Dawn breaks. It’s still dark, but, there’s a slight whisper of light that is settling on the rooftops outside your window. It’s not the crowing of the rooster at 4:30am that woke you though — it’s the insane need to use the bathroom after drinking too many bamboo cups of rice wine and Thai tea last night with dinner.
The bathroom in question, is different from anything you know in western culture, and the worst part — it’s a 30 metre walk through sticky mud and cow waste to get there. Your body is aching from yesterday’s hike, and there has been little sleep during the night as the sweet lullaby of hunters’ gunshots rang out across the valley, getting seemingly closer to the village each time. Just as you try to roll over on your mattress, (read: two blankets folded over underneath you), and ignore the urge to relieve yourself, the gibbons start to call across the misted valley and you realise — there’s more magic here than you first thought.
The story starts the day before at dawn, when a friendly Thai local called Aun greets you at your Chiang Mai accommodation. You scramble into the back of the ute to face the long three hour journey out of civilisation, into the rural back blocks of northern Thailand that you’re longing to seek out.
It’s a wet wet-season, and, as you wind around the corners of the road and climb in altitude, you make a stop to collect your local guide — cue entry for Mr Jai. He’s a young, humble man of 61 years who climbs into the back of the ute and greets you with, “Morning.” As you’ll discover over the next 10 minutes of attempting small talk with him, “morning” is the extent of his English vocabulary. Communication is limited to a smile and hand gestures, however, one can only imagine the incredible stories this man could tell, if we understood one another.
He spends most of the journey looking at his burgundy Wellington boots, with his razor sharp machete tied neatly to his waist in a hand-woven case, and brightly coloured scarf. His wet weather protection is a blue poncho and a bright pink shower cap, but this fashion faux-pas doesn’t faze him in the slightest. It won’t take you long to understand that he is the Jackie Chan of the jungle, and you’ll be happy to have him by your side.
Tanyarat Munenki, or Aun (“Anne”) as she prefers, started Good Morning Thailand Tours three years ago with two business partners. She offers guided treks from Chiang Mai into the remote village of Mae Sawan Luang (which translates as “big paradise”) in the Mae Hong Son province of north west Thailand.
The remarkable people you’re about to meet are the Karen S’gaw tribe who originate from Myanmar. They populated this region two generations ago to escape conflict in Myanmar, and find a better life in northern Thailand. They live a simple life and the village is home to roughly 200 people, give or take, plus countless pigs, dogs, chickens and cows. The villagers spend their days primarily in the rice paddies surrounding the village and tending to crops. Don’t be fooled, however, by the immense number of terraces — these rice paddies are purely a source of food for each family here, not commercial production. The families make a modest income in the dry season by growing additional crops such as pumpkins and cabbage.
Aun and Mr Jai, her father, lead you on an incredible journey over 18 kilometres of some of the most romantically beautiful countryside you’ve seen. Starting off with a few unexpected water crossings, your wet boots help you to balance yourself as you teeter along the edge of the rice paddy terraces — trying equally hard not to fall into the crop, nor drop a metre onto the lower level.
The light rain is a welcomed relief as you climb to 1,400 metres in altitude through a dense, humid jungle landscape which evolves into a drier semi-evergreen forest. There’s a lookout here, but, in the wet season, it’s best you don’t expect much more than a whiteout of mist.
Just as you’ve had enough of the leeches sharing your blood supply, you see a corrugated rooftop shining in the distant valley. For maximum efficiency, it’s sometimes best to slide down the mountain side on your rear end, however, in the sticky mud of the wet season — you’re unlikely to have a choice.
As you enter Mae Sawan Luang, the first smiles you see as those of the children. They’re shy and reluctant to show their faces initially, but, their small chatter and giggles can be heard from behind the bamboo walls of the houses. Soon enough, they emerge to get a closer look at the strangers in their village, and help set you up in the homestay to make you comfortable.
Traditionally, a family will sleep in the one room of the house, with a cooking area and fire inside. In this homestay, there’s been an extension added, so there’s a level of privacy for you.
A quick rinse off with a bucket of cold water to remove the mud, blood and sweat from your body, makes you feel like a new person. In the meantime, Aun has prepared an incredible spread for dinner and welcomes you by the fire with a bamboo cup — filled with locally made rice wine. It’s smooth, and it’s warming.
One by one, curious villagers walk in to take a look at you, and share in the meal. It’s customary to cook enough food for anyone who may drop in, however — don’t expect a dinner conversation without speaking their Burmese dialect. After they’ve had their fill, they’ll be swift to leave without so much as a ‘hello’. Again — they’re a shy people. Aun is a very gracious host, and is incredibly informative on their culture and tradition. She gives an insight into daily life for these people — their dreams for the future, and their biggest issues. At present, it’s the lack of health care.
The blankets are surprisingly comfortable as you lay your body down for the night under the mosquito net. There’s next to no electricity in this village, so there’s no light pollution to disturb your sleep tonight.
Now we’re back in the present — the roosters crow, and the smells of freshly brewed coffee arouse you from your sleep, drawing you to the wonderfully smokey kitchen. You’re just in time to hear the magical song of the gibbons — the sirens of the jungle. As their high pitched ‘whoops’ fill you ears, you feel transported to another world entirely. Breakfast is another beautiful meal prepared by Aun which fills you with energy for the day ahead.
It begins with a walk to the top of the village with a 360 degree view of the mountains and wider region, then a descent to the local school where children walk from a number of nearby villages to attend. It’s here that they’ll learn not only English, but also Thai, as their parents still use a Burmese dialect at home. The children’s eyes are drawn from the whiteboard to gaze at the newcomers in their school yard. They seemingly make any excuse to use the bathroom so they can have a closer look at you. It’s a Wednesday today, so they wear their Scouts uniforms. Tuesday, is traditional clothes day.
Following the school, you meander back down on a new path through more wild rice and terraced paddies, to make your way to Mae Sawan Noi — an unofficial national park meaning “small paradise”. Here, you’ll find a five-tiered waterfall. It is truly spectacular. It’s a steep climb, yet, we’ll only cover 5 kilometres today. A simple, yet tasty lunch wrapped in a banana leaf is enjoyed at the top of the park, and, around the corner — the vehicle awaits to take you back to Chiang Mai.
On the long drive home, it’s hard not to reflect on the incredible time you’ve spent with Aun and Mr Jai. The farewell — despite only being 36 hours from first meeting, is a surprisingly difficult one.
This adventure is not a champagne tour. There’s no bells, and there’s no whistles. However, isn’t this why you’re looking to escape the tourist traps and beaten path — to experience real, honest, and authentic hospitality? Aun delivers all of this, well beyond expectations.
Words by Brienna Harris
Author’s note: This trek was taken in July 2017 during monsoon season. Don’t be put off by the idea of rain – this is truly the most spectacular time to see this area, where the ecosystem is at its most productive. You’ll be rewarded with lush rainforests and vivid rice paddies.