and walked straight up a very steep incline, the first of many countless full-bore 100% vertical trail ascents.
We reached a small Karen village around noon and broke for lunch. We dropped our packs and relaxed on the porch of one of the homes while Roong disappeared inside to prepare our meal. The Karen's teak houses are built on stilts, elevated five to seven feet off the ground. The area below is used for storage and as a shelter for the dogs, pigs, and chickens.
As we rested our aching legs, the village kids gathered around and stared at us. And, for a while, we stared back, until our German companion retrieved some balloons from her knapsack. As she blew them up, the gathering of wide-eyed children multiplied, all eager to get their hands on one of the colorful toys. But playtime ended promtly when Roong appeared with steaming bowls of lovely, simple stir-fry on brown rice.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication