One of my favourite experiences out of everything I did in Thailand was a trek and home stay with The Jungleman. Going trekking in Thailand is one of those really stereotypical things to do, and I really wanted to have a more genuine experience instead of just doing the really touristy treks that most backpackers went for that didn’t involve actually getting to know the locals.
When I told the staff at Aoi Garden that, one of the guys recommended trying Jungleman (Jungleman being the nickname of the guy who runs the tour). Jungleman didn’t have a website, but he was a friend of the guest house and in a little folder they had, people who’d been with him before had hand written some great reviews. That was good enough for me.
Our adventure had a rocky start when, en route to the trail, we had some car problems and they left us at the markets for an extended interval, but Bea and I made the most of it by buying a kilo of longans and gorging ourselves.
Luckily, the car returned, fixed, before we could fill ourselves up any further, and took us to the start of our trek. It was a fairly easy walk to start off with, but the heat was oppressive. I was already wet and dripping by the time we reached the waterfall, where we were stopping for lunch.
We had a quick meal of fried rice, doled out in little plastic bags, then jumped into the waterfall and frolicked around. The other guide, Sam, told us that we’d appreciate having this chance to cool down later on, and he wasn’t wrong. The rest of the walk was long and the heat was only bearable because of our damp clothes. A short way in, Bea found herself too sick to continue, so she went off to be taken to the village on a motorbike.
That was a pity, because our walk took us past some rather breathtaking vistas, meandering along fields and paddies and through the jungle.
They’d stop us every now and then to look at some unusual veggies and plants, and at one point Sam climbed up a tamarind tree and brought us all fresh pods to taste. As good as that was, my favourite part of the day was when the Jungleman picked up a piece of bamboo and carved us all our own individual sets of chopsticks – still while walking! – with his machete. Talk about skills!
We reached the village late that afternoon, properly knackered and hungry, and wandered around looking for snacks. The village was a jungle people village, and they were mainly rice farmers here. They led simple lives, looking after their livestock, farming and cooking, without electricity or any modern day conveniences. There wasn’t really a shop in the village, but one house did have some chips and cookies and toiletries for sale, and we went and stocked up there.
That evening we helped chop the veggies for dinner that night, and after our meal we had a lovely bonfire, which all the children from the village turned out to, and sang songs around. We headed to bed soon after that, in an open stilt house, the bedding laid out on the floor under mosquito nets.
Because Bea was sick, we changed our plans for the second day and instead of doing a long trek, went over to the local school to help teach English. I say local school, but it’s the school for all the villages around, which stretches the definition of ‘local’ a bit – it was a fairly long walk for us as it was, and there were many children coming from even further.
The school was tiny, and because it’s so remote, it only had a few classrooms, each with a fair bit of variation in the ages of the kids in them. It can’t have been easy teaching a bunch of kids together who are all at different levels of learning, but the teachers were very sweet and involved, which is more than I can say for a lot of the teachers who I had when I was in school.
Some of the kids had such a zest for learning, and they were all very happy and excitable, which was wonderful to see. There was definitely a gender split though, with the boys loud and sure of themselves and calling out the answers, while the girls were really quiet and shy and had to be coaxed out to answer questions.
Sam was so devoted to them. He’d been the village chief previously before he started trekking, and he’d also been involved with teaching. He really recognized that education was the way to expand their opportunities and that learning English would open a lot of doors for them, so he worked hard to ensure that they got those things. The area is quite poor, and without computers or the internet, getting a good education at school is so important for these kids.
Our visit was well timed. Once a year, on their founder’s birthday, a local tour company brings a feast to the school because they believe it will bring them good luck. The kids loved it. The tour company people had heaps of food, and they piled each child’s plate up far beyond what even an adult could eat, which meant that most of it went uneaten – but I think that was kind of the point, and they just wanted to spoil the kids in a way that they wouldn’t usually get to indulge.
They got given white gloves at the end too, which I didn’t understand because it’s always really hot there and gloves would seem really pointless, but the kids were super excited and most of them put them on their hands for the walk home.
The second night at the village was quieter. It was very small and limited, really just a bunch of stilt houses along a dirt path, with not even hot water so that we’d just wet wipe ourselves in the evenings instead. We ended up having really good sleeping habits though, because we’d go to bed soon after the sun went down, and would amuse ourselves playing cards till then.
Our third day, incidentally, happened to fall on the jungle people’s New Year. I’m starting to realise that different ethnic groups in Asia all have different New Years, and I never got to find out why the jungle people’s one was on this day.
Sam invited us to join in with his family for the New Year’s morning celebrations, which involved large quantities of food and a ceremony in which they chanted and then tied lots of white string around our wrists, which is meant to keep away bad spirits and bring good luck.
We had some pleasant hiking that day, past some rivers and makeshift bamboo bridges, with Sam pausing along the way to make us hats out of leaves that he’d pinned together using twigs.
The last part of our trip included an elephant ride. Bea and I were horrified because it’s so bad for the elephants and they get treated ridiculously cruelly, and Sam said that he didn’t understand why tourists always wanted to do it but that it was so popular that it had to be included in any trek because otherwise you wouldn’t get any customers. When we weren’t keen, the elephant people assumed we were too scared and we felt like we couldn’t really go in and yell at them for animal cruelty so we let them think that.
We ended on a much happier note with an hour of bamboo rafting, which was super relaxing and far more awesome than I expected. You’re on a raft that’s basically four long bamboo logs stuck together so that the raft is half submerged and the water comes up through the gaps, which is extremely pleasant in the heat.
The scenery was beautiful, all dappled sunlight through lazily drooping trees, and all along the river banks there were Thai people drinking and chilling and splashing in the water – and any time you came close to any of them they’d start splashing you too. Bamboo rafting may be one of those typical touristy things to do but it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless and I’m glad we got to do it.
I loved the whole experience. It had been so lovely to meet Sam and hear about his worries and hopes for his village, and to get to share in so many of their activities. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone else visiting Chiang Mai.