Trekking

 


 

Trekking through the smog David Whitley heads uphill through the smoke near Chiang Rai, and hears some interesting theories about why the air quality in Northern Thailand is particularly bad at the moment.

 

My calves are shrieking at me, but not as much as my back. It has been all uphill for the first hour of what I’d assumed would be a relatively undemanding four hour trek. But the slope isn’t the main villain of the piece – it’s the bamboo. 

 

The panda favourite takes over many of the hillsides near Chiang Rai, and in numerous different varieties. Some grow big and wide, others do their best to make you whimper by forming arches at chest height. Our march up the hill, therefore, isn’t just performed at a pace that’s slightly too military to be a puffing lumber. It is performed at a near permanent ninety degree angle. And that’s just marvellous if you happen to have a backpack on. It seems that bamboo likes nothing better than snagging backpacks. 

 

Our guide, Chai, seems tremendously unperturbed. He’s skipping up the hillside in his torn jeans as if human beings were born to walk at this gradient. He’s also small enough to tackle the overhead menace with a gentle bob. The only time he seems keen on stopping is when he spots a suitable bit of bamboo. He then leaps into the forest, and starts attacking it with the big knife he keeps in a woven sheath by his side. He picks his spot quite deliberately, and hacks at it. It soon becomes clear that it’s all about finding himself a new walking stick that’s just right. 

 

When we stop in a clearing to consume as much water as possible and generally cry mercy to the heavens, he parks himself down at the edge and gets to work on another piece of bamboo. I watch him for a couple of minutes, and curiosity gets the better of me. “What are you making?” I ask. 

 

“Um, I don’t know,” he replies. And then, after a bit of thought, “a toy, a toy”. 

 

He fashions the bamboo with his knife, turning into two parts. One’s a tube, one’s a poking stick with a handle. He dunks some paper in the stream and pushes it through the tube with the bamboo sword. 

 

He then puts some more at the other end, smothers it over, and pushes through with a sharp burst. It makes a popping noise like a gunshot. “See? A toy.” 

 

Before we move on, I’m tempted to take a giant lungful of air. But the air is horrible. The hillsides – the otherwise gorgeous little tribal villages, tea plantations, waterfalls and banana plants we’ll walk past when the path turns less brutal – are all covered in a thick smog. There’s no sun to be seen, just a suffocating greyness that smells and tastes evil until you acclimatise. This often happens between February and April. It’s the time of year when fields and forests are traditionally burned-off, ready for replanting the new season’s crop. 

 

But this year, it is especially bad. There has been talk of evacuating children and the elderly. When we get back to the village we started in, via mountain paths that would otherwise offer a stupendous view, we’re told why. Tom, who has guided for the day before passing on the baton to the spritely Chai for the hard part, reckons that the vast majority of the smog isn’t coming from Thailand, but from neighbouring Myanmar. There are elections there on April 1st, he says, and there has been an uneasy ceasefire that doesn’t fit the pattern of the last few decades. 

 

Myanmar (or Burma for the Daily Telegraph-reading retired colonels out there) isn’t a happy place. Many of the tribal people who live in the hillsides – many from the same tribes that live in Thailand – want nothing to do with the ruling military junta. According to Tom, they’ve fought an unpublicised and largely ineffective war for years in a bid for greater autonomy and independence. Everything’s on hold at the moment, but “we will all know what’s happening on April 2nd” And, crucially, a forest cleared by burning is much easier to fight in than one standing tall and snagging backpacks with bamboo.   

 

More information: Tom runs Eagle Adventure Tour (Thaieageletour.com), and he’s a lovely guy offering plenty of other tour options from Chiang Rai. His real passion is a volunteer run-school (Facebook.com/TomKarenCenter) in his home village, though. Book donations and volunteer English teachers are always greatly appreciated.

 

Temples

 
In the Northern Thai city of Phrae, David Whitley finally discovers away to wander around the wats without being bored

When travelling in Europe, I always tend to skip through the guide book when it starts reeling off lists of churches. Unless the church is truly spectacular, I’m likely to find it monstrously uninteresting. Any city where the only things listed are churches can happily be skipped.

It’s the same thing in South-East Asia. Unless you really, really like temples, once you’ve seen a few, you really don’t need to see any more. Yes, they may all be done in different styles, they may all have different intricate carvings, but if all you’re doing every day is looking around temples because you feel you ought to, then something has gone badly wrong.

South-East Asia’s guilty secret, of course, is that in many towns and cities there is very little to see other than temples. The region simply doesn’t have the wealth of museums and other obvious tourist attractions that the likes of the US and Europe have.

However, just because the only things listed are temples, it doesn’t mean that you have to go and trawl round them all out of a perverse sense of duty. If going round temples bores you, there’s a high chance that you’re going to feel bored going round those temples.
Temple fatigue, wat weariness, call it what you will – you’d really have to be into your south-east Asian religious architecture to not get tired of traipsing round.

I’m a shocker for it. I tend to have no interest in even the most spectacular temples. Give me more than one and I’m yawning. They can be genuinely amazing on a global scale, but it doesn’t take long for them to send me borderline comatose.

But in Phrae, I found the solution. Phrae isn’t really on Thailand’s tourist trail. It’s a bit of a pain in the nuts to get to, you’ll struggle to find any cafés selling banana pancakes, and when you’re wandering around, it’s fairly obvious that you’re the only Western visitor in town.

I’d picked Phrae as a break in the journey on the way to Chiang Rai. It looked amiable enough, and its role as the old centre of Thailand’s teak industry intrigued me. Throw in city walls, a bit of grown-over jungle greenery and some old wooden buildings, and it seemed like an excellent place to mooch around for a day.

But during that mooching, I found myself doing what I thought I’d avoid: I started wandering into the wats. There are more than enough of them in Phrae, some playing the old card, others being made almost entirely of teak or having unusual Buddhas.
To my complete surprise, I found myself genuinely enjoying the experience. I’d take my shoes off, wander in without much prior knowledge of what I was looking at and focus on something I found interesting. That might be the brick stupa at Wat Luang, the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Phra Non or the gorgeous gold patterns on the window shutters at Wat With A Very Long Name (Wat Phra Baht Ming Meuang to the connoisseurs.

But the key thing was that there was no pressure. I didn’t have to be in and out within a certain timeframe, I didn’t have any absolute must-sees to tick off. More importantly, I didn’t have anyone else to battle through. Phrae’s temples are lovely and historic, but they don’t get the crowds because it’s off the usual trail. My sole encounter inside one of the temples all afternoon was a monk.

All of this meant that I could wander in and out as I pleased, deciding what I did like and what I didn’t like with impunity. No timescale, no orders to appreciate anything in particular, no-one to get in the way. And, that way, trawling round the temples wasn’t tiresome – it was a genuine pleasure.

 

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